A dash and two dots. Three dashes. A dash and a dot. A single dot.
In Morse code, those signals spell the word D-O-N-E. That was the short, simple message sent by telegraph to the east and west coasts from Promontory Summit, Utah, on May 10, 1869, after the ceremonial “last spike” of the transcontinental railroad was replaced by an ordinary iron spike.
To composer Zhou Tian, those four letters aren’t just text. “They’re a very excited and musical rhythm,” Zhou said in a phone interview from his home in Michigan.
That rhythm is the repeated motif of the third movement of “Transcend,” an orchestral work Zhou has written to commemorate the transcontinental railroad on its 150th anniversary. The Utah Symphony, one of 13 orchestras in cities along the railroad’s route that commissioned it, will play the work in concert on May 17 and 18 at Abravanel Hall — one of the many events in May marking the sesquicentennial.
Zhou, an associate professor of composition at Michigan State University’s College of Music, said he knew little about the transcontinental railroad before taking on this commission, and he spent a year researching the cross-country project.
“I have never, as a composer, researched so much on a single piece,” Zhou said. “When you’re writing a concerto, most of the time, the composer just sits in a room. This is very different.”
Besides reading up on the railroad, Zhou visited Golden Spike National Historical Monument at Promontory, the site where the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads met. He also visited the Union Pacific Railroad museum in Council Bluffs, Iowa, across the Missouri River from Omaha, and got a full tour from a retired UP worker who was volunteering as a docent.
He also visited with the Utah Symphony in Salt Lake City, to meet some of the musicians who would be performing his work.
At a meet-and-greet with symphony patrons, Zhou said, “I blurted out, ‘If you have any ideas, let me know.’” A few weeks later, Zhou received an email from a fourth grade teacher at Highland Park Elementary, who had asked students to make suggestions.
“Some of them were expected, like ‘Begin slowly and increase tempo like a train,’” Zhou said. Others were more inventive. “One kid said, ‘Use flat melodies to symbolize the plains and the deserts, and jagged melodies for the mountains.’ ... Another kid said, ‘Huge surprising blasts, inspired by dynamite.’” Both of those ideas appear in the first movement, titled “Pulse,” Zhou said.
In the second movement, “Promise,” Zhou evokes the laborers, mainly Chinese and Irish immigrants, who built the railroad.
“These Chinese and Irish, they were almost all men, and they left their family with a promise to go back or somehow reunite with their family here for a better future,” Zhou said.
In that movement, Zhou mixes musical styles of both Chinese and Irish culture, a blending he finds natural as someone who grew up in “The New China” of the 1980s and ‘90s.
“In my neighborhood, there was a KFC, a Starbucks and a Chinese dim sum place. ... I grew up with this mosaic of cultures that is thoroughly different than anyone in China older than me,” Zhou said, adding that his father composed TV and movie scores, so “I grew up with R&B, jazz, symphonic and Chinese music.”
Zhou emigrated to the United States for college, studying music at Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, the Juilliard School in New York, and University of Southern California.
His third movement, “D-O-N-E,” plays on that telegraph-inspired rhythm to evoke the rush to complete the railroad and the rapid progress it brought to the Western United States.
The transcontinental railroad, Zhou said, was the first truly international construction project of the industrial age, with American knowhow put into motion by Chinese and Irish labor. He hopes “Transcend” reflects that global vision.
“In a way, this piece can only be written today, because today you have different influences of different cultures,” Zhou said. “It’s a little sample of the globalized world we live in today.”
‘Transcend’ at Utah Symphony
Zhou Tian’s “Transcend,” an orchestral work commissioned by 13 symphony orchestras, including the Utah Symphony.
Where • Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple, Salt Lake City.
When • Friday, May 17, 7:30 p.m.; and Saturday, May 18, 5:30 p.m.
Program • Besides “Transcend,” the symphony’s program includes two works by Aaron Copland: the suite from the ballet “Billy the Kid” and his Pulitzer-winning “Appalachian Spring.” Also on the program is Violinist James Ehnes, performing Bruch’s Violin Concerto with the symphony. Thierry Fischer conducts.
Tickets • From $15 to $87, at artsaltlake.org.
More music for ‘Spike 150’
Other music events connected to the 150th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad:
• Aspen Winds, a woodwind quintet, will perform a show, “Discovering Heritage,” which includes a new work, “Surmounting Every Barrier,” by the quartet’s bassoonist, Luke Pfeil. Monday, April 29, 7 p.m., Provo Library at Academy Square, 550 N. University Ave., Provo. Free.
• The Waterford School children’s choir will sing songs about the railroad. Wednesday, May 8, noon, Utah State Capitol, 350 N. State St., Salt Lake City. Free.
• In the 2019 Tanner Gift of Music concert, Broadway stars Brian Stokes Mitchell and Megan Hilty will share the stage with The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square and Utah Symphony. Friday, May 10, 8 p.m., Conference Center at Temple Square, 60 W. North Temple. Free, but tickets are required; go to thetabernaclechoir.org to get tickets.
• The Utah Opera will premiere four 10-minute operas it has developed, written by composer-librettist teams who submitted proposals in a competition last summer. Three shows: Monday, May 20, 7:30 p.m., Brigham City Fine Arts Center, 58 S. 100 West, Brigham City; Tuesday, May 21, 7:30 p.m., Browning Auditorium, Ogden Union Station, 2501 Wall Ave., Ogden; and Wednesday, May 22, 7:30 p.m., Gallivan Center, 239 S. Main, Salt Lake City. All three shows are free, but tickets are required; go to utahopera.org/schedule/cultural-festival for tickets.
Coverage of downtown Salt Lake City arts groups is supported by a grant from The Blocks, a cultural initiative of Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County.