12 million years ago, in what is now Nebraska, a prehistoric rhino and her calves drink, without urgency, from a watering hole in the savannah-like grasslands. A thousand or so miles away, in what is now Idaho, a supervolcano eruption sends an enormous plume of ash in the direction of the watering hole. Drifting in like a light snow at first, the volcanic ash, which is actually fine particles of glass, covers much of the grassland, suffocating the pre-historic rhinos, as well as much of the other fauna.
Discovered by Mike Voorhies in the later 20th century, the “Ashfall Fossil Bed” has the best-preserved specimens of many of the species to be found there. Fully articulated skeletons of hundreds of prehistoric animals are found fully intact. Some even have identifiable plant material in the stomach area. Besides being an amazing scientific find, the fossil bed preserves evidence of the tragedy of the event; there are the remains of what must be a rhino calf trying to suckle its mother, even after the mother had expired. It is hard to fathom the terror of finding the air around you turning into powdered glass.
Ashfall was written for the 15th season celebration of the Nebraska Chamber Players. The work makes use of the Chamber Players at their most numerous. 13 players are required for the work: a string quartet plus double bass, a wind quintet, harp, piano, and percussion offer their brutal force, but also their collective tenderness. Three sections are punctuated with interjections by small music boxes playing themes based on material from the piece.
While a study in contrasts, the piece is just as much a study in connectivity. A handful of musical fragments remain present throughout the work in spite of the changes in character. Like the fossils at Ashfall, the fragments are created, buried, and re-exposed, ready to be found by the curious.
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