Composer Zhou Tian had quite the entourage with him during his visit to the Union Pacific Railroad Museum late last month. While he took a tour of the museum with curator Patricia LaBounty, he was followed by a videographer for a PBS documentary, a photographer and a reporter from The Daily Nonpareil, and me from the Council Bluffs Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Zhou’s visit drew this small crowd due to its significance to our city’s railroad history; he has been tasked with composing a 20-minute orchestral piece in honor of the 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad.

Originally, the orchestral work was meant to commemorate the Reno Philharmonic Association’s 50th anniversary, but the association began to research what other big moments were happening around the same time.


“Once we learned about that [the railroad anniversary> we knew that’s a much, much bigger project and we want to dive into that,” Zhou explained.

While researching, Zhou visited multiple cities along the route of the railroad in order to find inspiration for the piece. Previous stops included Reno, Nevada and Salt Lake City, Utah. He also visited The Durham Museum in Omaha during his visit to the Omaha-Council Bluffs metro.

“This has been [an> absolutely rewarding, moving experience for me as a composer,” Zhou said. “All of the information, all the stories, all the people I met will be part of the musical language that I create for this piece.”

One of the new ideas Zhou has gained from his travels is to incorporate the sound of the word “done” in Morse code. When the Transcontinental Railroad was completed, “D-O-N-E” was telegraphed throughout the country to announce the historic moment.

“Morse code has a rhythm, and music has rhythm,” Zhou explained. “I’m going to find some ways to put that in.”

Zhou has already written about one-third of the piece, titled “Transcend,” and his trip to Omaha and Council Bluffs is his last. Now he has the task of taking everything he’s learned and finishing the piece.

Council Bluffs, mile zero of the Transcontinental Railroad, served as a perfect last stop to Zhou’s travels as LaBounty toured Zhou around the museum, sharing President Abraham Lincoln’s involvement, the hardships of the railroad workers, how the route was chosen, and fun facts about railroad history.

When their tour of the museum’s Transcontinental Railroad exhibit ended, LaBounty offered Zhou a tour of the rest of the museum to which Zhou enthusiastically agreed, learning more about passenger rail travel and the railroad today.

“I just think it’s a very inspirational experience,” Zhou shared. “And I’m proud and I can’t wait to go back and put what I see and hear into the piece.”


Zhou’s work will premiere on April 27, 2019, in Reno, Nevada by the Reno Philharmonic. The Omaha Symphony is a part of the commissioning consortium and will perform the piece at a later date.


This post was originally published on February 6, 2019 on the Unleash Council Bluffs blog.