The idea that became “Sun Rings” originated five years ago, when Harrington received an inquiry out of the clear blue sky.
“When we got the call from NASA, and the question was, would Kronos be interested in including some of the sounds recorded on the Voyager expeditions, in our concerts – I for one had no idea that there were any sounds.”
As it turned out, there were LOTS of sounds. Astrophysicist Don Gurnett had hundreds of hours of tape – recordings of plasma waves made out in space, then converted into sound on wavelengths audible to the human ear. Harrington was intrigued.
“There’s a wide variety of sounds that aren’t quite nature as we know it.”
Soon, Harrington recruited Terry Riley, the Nevada County native who’s been shaping modern music and incorporating Asian styles since the 1960s. Riley, a longtime collaborator with Kronos, started writing in August 2001. But then fate intervened.
“And then following the terrible events of September 11, 2001, he was silenced for quite some time from his work, and from continuing on ‘Sun Rings.’ When he eventually came back to the composition of ‘Sun Rings,’ he kind of stepped back a bit, and realized he was going to take an entirely different approach."
Riley had something most unusual in mind.
“Terry called me up and said, ‘First of all, the piece would need a large choir.’ And at that point, I sort of groaned, and I thought ‘Man, how are we ever going to do this?’ you know.”
Put simply, string quartets are rarely paired with choirs. Riley also proposed a massive work in ten movements – the standard classical string quartet has four. “Sun Rings” would be a concert in itself, replete with extraterrestrial sounds. The Kronos Quartet, which is known for taking risks, decided to proceed. Riley finished the piece in 2002.
"It put us in touch with a whole area of inquiry – astrophysics – that now seems so much a part of music. And they’re not as far apart as you might think.”
This week’s performance at the Mondavi Center is particularly unusual.
“I understand that the choir in Davis is a huge choir, I think twice as large as anything we’ve ever had, which is really going to be exciting.”
Harrington sees “Sun Rings” as a work that examines space exploration, but also takes a distant view back at the earth, and the long-running conflict here between violence and peace – a frequent topic in Riley’s music.
“I find that ‘Sun Rings’ is a contemplation, and it creates a place for listeners to inhabit for about an hour and a half, and just to think about our place and our role in the universe."
The Kronos Quartet performs “Sun Rights” on Wednesday at 8 p.m. at the Mondavi Center.