Music Of Spheres: Kronos’ ‘Sun Rings’ Gets Sound Prize

Throughout its four decades, Kronos has been working with ever newer media. (©Jay Blakesberg, photos courtesy Kronos.)

DIGITAL – The Kronos Quartet’s recent Nonesuch recording, Terry Riley: Sun Rings, garnered a 2020 Grammy Award for its sound engineering in January, and Kronos has been sharing sections of it during its almost constant touring.

‘Sun Rings,’ Kronos’ Nonesuch CD, received the 2020 Grammy for
Best Engineered Album, Classical: It was engineered by Leslie Ann
Jones; mixed by John Kilgore, Judy Sherman, and David Harrington;
and mastered by Robert C. Ludwig.

Melding music with sounds derived from NASA’s Voyager space probes, the ten-part composition will be next performed  at Washington Performing Arts March 13. The official music video for the final movement “One Earth, One People, One Love,” which features the voices of astronaut Eugene Andrew Cernan and poet Alice Walker, was released in October.

Kronos founder and violinist David Harrington, a veteran of for than 40 years in the string quartet business, was a jurist at the Banff International String Quartet Competition in August 2019. That’s where I spoke with him about the recording of “Sun Rings,” which had received no attention at the festival. Although Kronos was there and Harrington was adjudicating, the young quartets was where the focus for the week needed to be. (The Viano Quartet, based  in L.A. and Marmen, a UK ensemble, shared first prize, with the American quartet Castillo given second place.)

But in the Banff interview, Harrington relayed the scope and history of the Sun Ring project, which began in 1999 when the quartet’s manager got a call from NASA asking if Kronos would be interested in using the space sounds the Voyager missions collected, as the 25th anniversary of the Voyager 1 launch on Sept. 5, 1977, approached. Kronos was about to record Terry Riley’s Requiem for Adam, and so Harrington broached NASA’s request with the composer at a recording session. Eventually, Harrington and Riley heard the recorded sounds, and agreed there was a project in them.

“What I heard was an aspect of nature that I’d never heard before,” Harrington said. “It was this kind of perception of the hugeness and the intricacy and the beauty. It was just so many things all at once.”

Riley had stopped composing the music for Sun Rings when 9/11 occurred. But he resumed after hearing the poet and novelist Alice Walker chanting the phrase “One Earth, One People, One Love” on the radio:

Toward ‘Sun Rings’: In 2000, NASA invited Riley and Harrington to see a shuttle launch.

“Hearing this,” recalled Riley at the time of the recording’s official release, “I had a renewed desire to continue work on Sun Rings in the spirit of the connectivity of all things. I added a choir to two of the movements to represent the voice of humanity in its struggle to understand the meaning of our place in this unfathomable universe, and to maybe suggest that, even with our sophisticated technologies propelling us toward the unknown, we should keep in mind that ‘all you need is love.’”

Sun Rings premiered at the University of Iowa’s Hancher Auditorium in October 2002, and went on the road as a multimedia performance developed by the Irish rock band U2’s stage and lighting designer Willie Williams. “Willie designed an environment for us to perform in,” Harrigton said. “It looks as though Kronos is floating in space. It’s magical.”

Kronos has incorporated non-musical elements in its performances going back at least to its 1990 recording of George Crumb’s Black Angels, which was first a CD and then a DVD with the multimedia elements included.

Sun Rising is out as an audio recording only. Harrington said a DVD wouldn’t do full justice to all that Williams had given Kronos for live performances. “The music speaks for itself. Seeing the sun in “Prayer Central” (one of ten movements) is absolutely awesome, and when we play it live, I’m glued to that. It’s like seeing a cell that is alive. But you don’t need that in your home.”

In May, Kronos will perform a world premiere from composer Michael Abels and librettist Nikki Finney,  At War with Ourselves,  for SFJazz at San Francisco’s Miner Auditorium. It’s an evening-length work for string quartet, chorus and spoken word.

Terry Riley and Kronos go back a long way.  Here they are celebrating his 80th birthday in June 2015. (Evan Neff)

Bill Rankin is an Edmonton-based freelance writer who covers classical music and opera for Opera Canada and the American Record Guide, among other publications.