Violinist David Harrington chats to Limelight about music, 9/11, spirituality and deep space.

As if they weren’t already adventurous enough, Kronos Quartet is reaching for the stars to bring us sounds never before heard by human ears. Sun Rings, for string quartet, chorus and pre-recorded spacescapes, is a unique collaboration between NASA, American composer Terry Riley and the Kronos Quartet. Immersive projections of the planets will accompany this journey into deep space when the work has its Australian premieres at the Melbourne Festival and Adelaide’s Earth Station in October. Limelight caught up with Kronos Quartet founding violinist David Harrington to talk about this miraculous space-age music.


Kronos performs in Australia quite regularly, but never before at anything like the Womad Earth Station environmental festival. What appealed to you about this particular setting?

Earth Station is an absolutely perfect fit for what Kronos has been doing and what I’m hoping we will be doing in the future. The idea of the entire festival, the camping venue of the Belair Nationa Park and just everything about it leads me to think that this is the concert format of the future, in a way. Bringing together seemingly different fields of endeavour and knowledge is something that music can do perfectly. Kronos has been attempting these sorts of things for many years, but I think Earth Station will be a launching pad for our future.

What is the significance to you of interacting with sampled sounds from deep space in Terry Riley’s quartet Sun Rings?

What occurred to me when I first heard the sounds was that they seemed like aspects of nature, like those made by natural life from all over the world, including whales, seals, various insects, birds, fish, and all sorts of life. I have quite a large collection of various sounds. So, when I heard the recorded sounds of Donald Burnett’s Plasma Wave Receptors in deep space, I recognised them as aspects of nature. These sounds were inaudible by humans in the raw state, so they had to be transposed in quite radical ways, because they were way below and above the threshold of hearing. There was a lot of manipulation that had to happen to make these samples audible, but after this process occurred it was clear to me that nature extends beyond what we can comprehend on Earth.

Environmental sustainability is a hot topic at the moment, but it has been a part of composer Terry Riley’s philosophy for a long time. What is it about your collaboration with Riley that works so well, and why was he the best man for the job when it came to a piece like Sun Rings?

Terry is the only composer that I know of that, in every conversation I have had with him over the last 32 years, mentions topics such as human rights, abuses of power by governments, environmental issues. He is absorbed not only by music but by the reality of life, and life as we’re all a part of it. So when NASA called me in 2001 and asked, “could Kronos imagine including some of the sounds from the Voyager expeditions in our concerts?” it just seemed to me that Terry Riley was the perfect person to bring those sounds into our repertoire.

Shortly after he had started writing material for Sun Rings and we had met the physicist Donald Burnett who invented the instrument that recorded those sounds, September 11 happened. All of a sudden, the piece took on a different meaning for Terry and for Kronos. So he went back and actually began to rewrite. I think it is an astonishing work of art, and I’m very happy that we’ll be performing it at Earth Station.

What dimension did 9/11 add to your understanding of the work?

I remember that all of a sudden I received a call from Terry, and he said that this piece for Kronos was going to need a very large choir. I thought to myself “oh no, how are we ever going to be able to do that?” Later, when we began putting the piece together, it became very clear as to why the choir needed to be there. The final movement also contains the chanting of one of America’s greatest poets, Alice Walker. The title of the final movement is One Earth, One People, One Love, and that is what Alice Walker was chanting on the radio on 9/11. Terry heard that and recorded it off the radio, and with her permission that became not only the title of the final movement but the mantra which powered the entire work.

Playing music against these vast sounds from deep space isolation could have felt like a lonely experience without a human vocal element.

I hadn’t thought of that before, but maybe you’re right. For me, what the choir does is provides a community. The final thing Terry has written for the choir to do is for each member of the choir to “whisper his or her secret desires”. What he really means is that each member of the choir needs to confront the awesome expanse of space in an individual way. It’s almost like creating an individual prayer.

Can you describe the spiritual experience of performing the work? Do you get lost in it?

There’s one moment that I’ll tell you about. In Willie Wilson’s images of space that accompany the performance, there’s a section with vintage photography of the sun, and it is an astonishing image. Every time I see it, I can hardly take my eyes off it. Fortunately, I’m not playing at that moment so I get to watch! It’s as though you’re seeing the sun as a cell in the body. It’s like you’re looking through a microscope or something. It’s an incredible feeling about the way that life works. I don’t know how to describe it except that I’m aware of contemplating the origin of things.

There have been recent woes about the possible demise of the NASA space program. Do you have feelings about that?

I remember when Terry and I went to the launch. We were taken behind the scenes at NASA to meet some of the astronauts and talk to them about their experiences. The next morning, we got up really early and saw human beings propelled into space. It was an incredibly powerful experience that was unexpectedly moving. I wasn’t prepared for it. The idea that human knowledge, teamwork and expertise can thrust us into the unknown is a very, very powerful image. I think is it very important that we keep that image with us; however we do it in the future, it needs to be a part of human striving.

You were out here last year to play a piece that was intrinsically part of the Australian landscape, Jon Rose’s Four Fences. Do you see Australia as uniquely placed for these kinds of projects?

In Australia, we have a home in the Asia Pacific region. I’ve always felt that ever since Kronos first came to Australia, and probably even before, that the fact that it takes so long for a group like Kronos to get to Australia, the expansive setting of the country and everything about it leads me to think that the people of Australia can kind of see things in a way that is unique. We get rejuvenated in Australia.

Kronos Quartet performs Sun Rings at the Melbourne Festival October 15-16 and at the Womad Earth Station festival October 21. View event details here.