Science, art share stage in ‘Sun Rings’

Special to The Times

No one can accuse the Kronos Quartet of being hidebound. If anything, they’re obsessed with liberating gestures, continually reaching out into worlds beyond the norms of existing string quartet repertoire and practices. And “out” is a particularly apt word for Terry Riley’s beguiling new work, “Sun Rings,” which received its Southern California premiere at the Orange County Performing Arts Center’s Segerstrom Hall on Tuesday night.

The interactive elements in this 10-movement, evening-long piece include sounds created through technology, made by live human hands -- the characteristically focused Kronos -- and literally culled from outer space. Collaborating with astrophysicist Donald Gurnett, Riley used sounds from the cosmos captured via Gurnett’s plasma wave receptor. The range of whistling, whirring, humming and other, indescribable noises evokes both electronic music and humpback whale song.

Critical to “Sun Rings’ ” synergistic effect is a subtle visual aspect designed by Willie Williams: projections that draw on images from science -- wave forms, archival NASA footage -- and the cosmos -- lightning, spinning planets. The “Venus Upstream” movement features an image of a gyroscope, a handy metaphor for both the miracle and the fragility of the universe and for the irresolute kinetics of the music.

After the lyrical Asian sonorities of “Earth Whistlers,” the forces of the Pacific Chorale, finely led by John Alexander, entered on “Earth/Jupiter Kiss,” offering a sound both definitively human and celestial.


An upbeat quartet movement, “The Electron Cyclotron Frequency Parlor,” is the resident dance piece, almost slipping into a tango. Lovely images of earthly life bring the assembled energies home in the final movement, “One Earth One People One Love.”

Overall, “Sun Rings” is a major, moving work. At evening’s end, both Gurnett and Riley, in flowing beard and baseball cap, took the stage. With their collaboration, art and science have enjoyed a triumphant meeting.