Rodeo Houston preview and workshops of “Turn and Burn” with HGO

Several upcoming performances have been canceled or postponed due to COVID-19; see list of all upcoming events for current information.

The December ’19 workshop cast & creative team of Turn and Burn at
Houston Grand Opera! L-R: Leslie Swackhamer, stage director; Stephanie Sanchez as Jamie; Geoff Loff, music director; Cory McGee as Virgil; Liz Gautsche as Maggie Ann; Nell; Geordie Alexander as Rick; Megan Cohen, librettist; and Sarah Tucker as Shayla.

This past December, librettist Megan Cohen and I headed back to Houston for the first music workshop of Turn and Burn, our chamber opera commissioned by Houston Grand Opera through HGOco’s “Song of Houston” initiative. Four days of work with our performers and directors culminated in a presentation of the complete 75-minute score, drafted for a reduced orchestration of piano, electric and acoustic guitar, and drum set.

Since then I’ve been revising and orchestrating in anticipation of our second music workshop May 18-22, which will include the full score for rock-classical octet! We’re thrilled with how the piece is taking shape and excited to be taking these final steps in its development towards the premiere production in February 2021.

In the meantime… on Wednesday, March 11 at 7:30pm, rodeo fans will preview the opera in a performance by Miss Leslie and Her Juke Jointers at Rodeo Houston’s “Stars Over Texas Stage”! This reprisal of HGO’s Rodeo Songs cycle will include the World Premiere of “Next Rodeo”—my country song with lyrics by Megan, sung from the perspective of a barrel racer on the road, adapted from the opera. This will be the first performance of my music by a honky-tonk band! Learn more about the event.

“Transform the World with Beauty” in performances by The Astoria Choir, Williams College, and Skylark

Several upcoming performances have been canceled or postponed due to COVID-19; see list of all upcoming events for current information.

Transform the World with Beauty, my choral cycle inspired by the visual art and poetry of Victorian Britain, is being featured in concerts by three separate ensembles this spring!

The Astoria Choir logoI am honored that my piece was selected by The Astoria Choir as a winner of their Call for Scores for a program celebrating International Women’s Day. This Saturday in Astoria, Queens, the choir will be performing the first movement, “My First Camera,” which sets a delightful autobiographical text by pioneering photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.

Williams College logoNext month another ensemble, Williams College Chamber Choir will perform the second movement, “In an Artist’s Studio,” in two performances featuring their ensemble of women’s voices. This movement features Christina Rossetti’s poetic critique of a painter’s depictions of an idealized woman.

Looking further ahead to June, the Grammy-nominated Skylark Vocal Ensemble—who commissioned and premiered this work in 2019—will reprise the full cycle, including the third movement celebrating the designs and aesthetic philosophy of William Morris. Stay tuned for details!

In the meantime, listen to Transform the World with Beauty in the brilliant live recording by Skylark, paired with the texts and visual art that inspired my composition.

SATURDAY, MARCH 7, 2020 AT 8:00PM

The Astoria Choir — “Women in Song”
Trinity Lutheran Church, Astoria, NY

Event information

FRIDAY, APRIL 17, 2020 AT 6:00PM

Williams Chamber Choir — “Looking/Seeing”
Hancock Shaker Village, Pittsfield, MA

Event information.

SUNDAY, APRIL 19, 2020 AT 4:00PM

Williams Chamber Choir — “Looking/Seeing”
Williams College, Williamstown, MA

Event information.

Landscape Music’s Earth Year 2020 initiative

Landscape Music Earth Year 2020 logo

I founded Landscape Music five years ago (how time flies!) to create an online platform for stylistically diverse composers and composer-performers whose music engages with landscape, nature, and place. I’ve watched this project grow to include 25 members, and to serve as a catalyst for wonderful collaborations with performers and organizations around the country.

This year, I’m coordinating an exciting new Landscape Music initiative:  Earth Year 2020. Our composers are commemorating Earth Day’s 50th Anniversary with activities taking place throughout the year 2020—including new works, performances, music videos, and community events showcasing new music that reflects environmental themes at the forefront of our global consciousness.

