Nell Shaw Cohen (b. 1988) is a Brooklyn-based composer, librettist, and multimedia artist. She evokes landscapes, visual art, and the lives of mavericks in lyrical works for the stage, concert hall, and digital media.
Cohen has been commissioned by Houston Grand Opera to write Turn and Burn, a “feminist rodeo opera” (premiere Spring 2021) with librettist Megan Cohen for HGOco’s Song of Houston chamber opera initiative. In 2018, her chamber opera Mabel’s Call was featured at Fort Worth Opera’s Frontiers showcase and in a full workshop production by the University of New Mexico, with Cohen in residence. Her monodrama The Coming of Spring was given a workshop staging at New York University (2014).
She is an alumna of the Composers & the Voice fellowship with American Opera Projects and Nautilus Music-Theater’s Composer-Librettist Studio at New Dramatists. Her residencies have included Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts, The Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, New York University Symphony, and a Page 73 Yale Summer Residency with playwright Mashuq Mushtaq Deen. She has presented concerts with the Parrish Art Museum (Southampton, NY), Harwood Museum (Taos, NM), and Peabody Essex Museum (Salem, MA), and received commissions from Boston’s Skylark Vocal Ensemble, Santa Fe’s Montage Music Society, NYU Symphony, Boston GuitarFest, and WordSong.
Raised between San Francisco, CA and Sag Harbor, NY, she studied composition at New York University (M.M.) and New England Conservatory (B.M.) with Herschel Garfein, Michael Gandolfi, John Mallia, Julia Wolfe, Missy Mazzoli, et al. Her honors have included the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Graduate Arts Award, Presser Scholar Award, NEC’s Chadwick Medal, and the Ellen Taaffe Zwilich Prize from the International Alliance for Women in Music .
As Founder & Director of LandscapeMusic.org, a national composers network and online publication, Cohen advocates for music inspired by landscape, nature, and place. She was Director of Landscape Music: Rivers & Trails, a nationwide concert series in Fall 2018 with events in the SF Bay Area, Atlanta, Portland, Michigan, and Boston.
Cohen is also an educational media producer and User Experience designer (portfolio at beyondthenotes.org). Her unique videos and interactive media have been viewed by tens of thousands online. The Boston Globe described her web project Beyond the Notes: Music Inspired by Art as “far more extensive than the usual site devoted to an event or artwork…[with] loads of information connecting the music and art.” She has received several university grants for her digital projects and earned a post-graduate certificate from NYU in educational media design.
Cohen publishes her music under Faraway Nearby (ASCAP). Scores are available for perusal and purchase upon request.
For a list of works, performances, residencies, and honors, download Cohen’s Curriculum Vitae (PDF). (Last updated: July 2018)
Much of my work centers on peoples’ search for meaning through experiences of place—particularly wilderness and rural landscapes. I’ve explored this theme by making musical interpretations of the creations of landscape painters and nature writers, as well as composing direct responses to places I myself have known: from the Sierra Nevada to the moors of England. I call this body of work “Landscape Music.” It encompasses concert music, opera, and music combined with video and photography.
My projects also often engage with the lives and legacies of mavericks and creative visionaries from history. I’m attracted to stories of people, like Mabel Dodge Luhan or John Muir, who grappled with tensions between American individualism and a yearning for community; creativity as a form of spirituality; and an expansive sense of beauty in nature and art as a form of personal and social healing.
I want to make music that provides emotionally accessible points of entry into intellectually complex subjects. Driven by lyricism, contrapuntal textures, syncopated rhythms, and an expressive simplicity in harmony and orchestration, my compositional aesthetic reflects my origins as a progressive rock musician and my love of Early Music as much as it reflects my classical conservatory training.
