Montana State University

“Sila: The Breath of the World” performance set for April 23 at MSU

April 20, 2016 -- Eliese Besemer for MSU News Service

Sila: The Breath of the World, by John Luther Adams, will be performed by MSU School of Music faculty, students and members of the community at 3 p.m. Saturday, April 23 on the Romney quad. No formal seating will be provided. Audience members are invited to bring chairs, blankets or other items for their comfort. In case of inclement weather, performance will be held in Romney Gym. Image courtesy of MSU School of Music.

High-Res Available

Subscribe to MSU Newsletters

Bobcat Bulletin is a weekly e-newsletter designed to bring the most recent and relevant news about Montana State University directly to friends and neighbors via email. Visit Bobcat Bulletin.

MSU Today e-mail brings you news and events on campus thrice weekly during the academic year. Visit the MSU Today calendar.

MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571

Faculty and students from Montana State University’s School of Music will join with other local musicians to perform “Sila: The Breath of the World,” by the Grammy and Pulitzer-prize-winning composer John Luther Adams, at 3 p.m. Saturday, April 23, in a free public concert on the quad by Romney Gym. The performance, the first in the Pacific Northwest, will be held inside the gym in case of inclement weather.

“Sila” was scored for five separate choirs, consisting of brass, winds, strings, percussion and voice. Each choir will be led by MSU School of Music faculty, who will also perform: brass—Jeannie Little, low brass professor; winds—Greg Young, clarinet professor; percussion—Stephen Versaevel, percussion instructor; strings—Angela Ahn, violin/viola professor; voice—Kirk Aamot, director of choirs. The entire ensemble will include more than 80 musicians.

“This will be an incredible opportunity for the university, for the community,” said Keith Kothman, director of the MSU College of Arts and Architecture’s School of Music. “Sila is a monumental work.  It features our incredible faculty and students, as well as local musicians, in this first-ever performance in the Northwest.

“This performance is part of a recent initiative on the part of our faculty here at MSU to tackle big pieces, to engage with really challenging, difficult and important works,” Kothman added. “I applaud their initiative. It is not easy to organize something like this, or to perform it, but it is a very important step forward in our understanding of contemporary arts, and the contemporary world. With performances such as this, MSU is helping to define what it is to be a musician in the 21st century.”

Indeed, even Adams himself said in an interview for the piece’s premiere in 2014 that Sila is highly experimental. But, like his entire body of work, it has been influenced by the natural world.

Adams’ love and concern for the environment and his interest in the acoustics of natural spaces led to him pursuing a concept he calls “sonic geography,” a representation of specific location through sound. “(This piece is part of) a continuing exploration of what it means to make music outdoors, what might constitute an authentic outdoor music,“ he said.

Adams spent many years living in Alaska and was influenced a great deal by his experiences with the land there and the people, particularly the native Inuit. Those experiences became at least part of the influence for this particular work.

"Sila is an Inuit word that, according to native traditions, refers to a mythical figure personifying the air, or wind. Adams said his recent works reflect his self-proclaimed interest in elemental concepts, with certain pieces representing elements such as water and Earth. Sila, according to Adams, represents the air element, the breath that blows through and sustains life, hence the subtitle, “The Breath of the World.”

“The idea of breath is very important,” said Laurel Yost, MSU piano professor and one of the event’s organizers. “Breath represents life, and in SIla, it informs how the musicians play. Each pitch is played at a length determined by the time it takes to exhale slowly. The next pitch is played after a slow inhalation. So, breath is life, in the piece as in nature.”

As Adams said, it is an experimental work. The audience doesn’t listen to Sila as it would a large orchestral work.

“It is definitely an experiential piece,” Yost said. “It has no structure as we know it in traditional Western music.” She recommends that listeners let go of any expectations they might have for traditional concert experiences.

Sila is not, however, completely without structure or form. With so many musicians performing at once, there is a need for a unifying element, organizers said.

“To keep the piece moving at the same pace, everybody has timers that dictates when they will change their (note) and move to the next section of the piece,” said Doug Perkins, music director for the premiere.  “But, at the very small level, everybody has music that is (determined by) everyone’s individual breath.”

Yost likens the audience’s experience of the piece to visiting an art museum.

“Each person will experience something completely different and unique to their own orientations. What you see and hear will depend on what catches your attention, which can change from moment to moment and person to person,” she said. “No two people will experience the same concert.”

“While that is true to some extent for all music, it is particularly true for an aleatoric piece like Sila,” Yost emphasized. Aleatoric music is characterized by chance or indeterminate elements, in this case the ambient sounds of a specific site, as well as the individual nature of the composition, she said.

“It’s the combination, the interplay of all the elements that makes each performance so unique,” she added.

For example, throughout the recording of the premiere (found here:, sounds of the city could be heard behind the musicians, car horns, sirens and airplanes becoming a part of the composition itself, according to Adams.

Adams calls Sila site-determined music. “Each performance, and each performance site, with each different configuration of ensemble, or ensembles, is going to be a different experience, and in some real way a different piece,” he said.

There will be no formal seating for the performance. Audience members are encouraged to bring their own blankets, chairs or other seating, if desired. Standing, reclining, walking or wandering is also welcomed.

For more information, contact the School of Music, (406) 994-5362 or

Contact: Suzanne Forrester, School of Music, (406) 994-3562 or