By Madeleine Ahlborn |

IN October of 2021 I met with Fred Bunch of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve to discuss the term Archive in the 3-part series for The Unexpected Artist podcast. We touched on magical lithophones, but the story does not stop there. 

A fellow classmate of Marilyn Martorano and Fred Bunch, Susie Caragol, reached out to me shortly after the episode was published. Susie graduated from CU School of Journalism in Boulder and has been working in the field ever since. Susie and I emailed back and forth discussing Marilyn’s achievements, their recent 50th high school reunion in Alamosa where Fred was the emcee, the lithophones (of course), and the powerful small world connections that lead us forward in life. Susie shared Marilyn’s email with me and here is where our connection begins. 

It was early in March 2022 that I touched base with Marilyn Martorano, a contract archeologist who has conducted research with a number of environmental firms and receives contracted projects through the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. We talk about the upcoming performance at the Longmont Symphony Orchestra (LSO) and

I learn bit by bit that this is not just a performance of the Ancient Lithophones Marilyn has been studying over the (20+) years. A new instrument has actually been invented to accompany the past into the present, the modern lithophone. 

Over the last few weeks I have been in correspondence with Marilyn Martorano, Michael Udow, Anthony (Tony) Disanza, and Eliott Moore listening to their thoughts and excitement about what this piece means to the world.

April 12, 2022: Zoom call with Marilyn

Alamosa Citizen: I’ve heard the story from Fred, and you and I have talked over email.  Would you be willing to share the story from its origin? 

Marilyn Martorano: I grew up in the San Luis Valley, and being an archeologist 

I’ve been lucky enough to go back down there and work, for 40 some years now. A lot of the work that I’ve done has been at the Great Sand Dunes. A lot of times Archeologists meet with local artifact collectors because we are interested in what people have found. We had seen these long stone tools, for years, and everyone would show them to us and we’d say well what are those? I don’t know, they are just ‘weird’ and cool.… We didn’t know what they were either so we couldn’t tell them. 

I learned that the artifacts in the museum collection at the dunes are some of the largest lithophone artifacts discovered.

Marilyn Martorano: Why would someone spend so much time shaping something, and they weigh so much – you know, what are they? In the early 2000s we got a chance to formally study them. We looked at them under a microscope but they didn’t have use or wear or marks on them if they had been used for crushing and grinding, which is what we figured they were used for. So we put them away. It always kind of bothered me. I thought, ‘Why can’t we figure this out?’ 

Archeologists are always asking questions and seek answers to questions of bigger puzzles. This question of “what are these” stayed with Marilyn over the years. 

Marilyn Martorano: I think it was 2013 when we were going to return the artifacts, we had them on loan from the museum, and a colleague of mine shared a youtube video of a French researcher at the Museum of Man(kind) in Paris. He had similar stones that were from Africa that French soldiers had brought back in the early 1900s. There were drawers of them, and he didn’t know what they were either. As he was trying different things, he tapped on one of them and realized they were lithophones. I figured, before I return them, I ought to tap on them. It seemed crazy to me. 

Marilyn’s younger daughter is a percussionist so she grabbed a few different sized mallets and set the stones on small pieces of foam (just as the researcher in Paris) and tapped them. 

Marilyn Martorano: I just couldn’t get over it. Because they rang! I mean they sound like bells. When I heard their sound the hair on my arm stood up. I couldn’t believe it. 

Marilyn returned the stones to Fred Bunch at the Sand Dunes and shared her findings. Fred and the park said they would help support efforts to get a research grant to continue the study of these remarkable artifacts. The Friends of The Dunes sponsored a grant that Marilyn wrote to the State Historical Funds, which allowed Marilyn and her team to continue their study. There is an immense amount of gratitude to the Great Sand Dunes and Fred for the ongoing support in all fields of research. 

Marilyn Martorano: I was able to study 22 different lithophones. Some were from the park and some were from collectors. So that’s how it all started. 

Not only is the research fascinating but the overall concept of re-purposing these ancient stones into a modern context is what really perks up my ears. 

Marilyn Martorano: I was surprised that anyone else, other than an archeologist, would have been interested in these stones. But I think it’s the music. It’s that musical connection. Music is sort of the signature of humanity. Across the globe, when you think about it, it really does make sense that music can provide a connection from something in the past to today.  The lithophones hold their own growing pages of questions: “Where did they get the rocks? What did the lithophones look like before they were shaped? Were they in big chucks? Did people have to quarry them?” That’s what we like as archeologists, we like challenges and we like to learn things. We learn one thing and come up with five more questions.  