- The Taos News, “Mabel’s Call to debut” on University of New Mexico workshop production. (11/01/18)
- KUNM Radio, “UNM Opera Looks At A New Mexico Maverick” on University of New Mexico workshop production. (10/31/18)
- Albuquerque Journal, “Mabel Dodge Luhan focus of UNM opera” on University of New Mexico workshop production. (10/29/18)
- THE COLUMN, Review of Frontiers showcase at Fort Worth Opera, featuring Mabel’s Call. (5/07/18)
- Fort Worth Star-Telegram, “Two women and 207,000 baguettes. Here’s what else is new on the ‘Frontiers’ opera scene” on Mabel’s Call in Forth Worth opera’s Frontiers showcase. (4/26/18)
- Broadway World, “Six Composer-Librettist Teams Selected for Fort Worth Opera’s Diverse 2018 Showcase” on selection of Mabel’s Call for Frontiers showcase. (3/16/18)
- Houstonia, “On the Horizon: Two New HGO ‘Song of Houston’ Programs” on commission of rodeo opera. (9/06/17)
- Broadway World, “HGOco Commissions New ‘Song of Houston’ Operas” on commission of rodeo opera. (8/07/17)
- The Taos News, “Mabel’s life in song: New chamber opera explores the early Taos life of Mabel Dodge Luhan” on Mabel’s Call presentation at the Harwood Music of Art. (6/15/17)
- The East Hampton Star, “Nell Shaw Cohen Engages With Nature Through Music” on Landscape Music Composers Network concert featuring Cadillac Moon Ensemble at the Parrish Art Museum. (9/01/16)
- Francesca’s clothing boutique, “International Women’s Day” profile and photoshoot. (3/06/16)
- The Taos News, “Mabel Dodge Luhan, as operatic vision” on Mabel’s Call at the Harwood Music of Art. (8/11/16)
- The Mabel Dodge Luhan House Blog, “Mabel Dodge Luhan Inspires Nell Shaw Cohen Opera” on Mabel’s Call workshop concert at the Harwood Music of Art. (8/10/16)
- The East Hampton Star, ‘The Coming of Spring’ on monodrama workshop at NYU’s The Provincetown Playhouse. (4/22/14)
- “Scholar Spotlight” on the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Blog on Point Reyes from Chimney Rock. (3/14/14)
- The East Hampton Star, “Watercolors: Painting With Sound” on Watercolors at the Parrish Art Museum. (11/06/12)
- Newsday, “LI artists open new Parrish” about the grand opening of the Parrish Art Museum, featuring Watercolors. [PDF download] (11/04/12)
- New-York Historical Society Blog, “The Course of Empire: A Conversation With Composer Nell Shaw Cohen” (8/22/11)
- The Boston Globe, “Inspiration becomes backdrop: Namesake composition to be played before ‘The Course of Empire’ paintings” on “The Course of Empire” and Beyond the Notes. [PDF download] (7/29/11)
“The most mysterious and probably most affecting of the three works was Mabel’s Call, an opera whose trio of excerpts were so subtle and arresting they exemplified a sort of waking-dream feeling Nell Shaw Cohen’s characters each seemed to be lost in…The three moments Cohen selected were mostly downbeat, her characters rattled with uncertainty. Her music magisterially elevated these noncommittal, commonplace feelings – the composer most called to mind was Ives, who had an innate talent for matching disjointed, natural conversation and the disjointed, natural emotions such conversation usually falls short of capturing.” —Ryan Maffei, THE COLUMN
“Nell’s extraordinary interdisciplinary vision…was an ideal program to introduce the public to the Museum’s collection through music and images. Two “standing room only” performances [of Watercolors] were met with high praise from attendees. The Director of the Museum cited this event as one of the best of the opening weekend.” —Andrea Grover, Curator of Special Programs, Parrish Art Museum
“[Workshop of opera Mabel’s Call] was a triumph of beauty, power, and art. To live to see this was a gift from the muse of music. We wept…Nell Shaw Cohen will take this opera all the way to the top!” —Lois Rudnick, Biographer of Mabel Dodge Luhan
“Nell Shaw Cohen deserves superlative praise for her compositions inspired by art, particularly her understanding of [painter] Charles E. Burchfield’s rapport with nature.” —Nancy Weekly, Head of Collections and Curator, Burchfield Penney Art Center
“Far more extensive than the usual site devoted to an event or artwork, [Beyond the Notes: Music Inspired by Art] contains…loads of information connecting the music and art.” —David Weininger, The Boston Globe
“[Point Reyes from Chimney Rock] sounded like an impressionist fantasy – a tone poem – and was most appealing sonically.” —Mark Greenfest, SoundWordSight
“[Movements from Nine Muses for solo flute] were alternately distant but lyrical, lively and playful, and contemplative and precise. [The movements for solo harp] had the most complex musical textures: lush and polyphonic, busy and punctuated, and lively and joyous.” —Basil Considine, The Boston Music Intelligencer
“I am so glad someone has at last given voice to what one imagines Burchfield might have been hearing in so many of his watercolors. Congratulations on bringing Burchfield alive in a way that I think he would have much appreciated.” —Richard Kahn, art collector