Michael Udow’s Ancient Echoes on Saturday’s program with Stravinsky and Brahms
By Peter Alexander April 21 at 7:10 p.m.
It’s not often that an orchestra premieres a piece with roots that go back 6,000 years.
Saturday (April 23) the Longmont Symphony and conductor Elliot Moore will do just that when they give the first performance of Ancient Echoes, a score by percussionist/composer and Longmont resident Michael Udow (see concert details below; tickets are available here).
Udow’s concerto for multiple percussion instruments will feature soloist Anthony Di Sanza playing instruments including one designed by Udow, based on ancient artifacts from Colorado that date back thousands of years. As part of the same piece, Di Sanza will play a variety of instruments from cultures around the world, including Indonesia, Japan and Korea. The concert program also includes Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite and Brahms’s Symphony No. 1.
Udow’s piece has a long backstory—although not quite 6,000 years. In fact it started around 2000, when archaeologist Marilyn Mortorano was doing consulting work at Great Sand Dunes National Park. The museum at the park has a number of ground stone artifacts, shaped roughly like baguettes, up to a two feet long, in their collection.
They had been found at archaeological sites throughout the park, including one that was standing up in the sand, and other sites in the San Luis Valley. In fact, Mortorano says, “Almost all the collectors (in the area) had them and they didn’t know what they were, and we didn’t either.”
They were carefully worked, but way too heavy to be used as grinding tools like the mano and metate sets found throughout the Southwest. But “somebody spent a lot of time making them,” Mortorano says. “It bothered me because I thought, why do we not know what these are?”
Then in 2013 she ran across a YouTube video from the Musée de l’Homme (Museum of man) in Paris, which had similar artifacts that French soldiers had brought back from Africa. At the time she had several of the Colorado stones for research purposes, so she was surprised when she learned that the stones in Paris produced a musical sound when tapped. (You can see and hear them here; narration in French.)
In fact a set of them was used for Paleomusique, written by French composer Philippe Fenelon. Those stones were used for a single series of performances in 2014, and then packed away for storage, never to be played again.
“I thought this is crazy,” Mortorano says, “but I’ll see if (the stones from Colorado) could be musical. My younger daughter is a percussionist, so she had a basket of mallets. I couldn’t believe it—they rang like bells!”
When Mortorano returned the stones to the museum at Great Sand Dunes the next day, she showed her discovery to Fred Bunch, the chief of resources. He was startled, and promised to support any further research that Mortorano could pursue with the stones.
“We don’t know how these were used, because we don’t know the whole context,” Mortorano says. “But we know now from studying lithophones (musical instruments made of rocks), they’re all over the world. They’re in Africa, they’re in Asia, they’re in South America, they’re even in Hawaii.”
In the meantime, Mortorano had talked to Colorado Public Radio’s Ryan Warner several years earlier, before she realized that the stones could be lithophones, who told her to let him know if she figured out what they were used for. She contacted him again after discovering their musical qualities and he did a new interview that was picked up by National Public Radio and noted on other national media.
And this is where Udow enters the story. When he heard about Mortorano’s research and the Colorado stones, he wanted to see and hear them. When he contacted Mortorano, he discovered that she only lived about two blocks from his home in Longmont. He went over for a visit.
“Marilyn and (her husband) Sal had them set up beautifully on a long table with a hemp chord set at the nodes so they get maximum vibration,” Udow says. “I played them and I went home and thought, this is really important. It shows the musical side of the creative human spirit from 6,000 years ago, and wouldn’t it be interesting to compose a work!”
The Longmont Symphony had previously played two pieces by Udow, so his next step was to contact LSO director Elliot Moore and propose a new piece for orchestra using the stones. When he met Mortorano and heard the stones, Moore became interested in the project, and eventually got a commitment from the LSO board to support a new piece from Udow.
“What I really have the privilege of getting to do is putting this all together,” Moore says. “You can have the idea to write a piece of music and you can find these ancient stones, but until there’s an orchestra willing to premiere this, it’s theoretical. I feel lucky that when I presented it to the Longmont Symphony, everybody said, ‘Let’s do it!’”
Udow realized that the more or less random collection of stones that had been found was not really suitable for a piece all by themselves. He decided he needed to create a new instrument that as well as possible duplicated the nature and sound of the ancient ground stones: a modern lithophone that was tuned to play with a modern orchestra.