Marilyn believes that these lithophones are made from andesite stone, basalt, and other volcanic materials. “Some are metamorphic, rocks that are shaped by heat and pressure. It has to be a stone that is really dense… people from the past would search out these stones that have beautiful musical properties, because not all stones make a sound.” 

Alamosa Citizen: How do rocks make sounds? 

Marilyn Martorano: It is all based on the physics of sound waves and how they travel through different materials. This is something I had to find out. A lithophone can only be played if the stone is resting on or suspended from two points called acoustical nodes or dull zone. Lithophones are found everywhere all over the world: Africa, South America, even in Hawaii. I think those are called “Bell Stones.” Some of these stones are dated over 8,000 years old, maybe older. I keep finding more information. We just keep learning so much. 

Colorado Public Radio and National Public Radio (NPR) reported on the lithophone findings, which was seen and listened to by many people across the country, including a composer and retired professor from University of Michigan, Michael Udow, who now lives in Longmont, just a few blocks away from Marilyn. (Talk about a small world). 

Marilyn Martorano: One day, we realized we were close to each other. My husband and I invited Mike over with Elliot Moore (the director of the LSO) for hors d’oeuvres and I had all the lithophones out on the table. It ended up that they did an improvisation duet on the lithophones. As a scientist, I was studying each one, and just to have these musicians walk up and play their hearts out on something they have never seen before, it blew me away. 

Marilyn and Mike thought, wouldn’t it be cool if we made something like this out of granite countertop? They went and looked through different pieces of granite from a local countertop maker in the trash (they had permission). “It’s not that easy to find a rock that makes a good sound.”

Alamosa Citizen: How have you been thinking about the contextual shift from past into present?

Marilyn Martorano: When we think of using ancient artifacts today, we want to be respectful of the people that created them. The ancient folks. We also want to be respectful of the descendants of those folks. We don’t go around using artifacts anyway we want. These particular artifacts that will be used in this concerto don’t have what we call provenance or locational information. We feel we can use them as an educational tool, and to me it will help educate people today to provide that connection from the past to the present. Ancient Echoes is doing that for real, it’s live. I think to educate people on how archeology can be meaningful, because we want archeology to be relevant. I think this whole connection with music and the lithophones and the past and present through this piece is an important way for it to be presented.  After studying the lithophones I began listening to the world around me differently. For example, when I fill up a container with water and can’t see in the container, I can listen to the sound and hear when it’s getting full. Little things like that. 

Alamosa Citizen: Have you heard other compositions that Michael has written?

Marilyn Martorano: He gave me a CD, and “Moon Shadows” was a song that stuck with me. When I looked at the cover, Tony Disanza is the soloist on that piece. Mike produces music that really gets to your soul. 

Now we get to hear from Composer and lifelong musician Michael Udow.

April 12, 2022: Zoom call with Michael

Alamosa Citizen: For this composition and previous compositions, can you talk about your process? 

Michael Udow: My earliest experience was when I was a camper at the National Music Camp at Interlochen (Michigan), the summer going into 9th grade. I was really intrigued with composing. I have continued to compose since then. 

Michael has shifted between professionally performing as a percussionist all over the world and composing music. He has been a professor at the University of Michigan for 29 years, heading the percussion program for the majority of that time. Michael has been composing throughout this entire time. He also performs during the summer and has been composing operas for the Santa Fe Opera House for over 40 years. Michael retired about 10 years ago, moved to Colorado and began composing full time. 

Alamosa Citizen: Is it difficult to find balance between your varied disciplines? Where does music come from for you?

Michael Udow: There was kind of a triungerant thing going on of teaching and supporting my students, keeping up my chops on playing, and composing as another element. I can balance things pretty well. When I was a student studying composition, I had rigorous teachers, and I would compose in different styles of music that had gone on previously. At the same time I was encouraged to branch out and explore my own creativity. At the same time within an academic environment, I felt that I was not being true to who I was as a student composer. It wasn’t until I graduated from college that I started to feel that I was discovering my own voice, totally my own voice. The freedom to be oneself. My process has developed in such a way where there are forms such as a fuge that has a specific form historically, there are certain ways one puts blocks together, there is that sort of approach, concerto has a certain form. I always start melodically, I think that comes from playing opera for decades. For me, I felt that melody was the essential element from which I felt most comfortable working on first. From the melodies then I would play and listen to chord possibilities and the cords would then follow. I am working first more from melodic contours that express emotion and feeling and what I feel is greater personal connection between heart and mind in the music and hope it translates to the audience experience. 

Because I am such a visual person, the word contour helps dictate shape and form overall in a bigger picture then other subtle details to help build in dimension to the piece or composition. There are foundational elements between music and the visual arts that run parallel to one another. 

