Photo by Jay Blakesberg
In Santa Monica there was In C, Terry Riley’s first great work, now approaching 40. In Costa Mesa there was Sun Rings, Riley’s latest great work, in its first local hearing. The music of the years between these two strange and wondrous masterpieces forms a body of creativity like nothing else on Earth: irritating at times and self-indulgent beyond redemption but often lit with a visionary’s authentic ecstasy. Were our pathways not already illuminated by the presence of this smiling, soft-spoken, supernally wise gnome, he would be impossible to invent.
In C has always been a piece apart, an ingenious trick to test a hearer’s perception, a whimsical spinning of substance out of nothingness. That’s all very well, but the performance earlier this month at Santa Monica’s First Presbyterian Church — the first event in a nicely concocted new chamber-music series called “Jacaranda” — struck me as being about more than mere tricks. It seemed to me as if the work has now settled into the repertory as a milestone in the onrush of music over the past several decades. The 45-minute performance in Santa Monica — nine players, led by Mark Hilt on the church’s excellent small organ — was spirited and forward-moving, but it was the work itself that provided the evening’s luster: the right music in the right place at the right time. The next Jacaranda concert, all-Schubert, is scheduled for November 8.
It won’t take 40 years for Sun Rings — given in Segerstrom Hall as the high point of this year’s Eclectic Orange festival — to prove itself a masterpiece; it already is. The work’s fame has preceded it here, most of all in Mark Swed’s admiring report in the Times last November. Its foundation is in the researches of Dr. Don Gurnett of the University of Iowa, who has devised a way of recording the tweets and bongs produced around certain planetary bodies by the movements of gases, as caught by Gurnett’s plasma-wave recorders mounted on Voyager spacecraft. Two propositions emerged as consequences to this repertory of celestial noises captured in Dr. Gurnett’s gadgetry: that Terry Riley was the inevitable earthling to transmute these sounds into a musical design and that the Kronos Quartet was the inevitable agency to transmute that design into performance art.
The result is, indeed, art of high quality. The space sounds dance around the stage, mirrored in classy projections of planetary stuff and laboratory formulas. The Kronos sits in a galaxy of its own, downstage, surrounded by small lights on metal rods, and by a few other rods that function like the receptors on a theremin. The tech sounds are amplified at times, and, of course, processed so that tweet occasionally turns into boom and vice versa. Best of all, they are sparingly used; not for Terry Riley the exuberant balderdash of Alan Hovhaness and the mating moans of humpback whales. Riley’s own music, from the Kronos live and from more kinds of synthesizer than I could ever list, is many kinds of gorgeous — the enchanted tripping of his folk-dance stuff (as in his Harp of New Albion) and a melodic manner rich, lyrical and breath-stopping that I haven’t heard before. In two of the 10 movements a chorus enters, softly and tenderly. You fear for a moment or two the intrusion of Gustav Holst and his gooey Planets stuff, and just between us, those movements might be spared.
So much, however, is good. I’ve been writing about Sun Rings in the present tense, because it stands to reason that the work is meant for further touring and, eventually, for DVD. The crowd at Segerstrom was fair-sized, expanded by several school groups, mostly middle school. I’d give anything to have heard the reports in classrooms the next morning.
Three Tales, with music by Steve Reich and video by his wife, Beryl Korot, is all the proof you need of the value of DVD as one of the most enlightened phenomena of this age. The “tales” themselves are actually three glosses on era-defining events: the explosion of the Zeppelin Hindenburg in New Jersey in 1937, the atomic tests at Bikini Island just after WWII and the cloning of the sheep Dolly in 1997. Originally there was a plan to blend the Hindenburg into footage of the real General Hindenburg, who had led Germany into the hands of Adolf Hitler in 1933; that episode was dropped, but is included in the outtakes on the video. Count on this new DVD technology to preserve what was, and what might have been, in equally brimming measure. (Three Tales had been scheduled for performance at Royce Hall this season, but was canceled when it was found that the hall was inadequately wired for its demands.)
Strange as the mix of “tales” may sound, the work comes across as the bearer of disturbing, extraordinarily powerful information. What makes it so, above all, is the interaction of sight and sound, the way Korot’s repetitive pounding of video images exactly mirrors the obsessive voices in Reich’s music. You cannot easily come away from that moment in the Hindenburg section, for example, when the manic reruns of the sight of the explosion are intercut with the sound of CBS’s on-the-scene announcer Herb Morrison’s hysterical repeats of the word flame. Nor from the agonizing scenes where Uncle Sam’s diplomatic envoy explains to a gathering of Bikini residents, several times repeated, why they must give up their island to the American atomic testers for the salvation of mankind. Nor from the gathering of scientists (including, no less, Stephen Jay Gould and “virtual reality” inventor Jaron Lanier) dealing with where the world might go past the barrier of animal and human cloning.
Where the world might go — past the marvelous joining of words and music, audible and visual composition — is the further prospect raised by this remarkably brainy creation of the Reichs, and the capturing of it onto a tiny piece of shiny plastic. Brave new world, indeed!