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Symphony No. 1: Formations

My first symphony, "Formations," was commissioned by the Geological Society of America for their 125th Anniversary in 2013. The work depicts the geologic processes that created the Rocky Mountains, starting with the initial foundation of the North American continent nearly 2 billion years ago, and culminating in the carving out of the modern Rockies during the last Ice Age. "Formations" also explores the relationship between human beings and the earth they inhabit, including the boom and bust of the gold and silver rushes in the 19th century and contemplating the origin of the fossil fuels drive our our modern society. This page collects the recording of the World Premiere with a sampling of the video blogs I created for the piece, a list of performances to-date, and an assortment of the international press the piece received. If you're interested in performing the piece, please visit the Contact page. Thanks for visiting...and enjoy!




Instrumentation: 3-3-3-3/4-3-3-1/timp/3-perc/harp/strings

Duration: approximately 32 minutes

World Premiere, Sept. 8, 2013

Boulder Philharmonic

Michael Butterman, Music Director

Mvt. 1: Orogenies
Mvt. 2: Rush!
Mvt. 3: Requiems
Mvt. 4: Majesties


One of the interesting things about the geology of the Rocky Mountains is how musical the history is: rocks that are formed at the very beginning continually reappear, just as musical themes do in a composition; components of those rocks – motives, if you will – are modified, varied, and transformed over the course of the work; patterns and repetition are at the core of our geologic history, just as they are at the core of most Western music.

This allowed me to form four guiding principles that helped me shape this symphony: 1) I was not going to attempt a complete telling of the geologic history of the Rocky Mountains – such an undertaking would require many symphonies! 2) I would find musical ways to express geologic processes so that the symphony would not just be a reflection of the landscape but of the processes that formed that landscape. 3) When one views a modern feature such as a mountain, one sees the many different events that have shaped that feature in the aggregate. This compression of perception, and of time, gave me the freedom to superimpose or rearrange geologic events according to the best musical outcome, even if it took geologic events out of the order in which they occurred. 4) There would be some portion of the work that would explore the relationship between humans and the geology that has such enormous influence on our lives and history.

Of course, it’s every composer’s desire that the music work on its own terms, without the benefit of any outside narrative. This is precisely what I found to be so satisfying about writing this symphony: while developing the connecting points between geologic principles and musical ones I was not forced to compromise either: the music was already in the geology, making it easy to bring the geology into the music.

Each movement explores a different episode in the geologic story of the Rocky Mountains:

Mvt. 1: Orogenies - Dark, primal

The first movement describes the Precambrian formation of the crust that would eventually form the majority of western North America. I thought of this as the laying of both geological foundations and musical ones, so that just as the Precambrian basement keeps appearing throughout the region’s geologic history, so do the motives and harmonies presented in this movement play out over the course of the symphony. The three climaxes correspond to three major orogenies – mountain-building events – while a suddenly calm coda represents the Great Unconformity, a period lasting nearly 700 million years and during which we have no geologic record whatsoever.

Click Here for a VIDEO BLOG for Orogenies

Mvt. 2: Rush! Scampering; becoming progressively more manic

This movement depicts the gold and silver rushes of the 19th century. We hear a rustic fiddle tune such as what one might have heard in a mining camp, but the tune keeps going awry and fizzling out – just as each rush failed to fulfill its promise and lost its momentum (sometimes very quickly!). A middle section superimposes the sounds of miners panning for gold with the sounds of that gold forming: the hiss of hydrothermal veins and the thundering of the Cripple Creek Diatreme, a type of explosive volcano that erupts with tremendous force. This geologic event is in turn interrupted by a human one: the labor strife between miners and mine owners, accompanied by the sounds of gun shots that brought the rush era – and bring this movement – to a crushing conclusion.

Click Here for a VIDEO BLOG for Rush!

Mvt. 3: Requiems - Larghetto

The third movement evokes the Cretaceous Seaway of North America and the huge amounts of organic material accumulated there to create coal, oil, and natural gas. As I contemplated this chapter in geologic history, I was struck by two things. The first was the realization that the fuels that make our modern society possible are derived from the remains of plants and animals – creatures that were previously alive, and whose death provided the material for the very thing our modern world depends on. I found this thought worthy of contemplation, and it inspired the title Requiems as well as the bulk of the music for this movement. The more animated music towards the end of the movement provides a contrast to the dark world of buried organic sediment: a sunny evocation of what must have been a tranquil and beautiful region, with warm lagoons and rich, tropical forests. Marine reptiles such as plesiosaurs arched gracefully in clear, tropical waters, while pterosaurs and early bird species soared through the air.

Click Here for a VIDEO BLOG for Requiems

Mvt. 4: Majesties - Dark, unsettled; Furiously churning; Gradually building momentum; Jubilant

The final movement depicts the long and complex history behind the modern Rocky Mountains. First we hear a brooding tuba solo dissolve into a slow, climbing chorale for brass: the steady uplift of the Laramide Orogeny, approx. 65 million years ago. But this uplift didn’t result in the mountains we see today. In fact, those highlands were buried by their own debris and that of an extended period volcanic activity that showered thousands of meters of ash, lava, and pyroclastic flows upon the region. It was not until about 5 million years ago that either climate change, renewed uplift, or some combination of the two caused sudden and rapid erosion of the Laramide highlands – carving out the majestic mountains we see today. As the erosion picks up pace, we hear snippets of motives from the entire symphony culminating in a grand chorale of joyous celebration for the magnificent region we know today as the Rocky Mountains. This movement also seeks to address the tension between human beings and our planet: while that tension is by no means resolved today, the triumphant vision of this finale perhaps can give us a glimpse of a future marked by harmonious coexistence.

Click Here for a VIDEO BLOG for Majesties


"Composer of Deep Time," Nature
Fall, 2013


World Premiere - Boulder Philharmonic - Sept. 7 & 9, 2013

Boulder, Colorado

Michael Butterman, Music Director

Geologic Society of America - Boulder Philharmonic - Oct. 29, 2013

History Boulder Museum, Denver, Colorado

Michael Butterman, Music Director

Denver Philharmonic - April 4, 2014

Denver, Colorado

Lawrence Golan, Music Director

Midland-Odessa Symphony - Nov. 8, 2014

Midland, Texas

Gary Lewis, Music Director

Michigan State University Orchestra - Oct. 30, 2016

Lansing, Michigan

Kevin Noe, Music Director

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