On record – Kronos Quartet & Terry Riley: Sun Rings (Nonesuch)

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

The Kronos Quartet and Terry Riley have a rewarding history of collaboration covering more than 35 years. Sun Rings is surely one of the most emotive pieces in that history, and is certainly one of the most performed since its premiere in 2002. Here it receives a first full recording.

The work dates back to a commission from NASA, who were looking to mark the 25th anniversary of the launch of the Voyager 1 space probe. They specifically wanted to know if the Kronos could use the ‘space sounds’ collected from the Voyager crafts by physics professor Don Gurnett, who developed plasma wave instruments to receive them. On hearing the results Kronos leader David Harrington immediately contacted Terry Riley to get him on board.

While writing in New York, Riley was interrupted by the World Trade Center attacks of 11 September 2001. They inspired him to turn the focus of his work to peace.
This is the first recording of Sun Rings in its entirety, a chance for those in more than 50 countries who have already experienced it live to hear it in recorded form. Weighing in at nearly 80 minutes, it is a big work, expanding the quartet by adding San Francisco-based vocal ensemble Volti to two of the longest sections, Earth Whistlers and Prayer Central.

What’s the music like?

Fascinating, and timeless in a way that suggests the deep space into which the Voyagers continue to travel. There is a restless edge too, as it seeks the lasting peace Riley had in mind.

After the space sounds set the work in perspective, Hero Danger is a rewarding combination of the otherworldly electronics and the string quartet, with thoughtful lines suggesting a slightly worrisome contemplation. In response Bebopterismo carries urgent anxiety in its angular melody, the music put on edge.

Riley’s musical language is interesting, never purely ‘minimalist’ but repeating his more distinctive melodic ideas. There are rather beautiful dovetails between violin and viola halfway through Planet Elf Sindoori, but just when the ear thinks the sonorities of Sun Rings have been fully established, Earth Whistlers comes as quite a surprise.

It is here the choir are introduced, and this substantial movement makes much of their pure tones. It does perhaps distract from the subject at hand, replicating in a way the interruption of the September 11 attacks on Riley’s thoughts. When we train our gaze fully on Voyager again with The Electron Cyclotron Frequency Parlour there is an intriguing displacement between the close up quartet sound and atmospherics further away, but the focus has shifted.

Prayer Central, the most substantial movement, is soft and contemplative but becomes more animated and off the beat. Venus Upstream is full of anxiety, as though time is limited, its tension spiked by the alarm in the background. The spoken quote from Alice Walker to begin the last section is telling, asking, “Do you really know where you are at this point in time and space and in reality and existence?” It is just the right side of preaching, helped by some lovely cello playing from Sunny Yang.

Does it all work?

Most of the time, though with the caution that for maximum effect the piece is best heard in full and in a quieter place. Then the field recordings really come through to the front. Sun Rings is a substantial piece of work, though there are some natural dips in inspiration once the ideas of each section have been exposed. The use of the choir may split opinion too.

Is it recommended?

Yes. For those following the Kronos Quartet and Terry Riley it is an essential purchase, while providing further evidence of the positive effect astronomy can have as a creative stimulus, not to mention the endless drive for world peace. Between them Riley and the quartet have looked outside of the box to create something unique and, on this evidence, a major work that will last in spite of a few reservations.

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You can get Sun Rings from the Nonesuch website