Terry Riley may be the founding father
of minimalism - his 1965 composition, "In C," was the
piece that begat the hypnotically repetitive musical genre made
famous by Philip Glass, John Adams and Steve Reich - but the
69-year-old composer could never be accused of working with minimal
A case in point is "Sun Rings," an 80-minute work receiving its New York premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Howard Gilman Opera House Oct. 6 and Oct. 8-9 in a multimedia performance that includes the always-adventurous Kronos Quartet (frequent Riley collaborators) and the 70-voice Dessof Choirs. "Sun Rings" was commissioned by - among many other institutions, including BAM - the National Air and Space Administration.
Yes, that NASA.
As Riley recently told GO Brooklyn in a telephone interview from his California home-studio, "NASA came to Kronos and asked them to find a composer to work with these sound detectors that they had recorded over the years from various space stations. It was kind of an opportune time for me because I was interested in working on a piece that would involve elements like natural sounds anyway. I began working with digital audio after not working for many years with electronics, so it looked like a good opportunity for all that to come together.
"These sounds were recorded millions of miles away, and it stimulated my imagination."
The sounds that Riley mentions are, much more figuratively than literally, outer-space music: deep-space lightning and solar winds are but two of the magnificent and otherworldly sounds NASA’s detectors recorded for posterity.
Because NASA has been recording these sounds regularly since the 1960s, Riley admits that he’s probably only heard the tip of an extremely large iceberg.
"I had actually quite a bit of material - I never added it up - but I had several tapes that were at least a couple of hours total to listen to all of them," he explains. "They’ve recorded thousands and thousands of hours of sounds, and these were selected by NASA for their ’sound,’ so to speak, and how interesting they are. I got a selection of these sounds, which was more than sufficient for me to work with."
"Sun Rings" took shape when Riley was able to forge a relationship between the intergalactic noises on the tapes and how they related to the Kronos’ unique way of collaborating as a string quartet.
"I ended up taking melodies and rhythms that were embedded in the sounds for the string quartet," he says.
Riley and the members of Kronos have shared a long musical history: a quarter-century.
"I’ve written 15 string quartets and a concerto for string quartet for them," he says, "and I’ve just written a new work, a quintet for them and a pipa [a Japanese instrument] player. That’s their nature: [they see themselves] as an open palette willing to experiment with any kind of music in the string quartet format. They never stop finding ways to integrate new sounds into the quartet. They are most interested in making a high-energy, new music performance."
And that’s what "Sun Rings" is. The Dessof Choirs, as the composer himself says, "adds a real dimension to the piece. I didn’t want it to be only about space but also about humanity’s role in the universe. Much of the piece is about Earth, and the choir adds a celestial but human element."
With visuals by Willie Williams (who has designed rock tours for the likes of U2, REM and David Bowie), sound design by Mark Grey and lighting by the Kronos’ usual collaborator Larry Neff, "Sun Rings" truly reaches into the stratosphere.
"Early in the planning of the piece, the members of Kronos wanted visuals because we all realized it would be a great opportunity," Riley recalls. "Willie uncovered material, like film clips shot from satellites and others from NASA, which gets incorporated into the performance. And Kronos is surrounded onstage by lights that suggest rings, like Saturn’s. So it has a very dynamic effect overall."
Like many other artists, Riley found himself affected by the 9-11 attacks.
"I started writing [’Sun Rings’] the month before, so when Sept. 11 happened, it made me stop in my tracks a bit," he says. "Since NASA has worked with the military, I wanted to make sure this piece was not about [war], that’s for sure.
"Of course, I always have been a peace advocate and worked for peace over the years for various groups," says Riley. "It’s been sort of a main theme of mine for a long time. So I wanted to show that mankind is a fragile element in the universe, and if we realize that, we would honor life more.
"Maybe space would give us some perspective on that."
Terry Riley’s "Sun Rings" will be performed at the BAM Gilman Opera House (30 Lafayette Ave. at Ashland Place in Fort Greene) on Oct. 6, 8 and 9 at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $20 and $40, and can be purchased by calling (718) 636-4100 or by visiting www.bam.org.