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Terry Riley Shoots the Kronos Quartet into Space with the Beautiful, Moving 'Sun Rings'

Photo: Wojciech Wandzel / Courtesy of Dotdotdot Music

The decades-long partnership between composer Terry Riley and the Kronos Quartet continues – with a little help from NASA – on the brilliant new album, Sun Rings.

Sun Rings
Kronos Quartet / Terry Riley


30 August 2019

Collaborations between legendary minimalist composer Terry Riley and venerated string ensemble Kronos Quartet go back decades, beginning with Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector in 1980 and including subsequent works Cadenza on the Night Plain, Requiem for Adam, Salome Dances for Peace and The Cusp of Magic. Each of these pieces has served to stretch the boundaries of both minimalism and chamber music, usually in the service of introducing audiences to exotic forms of music from different parts of the world.

With Sun Rings, however, the concept of "world music" is a strangely limited one, as it includes contributions from outside our planet. It all started with an invitation from the NASA Art Program to Kronos in 2000. Astrophysicist Don Gurnett contacted the quartet with the idea of taking various sounds from space, acquired by plasma wave receivers built by Gurnett and flown on a variety of spacecraft over 40 years, and setting them to music. Kronos' artistic director, David Harrington, was intrigued by the collection of sounds Gurnett had amassed over the years and called on Riley to create the appropriate compositional accompaniment.

The resulting project – which premiered live in 2002 at the University of Iowa and eventually recorded in 2017 at George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch - is a nearly 90-minute piece. It features not just the Kronos Quartet and the distinctly music-like sounds gathered from space, but also brief narration from Gurnett himself, as well as a choral sections performed by the San Francisco-based vocal ensemble Volti. Sun Rings goes a long way in bringing a musical sensibility to these otherworldly sounds, which – to Riley's ears – sounded familiar to anyone well-versed in "terrestrial" music. "There was a wide variety of sonic textures and frequencies of the different samples," he writes in the liner notes, "often resembling both natural and synthesized sounds found here on earth." Clearly, the combination of the strings and bubbling interplanetary sounds make for a warm, inviting combination on sections like the Eastern-tinged "Hero Danger". When the upbeat rhythms are suddenly halted and a more dramatic string section takes over, you can still hear the warbling soundscapes underneath, as if the quartet is sawing away while on a NASA-helmed spacewalk.

The two sections involving choral elements, "Earth Whistlers" and "Prayer Central", go a long way in humanizing what could be construed by some as an overly clinical piece of ambient music. "Earth Whistlers" has the chorus singing first in the Indo-Aryan language of Gujarati and then in English, helping to put into perspective the vastness of space that accompanies the vocals. "Prayer Central" was inspired by the events of 11 September 2001, which occurred during the writing of Sun Rings. The section works as a global meditation for peace during a time when world events would often inspire feelings of hatred and xenophobia. The chanting takes on a multicultural slant, once again placing the suffering we face on earth in a much larger context.

The final section, "One Earth, One People, One Love", is also motivated by the general tenor of earth's population following the events of 9/11. Riley heard novelist Alice Walker use those words as a mantra for working through the tragic events of that fateful day. But it's the recorded voice not of Walker but of astronaut Eugene Cernan, taken from the documentary For All Mankind, that introduces this final segment. Cernan speaks of the beauty of Earth as seen from space. "You have to literally just pinch yourself and ask yourself the question, silently, 'do you really know where you are at this point in time in space and in reality and in existence, when you look out the window, and you're looking back at the most beautiful star in the heavens?'"

Cernan was able to observe Earth from the outside. With Riley's Sun Rings compositions and the sounds gathered by Gurnett and NASA, we're all able to picture ourselves side-by-side with the music of the world beyond our own. "Space is surely the realm of dreams and imagination and a fertile feeding ground for poets and musicians," Riley writes. "Ancient astrologers were aware of the significant influences of planetary movements on our lives."


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