Michael Udow: I always want to draw the audience in and find some deeper meaning through  their listening experience that they can take away, and it’s not just going to be an immediate gratification. My hope is that because of the way that I’m composing there will be some lingering beyond just the moment in time and people will reflect back on it and draw connections to their life outside their time in the concert hall. And draw relationships in their life to what they’ve experienced.

Alamosa Citizen: How did you learn about the lithophones? Did you know of them before this composition? 

Michael Udow: Actually, I’ve toured quite a bit in China and Japan and Korea, and lithophones are ancient instruments in those countries. My understanding, the first known lithophones that have been uncovered thus far, they were created during the Qui Dynasty, and they are L shaped, upside down L. They are tuned really precisely to a Western chromatic scale and if you play them on the front edge it has that fundamental sound base sound, like playing a piano key, and if you play it on the side it has a harmonic, an upper partial a sound that is an octave and a sixth higher that is precisely tuned. That proportional relationship is the same as it goes up several octaves. There is something culturally where people were making stone instruments before they were making bronze instruments. 

Michael has even played these instruments in his travels to Shenyang Conservatory of Music in China and also in Seoul Korea at the National Art Center, where there is a traditional music school specifically for traditional Korean Dance and Music. Michael carries concepts of sound and culture with him when he composes. 

Alamosa Citizen: How did you connect and begin your collaboration with Marilyn?

Michael Udow: Very simply, my wife was listening to a Colorado public broadcast where Marilyn was being interviewed about the lithophones, and I listened to the interview. I left her a message and she emailed me, then we discovered we both lived in Longmont, and then we further discovered that we lived two blocks apart from one another. 

This is the moment in the story when Michael is invited to Marilyn’s home to see and play the ancient lithophones that she described earlier. 

Michael Udow: So I played them and I brought my phone that has a tuner on it so I could check the pitches. I thought this would be so interesting to compose a work for these. I went home and studied the pitches; they didn’t really fit with the Western scales. I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to write a piece for orchestra that incorporated at the beginning of the piece, the ancient lithophones, that were on loan if the museum and national park allowed me to use them. Then, build a modern stone instrument that would be more in the configuration of a xylophone or a vibraphone that transitioned from the ancient stones combined with the modern stones. Since in all these different cultures – Japan, China, Korea – there are many other instruments besides lithophones, I wanted to expand the horizon of composition. 

Stone, wood, metal, and skin (a more traditional percussion drum) will all be included in the overall composition Michael has created. This is more of the whole percussion family that will be heard in this piece that provides an expansive view of culture and narrative. 

Alamosa Citizen: Is there a narrative or through line that you are trying to tell through this composition?

Michael Udow: That throughline, sometimes in music, is called a through composition, where you’re basically going from section to section in a continuous progression. Like you have an A theme and a B theme and the A theme comes back after a C theme and so on, that’s called a Rondo. But in this piece, it is “through composed” in that at the beginning of the piece I had this image of starting with the ancient stones. Where it all began. I wanted to conjure up an image of what it might have felt like 6,000 years ago when someone was sitting along at the Great Sand Dunes. It might have been night, the stars were out and the sky was so vivid, maybe the moon was out so you see the shadows on the dunes. Maybe the idea of the person playing the lithophone but there is this greater sense of there is something out there beyond the human, the person, this sense of the wind, the movement of the sand, the water that sometimes flows through the dunes. All of these things make sounds. The woodwind instruments in the orchestra each have a melody and it is a call and response between the person’s imagination of the natural world and then the person playing the stones. This kind of call and response, give and take with nature and the human form. I wanted to create this sense of calm and introspectiveness and quietness. For myself as the composer, for Tony as soloist, for Elliot as the conductor and for the audience. 

This is only the beginning of the work and there is an evolution that graduates through time into the modern lithophone. There are 37 pitches, 37 stone bars that form one instrument. Conceptually it is one instrument, such as a piano, it has 88 notes but it is one instrument. 

Michael Udow: I’m not quoting any traditional music from any culture, but it is my awareness and sensibility and feeling about those different musics from various cultures that I’ve assimilated into this composition. 

As we talk about Echoes, there is a memory of place and space and context that we hold onto throughout our lives. This resonance that lives inside us is delivered by sight, sound and smell, all of which are triggers that bring us to this place in our memory where we can relive what was before. The process of remembering experiences for Michael allows him to create this aura of nostalgia that surpasses his own personal experience to share with the audience. 

All components, in some form, relay an ode or a tip of the hat, to cultures he has observed and studied but the musical composition is coming from his memory and feeling of those experiences. 

