New Recording! “Transforming Forest” for Piano Trio

My work Transforming Forest (2018), commissioned by Montage Music Society for World Premiere at SITE Santa Fe this past spring, is now available for online streaming!

In the following video, I pair the ensemble’s gorgeous studio recording with my photography of the music’s inspiration: four site-specific land art installations by Andy Goldsworthy in the Presidio of San Francisco, CA. Video of a live performance of Transforming Forest on Montage Music Society’s Altazano Salon Series is also available for viewing.

Watch both versions below (or on YouTube here and here), and continue reading for my notes about this work.


studio video credits

Performed by Montage Music Society (Elizabeth Baker, violin; Sally Guenther, cello; Debra Ayers, piano). Audio Recording, Mixing, Editing, and Mastering: Rick Bolton (Rick_Bolton@iCloud.com). Photography and Video Editing by Nell Shaw Cohen.


Live Video credits

Performed by Montage Music Society (Elizabeth Baker, violin; Sally Guenther, cello; Debra Ayers, piano). Video by Vincent Stenerson. Photography by Nell Shaw Cohen.

ABOUT THE PROJECT

Transforming Forest was commissioned by Montage Music Society for World Premiere at SITE Santa Fe in March 2019. In this work for violin, cello, and piano, each short movement is inspired by one of four site-specific installations created by British artist Andy Goldsworthy in the Presidio of San Francisco: a park and former U.S. Army military fort in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. These remarkable installations were created by Goldsworthy between 2008 and 2014 using organic, on-site materials such as tree branches and soil.

Sites of urban wilderness in the Bay Area have frequently served as points of reference in my creative process. The Presidio’s landscape of eucalyptus and cypress was formative: my childhood home was steps from the sites where these installations were later created. Having made countless pilgrimages to these works by Goldsworthy, I felt impelled to formulate a musical response to these powerful places.

Goldsworthy’s four Presidio installations are transformed through the growth of surrounding vegetation, the elements, the passage of time, and visitor interactions. In my response, I sought to evoke different kinds of transformation connected to each of the four installations.

Wood Line

Wood Line is a long, curving line of eucalyptus branches (1,200 feet) placed along the forest floor. Many times, I’ve traced this path with my own feet—walking alongside it, or balancing on top of the branches themselves, the surfaces of which have become smooth from the wear of footsteps over the years. In my response, “Tracing,” a musical motif is continually “traced” through heterophony: picked up by each of the instruments in different tempi and registers.

Tree Fall

Tree Fall is a tree trunk suspended from the roof of a small, disused military building. The trunk and roof were covered in wet clay, which developed intricate, cracking patterns on its surface while drying. In “Cracking,” a dark, chorale-like music, conveying the womb-like interior of the building, “cracks” open into a rhythmically dynamic middle section.

Earth Wall

Goldsworthy created Earth Wall by burying and then excavating a sculpture made of eucalyptus branches from within a rammed earth wall at the Presidio Officers’ Club. A lively third movement, “Excavating,” evokes the spherical tangle of branches at the core of the wall through a building contrapuntal texture.

Spire

In the final movement, “Obscuring,” climbing gestures in the piano are juxtaposed with sustained notes in the strings to capture the spatial quality of Spire: a 100-foot structure made from Monterey cypress trunks thrusting dramatically into the open sky. Contrasting material in triple meter—tender at first, becoming increasingly robust—gradually takes over. This music reflects the stand of young trees surrounding Spire, which will eventually obscure it in years to come as these cypresses grow and mature.

Skylark Premieres “Transform the World with Beauty”

Skylark Vocal Ensemble group photoSkylark Vocal Ensemble. Photo: Sasha Greenhalgh.

I am thrilled that brilliant GRAMMY Award-nominated vocal ensemble Skylark will premiere my work Transform the World with Beauty on April 4, 5, 6, and 7 during their tour of Massachusetts and Washington, D.C.! Concert details are listed below.

​Skylark is one of the leading vocal ensembles in the U.S., praised for their “awe-inspiring” performances (Boston Music Intelligencer), and their “original” (BBC Radio 3), “imaginative” (Limelight Australia), and “engrossing” (WQXR NYC) programming.

Skylark commissioned me to write a piece for their program Masterpiece, offering musical reflections and reactions to the visual arts. Transform the World with Beauty, an 11-minute work in three movements, is inspired by the flowering of visual art and poetry in Victorian Britain during the 1840s-1870s.

Julia Margaret Cameron, "Pomona," 1872

The first movement, “My First Camera,” celebrates avant-garde photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron. In my adaptation of an excerpt from Cameron’s autobiography, this pioneering artist describes the power of her creative impulse when she first took up the camera as a 48-year-old wife and mother. (Image: Julia Margaret Cameron, “Pomona,” 1872.)

