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Kronos Quartet/Terry Riley: Sun Rings

Mark Sullivan By

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In addition to their performance of 20th century classics, modern music specialists The Kronos Quartet have a long history of commissioning new works from contemporary composers. But their relationship with minimalist pioneer Terry Riley is a special one. After composing the open-scored In C in 1964, Riley increasingly turned his attention towards improvised performances with tape-delay and organ—later adding voice (inspired by studying Indian raga singing with Pandit Pran Nath) and substituting synthesizer for organ.

When Riley and violinist David Harrington met at Mills College in 1979 Riley had resumed composing for other instruments, and Harrington was convinced that he was the collaborator that Kronos needed. Thirteen string quartets later, it has proven to be a fruitful partnership indeed. Sun Rings was commissioned by NASA in 2000 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the launching of the Voyager 1 space probe. First performed in 2002, it has been performed many times since.

The original concept of a twenty-minute string quartet was always intended to incorporate plasma wave sounds recorded using a radio receiver invented by scientist Don Gurnett, who calls them "sounds of space." It grew to nearly ninety minutes long, including a choir on the two longest movements (the sounds underwent some editing and manipulation, and are credited as "pre-recorded spacescapes").

Riley's own performances tend to be based upon modal melodic fragments of differing lengths. The gamelan-like electronic ostinato that runs through "Hero Danger" recalls that approach, as do the rapid string lines in "Venus Upstream." "Beebopterismo" opens with another metallic sounding pattern: throughout the piece the electronic sounds are not dominant, but they add a significant color to the overall timbre. The strings play a recurring theme (played a bit differently each time), with contrapuntal interludes. It does not sound much like bebop, but it sometimes swings. "Planet Elf Sindoori" is a lyrical slow movement which demonstrates a compositional range far beyond the "minimalist" tag applied to Riley's early music.

Three movements incorporate the human voice in a significant way. "Earth Whistlers" is the first appearance of the choir Volti. Riley says that he added the choir to represent the voice of humanity struggling to understand our place in the cosmos. They make their low-key entrance singing the theme, accompanied by the titular sounds and the strings. "Prayer Central" provides the dramatic climax for the whole composition. "One Earth, One People, One Love" was one of the inspirations for the whole piece. It features the pre-recorded voice of author Alice Walker, reciting her mantra for peace in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy, accompanied by beautiful hymn-like music played by the quartet.

An effective conclusion to a composition that matches its central cosmological theme with music that is intimate and grand by turns, all tied together with the natural sounds of outer space. An ode to mankind's urge to explore, and a prayer for peaceful cooperation here on planet Earth.

Track Listing: Sun Rings Overture; Hero Danger; Beebopterismo; Planet Elf Sindoori; Earth Whistlers; Earth/Jupiter Kiss; The Electron Cyclotron Frequency Parlour; Prayer Central; Venus Upstream; One Earth, One People, One Love.

Personnel: Kronos Quartet: David Harrington, violin; John Sherba, violin; Hand Dutt, viola; Sunny Yang, cello; with Volti: Robert Geary, artistic director; Kelly Ballou (soloist), Yuhi Aizawa Combatti, Shauna Fallihee, Andrea Mich: soprano; Lindsy McLennan Burdick, Elizabeth Kimble, Diana Pray; Colby Smith: mezzo-soprano; Kristina Blehm, Monica Frame, Rachel Rush, Celeste Winant: alto; Ben Barr, Will Betts, Samuel Faustine, Julian Kusnadi: tenor; Roderick Lowe, Jefferson Packer, Tim Silva, Cole Thomason-Redus: baritone; Jeff Bennett, Sidney Chen, Peter Dennis, Philip Saunders: bass.

Title: Sun Rings | Year Released: 2019 | Record Label: Nonesuch Records

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