Rock music: Colorado’s geologic history, told by a symphony

December 23, 2013
Photo: Geology symphony(Photo: Courtesy of Steve Lowtwait)
This Friday is the 125th anniversary of the Geological Society of America, based in Boulder. To mark the occasion, composer and University of Colorado-Boulder instructor Jeffrey Nytch wrote a symphony based on the geologic history of the region, commissioned by the GSA and the Boulder Philharmonic.
Called, "Formations," its four movements, which can be heard on the GSA's website, reflect the creation of the continental crust; a brief history of humans' interactions with the geology in Colorado; and the revealing of the modern Rocky Mountains.
"It was impossible to do the whole thing; it's a vast history that could be a lifetime worth of symphonies," Nytch tells Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner.
The symphony didn't come together by accident: In school, Nytch studied music and geology, and he sees similarities between the two. "In my music I try to tell a story or have some kind of narrative. And for me, geology's also a narrative, it's just a story that takes place on an entirely different time frame," he says.
The first movement is about the creation of the continental crust, the foundation for everything else that's formed in the region. "These are rocks that were created about 1.8 billion years ago," he says. "Geologists call it the basement rock, and we also lay out the musical foundations in this." 

The movement features a series of explosions followed by a period of slower, quieter music. Nytch says that reflects the period of more than 600 million years after the initial mountain building, for which there is almost no geologic record at all.
The symphony's second movement is about the gold and silver rushes that took place in Colorado in the 19th Century. The sounds of mining are depicted in several ways.
"We have the sound of a fiddle tune that might have been heard in the camps," Nytch says. "We also hear the sound of sledgehammers on metal spikes." For this movement, Nytch created an instrument to mimic the sounds of a miner's pan. He fashioned it out of baking pans from the supermarket. "The percussionists had a great time with that."
The third movement is called "Requiems," which is sort of a meditation on death, and the music slows down. It's an hommage to the plants and microscopic marine creatures that died many years ago and today make up the fossil fuels we use to power our cars. 
The symphony was made possible with funding from Exxon, but Nytch said that had no influence on its content. "It's not that I don't have my own opinions on these issues, but I felt this wasn't the place to raise those," he says. "This piece was celebrating something I was hoping we could all connect with: I want human beings to have a better sense of our relationship to the Earth."
The fourth and final movement is about the modern Rocky Mountains, and it's called "Majesties." Nytch says the mountains were exposed by erosion and glaciers in the last Ice Age. "One of the things you have to remember with mountains is they're formed in part by the uplifting of the terrain, but the actual peaks themselves are erosional features," he says.
Nytch traveled around the state to get inspiration for the piece, and studied the geology to make sure he got the science right. "I learned an awful lot doing this, and it was a lot of fun," he says. 
The Denver Philharmonic plans to perform "Formations" in April, and the Ft. Collins Symphony has it slated for 2015.