Terry Riley – Sun Rings

Yesterday we had Vivaldi’s music of the earth; today music of the spheres. Terry Riley’s Sun Rings samples recordings made in outer space by NASA’s Voyager I and II. Combined with his own music written for the Kronos Quartet, the result is an 80-minute voyage that strives to capture our place within the bigger picture.

Terry Riley, born in California in 1935, was a pioneer of minimalism (along with other composers like Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and La Monte Young). His best-known work is simply called ‘In C’ consisting of 53 phrases. That’s pretty much the only specification, though; the rest is cooly undetermined. It can be performed by any number of musicians, and there’s no time limit.

He’s since out-grown such a simplistic classification, however, and his vast range of influences – everything from LSD to John Coltrane, Indian classical music to John Cage – are brought to the surface in a work like Sun Rings.

The work opens with “Overture”, which places us definitively in space, meshing all kinds of beeps and echoes, whistles and scratches, while a sampled voice discusses electromagnetic waves. Into this celestial soundscape Riley places the Kronos Quartet, who journey though “Planet Elf Sindoori”, “The Electronc Cyclotron Frequency Parlour”, and Venus Upstream”.

“One Earth, One People, One Love” is a moving finale. A space traveller asks “Do you really know where you are at this point in time and space and in reality and existence?” Swirling, warping sounds fly past, while the cello engages in a lengthy meditative solo, seemingly questioning, testing, its own existence.

If you need something right now to remind you there’s life out there beyond your own four walls, give Riley a try.

Listen on Spotify