"Space," according to the composer Terry Riley, "is surely the realm of dreams and imagination, and a fertile feeding ground for poets and musicians." Of the great American minimalists, Riley is the most mystically far-out. The work for which he's best known – the primitively trance-like In C – was born of early psychedelia, of mind-bending communal rituals and the druggy haze of San Francisco in the 1960s. These days he's grown a long scraggly beard and lives on a ranch in northern California, where the wide-open skies must be dreamy inspiration indeed.
On July 15 the Kronos Quartet, the National Chamber Choir of Ireland and a huge video projector take to Glasgow's Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Musem to perform Riley's sonic space odyssey Sun Rings. The ten movements have names like Beebopterismo, Planet Elf Sindoori and Earth Whistler, but this piece is deadly serious. Kronos leader David Harrington describes it as "one of the most profound projects in our entire repertoire".
In fact it was a scientist, not a poet or musician, who dreamt up the material at the heart of Sun Rings. Dr Donald Gurnett – a professor of "experimental space plasma physics" at the University of Iowa – has spent the past 50 years working with NASA to record a fascinating array of interplanetary noises. By attaching wave receivers to NASA's Voyager and Galileo probes, he captured sounds from the orbits of Saturn, Neptune, Uranus and deep into outer space.
But wait: you're thinking that sound waves travel through air. There's no air in deep space, so how, beyond whimsy and sci-fi, can there be sound up there? Bear with my ropey astrophysics here, but the answer (I think) has to do with the fact that it's a different type of wave. Each planet is surrounded by a layer of plasma – an ionized gas so hot that its atoms burst apart into electrically-charged particles that spark off so-called "plasma waves" between them. It's these particles that create the aurora borealis when they fall into our atmosphere. And it's the waves sparking between these particles that Gurnett picks up on his recording devices. The waves whistle and chirp, whine, roar and crackle with electric static. If you've ever watched the northern lights and imagined a soundtrack of eerie, otherworldly music, you may not have been too far wrong.
Gurnett has been compiling his findings since 1962. In 2000, NASA's intrepid arts programme (which over the years has commissioned space-themed work from the likes of Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg) contacted the Kronos Quartet with a very tempting offer. "We were approached by NASA's art director," Harrington tells me early one morning over the phone from his San Francisco rehearsal studio. "Would we be interested in hearing sounds they'd recorded in space, and maybe in using some of them in our concerts?
"I didn't even know that there were any sounds in space, but the idea fascinated me. I'm an American who grew up during the space race -- I remember the hype around Russian cosmonauts, the mad excitement when President Kennedy promised we'd put a man on the moon and then did. How could anyone look into the night sky and not be curious about what's out there?"
Harrington was on tour when NASA sent him the first batch of Gurnett's recordings. "I pressed play on the cassette machine and thought I was listening to another part of nature that I didn't recognise. The sounds were like insects, maybe; or frogs, or maybe wind – but not quite any of those things. I mean, I'm someone who has a large collection of animal sounds and natural sounds, but these space sounds were a totally new addition. They completely lack any rhythm, for one thing; it seems that rhythm is an invention of earthly beings. And they're very, very low. Don had to transpose them up several octaves in order for humans to be able to hear them."
Harrington knew instantly that he wanted to be a part of the project. "It didn't take long before I was sitting in Don's office in Iowa learning exactly how he recorded these sounds. I felt like a whole new part of the universe had opened up." His thoughts soon turned to Riley -- a long-time Kronos collaborator -- and to commissioning a score that would somehow integrate Gurnett's space material. "Terry has a brilliant imagination and a wide curiosity about the universe. He was the obvious composer to ask."
Riley set to work in August 2001, about a month before the attacks of September 11. "After that cataclysmic day he stepped back from writing the piece for a while," says Harrington. "When he returned to the score he knew it had to be about something else." Riley produced Sun Rings the following July. It's a 90-minute score that integrates string quartet, 60-voice chorus and Dr Gurnett's original samples into 10 churning, seeping ambient movements.
The visual dimension came from video artist Willie Williams, designer of light shows for David Bowie, the Rolling Stones and U2. Williams created a vast moving backdrop out of stunning archive NASA planetary close-ups. For the last movement, he took footage from The Golden Record, an information pod carried by the Voyager probe that included photos of the world as it was in 1977. "The two Voyagers have now travelled far beyond our solar system," Williams wrote for the premiere of Sun Rings, "so I began to think of them as eccentric emissaries from our world, carrying information about us into deep space, not knowing that they have already become an anachronism; like senior citizens carrying school photographs of their grandchildren unaware that those they hold so dear have already grown up and changed beyond recognition."
Harrington draws my attention to another moment in the last movement, when Riley includes a recording of the poet Alice Walker repeating the words "one earth, one people, one love". "Terry heard her chanting those words on the radio on 12 September, 2001. Ultimately Sun Rings is a meditation on humanity and our relationship with the cosmos. In addition to a powerful piece of music, it's a place for people to contemplate the world and the universe."
The Kronos Quartet and the National Chamber Choir of Ireland perform Sun Rings at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow, on July 15, as part of the London 2012 Festival. www.glasgowconcerthalls.com or www.festival.london2012.com
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