by Kelsey Haugen
Around 12 million years ago, a superheated plume of magma — otherwise known as a "hot spot" — erupted in Idaho and spread ash over a handful of states, including the grasslands of northeastern Nebraska. Horses and camels, rhinos and giant tortoises were enjoying the cool comfort of mud at a water hole.
As the fine dust fell, these animals and many others inhaled it, severely damaging their lungs. Eventually, they all died of oxygen deprivation, leaving nothing but bones behind.
(reconstruction of Pliohippus the "transitional horse" by artist Marc Marcuson)
Around 12 million years pass, and composer Rusty Banks is asked to create a piece for the Nebraska Chamber Players’ 15th anniversary. He wants to focus on a scientific and historic event, and Banks develops an interest in the Ashfall Fossil Beds of Nebraska. He writes a composition, fittingly titled “Ashfall: Music Unearthed.”
“It has parts that sound like a volcanic explosion,” Banks says. “The opening is very broad, as I’m trying to capture the savanna.”
What develops into a 20-minute classical music project will be performed in Lincoln at 8 p.m. on Friday, April 13, and streamed live worldwide on NET Radio at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, April 15. Both concerts will be held at NET Studios, 1800 N. 33rd St. Tickets are available for purchase here.
“A lot of my work has something to with the sounds of a place or event,” Banks says. “But my music is about curiosity and observing things to interpret them.”
video by Luis Peon-Casanova | graphics by Angel Peon-Casanova
There is no way of knowing exactly how the event took place, or how it sounded, but Banks tried to create the music based on how he imagined it might have happened.
“It’s hard to describe, but it mirrors the way the fossil bed lays, with musical slats that get filled in by other elements,” Banks says.
The collaboration will feature a string quartet, which is supposed to mimic the echoes of bones, and a woodwind quintet, which represents the vast grassland savannas of Nebraska at the time.
Although “Ashfall: Music Unearthed” was made to represent something ancient, Banks says listeners don’t need to know about Ashfall in order to enjoy the project.
“The piece stands on its own without knowing the history,” Banks says.
Marking an anniversary
The Nebraska Chamber Players have done four collaborations with Banks over the past 10 years, giving them due cause to bring him back for the group’s anniversary.
Becky Van de Bogart, a flautist and one of the founding members of the Nebraska Chamber Players, has been the group's artistic director since it was established 15 years ago.
“We enjoy working with (Banks) and being part of a process of bringing a new piece of music to life,” Van de Bogart says. “We like the sound of the music he writes — it’s intriguing to us.”
When the Nebraska Chamber Players perform, there are usually only six members participating, but for the “Ashfall: Music Unearthed” concert, all 13 members will be playing.
“Getting the whole group together is special because it doesn’t happen often since it’s difficult and expensive,” Van de Bogart says. “We’re having a great deal of fun being together all at once.”
Recording the piece
The Nebraska Chamber Players plan to work with Banks to record “Ashfall: Music Unearthed,” along with three former collaborations, on a CD to be released in December 2012. Whether or not they do depends on donations via a Kickstarter project.
“We’re getting a lot of backers from out of state and so far, we’re on target,” Banks says.
Even if the studio recording doesn’t happen, Banks and Van de Bogart say listeners are sure to appreciate this weekend’s concert.
“There are so many angles to it that people will enjoy,” Banks said. “If you’re interested in chamber music, this is one of the biggest things that will happen in Lincoln this year.”
Note: No concertgoers will be harmed in the performance of this volcanic ashfall.
Kelsey Haugen is an intern at Hear Nebraska. She has never heard a musical piece based on an ancient event in Nebraska, but then again, this could be the only one. Reach her at email@example.com.