Thomas A. Blomster, the conductor of the Colorado Chamber Orchestra, has been exploring other cultures' music for decades. The composer and percussionist says seeing Mexican street bands and African dance groups inspired his fascination with world music, an interest that grew as he studied performance and composition at the University of Colorado Boulder.
But it wasn't until attending a Mongolian art exhibit here in Denver, where he now lives, that he became interested in the Asian country's music. He remembers watching a World War I-era, black-and-white film of what he assumes was the annual Naadam festival, replete with archery, wrestling and horse-riding. What fascinated him, though, were the shots of the orchestras playing, and the closeups of Mongolian percussion.
"I must have stood there and watched that film loop twenty times," he says with a chuckle. Since the film was so old, it had no audio, and Blomster started researching what those drums and cymbals sounded like.
Blomster found a pair of these cymbals for sale at a Colorado Springs shop. From there, his fascination with Mongolian music continued, and one night he friended the Facebook pages of Mongolian orchestras. Soon he was a guide for Erdene-oyun Burgedee, a member of the Mongolian State Philharmonic Orchestra, when she came to Denver; that led to an offer for him to write a composition for the Mongolian Morin Khuur Ensemble in Ulaanbaatar.
This has made Blomster the first Westerner to have a composition played by the ensemble, which is a part of the Mongolian Philharmonic. His piece, called "Postcards to Mongolia," is his love letter to the country. The title of the piece is a sly joke Blomster makes with himself, acknowledging he hasn't actually visited Mongolia yet.
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"The next one will be called 'Postcards FROM Mongolia,'" he jokes.
Blomster's compositions were inspired by what he's seen of Mongolia in pictures: "In the piece, I try to express how those landscapes affected me [...] their vastness overwhelmed me."
The traditional morin khuur is "kind of the national instrument," Blomster explains. The name translates to "fiddle with horse's head." It's similar to a cello, but with only two strings. The instrument symbolizes peace and happiness in Mongolian culture, and because of this, there is one present in many Mongolian households. Mongolian Gobi farmers even use the instrument to help calm their camels after the animals give birth.
Blomster composed four sections for morin khuur for the ensemble and also wrote for other traditional Mongolian instruments such as the ever buree, and some European instruments.
This Saturday, the percussionist will be traveling to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, to see the country that has inspired his music. He will have a few days to sightsee as he prepares to have his piece played at this year's Naadam festival on July 11.
When asked about his hopes and expectations for the trip, Blomster humbly replies, "I'm really just trying to go there without expectations and soak it up and just see what happens."