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Music Of The Spheres

At BAM, Terry Riley brings astrophysics to the avant-garde.

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The Kronos Quartet takes the sounds of outer space to BAM. Photo Courtesy of Jay Blakesberg.  

When NASA hired the Kronos Quartet to work outer-space recordings into a piece of music, the University of Iowa physicist Don Gurnett found a composer at his door. “I went to meet Dr. Gurnett in Iowa City,” recalls Terry Riley. “I was supposed to have an hour, and I walked in at ten in the morning and he dropped me off at ten that night.”

Riley, who is known as the father of American minimalism, was a natural choice to create Sun Rings, a multimedia, multiplanetary work that’s making its New York premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music next month. His decadelong association with Kronos—those champions of new music—has produced nearly twenty pieces. For this one, sounds from space—like lightning strikes on Jupiter—had to be transposed down to the range of human hearing. Riley says they range from “garbled speech, like a lot of people talking at once” to “a battlefield with a lot of explosions.” The performance will be backed up by a 40-foot screen of otherworldly projections, as well as text by Alice Walker, chanted repeatedly in a meditative and reflective finale. “I wanted people to feel like they’re really looking at the human race from space,” explains Riley, “and thinking about how people live.”

Sun Rings, Brooklyn Academy of Music; October 6 through 9.


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