Skip to page content


Composed: 2020

Orchestration: harp, percussion, and strings

About this Piece

It’s 1974. What should we put in humanity’s first message in a bottle sent 25,000 light years away? Astronomers Francis Drake (Drake equation), Carl Sagan (Contact), and others created the historic Arecibo message, in which 186 seconds of interstellar radio waves sent a friendly map, our then-understood DNA structure, and transmitting technology in binary anthropomorphic organization to globular M13 in our galaxy’s Hercules cluster.  

The ideas conveyed by Steven Johnson’s New York Times Magazine article “Greetings E. T. (Please Don’t Murder Us.)” from June 28, 2017, encouragement from the Phoenix Chamber Music Society and Chamber Music Northwest, and early days with partner John Clements awakened imaginings about what a “primal message” might sound like. This assumes other possible life forms hear and feel sound like we do. Opening off-world communication through transverse waves explores existential conveyance under a frayed veil of decorum through form, melody, and numbers.  

Primal Message is a fantasia that relies upon primal relationships—duo vs. trio textures, modulations through the ii with conventional homage to the V, one voice as the outlier in primal 2 vs. 3 vs. 5 rhythmic layering, melodic structure descending in seconds and thirds, centering around the fifth, then leaps and the occasional septuplet. It invites examination of our collective evolution through a drive to express, tying us in concert with universal celebration.  

Primal Message received its orchestral world premiere on November 5, 2020, with Xian Zhang leading the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. —Nokuthula Endo Ngwenyama