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David Harrington of Kronos Quartet Talks Space Noise; Performs “Sun Rings” at CSU-Long Beach

By Pat McGuire; Photos courtesy of Carpenter Performing Arts Center on March 22, 2013


David Harrington of Kronos Quartet Talks Space Noise; Performs “Sun Rings” at CSU-Long Beach


This Saturday at Cal State Long Beach’s beautiful Carpenter Performing Arts Center, the Kronos Quartet will perform “Sun Rings,” a piece of music written by Terry Riley in 2002 “for string quartet, chorus and pre-recorded spacescapes.” Wait—how’s that, exactly?


That’s right. Kronos Quartet leader David Harrington was approached over a decade ago by NASA and asked if he would be interested in composing a piece of music incorporating actual sounds from outer space, as recorded by NASA’s Voyager expeditions. Harrington contacted his friend Riley (In C) and together they jumped at the chance, creating a work of art that includes the actual sounds of space accompanied by Kronos’ four players, a parade of space imagery (both stills and video) created from actual NASA archives by veteran music visual director Willie Williams [U2, REM, David Bowie], recorded chanting by Alice Walker, and a choir.


FILTER spoke with Harrington to shed some cosmic light on all of this space noise.



Can you explain the “Sun Rings” project as best you can for our “indie rock audience”?

David Harrington: Sure. Shortly after 2000, we were on tour in Europe and got a phone call from the arts program director at NASA, whose name was Bert Ulrich. Bert asked if Kronos would be interested in including some of the sounds recorded on the Voyager expeditions in our concerts. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know there were any sounds recorded on the Voyager expeditions, [so I asked] “Can I hear them?” By the time I got home from the tour, there was a cassette tape—an actual cassette tape—from NASA.  I listened to it and I thought it was amazing. I have quite a large collection of all sorts of sounds of animals: mammals, dogs, seals, insects and all that. I recognized nature in a different form.


Then I found that the man who invented the machine that recorded the sounds in space, Don Gurnett, was an astrophysicist in the University of Iowa. I got in touch with him, and in the meantime I had talked to Terry Riley, who Kronos has worked with since 1979, and found out that Terry was very interested in this idea. Terry made sounds, and in fact, so did Don Gurnett. Terry and I visited his studio in Iowa City. It’s a magical experience to be with Don, really magical. Terry and I ended up feeling like we could explain the entire universe to our families. It’s the kind of thing that just floats through your mind and your consciousness. Don is just a wonderful person, and a fantastic force in life. 


So, Terry and I went to a launch in Cape Canaveral, and we decided that there should be a piece. And slowly, Kronos’ manager thought of Willie Williams as being the visual designer. [Our manager] had been to many U2 concerts in these huge places, and the whole visualization of the concerts made the huge place seem so intimate. Of course, if there were ever a huge setting, it would be outer space, and the idea of somehow making that intimate in a visual way really appealed to all of us in Kronos. So Willie became our visualizer and Terry wrote the music.


Will this CSU-Long Beach performance be the closest, proximity-wise, to a NASA facility where you might expect some NASA scientists in the audience?

You know, I think that’s right. We heard that Don Gurnett might be coming, that would be marvelous. We surprised him; the world premiere was at the University of Iowa and right before the concert, we recorded him, and one of the voices you hear right at the beginning of “Sun Rings” is Don. He had no idea when he came to the concert that his voice was going to be a part of it, so we had some fun with him.



Had you previously lent an ear to space for inspiration, even just as a hobby or fascination?

Well, growing up I had a telescope, and I used to look at Mars and the Moon, sure.


But there you said the operative word: “look.” When did you start thinking about listening to space? Was it just when this idea was presented to you?

Yes, I did not know that were sounds that had been recorded, that is something I learned from NASA and from Don Gurnett.


Do you think our society’s growing fascination with the current Mars Curiosity trip has piqued new interest in “Sun Rings”? Is there a new genre coming—“space music”?

Well, when I was a teenager in the Seattle Youth Symphony we played “The Planets” by Gustav Holst, and the “Music of the Spheres.” I think musicians have thought about this sort of thing for a long time. 


It’s important to know that the sounds Terry uses are really integrated into the overall piece. And it’s not as though you are going to be noticing, “Oh yeah, that’s a weird sound from outer space” kind of thing. Basically, he’s made an 80-minute meditation that allows us to think about where we are right now and what we have right now. He began it in August 2001, and then of course on September 11th, 2001, the tragedy occurred and he was silenced for a while, as many people were. On September 12th, on KPSA radio he heard Alice Walker chanting, “One Earth, one people, one love.” And he got Alice Walker’s permission to use that chant, and that became part of the ending of “Sun Rings.” Initially, Terry had a much different idea of what he was going to do, and because of September 11th, 2001, he decided to celebrate what we have here, and kind of refracted through sounds and ideas from space. 


To me, it has become this amazing kind of place of meditation and celebration. For example, when the choir comes in on “Prayer Central,” they really are the voice of humanity. The choir represents all of us, I think. And in the last movement, the incredible cello solo, it’s as though the cello becomes Mother Earth, let’s say. It’s a large piece in every respect, and it’s very generous music. I remember telling Terry, in my opinion, the music has the generosity of Schubert. I just love this.


We’ve come a long way from L. Ron Hubbard’s Space Jazz record, huh?

[Laughs] Yeah.


I was really fascinated by the pop musician recording the song to be broadcast on Mars. Did you hear about that?

I did hear about that, yes.

If you were going to select another piece for that purpose, what do you think deserves to be broadcast from Mars into outer space?


Wow. Well, I think there should be a 24-hour radio space station with lots of bands, so consciousnesses from all over can check out whatever they want. I would love to have “Black Angels” by George Crumb permanently emanating from Mars. That would be cool. That’s why I started Kronos in the first place, to play that piece. It was written in 1970, during some of the darkest days in the American war in Vietnam. When I heard it in 1973 on the radio, all of a sudden as a young musician I had a voice. I had a piece of music that made sense, that brought together the world of Schubert and music from many different places in the world, and the music of Jimi Hendrix. It brought all of this together in one piece. For a little moment there, the world made sense, and I had to play that piece of music.  F


The Kronos Quartet performs Terry Riley’s “Sun Rings” at 8pm this Saturday at CSU-Long Beach’s Carpenter Performing Arts Center.

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