The Oberlin Review
<< Front page Arts March 3, 2006

Choir Collaborates with Kronos Quartet in Cleveland

Terry Riley’s recent piece “Sun Rings” was performed by the Oberlin College Choir with the critically acclaimed Kronos Quartet last Saturday at the Masonic and Performing Arts Center in Cleveland. The extent of the honor is best left to the performers’ own words.

“I got to be on stage with a group of musicians who are leaders in the field of contemporary musical performance and perform a piece composed by one of the great contemporary composers of the last fifty years. It was the opportunity of a lifetime,” said sophomore Ryan Squire.

Terry Riley, one of the figureheads of the minimalist school of composition, wrote “Sun Rings” between 2001 and 2002. The piece was commissioned by NASA and incorporates sounds and images recorded in outer space in addition to the string quartet and choir. The piece is divided into ten continuous movements, or “spacescapes” as Riley calls them, and spans an hour and a half.

Hugh Floyd, the choir’s conductor, explained the piece’s significance.

“The theme of the piece is eternity, because that’s the concept of space – that boundlessness. I think in the piece Riley captures that expanse by the continuous movements and the sense of no hurry in developing things. It’s all very slow.”

For some, the piece was a bit too slow. Several audience members did not have the patience to let the music unfold at Riley’s pace and walked out in the middle.

Although the choir only sang for two movements, they played an important role. In one of the movements, “Prayer Central,” they sang a text by Riley that resembled snippets from countless different prayers strung together.

“We had to understand that we were representing the whole world talking to the universe, and so each of us represented about a million people. That really means something,” said sophomore Courtney Merrell.

The choir only had two rehearsals with the quartet, but the groups worked closely together, with the quartet showing just as much respect for the choir’s artistry as the other way around.

“The quartet thought the choir had good vibes, and I believe that was because we were working in a collaborative way with them, like a string quartet works,” said Floyd.

For him, the collaboration was especially important. He was approaching the piece for the first time, while Kronos had played it many times before. Also, he had to conduct to a click track to be in sync with the recorded sound and the video. It would seem that these limitations would leave little room for him and the choir to bring their own sensibilities to the piece, but that was not the case.

“The color of the choir and the shapes of the phrases within the parameters of the click track and the balances of the different voices were things I could bring to the music. And the effect of the choir – how we would approach certain aspects of the words or text or phrases,” Floyd said.

The most troublesome aspect of the piece was the video, which was put together by Willie Williams. In addition to the footage from space, images of spinning gyroscopes, mathematical equations and, at the end, people, were prominent. At times, particularly during the sequences of rapidly flashing equations, the video seemed to distract from the music, though it added an important dimension.

“The music by itself sends you in a place of calmness and meditation and quietness. The visuals in my mind added more anxiety and complication to the piece than was in the music,” Floyd said.

In his mind, blending different art forms is an important trend that needs further exploration.

“Sun Rings” made for a successful evening. The Kronos Quartet and the College Choir performed excellently, providing for most people a satisfying musical and visual experience that was thought-provoking and, at times, intensely moving.


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