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Kronos Quartet Explores Sounds from Space with Terry Riley's 'Sun Rings'

Kronos Quartet performing "Sun Rings" at the 2014 Sacrum Profanum Festival in Krakow, Poland. (Image credit: Wojciech Wandzel)

In 2002, the world-renowned Kronos Quartet embarked on a journey through the cosmos in a collaboration with composer Terry Riley dubbed "Sun Rings." After more than 50 performances in 11 countries and 18 U.S. states, it was recently recorded at what I like to call the "studio from the Stars," Skywalker Sound in California.

The project began when NASA contacted the manager of the San Francisco-based string quartet to see if they would like to be a part of the 25th anniversary celebration of the launch of the Voyager 1 mission, which took place in 2002. The group's artistic director, founder and violinist David Harrington quickly jumped on to the opportunity to incorporate "space sounds" into their music after a conversation with the developer of the Voyager missions' plasma wave instruments, physicist Don Gurnett of the University of Iowa, in Iowa City.

The plasma wave instrument "senses waves of electrons in the ionized gas, or 'plasma,' that Voyager travels through," according to a NASA statement. That data can be converted into the sounds that are audible to humans. 

Related: How NASA's Voyager 1 Probe Recorded Sounds of Interstellar Space (Video)

"Sun Rings" composer Terry Riley (left) with Iowa physics professor Don Gurnett. (Image credit: Kronos Performing Arts Association)

Harrington tapped long-time collaborator Riley to compose "Sun Rings." Riley had first worked with the quartet on his composition "Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector," nearly 20 years before. 

Riley and the Kronos seamlessly weave "space sounds" from the Voyager missions and other spacecraft into the music in 10 tracks, released by Nonesuch Records, beginning with the "Sun Rings Overture." The song features Gurnett's voice as a guide. The record ends with a poignant piece titled "One Earth, One People, One Love," which was inspired by the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001. 

Other cosmically inspired tracks include "Earth Whistlers," "Venus Upstream," "Earth Jupiter Kiss" and more. A video for "Beebopterismo," the third track on the album, was released in July 2019 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Watch it below.

Producer Judith Sherman and engineer Leslie Ann Jones were at the controls during the recording of "Sun Rings." San Francisco-based vocal ensemble Volti, directed by founder and artistic director Robert Geary, also contributed to the effort. 

The Kronos Quartet features David Harrington (violin), John Sherba (violin), Hank Dutt (viola), and Sunny Yang (cello), and "Sun Rings" was commissioned for the group by the NASA Art Program and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Kronos Quartet and Terry Riley's "Sun Rings" album cover. (Image credit: Nonesuch Records)

Space.com is no stranger to the Kronos Quartet, as our video team covered the band's recording of "Contrapunctus II" by J. S. Bach at Thomas Edison's studio in West Orange, New Jersey, for our sister site Live Science. The recording was captured simultaneously on wax cylinder, analog tape, acetate disk and digital for "Red Hot + Bach," an AIDS research support project. See a mini-documentary about it below.

Their performances of "Sun Rings" over the last 17 years have included "fully staged multimedia production, which features dramatic visual design by Willie Williams," according to a statement from the group. Several new concert dates have been announced. Go to the Kronos Quartet website for more details. 

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