Acclaimed by the New York Times as “an alluring, mystical new work” when it premiered outdoors at the city’s Lincoln Center in July 2014, John Luther Adams‘ large-scale Sila: the Breath of the World is so carefully orchestrated that the recording itself pushes the limits of how to capture multiple ensembles of musicians in one setting. Thanks to modern technology and the magic of multi-tracking (with producers Doug Perkins and Nathaniel Reichman at the controls), Sila maintains the composer’s vision as a grand invitation to the listener “to stop and listen more deeply.”

Featuring The Crossing choir, JACK Quartet and musicians and percussionists from the University of Michigan, this recording of Sila took years to coordinate (due in part to pandemic-related lockdowns and travel precautions), but eventually took place over the course of several days in March 2021.

Much like Inuksuit (2009), widely known as Adams’ large outdoor ensemble piece for percussion, no two performances of Sila are ever really the same, because each musician is allowed the freedom to play or sing a unique part at his or her own pace. On a macro level, Sila can also be described as an intelligent entity all its own — a living, breathing organism that takes on the collective intent of its performers, and its composer, to transcend the forces of nature and become, in a sense, a “breath of the world.”

“In Inuit tradition the spirit that animates all things is Sila, the breath of the world. Sila is the wind and the weather, the forces of nature. But it’s also something more. Sila is intelligence. It’s consciousness. It’s our awareness of the world around us, and the world’s awareness of us. In this time when we humans are so dramatically changing the earth, Sila: The Breath of the World is an invitation to stop and listen more deeply.

Sila is scored for five ensembles of 16 musicians —woodwinds, brass, percussion, strings, and voices— who may perform the music in any combination, successively or simultaneously, outdoors, or in a large indoor space. The musicians are dispersed widely, surrounding the listeners, who are free to move around and discover their own individual listening points.

Sila comes out of the earth and rises to the sky, floating upward through sixteen harmonic clouds, grounded on the first sixteen harmonics of a low B-flat. All the other tones in the music fall “between the cracks” of the piano keyboard—off the grid of twelve-tone equal temperament.

Like the harmonies, the flow of musical time in Sila is also off the grid. There is no conductor. Each musician is a soloist, who plays or sings a unique part at her or his own pace. The sequence of musical events is composed, but the length of each event is flexible. The music breathes.

A performance of Sila lasts about an hour. There is no clearly demarcated ending, as the music gradually dissolves back into the breath of the world.” — John Luther Adams