Back in June, Denver-based composer/percussionist Thomas Blomster excitedly told me about his upcoming trip to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, where a piece of his would be performed by the Morin Khuur Ensemble, a traditional Mongolian folk orchestra that is part of the Mongolian Philharmonic. Two months later, he's returned from a trip abroad that was even more successful than he could have imagined.
Blomster, who is the conductor of the Colorado Chamber Orchestra, was offered the opportunity of having a composition of his performed by the ensemble when he served as a guide for a member of the Philharmonic when she visited Denver. Out of this offer was born the composition "Postcards to Mongolia," a love letter from Blomster to a country he'd yet to visit, despite having an affinity for its music.
The ensemble's namesake, the Morin Khuur, is a traditional Mongolian instrument that has served as the nation's unofficial national symbol for years; in the olden days, as Blomster puts it, "Every nomad had one hanging in their yurt." The instrument's name translates roughly to "horse head fiddle," as it is a stringed instrument that is commonly decorated with a carving of a horse on its headstock.
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"Postcards to Mongolia" was performed in grand fashion; it was nationally broadcasted as part of Mongolia's 2,226th Naadam festival, an annual Olympics of sorts that features competitions in archery, horse riding and wrestling. The performance marked the first occasion in which a foreigner had composed for the Morin Khuur Ensemble, earning Blomster an honorary membership in the ensemble and a place for his piece in Mongolia's national archives. For Blomster, though, working with the ensemble would have reward enough for his efforts: "They were certainly one of the best groups of musicians I’ve ever worked with...or even heard.”
The excellent musicianship of the Morin Khuur Ensemble was no surprise to Blomster, though the Coloradan was surprised by their rehearsal style: "Rehearsals were very loose and unorganized," Blomster said while remarking on the preparation for his performance. "There weren't really set rehearsal times.... people would come whenever they wanted, and they would stay until they were finished." These rehearsals were usually followed by a potluck-style dinner that was equally odd to Blomster because of the amount of meat that was served. "Mongolia is not a place for non-meat eaters," he remarks humorously.
In addition to their style of rehearsal, the composer also noticed interesting differences in the musical background of the Mongolians. For example, Blomster described his ensemble's intonation as "unusually good," and noted that the musicians would tune throughout a performance. The Morin Khuur Ensemble was also "unfazed" by the mixed meter sections in the piece, but according to Blomster, the polyrhythms in "Postcards to Mongolia" made one of the ensemble's section leaders say, "I've never seen shit like that before!"
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The musical differences of the ensemble were representative of a larger culture shock that Blomster experienced on his trip. "That was the biggest thing that I hadn't really prepared for," he said of the cultural differences he encountered. "There were some things about it that were distinctly Third World." He remembers his first day in the country, when Ulaanbaatar was nearly empty because of tension and fear of rioting over Mongolia's first run-off election. Despite these tensions, however, Blomster left with a strong admiration for Mongolia and its people: "I think their spirit is going to prevail, because their sense of national pride is the most I’ve ever seen.”
Ultimately, Blomster's trip to Mongolia proved to be of monumental importance, both personally and professionally. "It woke up a lot of things in me...and it was a capstone for my career," the composer said matter-of-factly. "I got my fifteen minutes of fame, and, yeah, it was in Mongolia, but it was enough."
Watch the entire performance of Thomas Blomster's "Postcards to Mongolia" below.