Back in 2002 I was fortunate enough to be present when Sun Rings, an extended composition written by Terry Riley for the Kronos Quartet and a 60-voice choir, was given its world premiere in the University of Iowa’s Hancher Auditorium. The partnership between the composer and the quartet celebrates its fortieth anniversary next year; among Riley’s works premiered and recorded by the group have been Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector, Cadenza on the Night Plain, Salome Dances for Peace, The Cusp of Magic and Requiem for Adam. But Sun Rings was something different: the musicians and singers were accompanied by sounds harvested from space by the scientists at NASA as their Voyager probes hurtled past Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.
The sounds of space — strange chattering, howling and chirruping — was originally captured by Don Gurnett, a research scientist at the university in Iowa City who designed the plasma-wave equipment carried by the probes to record the noises — called “whistlers” — made by electrons whizzing about in the magnetic fields surrounding the planets. Gurnett told me that while their existence had been detected by a German scientist during the First World War, he was the first person to retrieve them from space and to turn the signals into sound.
He had given cassettes of the recordings to Riley, divided under headings like “auroral hiss”, “electron plasma oscillation” and “electron cyclotron harmonic emissions”. The composer chose the ones he liked and made them an integral part of the piece, triggered in real time by the four members of Kronos using fibre-optic wands. The hour-long work, commissioned as part of NASA’s long-standing arts programme, featured lighting and back-projections created by Willie Williams, a Yorkshireman who worked with Deaf School, Stiff Little Fingers and others before joining U2 for the Zoo TV tour and then moving on to collaborate with the Stones and Bowie.
After the Iowa concert, which was quite an experience, the work was given its European premiere at the Barbican. Now an album, recorded in a studio in 2017, makes the piece available to everyone.
Here’s what David Harrington, Kronos’s leader, has to say about Riley in the notes to Sun Rings: “There is no other composer who has added so many new musical words to our vocabulary, words from many corners of the musical world. Terry introduced Kronos to Pandit Pran Nath, Zakir Hussein, Bruce Connor, La Monte Young, Anna Halprin, Hamza El Din, Jon Hassell, Gil Evans… I have never once heard him say an unkind word about another musician. In a crazed world laced with violence and destruction, he has consistently been a force for peace. Through his gentle leadership, a path has emerged. Terry sets the standard for what it means to be a musician in our time.”
All that is apparent in the 10th and final section of Sun Rings, titled “One Earth, One People, One Love”. Those words belong to the writer Alice Walker, and a recording of her voice intoning them is the leitmotif of a piece which begins with a description of the astronaut’s experience of looking at Earth from space by Eugene Cernan, the commander of the Apollo 17 mission. This extraordinarily beautiful nine-minute piece is slow-paced, the strings moving gently through the sounds of space, with Sunny Yang’s lyrical cello prominent as the passing of time is marked by what might be a tuned drum and a damped bell. Bringing us back home, this is music that speaks to everyone.
* Sun Rings is out now on the Nonesuch label. The photograph of the Kronos Quartet performing the piece in Krakow in 2014 is from the accompanying booklet and was taken by Wojciech Wandzel.