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.



You can get Sun Rings from the Nonesuch website

John Tejada


John Tejada is a well established and highly respected techno musician – but his roots lie in an upbringing full of classical music. Arcana called him on a break from work in his California studio, where he wrote his tenth album Signs Under Test, released on Kompakt this month.

He spoke about the benefits of a musically open family, how that led him to hone his own approach to music, and why he loves the music of Steve Reich. But first, after a quick listen…

Can you remember your first encounter with classical music?

My first memories were from my parents, with my mother being an opera singer and my father a clarinettist and conductor. I would often get dragged around to gigs! One of my first memories was seeing them practice, and that made it very real. I think that probably that programmed me into the routine of how you get up, have breakfast and then practice, and that has stuck with me right through to this day. It was a big influence in what I do now.

There are often moments in your music where you are subtly very inventive, using unusual rhythms and less conventional harmonic patterns. Does that stem from your upbringing do you think?

I suppose it does, but I couldn’t properly explain it. It’s one of the different ways I got to where I am now. My focus is not on getting played out by DJs but it is an enjoyment of listening to what feels interesting. Getting the fuzzy feeling, that’s what I’m after!

What does classical music mean to you?

I wouldn’t say that ‘classical’ music means a great deal to me, as I tend towards the stuff that the more modern composers did, I would go with my mum to see Steve Reich concerts; we’d go to see that stuff together. I don’t actively listen to the classic stuff, but because opera was always on at full blast in the house I got to hear a lot of it. It gave me an interesting perspective on what music is and what it can do. It has stuck with me the whole way through.

The categorisation of what is classical music has always puzzled me. The early works of Stockhausen are classical but today sound like something like that could be released on Torch Records! Looking back, it’s pretty wild what was going on in the 1950s and 1960s compared to what people do today.

Is Steve Reich a big influence on your work?

Absolutely. One of the biggest goose bumps I have ever had was going to see the Music for 18 Musicians live for the first time:

You start to see that live, and you say “Holy shit, it’s real!” It flared up a real love of the music in me. No-one bothered to notice that on my last album The Predicting Machine there is a strong nod to Reich on the fourth track, Winter Skies:

Reich was so revolutionary in the way he showed people could have ideas of just using tape loops. He was a massive influence on digital music today with the loops and the phase experiments – he laid the fundamentals to what people are still doing now. I would love to see Music for 18 Musicians performed on synths, I think that would be really successful.

What would you say classical music – as you listen to it – and techno have in common?

I think a lot of stuff! I really enjoy making those connections. I think classical music – and the music of Reich – refers to looped and non-looped music that is beatless. The question for techno is ‘Can you do that with a beat?’ For me though the fundamentals of techno and drone are laid down without a beat. Terry Riley and Steve Reich discovered that. It is an interesting connection there, but I find a lot of people won’t give it a chance. It’s like eating a vegetable. There are times when I won’t explore because I just don’t know.

What do you know and like at the moment?

I am a big fan of Terry Riley, because he is one of those great composers who cross into other areas. In his album A Rainbow in Curved Air he used music in a way that would give Autechre a run for their money:

I also think early Art of Noise records are really interesting, you have people trying stuff out – because why not? I remember when I was listening to some of this stuff at home, and being nearly asleep but being scared silly at the same time! We had some really interesting radio in the mid-1980s, and I was absorbing some crazy stuff.

I remember one time when one of my friends came round who was writing some particularly experimental stuff. He was playing that new stuff for me, which was a real risk for him playing it at full blast. Mum came in and said, “What are you playing, it’s really interesting – it sounds like…” and then she named three different composers. It wasn’t the standard request to turn it down at all!

Would you like to try writing more classically based music?

I have done some more experimental things on labels like Plug Research, but yes – I do have an idea to do something that is modern classical. We’ll see how that develops!

John Tejada’s new album Signs Under Test is out now on Kompakt – and you can listen to it on the label’s website here. For more about the artist himself, visit his Facebook page