September 28, 2014

Thoughts on John Luther Adams’ Sila and What Makes a Work Great

Filed under: Uncategorized — shostyscholar @ 12:36 pm

I’m from the upper Midwest, where if you utter something controversial sometimes the best you can hope for is a circumspect “Interesting” or non-committal “You don’t say” (note the absence of exclamation point and question mark, respectively). These anti-declamatories are reserved not just for controversy, but also for that which completely underwhelms. Such is how I found myself responding to the video of the first performance of John Luther Adams’ new piece Sila.

Perhaps it was because of the context in which I viewed, an embedded video in a web browser seeming completely at odds with a piece of such grand aspirations (the performing ensemble is divided into 5 choirs of woodwinds, brass, percussion, strings, and voices), but Sila was completely impotent to elicit much more than a yawn from me.

In bits of interview spliced in before the piece began, JLA said the the piece was predicated on the idea of “exploring the space” (in this case, Hearst Plaza at Lincoln Center) and the ephemerality of the piece (“no two performances will be the same”). Surely these ideas have been explored ad nauseam by JLA’s forebears! Is there anything in conception then, in this most conceptual of works, that is not to be found 60 years ago in early Cage or indeed earlier if one looks a bit harder?

Good works of music, I’m beginning to think, have either an arresting conceptual basis or supreme technical craftmanship. Great works have both. To my ears, Sila had neither.

See NPR’s coverage of the work and a full recording here.


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