The celebrated Kronos Quartet is scheduled to perform in Taipei on March 4 and in Kaohsiung on March 6. The program both times will consist of the same single work, Sun Rings, which is composed of mysterious sounds recorded in space, plus the quartet itself, a chorus, a large amount of video material, and then, in the final section, spoken matter.
“I’d always assumed that space was silent, but it seems that this isn’t entirely the case,” said David Harrington, founding member and first violin of the quartet. “The reality is that the Voyager expeditions managed to record some sounds using a ‘plasma wave receptor’ — it’s the plasma in space that causes them, apparently. These sounds they recorded were very low, and hence inaudible, but when they were speeded up they became audible to the human ear.”
“There are hundreds of hours of these recordings, and my first reaction when I heard them was that they were like nature in some way, but different from anything you might encounter in nature here on Earth,” the San Francisco-based musician told the Taipei Times ahead of the quartet’s visit to the Taiwan International Festival of Arts next weekend. “Anyway, the birth of our project was when the director of NASA’s Arts Program asked me if we’d like to consider using them as the basis for a new musical work.”
I asked Harrington whether there was a composer, or if the quartet had evolved the piece themselves.
“Oh no, it was written by Terry Riley,” Harrington said. He’d always considered Riley the most talented composer of his generation, he said, and his was the name that immediately came to mind for such a commission. “Terry has been writing for Kronos since 1979.”
That was some 10 years ago, and I asked if the reason they were still performing Sun Rings now was because it had been so successful.
“It’s isn’t that exactly,” Harrington replied. “It’s more because we don’t get the chance to perform it that often. It’s really exceptionally complicated to stage. The only other time it’s ever been performed in Asia was in South Korea. But the Taiwan International Festival of Arts seemed an ideal opportunity.”
Riley had started work on it before Sept. 11, 2001, Harrington said, but the day after that event, on Sept. 12, he’d heard the poet Alice Walker chanting a prayer for peace she’d written on the radio, and decided to see if she would allow him to incorporate her lines into Sun Rings. They now form the basis of the work’s final section. Also included are words of an astronomer talking about the view of Earth from space.
“As for the visuals, we visited NASA’s jet propulsion lab and saw a lot of the footage they have there,” Harrington said. “The entire visual side of the show has been put together by Willie Williams, the stage designer who’s been responsible for many U2 concerts, among other things.”
The space sounds are not at all what you might expect. Rather than the muted, mystic murmurs you might imagine, they sound instead like some sort of demented dawn chorus in a particularly savage patch of jungle. Donald Gurnett, a physics and astronomy professor at Iowa University, has been responsible for collecting many of them, and they can be heard on his various Web sites.
Kronos’ greatest claim is arguably that it transcends the tired and profitless opposition of classical and pop. What it proclaims, as well as incorporating from time to time both the aforementioned styles, is a third way. To begin with, it’s nothing if not international, accessing with an almost obsessive enthusiasm the musical traditions of Eastern Europe, Central Asia, South America and more.