Space jazz

Kronos Quartet Mondavi Center, Davis Wed., April 27

Commissioned by the NASA Art Program in 2000 to take the sounds collected in deep outer space by plasma wave receivers and make music with them, Kronos Quartet violinist and musical director David Harrington approached world-famous Minimalist composer Terry Riley, a long-time Kronos collaborator, to be instrumental in the creation of Sun Rings, a composition in 10 ethereal movements, or “spacescapes,” as Riley calls them.

Wednesday evening’s Mondavi presentation of Sun Rings was truly impressive. The quartet—Harrington and fellow violinist John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt and cellist Jennifer Culp—sat before a giant blue screen on stage in a semicircle, surrounded by thin metal spikes resembling car antennae with tiny lights at the tips. Eerie space sounds—high-pitched whistles, metallic bird-like sounds and very low booms accompanied at times by strange garbled speech—became the sound canvas over which the quartet contributed its at times appropriately odd, at times very moving complementary notes, sometimes picking up on a space-sound musical “phrase” and elaborating on it. Culp’s cello on part No. 10, “One Earth, One People, One Love,” was particularly beautiful.

The blue screen became other colors onto which space-related scenes were projected—close-ups of planets, “sprites” tripping across the Earth like little light tornadoes with hieroglyphic-like mathematical equations among them. The choir—behind the screen and visible only occasionally, by design—sang its celestial sections of the symphony beautifully.

I was so effectively drawn into the particular we-are-all-one/everything-has-meaning space created by Sun Rings—and altered by it—that at the sound of brakes squealing inside Mondavi’s parking garage afterward, I reflexively interpreted it as yet another sound in the “cosmic symphony.”