This turned out to be a lengthy process, but one that paid off in the end. He visited granite quarries in Colorado, but none of them had stone that resonated well enough to be used in a musical instrument. He discovered that the best stone was absolute black granite from India, which fortunately he could get from Colorado manufacturers of granite countertops.
He ended up purchasing two slabs of black granite, only one of which had good acoustical qualities. He was able to have that one cut into bars of varying length, which could be tuned by delicately cutting and grinding the stone, using a circular saw with a diamond blade.
In the end Udow estimates he spent about $5000 of his own money for the granite, the shop time to produce the bars, the frame that holds them and special cases to protect the bars. But he ended up with a playable instrtrument.
The completed score is virtually a concerto for multi percussion with orchestra. Udow’s lithophone will be featured, along with a number of other instruments: a marimba, a vibraphone, gongs from Korea, drums from Japan, a bamboo rattle from Java and German cowbells. For the one performance Saturday, the soloist will also briefly play four of the original ancient stones before they are returned to their museum collection.
Udow decided to use instruments from other cultures because in his travels as a percussionist, he had played instruments all over the world and he wanted to capture not only the timelessness of the original stones, but the universal quality of music.
That also inspired Moore. “One of the main things that have kept me going is remembering that we’re bringing these things to life,” he says. “A fundamental human characteristic that we all share is, we love music. That’s been one of the great things about this whole process.”
The soloist for the performance, Anthony Di Sanza, is a former student of Udow who currently teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In fact, he will bring instruments that used to be Udow’s with him to fill out the solo percussion array.
One issue that Di Sanza will have to deal with is the width of the bars on Udow’s new lithophone. It turns out that the bars have never been standardized by percussion makers. “Michael sent me all of the dimensions of the instrument, including the overall length and height, and also the bar width,” Di Sanza says. “The bar width (of other instruments) can vary to small increments or great increments, so we get used to making that adjustment.”
Di Sanza has had at least some of the music since last summer. Talking by phone from his home last week, he reported “I am at the stage now where I’m playing through the piece, listening to the midi (digital recording). That’s really fun because there are three-and-a half different physical setups on the stage. I start at one place, move to a different place for another part, come back for a different part, move to a third setup.
“A particularly challenging thing is as you move from one place to the next, knowing here’s where I’m going next! So that’s really fun, and fairly common with multiple percussion in the western classical tradition. And we thought a lot about how the instruments are grouped, to make sure the audience could see into the setups, and see what’s happening.”
Moore selected the rest of the program to go with Udow’s piece, with some very specific reasons for both the Stravinsky and the Brahms. “I thought that Stravinsky’s Firebird, with the idea of the rising phoenix, was something that could work well with this concerto,” he says. “It was the idea of matching Michael’s piece with the Stravinsky where I thought we had a winning program.
“And the other thing (is), I haven’t done a Brahms symphony (in Longmont). We have a wonderful cellist that retired pre-pandemic, Carmen Olguin, and as she was walking offstage with me for the retirement, she said, ‘Elliot, if you ever program a Brahms symphony, would you let me come back and play it?’ And I said ‘Sure.’
“I’ve always had in my mind this woman who wanted to play a Brahms symphony so bad, and I never programmed one, and I thought this was a good time to do it. So she joined us again, for her first rehearsal in probably three years.”
Brahms’s First Symphony is very standard orchestral repertoire, but Moore says the audience will hear some new things Saturday. “We are looking at this with fresh eyes and fresh ears, and I think it’s going to feel fresh. We’re taking a direction that is little bit leaner and a little bit closer to what the score indicates, not über Romantic.”
“People are going to be interested to hear it if for no other reason, that reason.”
In case you wonder about the new instrument, Di Sanza will take it back to Wisconsin, and eventually take it to a percussion museum in Indianapolis where he and others can use it for performances. Udow also hopes that some day, someone else might want to write music for it.
“That would be a hope of mine, to share it,” he says.
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“Soundings: Past and Present”
Longmont Symphony Orchestra, Elliot Moore, conductor
With Anthony Di Sanza, percussion
- Michael Udow: Ancient Echoes (World Premiere)
- Stravinsky: Firebird Suite (1919 version)
- Brahms: Symphony No. 1 in C major
7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 23
Vance Brand Civic Auditorium, Longmont
NOTE: Effective immediately and until further notice, the Longmont Symphony no longer requires patrons to show proof of COVID vaccination, and masks will remain optional. This decision has been made with guidance from local, state, and federal officials.