Although an unlikely pairing, music and space have frequently gone hand in hand. Since 1977, a ‘Golden Record’ has been drifting into deep space; an audible message in a bottle, filled with classical music and voice recordings, waiting for some other intelligent life to hear it. This record was sent out on the Voyager space mission, so it was only fitting that on the 25th anniversary of the mission, that NASA look to music to mark the occasion. 

In 2002, NASA reached out to the San Francisco-based Kronos String Quartet to inquire as to whether they’d be interested in incorporating sounds from space into a new piece of music. The Kronos Quartet was a perfect choice for a one-of-a-kind work, since the group itself is somewhat legendary.

Founded in 1973, the quartet has had a rotating membership of players (although three of four performers have been together for over forty years), and has released over sixty studio albums, selling more than 1.5 million records worldwide and resulting in two Grammy awards. Their repertoire consists of over 1,000 works, which includes over 400 string quartets that have been written specifically for the group. They have performed worldwide, amassing over 3,000 separate performance appearances, and show no signs of slowing down. More recently, the group has acquired critical acclaim for developing the Under 30 Project, which commissions works from young composers and is now run in cooperation with some of North America’s most acclaimed music institutions, including Carnegie Hall and Cal Performances at the University of California, Berkeley. The quartet also performed the entire soundtrack for the 2000 film, Requiem for a Dream.

When approached by NASA to create a piece of music for quartet alongside sounds from space, the Kronos Quartet tapped longtime collaborator Terry Riley. The space sounds utilized came from a plasma wave instrument, which sensed waves of electrons in the ionized gas (or plasma) that spacecraft traveled through. This data was then converted into audible sounds. Fittingly enough, the original sounds captured were from the Voyager mission, creating yet another connection between music and the 1977 mission. The end result is a ten-movement suite that features not just sounds from the Voyager mission, but other spacecraft as well.

In addition to the quartet, the piece also calls for a choir (the McMaster University and Women’s Choirs at the November performance). Not content to remain just an aural work, Sun Rings also contains a dramatic visual design by Willie Williams, who utilized NASA’s iconic image gallery as a source of inspiration to design a multimedia element to be performed as part of the live performance. An artist in his own right, Williams is best known for his design of U2 tours from 1982 onwards, as well as work with legendary artists including David Bowie, REM and George Michael.

Since its premiere at the University of Iowa in 2002, Sun Rings has been performed on over fifty occasions, and is being brought to Hamilton courtesy of The Socrates Project at McMaster University. With a unique concept and incredible performers, it is cliché but true that it is likely Hamilton audiences have never heard anything like this before and may never again.

Who: Kronos Quartet, Presented by The Socrates Project
What: Sun Rings
Where: Concert Hall, McMaster University (Main Floor, L.R. Wilson Hall, 1280 Main Street West)
When: November 9 at 8pm, November 10 at 2pm
Tickets: $15 General Admission; $5 Students
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