As artists, we have an extraordinary way of representing or some fun word play here, re-presenting something that’s already known and into a new context; an idea, a melody, an experience back to the world. 

Michael Udow: There is a deep respect for the original culture and music, in a way of appropriating art and artifacts and returning them back to their country of origin. I am sensitive when reflecting on composing something that utilizes the base sensibility of the music. There is respect there for not wanting to tread on appropriation. 

Alamosa Citizen: How does the Longmont Symphony Orchestra come into play?

Michael Udow: When Elliot Moore was one of the finalists for the conducting and directorship of the Longmont Symphony, he came to town and I took him out to dinner. Low and behold he was offered the job. Maybe a year or so after, I received a commission to write an opening piece for a festival, “Music in the Mountains,” so I wrote this composition called Mountain Myths. I also thought this piece could exist in a larger form, a larger orchestra. So I proposed to Elliot that I could pose a piece for the Longmont Symphony that was based on Mountain Myths and had a brass choir in the balcony and the rest of the orchestra on stage. So there would be this antiphonal thing over the audience. So Elliot commissioned that many years ago, maybe 8 or so. When Elliot and his wife had their first child I wrote a piece in honor of the birth. The executive director approved that without Elliot knowing, then the cat was out of the bag because Elliot had to conduct it. It was 3 years ago, after meeting Marilyn, that I proposed to Elliot that I compose this piece, even though it is a commissioned piece, it is something I am basically doing from the heart. The commission takes care of the copying cost and reproduction of the music. A lot of composers never hear their music performed in their lifetime, and I have lots of music that I never heard live before and probably never will, but it doesn’t stop me from composing operas or other works that have yet to be produced. 

I feel like whether it’s art or music or just being a creative, it is something you have to do, there is no other option. Whether you see it come to fruition or it lives in your desk drawer or in the corner of the studio, you know, it has to come out of you, it’s this outlet for intangible emotion to be expressed. 

Alamosa Citizen: Can you talk about the new instrument that had to be created, the modern lithophone?

Michael Udow: It took a lot of research because it could have potentially been made out of marble. But marble wasn’t the right sound, and it was too fragile for cracking. So I had to do a lot of research on different types of granite or slate to determine what I was going to build this instrument out of. I found a cabinet and countertop shop in Longmont and they were willing to work with me. The stone that I made the bars out of weighs over 1,000 pounds.  The saw blade is diamond tipped and cut through the stone. This is Absolute Black granite that comes from India. The thickness is predetermined but the width of each bar. I had to do some experiments and then do the same with the lengths to get the right pitch. This had to be done 37 times. The stone needs to be suspended at what is called the node, the point of least vibration. Otherwise the bar won’t have any ring or resonance. The lowest bar weighs almost 11 pounds. The entire instrument is almost 300 pounds so the frame has to be very sturdy. It really took a village to realize this project. 

Not only were there experiments with different kinds of stone, but the dimensions of each stone, how the bars would be suspended or placed on the frame once that was built. No wonder this project has taken over three years to complete! Lars Soderholm is the carpenter behind the frame for the modern lithophones to rest on, which took about a year to complete. The ancient lithophones will have their own trapezoidal orientation next to the modern lithophone that has been built. This will be a very authentic piece, not only because of its origin and history, but because the instrument has literally just been built and the soloist played it for the very first time a week before the world premiere. 

Let’s hear from percussion soloist Anthony Disanza, who lives in Madison, WI, who teaches at the school of music at Madison and also finds balance between the percussion program and performing. 

April 11, 2022: Zoom call with Anthony (Tony) Disanza

Alamosa Citizen: How did you get involved with the LSO if you live and work in Madison?

Tony Disanza: I got involved because of Michael Udow. I’ve known Mike since 1991 when I studied with him as a graduate student at the University of Michigan. He was my primary mentor and teacher. When he came across the stones that inspired him to write this piece, and I played a past concerto of his, so he asked me when he was in the process of getting things going in his head, he asked me if I was interested in playing. 

Alamosa Citizen: Is the lithophone a new instrument to you?

Tony Disanza: Lithophone is a more general term, a lithophone a broad term, it is something that is struck. The stones that were discovered have a purpose to play. But it is different then a membranophone, striking the head, the membrane that creates the sound. There are 3 different stations, or set-ups. One of those stations is the modern lithophone, the granite instrument, that also has some small Chinese gongs suspended above it, called cloud gongs. And another set up with the ancient lithophones. Then the third station has a big Japanese drum called an Odaiko and other smaller drums as well. I have not played the instrument yet.  I’ve learned all the music on the marimba, but I’ve tried to prepare or anticipate problems I may run into on a brand new instrument. 

