Sounds from Outer Space in Terry Riley’s Sun Rings

United StatesUnited States Terry Riley: Kronos Quartet (David Harrington, John Sherba, violins; Hank Dutt, viola; Sunny Yang, cello), Volti, Robert Geary (conductor), Willie Wiliams (visual designer), Laurence Neff (lighting designer), Mark Grey (sound designer), presented by Cal Performances, Zellerbach Hall, University of California, Berkeley, 1.5.2016. (HS)

Riley, Sun Rings (2002)

Terry Riley earned his place in the pantheon of American composers for In C, an ingenious piece of minimalism. Written in 1964, it helped touch off a musical revolution. His work in recent decades explored much more complex territory, and a strong argument could be made that he should be best known for Sun Rings, a 90-minute work written in 2002 for NASA and the ever-inventive Kronos Quartet.

Heard Sunday evening at Zellerbach at the University of California, Berkeley, in a concert presented by Cal Performances, the Kronos Quartet took a rapt audience on this sonic and visual journey that floated among the solar system.

Riley’s composition for string quartet and chorus literally uses “music of the spheres”—squawks, beeps and static from radio emissions of plasma in space, recorded and collected by Dr. Donald Gurnett, a physicist at the University of Iowa. he material, captured mostly by the Voyager spacecraft after its launch in 1977 as it drifted through the solar system, reveals textures that suggest a certain musical quality.

The piece began with these sounds, unaltered in pitch or texture, triggered one by one by members of the quartet with hand gestures against electronic sensors. When the quartet picked up their instruments and started playing long-limbed melodies, redolent of the exotic Asian music Riley had been delving into, it created a polyphonic sound world unlike any other.

Riley layers the plasma sounds around this musical texture—sometimes a throbbing bass, or at others, extra spikes of high pitches. The amplified quartet and a chorus (when they finally enter, stationed in the pit) developed these melodies and harmonic textures in a highly listenable style. The music can be dense, but it seldom strays from a late-Romantic harmonic palette.

The quartet played with remarkable liquidity, each solo emerging from the texture with terrific presence and real shape. The chorus—the Bay Area-based new music ensemble Volti, under the direction of conductor Robert Geary—sang with exemplary precision and suppleness.

The starting points for the first of 10 movements, “Sun Ring Overture,” are the symbols embossed on a gold disc that traveled through space on Voyager, meant to tell any beings who found this high-tech note-in-a-bottle what human life on Earth was like. The disc, an analog record, included a variety of music from around the world. Riley incorporated some of that, including a snatch of Beethoven, in his score.

This all played against visual projections by Willie Williams (who has worked with the rock groups U2, R.E.M. and David Bowie). Later images included photos and videos of stars, flybys of Earth, Jupiter and Venus, and finally closeups of the sun’s surface with its explosions and sprays—their vivid colors sometimes silhouetting the quartet. At other times the textured lighting presented the group up front, the projected images as background. Tiny lights surrounded the musicians, occasionally blending into projected starscapes.

All of this placed the music where it came from—in space.

These visuals blended seamlessly with the musical narrative. The first half-dozen movements came off as experiments with specific aspects of the space sounds, such as the catchy rhythm of “Beepopterismo.” “Earth Whistlers” expounded upon high-pitched sounds in the cosmos. “Earth/Jupiter Kiss” circled around the sounds of those planets.

Things started to come together in the final four movements. Starting with “The Electron Cyclotron Frequency Parlour,” momentum began to build to a climax. The high point came immediately afterwards, as the quartet, chorus and prerecorded material launched together into the towering “Prayer Central,” weaving snippets of prayers into a complex and absolutely gorgeous polyphony. There’s a moment when the chorus rises to the fore, having mostly been relegated to adding extra color in previous movements: the lights come up on them in the pit, and it’s absolutely dazzling. The final “amens” of that movement were positively heartbreaking.

The final summation, “One Earth, One People, One Love,” made a heartfelt case for the unanimity of humankind, which the gold disc on Voyager tried to portray. Inspired by music like this, one can only hope it could really happen.

Harvey Steiman


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