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The Musical Sounds of Space

Kronos Quartet perform "Earth/Jupiter Kiss" at the October 2002 premier of <i>Sun Rings</i> at the University of Iowa.
Kronos Quartet perform "Earth/Jupiter Kiss" at the October 2002 premier of Sun Rings at the University of Iowa.

In space, one cannot hear sounds. But a new musical work -- commissioned by NASA -- is based on radio waves gathered from the far reaches of the solar system.

For Morning Edition, Gayane Torosyan of member station WSUI reports on Sun Rings, composed by Terry Riley and performed by the Kronos Quartet. The work includes sounds collected over 40 years by University of Iowa physicist Don Gurnett.

Working with NASA, Gurnett has used various spacecraft including the Voyagers, Galileo, and Cassini to capture those signals, transmit them to Earth, and convert them into sound in his lab. "We've flown spacecraft by almost every planet in the solar system, especially the outer planets -- Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune," Gurnett says.

When a bolt of lightning hits the Earth, it generates a ray of electrons that can be picked up as a radio wave and sounds like a whistle. A similar sound was picked up when a Voyager mission passed by Jupiter, providing the first evidence that Jupiter has lightning, Gurnett says.

The sounds Gurnett collected from space led NASA officials to contact the Kronos Quartet. The officials thought that the high-profile chamber ensemble might be able to use these sounds in a piece of music that could bring attention to NASA's research efforts. The quartet's first violinist, David Harrington, said he immediately thought of composer Terry Riley, who has written over a dozen works for the Kronos.

In the early 1960s, Riley began experimenting with found sounds, tape loops and electronic manipulations of music. He is best known for his work, In C, which helped introduce "minimalism" to a wide audience.

Riley closely listened to a tape Gurnett sent him, searching for hidden melodies in the hisses and whistles. He was particularly taken with "Dawn Chorus," Gurnett's name for the sounds gathered around Jupiter. With that piece and others in Sun Rings, Riley used his own technique of looping to create a rhythm.

Gurnett says he was fascinated by the way the composer used his sounds. Some of them were familiar to Gurnett, like the "whistlers." But others, where Riley's interpretation was "extremely different," were more difficult for Gurnett to recognize. "But overall, I enjoyed it immensely."

Riley says this collaboration with the scientist opens up a deeper space, both for him, and, he hopes, the audience. "To me, it's quite miraculous when you imagine that, for instance, some of the sounds we're using are from Uranus.Who could ever imagine that you could send a recorder to Uranus, record those sounds, and send them back to Earth, and it can actually appear in a concert hall as part of a piece?"

Sun Rings is scheduled to be performed tonight at Houston's Wortham Center. Future performances are due in London and San Francisco.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.