For 35 years, the Kronos Quartet (violinists David Harrington and John Sherba; violist Hank Dutt; and cellist Jeffrey Zeigler) have been in the forefront in performing cutting-edge chamber music. And quite frankly, no one does it better than the foursome from San Francisco. Contemporary music is in their blood — they live it and breathe it. New music becomes a vibrant force in their hands.
Musically superb and technically stunning, the Kronos makes whatever they play look easy. That's because it comes naturally to them. Playing new music is second nature to them.
After an overly long absence from Salt Lake City, the Kronos finally returned to Kingsbury Hall Thursday evening bringing with them one of long time collaborator Terry Riley's works, "Sun Rings."
Riley, who is credited with conceiving minimalism, has come quite a long way from his seminal minimalist work "In C." However, while he today finds influences from many different sources, minimalism is still central to his music. And among the group of composers who are his stylistic brethren, Riley is still the best.
In the 10-movement "Sun Rings," Riley incorporates different stylistic elements, ranging from minimalism, to jazz and Eastern traditions. Everything is wonderfully interwoven in a musical language that at times is as hypnotic as John Tavener's mystical creations. Yet there is no slavish imitation in Riley's music — it is uniquely his own.
The core of "Sun Rings" is recorded space sounds, which Riley uses almost as a pedal point to the music the Kronos plays. Added to the cosmic sounds are recorded percussion and spoken words, visual imagery projected on a giant screen behind the players, lights and a chorus in some of the movements (performed by the University of Utah Singers under Brady Allred's direction).
The effect is theatrical but never contrived. It is a very organic work in which each element plays an integral part of the whole. As with so much of Riley's music, especially his later works, when one listens to it, one can no longer speak of a concert experience. Instead, it is an event, a happening — and all very carefully created and presented.
At 90 minutes, "Sun Rings" is a lengthy work. But experiencing it, one feels as if time has stood still. The music is intense and potent, to be sure — there is a lot contained within that time frame — yet one never feels overwhelmed.
Riley's intention with the piece is to allow the listener to become aware of the vastness of the universe and be able to contemplate his place in the cosmos. "Sun Ring" certainly does have that effect. One is emotionally overawed by the infinite mysteries of the universe. And what makes it even more compelling is that Riley has been able to translate these emotions into music. That, somehow — incredibly — makes it seem more tangible.