“In an Artist’s Studio” is a setting of a poem by Christina Rossetti. She offers an incisive, feminist critique of her brother, Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and his obsessive depictions of an idealized woman. (Image: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, “The Annunciation” (detail), 1849.)

William Morris, "Strawberry Thief" wallpaper design, 1883

The final, title movement is inspired by the work and ideas of William Morris. The botanical and mythological titles of Morris’ sensuous textiles and wallpaper designs are juxtaposed with lofty sentiments from his philosophical lectures and essays. These two strands of Morris’ world, disparate at first, come together into a hopeful vision of society “transformed” through the beauty of nature and art. (Image: William Morris, “Strawberry Thief” wallpaper design, 1883.)

Transform the World with Beauty will be recorded during Skylark’s tour, and I look forward to sharing it with you all! Sadly, I can’t attend the Massachusetts dates myself, but I’m thrilled to hear the concert in D.C. See the links below and visit Skylark’s website for more information.

THURSDAY, APRIL 4, 2019 AT 7:00PM
Fitchburg State University, Fitchburg, MA
Tickets

FRIDAY, APRIL 5, 2019 AT 7:00PM
Gloucester Meeting House, Gloucester, MA
Tickets

SATURDAY, APRIL 6, 2019 AT 3:00PM
Cole Memorial Chapel, Wheaton College, Norton, MA
Tickets

SUNDAY, APRIL 7, 2019 AT 4:00PM
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Georgetown Parish, Washington DC
Tickets

World Premiere of “Transforming Forest” at SITE Santa Fe

Andy Goldsworthy's "Tree Fall"
“Tree Fall” by Andy Goldsworthy. Photo by Nell Shaw Cohen.

Announcing the World Premiere of Transforming Forest (2018) for piano, violin, and cello, commissioned by Montage Music Society—Santa Fe’s chamber ensemble dedicated to music inspired by visual art.

SITE Santa FeThe World Premiere is presented by SITE Santa Fe, a world-renowned space for contemporary art. The program will be repeated on Montage Music Society’s Altazano Salon Series.

I composed Transforming Forest in response to the four incredible installations created by British artist Andy Goldsworthy in the Presidio of San Francisco. These site-specific artworks resonate deeply with me and I hope to share some small piece of that through my music. Visit my website about the project for descriptions of my music and the artworks that inspired it.

FRIDAY, MARCH 1, 2019 @ 6:00PM
SITE Sante Fe, Santa Fe, NM
Event Website

SATURDAY, MARCH 16, 2019 @ 3:00PM
Altazano Salon Series, Santa Fe, NM
Event Website

Artist Residency at The Helene Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos, NM

Casita studio at The Helene Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos, NM.
Adobe casita studio at The Helene Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos, NM.

I’m spending two months in Taos, NM as an Artist-in-Residence at The Helene Wurlitzer Foundation of New Mexico. I’m hard at work on the score of Turn and Burn, my upcoming chamber opera about rodeo for Houston Grand Opera’s HGOco.

As a three-time alumna of the Wurlitzer Foundation’s residency, I’ll also be giving an Artist Talk at The Harwood Museum of Art in conjunction with their special exhibit, The Legacy of Helene Wurlitzer: Works from the Harwood Collection. This event takes place on Friday, March 8, 2019 at 5:30pm. Details at harwoodmuseum.org.

World Premiere of “The Sphinx and the Milky Way” for orchestra at University of Wisconsin

Painting "The Sphinx and the Milky Way" by Charles E. Burchfield
“The Sphinx and the Milky Way” (1946) by Charles E. Burchfield.

The University of Wisconsin-La Crosse Symphony Orchestra presents the World Premiere of The Sphinx and the Milky Way—my tone poem for orchestra inspired by the visionary artworks of Charles E. Burchfield. (Pictured: Burchfield’s eponymous painting of a sphinx moth!)

This work was written in 2011 during my studies at New England Conservatory, where it was given a wonderful reading and recording session. Listen to NEC’s reading.

SATURDAY, MARCH 2, 2019 @ 2:00PM
University of Wisconsin-La Crosse Symphony Orchestra
La Crosse, WI
Event Website
(Special shout out to The Institute for Composer Diversity, whose database led this orchestra’s director to find my work!)

Live Video of “Retrace” Performed by Citywater

I’m pleased to share this video of Citywater’s World Premiere performance of Retrace (2018) for flute, violin, and cello, composed in response to the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail. This performance, which took place last September in Vallejo, CA, was part of Landscape Music: Rivers & Trails—a nationwide series of collaborative concerts I directed for the Landscape Music Composers Network.

The full concert, with works by seven other Landscape Music composers, is available on LandscapeMusic.org’s YouTube channel.