Learn more and view all of the participating projects at LandscapeMusic.org!

Additional projects will be announced throughout the year on our website, and on our Facebook and Twitter pages. To be notified of major announcements, including the release of free streaming music and video, consider joining our Landscape Music mailing list.

World Premiere of “Blue Shadows, Silver Sunlight” by Boston Choral Ensemble

Snow-covered field with tree shadows
Photograph: Nell Shaw Cohen, Taos, New Mexico, 2019

Saturday, December 14, 3:00pm
Boston Choral Ensemble Holiday Concert
Old South Church
645 Boylston St, Boston, MA
Purchase Tickets

Boston Choral Ensemble will give the World Premiere of Blue Shadows, Silver Sunlight—commissioned through their 12th Annual Commission Competition—on the choir’s annual winter holiday concert!

Blue Shadows, Silver Sunlight (ca. 9 minutes) features settings of three poems on the theme of winter: “Winter Branches” by Margaret Widdemer, “A Winter Blue Jay” by Sara Teasdale, and “A Winter Ride” by Amy Lowell, all written in the early 20th century by American women.

Each of these poets used vivid descriptions of winter phenomena to convey moments of profound connection to the natural world. I’ve grouped these poems together because I feel they form an aesthetically cohesive set, providing the basis for a musical narrative arc that moves from quiet contemplation (“Winter Branches”) to joyful exuberance (“A Winter Ride”).

I hope you may be able to join me at this very special performance!

Workshop of “Turn and Burn” at Houston Grand Opera

barrel racer

Next month, librettist Megan Cohen and I head back to Houston for the first music workshop of Turn and Burn—our chamber opera commissioned by Houston Grand Opera’s HGOco for premiere in Spring 2021.

Four days of work with our performers and directors will culminate in a presentation on December 9th of the complete 75-minute score, drafted for a reduced orchestration of piano, electric and acoustic guitar, and drum set. Revisions and orchestration will follow, leading to a full score workshop in 2020.

I can’t wait to share the fruits of this process with you all!

New Recording! “Transform the World with Beauty” for Vocal Ensemble

GRAMMY Award-nominated vocal ensemble Skylark gave absolutely stunning premiere performances of my work Transform the World with Beauty, which they commissioned for their Spring 2019 program “Masterpiece” featuring musical reflections of visual art. They recorded my piece during their tour’s culminating concert on the Georgetown Concert Series in Washington, D.C.

In the following video, I’ve paired the ensemble’s recording with texts and images from the Victorian artists and poets—Julia Margaret Cameron, Christina Rossetti, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and William Morris—who inspired my composition.

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


video credits

Performed by Skylark Vocal Ensemble (Matthew Guard, Artistic Director). Audio Recording by Dan Shores. Video Editing by Nell Shaw Cohen.

ABOUT THE Work

Transform the World with Beauty, an 11-minute work for SATB vocal ensemble 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.)

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.

Nell’s “Retrace” Wins Toronto Messiaen Ensemble’s International Call for Scores

Toronto Messiaen Ensemble announcement placard

Canadian Music Centre and Toronto Messiaen Ensemble recently selected my work Retrace (2018) for flute, violin, cello, for inclusion on their Spring 2020 season! My piece was one of five selected from roughly 450 submissions to their international Call for Scores.

This will be the first performance of my music in Canada! I’ll announce the concert date and further details soon.

Boston Choral Ensemble Awards Nell Commission

BCE logoI’m thrilled to have been named winner of Boston Choral Ensemble’s 12th Annual Commission Competition to write a work for their annual holiday concert! It’s a great honor to have been awarded this highly competitive opportunity to continue expanding my work in choral and vocal ensemble music.

My planned work, Blue Shadows, Silver Sunlight, will feature poems by early 20th century American poets Margaret Widdemer, Sara Teasdale, and Amy Lowell, each of which use vivid descriptions of winter phenomena to convey moments of profound connection to the natural world.

Stayed tuned for an announcement of the World Premiere performance this December in Boston, MA!