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Riley, NASA make music

John HartTerry Riley sits at his piano at home in Comptonville.
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Camptonville’s Terry Riley is renowned for innovative compositions that take him all over the world in a quest to explore new sounds. In his latest composition, “Sun Rings,” Riley reaches out to outer space, incorporating actual sounds from beyond Earth.

Riley just finished “Sun Rings,” a 90-minute NASA-commissioned theater piece that premieres Oct. 26 at the University of Iowa’s Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City. The university is home to Professor Donald A. Gurnett, a physics and astronomy professor who introduced Riley to the spatial sounds.

“Sun Rings” combines sounds Gurnett recorded from outer space over 40 years, visual effects, and music designed for a string quartet and a 90-voice choir. The San Francisco-based contemporary music group Kronos Quartet plays on the piece.



Also working on “Sun Rings” were London’s Willie Williams, who does lighting for rock groups including U2, the Rolling Stones and REM; and composer David Dvorin from Nevada City. Williams created a light show and visual effects; Dvorin manipulated NASA’s audio samples into musical material.

“The opportunity to both work with sounds rarely heard from NASA and an opportunity to work with both Terry and the Kronos Quartet was a dream gig,” Dvorin said. “This is like on a scale of Broadway for the art music scene.”




Dvorin grew up listening to Riley’s music and belongs to the Nevada County Composers Coalition, of which Riley is a founding member.

“Sun Rings” took a year to make and became Riley’s largest project for the Kronos Quartet. Since 1979, he has written 16 works for the group.

Kronos was invited by NASA two years ago to use plasma wave sounds recorded from the Voyager spacecraft at destinations including Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune. The quartet’s artistic director David Harrington listened to the recordings and jumped at the request.

Harrington was amazed at the space sounds, which were different from any other nature sounds he had heard. He was given free rein in choosing a composer for NASA to commission.

“I know hundreds of composers around the world, but the composer who came to mind immediately was Terry,” Harrington said. “It seemed like such a natural extension for his work with Kronos. Plus he’s been working for many years in electro-acoustic music.”

Riley and Harrington visited Gurnett at the University of Iowa. In 1962, Gurnett invented the Injun III machine, a very-low-frequency radio receiver that records the plasma waves in space.

“I developed a real rapport with Terry and David. It’s a great example of corroboration with science and art,” said Gurnett, who advised Riley and Harrington throughout the project. “Never before in my life have I had such great interaction with science and art.”

Gurnett is excited about the premiere of “Sun Rings,” and hopes the public “enjoys the music and gains a better recognition that space isn’t just an empty vacuum.”

So far, 15 other performances are planned, including the San Francisco Jazz Festival in 2003, and dates in Houston, London, Amsterdam and Paris. Riley was pleased with dress rehearsals at the end of June.

I thought it was very powerful. It was hard after Sept. 11, when I happened to work on the piece,” he said. “I felt I needed to make a meaningful statement about the world so there are a lot of things in the piece that are meditations on world peace.”

After the terrorist attacks, Riley considered how space could be used by governments to launch a war or to benefit mankind.

“It’s very amazing that ‘Sun Rings’ has taken place in context with this terrible tragedy,” Harrington said. “We don’t know the end of this tragedy, but this piece radiates a sense of hope. Shortly after Sept. 11, Terry heard a radio broadcast of Alice Walker saying ‘One earth, one people, one love.’ Her voice is used in the last movement. There will be lots of major moments when people hear this work.”


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