The Kronos Quartet's Cosmic Quest

Stringed instruments, solar wind and interplanetary plasma discharges shape Kronos' concert

David Harrington, spokesman and first violinist for the Kronos Quartet: "Music is like this wild human substance that none of us understand. To me, it's very mysterious. I don't pretend to know any more about it than the next guy. I'm just lucky that I get to be around it every day."

For more than 30 years, the Kronos Quartet has been equally wild and mysterious. Its quirky repertoire, ranging from the deeply moving and melodious to the gratingly dissonant, includes 450 commissioned works by contemporary composers, yet its recordings contain little text or explanation. When they coalesced in the early '70s, its members--Harrington, second violin John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt and cellist Joan Jeanrenaud (replaced in 1999 by Jennifer Culp)--looked more like rock stars than staid, tuxedoed, concert hall professionals. Their sound itself challenged the acoustic intimacy of traditional chamber music--amplified instruments, electronic sounds, experiments with pre-recorded tapes.

Kronos' current work again confounds the concept of a string quartet. Sun Rings: The NASA Project, by longtime Kronos supporter and minimalist composer Terry Riley, reaches epic proportions, with an 80-voice choir, sounds from across the universe and a light show worthy of the Rolling Stones in support of the two violins, viola and cello.

"It's an opportunity for people to reflect on a lot of things," according to Harrington. "It's the most beautiful and eloquent music that Terry Riley has ever written. Some moments for me are just staggering in their poignancy and beauty."

Sun Rings was originally commissioned by NASA as a simple, 20-minute piece for string quartet, incorporating some sounds from outer space. Like the current universe, the little project kept expanding, eventually becoming an hour-and-a-half long, its music enhanced by visual designer Willie Williams, who has created shows for David Bowie, REM and U2. Harrington hopes that the project will eventually become a DVD, with background interviews and other information to enhance the performance itself.

The genesis of Sun Rings was data collected by NASA spacecraft. Astrophysicist Donald Gurnett, from the University of Iowa, took cosmic phenomena such as solar winds and interplanetary plasma discharges and converted their signals into auditory interpretations.

"I feel like Don Gurnett is an instrument maker," Harrington says. "It was just so inspiring to hear this amazingly inventive physicist talk about the universe and play these sounds for us. He made an instrument that was able to translate plasma waves into sound. As soon as I heard them, I immediately thought of Terry Riley."

Riley worked for a year shaping the otherworldly sounds into patterns.

Kronos and Riley have a lot of history together. Riley pioneered minimalism, along with Phillip Glass, John Adams, Michael Nyman and others, breaking with the European 12-tone fetish that had dominated modern classical music for half a century. Riley's seminal work, In C, with its subtle textures, aleatoric performance conceit and insistent tonality, became a popular 1968 recording, followed by the psychedelic-sounding A Rainbow in Curved Air.

Kronos met Riley during a residency at Mills College, where he was teaching. They persuaded him to return to traditional composing for the first time in 15 years. Riley wrote Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector for them, as well as Cadenza on the Night Plain, recorded by Kronos in 1984.

"We re-recorded Cadenza for the 25th anniversary box set," Harrington notes. "Terry returned to writing and since then has written 14 pieces for us. Actually, he's working on the 14th." Their collaborations include Salome Dances for Peace and an elegy for Harrington's son, Requiem for Adam.

"Ever since we first started working with Terry," Harrington explains, "he has always had a specific idea of sound that changes with every piece. So there's a whole palette of colors that we didn't have before, that we gained with Terry Riley. I remember early on, the idea of vibrato was something that we started to avoid when we were playing Terry's music. It took us a long time, actually inhabiting the sound that you're making when you're not playing vibrato and believing in what you're hearing."

Riley has provided inspiration to other composers as well.

"I remember when Steve Reich and György Ligeti came to the premier of Salome Dances for Peace," Harrington says. "It wasn't too long after that that Steve wrote Different Trains for Kronos. I remember being with composer Henryk Górecki when he met Terry, talking about the influence of In C on his own life and music."

According to Harrington, "I think Sun Rings represents quite a departure in Terry Riley's writing in a lot of ways. These are some of his most expansive melodies. I don't think it's like anything I've heard of Terry's before. It's truly a meditation on the place that each of us occupies in the universe."