Most cultures have engagement in percussion in one way or another. The idea of playing stones suspasses the stones found at the Great Sand Dunes – they are found all over the world. Tony and I have a very open and natural conversation around art and music and what it means to be an artist. He states: “If absolute predictability and total security are your primary things in life then you probably shouldn’t major in music. The people that should major in music are the ones who just couldn’t imagine life without it. There are ways to make a living, you just have to be creative. You have to work hard to create your space.” 

Alamosa Citizen: You and Mike have maintained a connection over the last 30 years, can you talk about the growth of that mentorship and friendship?

Tony Disanza: I have said for decades that any career I have is because I went to school at Michigan and studied with Mike. He afforded me opportunities. He and I clicked right away; it was just the right fit. I am eternally grateful, we are so far beyond the student years but that was where it started. I look back years later and wow I got lucky. 

Alamosa Citizen: You’ve been able to simulate and practice on another instrument, is there a story or narrative that you have interpreted as the performer? 

Tony Disanza: The piece does not have a programmatic nature or narrative built into it. I can’t speak to the exact material or notes he created, but for me as the interpretive performer, and I’ve played a lot of Mike’s music and one of the things I’ve noticed is he loves the idea of vignettes. This piece does not have a lot of return, where you can hear a theme come back. The idea of return is important for defining the structure of the piece and the listeners’ musical memory. Mike’s piece is a little bit more through-line, in that he works little vignettes. He takes this idea and develops it and he creates different universes that conclude on its own volition and then a new universe is created. Which is why there are also these different percussion stations, because the universe created at this station no longer works with this sound.You need to have a new pool from which to draw. So his music is not a narrative in my mind that has a through line of narration but it is a form of storytelling that leaves a lot to the listener because of how it moves through this and that. In my head I’ve given each section sort of a trigger word; this is sort of that squared clock ticking that happens over here, and these are things that help trigger my memory to where I’m going with the piece. Another word is simply flow.

Before Mike and Tony get together with the rest of the Orchestra they will have some time together for Tony to say, “OK, here are the decisions I made.” There are moments within the composition where Mike allowed Tony to make some interpretive decisions, to play within the realm but put his own twist or signature to the notes. This is one of those moments that you can see the 30-plus year friendship and professional experience they have shared. From my understanding and conversations with these musicians, the weight of history there isn’t always this opportunity to change or alter a composition, with new music being composed there can be this liberation for collaboration and improvisation. 

The last individual I spoke with is Director and Conductor of the Longmont Symphony Orchestra Elliot Moore. Though our conversation was brief, Elliot shared his thoughts on a greater meaning of what these stones and this performance represents. 

April 14, 2022: Phone interview with Elliot Moore

Alamosa Citizen: What has been your role in this project as the conductor and director? 

Elliot Moore: I think the world recognises him (Michael Udow) foremost as the leading percussion pedagog in the world. It just so happens that he and I met when I was beginning my doctorate at the University of Michigan and he was finishing up his last semester of teaching before his retirement. He moved to Longmont and about five years later we reconnected when I became the director of the Longmont Symphony. He came to me, about three years ago, with the idea he had heard about the discovery of Marilyn’s ancient lithophones. Not only an artifact but they were a percussion instrument. He said to me, “Elliot, what if I were to write a percussion concerto for these ancient lithophones, these 6,000-year-old stones. Is this something you think could work?” My role in all of this was as simple as saying yes. I thought it was such a great idea, but of course as soon as I say yes there are all kinds of other things that have to happen. He has to write the piece, the Longmont Symphony has to OK this idea. He went about proposing with the idea that it would be performed in April of last year, but we had to postpone it because of COVID-19. It has been a long time in the making. I think the first meeting was me, Marilyn and Michael. We all got together at her house where she had the stones. Michael may have taken 45 minutes to an hour to take notes on pitch properties of each stone. We had to get permission to utilize these stones for the performance, which is a big deal, and then for Michael to construct a brand new instrument that didn’t exist until he created the modern lithophone on granite. Of course Tony hasn’t played on it because the only one that exists is right here in Longmont! There are so many amazing aspects that have come together and will culminate on April 23rd for the performance. 

Elliot speaks to the profound nature that these ancient stones were not used for grinding or tools for eating, but rather they instill the notion that music was, and still is, fundamental to humankind. 

I am so grateful for the time Marilyn, Michael, Tony, and Elliot spent over the phone, zoom, and numerous email correspondence to share the continued story of the lithophones, learning about the construction of the modern lithophone and the shared excitement of what this project means for the past, present and future.