Related Content

Workshop Production of “Mabel’s Call” at University of New Mexico

Next month in New Mexico: My chamber opera Mabel’s Call will be given a staged workshop production, featuring the full 85-minute score with six principals, chorus, and chamber ensemble!

Mabel Dodge Luhan
Mabel Dodge Luhan

The accomplished faculty directors and student performers of the University of New Mexico Opera Theatre have spent the semester taking a deep dive into this opera and its historical inspiration: Mabel Dodge Luhan—the influential salon hostess, philanthropist, writer, and international icon of the avant-garde—and Taos, New Mexico in the 1910s and ’20s.

I’m incredibly honored by this collaboration and the invitation to work with the university as an artist in residence. After months of emails and video conferences, I arrive in Albuquerque next week to join rehearsals as the team prepares for their performances in UNM’s beautiful Keller Hall on November 2, 3, and 4.

Mabel’s Call has been developed over the past three years through workshops with American Opera Projects, Fort Worth Opera, and The Harwood Museum of Art, and two artist residencies at The Helene Wurlitzer Foundation of New Mexico.

Synopsis and recordings at mabelscall.com.

UNM Center for the Arts in Keller Hall
Albuquerque, New Mexico
November 2 & 3 at 7:30 pm
November 4 at 2:00 pm

Tickets available at the door or at unmtickets.com ($12, $10, $8).

World Premiere Performances of “Retrace” on Landscape Music: Rivers & Trails Concert Series

Landscape Music Composers Network logo
My newest work, Retrace for flute, violin, and cello, commemorates the 50th Anniversary of the National Trails System Act. It was composed in response to the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail, which retraces the expansion of colonial Spain through California and Arizona.

Cemetery wall, Mission Santa Barbara.
Cemetery wall, Mission Santa Barbara.

To prepare for this project, I took a road trip this summer following the Anza Trail from Los Angeles to San Francisco, stopping at sites where the 1775-76 Anza Expedition made camp.

Retrace will receive four co-World Premieres during Fall 2018 in venues around the country—see dates and locations below!

Each of these concerts are part of Landscape Music: Rivers & Trails, a nationwide concert series I’m directing that features 11 World Premieres inspired by National Trails and Wild & Scenic Rivers, all written by members of my group: the Landscape Music Composers Network. I’m thrilled by what we have in store—and I hope you might be able to hear some of this wonderful music. (I’ll be at the concerts in Vallejo and Portland, come say hi!)

SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 23, 2018 @ 4:00PM in Vallejo, CA
Citywater at Visions of the Wild Festival
Event Website

THURSDAY, OCTOBER 4, 2018 @ 7:30PM in Houghton, MI
Michigan Technological University
Event Website

SUNDAY, OCTOBER 7, 2018 @ 2:00PM in Portland, OR
Cascadia Composers
Event Website

SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 3, 2018 @ 7:30PM in Boston, MA
Juventas New Music Ensemble
Event Website

Warm Reception for “Mabel’s Call” on Fort Worth Opera’s Frontiers Showcase

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 [the] characters each seemed to be lost in…the composer most called to mind was Ives…” THE COLUMN

The cast of Mabel’s Call from the wings of Bass Performance Hall. Photo: Fort Worth Opera.

Excerpts from my chamber opera Mabel’s Call were beautifully performed last month on Fort Worth Opera’s Frontiers showcase. An aria and two scenes were given a piano-vocal reading in a showcase of new operas.

The performance received some lovely press: in addition to a glowing review in THE COLUMN, I was interviewed for a preview article in The Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

It was a great honor to have my work featured on this platform, to share the stage with highly accomplished artists, and to receive feedback from a jury of opera professionals, as part of this project’s development!

Performers Heather Weirich, Megan Koch, Sam Parkinson, and Emily Urbanek with Nell at Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth, TX.

“Fallen Star” workshop at New Dramatists

The front door of "New Dramatists" with marquee advertising "Fallen Star"

In April, I was fortunate to co-direct a workshop of Fallen Star: a music-theater piece I’m writing with playwright Mashuq Mushtaq Deen (a collaborator from the Composer-Librettist Studio, who I am also working with on play The Betterment Society). This project started with a single song and blossomed into 40 minutes of words and music (that want to be 90 minutes!) during a few weeks of intensive writing with Deen.

The piece was given further shape through the contributions of an artistic team of otherworldly genius—music director Charity Wicks, singers Blake Friedman, Nicole Mitchell, and Camille Harris, and dramaturg Cori Ellison—who spent five days developing the project with us as part of a Creativity Fund workshop at New Dramatists.

Our work culminated in an informal presentation for an audience of friends and colleagues, who generously provided us with feedback in a Critical Response Process.

This was one of those moments when I’m particularly aware of the beauty of being an artist in New York City—and the beauty of New Dramatists, a remarkable institution supporting artist-led development.