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Ojai Music Festival: John Luther Adams writes music meant to be heard outdoors

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Adams and music director Steven Schick listen to a rehearsal of "Sila" in front of the singers — amplified with construction paper.
Tim Greiving/KPCC
Adams and music director Steven Schick listen to a rehearsal of "Sila" in front of the singers — amplified with construction paper.

The West Coast premiere of Adams' "Sila: The Breath of the World" is taking place at the Ojai Music Festival. Adams breaks music out from traditional classical confines.

The Ojai Music Festival has been going strong for nearly 70 years. Past music directors have included classical giants like Aaron Copland, Igor Stravinsky and Pierre Boulez. The natural beauty of the valley town, 90 minutes up the coast from Los Angeles, has been the setting for a lot of new music during that time. This year’s festival is no exception.

Under music director Steven Schick, there will be several premieres of new orchestral and percussion music. The main event, though, is the West Coast premiere of a piece by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Luther Adams. (Not to be confused with the other Pulitzer-winning composer John Adams.)

John Luther Adams has been writing music inspired by nature for the concert hall for four decades. But a few years ago, out in the Anza Borrego Desert, he had an epiphany.

“I heard my percussion work 'Strange and Sacred Noise' performed outside for the first time,” he recalls. “[It’s] a concert-length piece for percussion that celebrates noise — noise as a metaphor for elemental violence in nature, noise as a gateway to ecstatic experience. It’s this big, powerful, almost frightening piece, that’s intended to be heard in a concert hall.

“Within a few minutes, I realized that my big, scary noise was really not so big, and not so scary, and most of it just blew away in the wind. And it was right about then that I realized, 'Oh, after 40 years of making music inspired by the big world, but heard in the small world — indoors, in concert halls — maybe it was time to step outside, and make music that’s intended from the start to be performed and heard, experienced, out of doors.'”

Adams responded by writing a piece called "Inuksuit" for up to 99 percussionists, which had its West Coast premiere at the Ojai Music Festival in 2012. This year, Adams was commissioned to write another piece for the festival.

“'Inuksuit,' the percussion piece, is earth,” he says. “And after earth, I decided it was time for air. And the result is 'Sila: The Breath of the World.'”

“My image of the piece is really quite simple,” he explains. “It comes up, very slowly, out of the earth, out of these very low sounds — of bass drums and double basses and bassoons and tubas. And over the course of an hour or so, it just gradually rises up through this series of harmonic clouds and goes out and rises, and blows away in the wind.

“'Sila' is an Inuit word that means ‘the breath of the world.’ It’s an experience that exists, of course, in cultures throughout history, all around the world. For the Navajo people, it’s Ních'i, it’s the holy wind. In China, it’s qi. It’s the wind. Yes, it’s the weather. But it’s also our awareness of the world, and the world’s awareness of us. So the idea of this piece is that it’s difficult to say where the piece begins, and where the world takes over. It comes out of the never-ending music of the place, and it recedes back into the breath of the world.”

Composer John Adams with the winds and reeds section before rehearsing "Sila" in Ojai's Libbey Park. (Tim Greiving/KPCC)

"Sila" will be performed in Ojai’s Libbey Park by 80 musicians, made up of CalArts students, the percussion group Red Fish Blue Fish and ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble). Musicians will be stationed throughout the park in clusters based on their instrument, and audience members are encouraged to walk through the park during the performance, stick to one spot — or do whatever they want.

“I think a piece of standard classical music, played in a concert hall, postulates an idealized experience,” says Schick. “It’s what it’s all about. 'This is the way the piece should sound.’ But you can’t really say that about 'Sila,' because there’s not a single way that piece should sound, and therefore there’s not a single way that people should perceive it.”

Schick has been friends with Adams since the ’90s, and was key in commissioning "Sila" for the festival.

"The thing that I love about his music is it helps people learn to listen in a more intense and penetrating way,” says Schick. “One of the most beautiful things about 'Sila' are these boundary moments, where things shift, where a new sound comes, or when an old sound dissipates. The biggest of those boundary moments is the end of the piece, where it starts to fade into the sounds of the environment. And when you’re listening that intently, you’re listening to this as music, and you bring the intensity of that listening.”

It seems risky to premiere a relatively quiet piece of orchestral music in a public park. But Adams says there’s really no such thing as unwanted noise.

“As John Cage pointed out, most of what we hear, wherever we are, is noise,” says Adams. “And when we try to ignore it, it disturbs us. But when we embrace it, when we listen to it, we find it endlessly fascinating. So the idea here, I guess, is that the whole world is music. So, rather than concentrating our listening inward, it’s an invitation to open our awareness, to listen outward, to hear as many different sounds as we can hear at once — to hear as far as we can hear, to hear things that we can’t see. It’s a fundamentally different relationship to music, to listening, and I would say it invites a different mode of awareness. You might say it invites ecological listening.”

The Ojai Music Festival runs through Sunday, June 14.

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