The title "Úr" comes from the Old-Norse Runic symbol for rain (as in a rainstorm). Úr is the first of the "elemental" runes, implying strength and courage through conflict and struggle. Úr can also refer to the slag that flies off of an anvil when a blacksmith strikes a hammer against iron (a metaphor for rain). Additionally, in Old-English, Ūr can refer to the aurochs, an ancient Northern European bull, against which young warriors would test their skills it ritualized combat. The individual runic symbols are accompanied by ancient poems, each in three parts, which creates the large-scale structure of the piece:
"Úr er skýja grátr | ok skara þverrir | ok hirðis hatr"
[Rain is clouds weeping, and harvest's undoing, and herdsman's hatred]
"Ūr byþ ānmōd and oterhyrned | felafrēcne dēor feohteþ mid hornum | mǣre mōrstapa þæt is mōdig wuht"
[Aurochs (Bull) is fierce and high-horned, the courageous beast fights with its horns, a well-known moor-treader, it is a brave creature]
These associations work their way into the music of Úr. Most obviously, the special setup of the percussionists (surrounding the audience) gives the impression of similar events happening at different times in different places, like standing in one place and experiencing the long slow approach and eventual retreat of a rainstorm. The audience should be able to hear the timbral changes from drums, to metals, to pottery, and back, as they circle around the room. The idea of the aurochs is featured in the basic musical identity itself: one of strength and of an abrasive and brash character. And finally, the image of a hammer striking a piece of iron can obviously be associated with the percussion family of instruments, here particularly since the metallic instruments are featured prominently.
Úr uses only ancient, primordial percussion instruments with distinct timbres: skinned drums, pieces of metal, clay pottery, a variety of gongs, etc. There are no pitched instruments, therefore rhythm, timbre, and form become the focal points. Úr is constructed as a large-scale canon, or as a “poly-form”, wherein, upon completion of complex large-scale contrapuntal numerological cycles about two-thirds of the way through the work, it repeats itself in reverse at three times the speed while building to a violent climax. This canonic element can be perceived by identifying developing rhythmic motives and alternating timbres, though to the listener the awareness of these processes can be secondary to the dramatic experience of hearing a variety of slowly changing sounds moving throughout space.
Overall, Úr is an expressive representation of a turbulent Scandinavian winter storm and violent conflict, set in one large mythical arc, comprising a constantly varied landscape of intense moods and esoteric images, creating an epic sonic journey towards death. Úr was co-commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association and the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet.