Upcoming performance of “Duet” at SMFA presented by the Boston Composers Collective

This Tuesday, March 1, 2011, my work for flute and bassoon, Duet, will be performed at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts on the first concert given by the Boston Composers Collective. My piece was selected for inclusion by student composers from Berklee College of Music, Boston Conservatory, and New England Conservatory. The BCC is a “society of young composers, whose aim is to expose the public to new music in innovative ways, presenting music in conjunction with other artistic media, fostering collaboration and performance opportunities between student composers and other young artists in the Boston area.” The performance will accompany an exhibition of visual art by SMFA students.

The concert is free and open to the public. It takes place March 1, 6:00pm, at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Auditorium, 230 The Fenway, Boston, MA, 02115.

Duet (listen here) is all about counterpoint, syncopated rhythms, and economy of material. I sought to weave a texture between these two opposing yet complementary voices that is conversational and playful, and to create dynamic and virtuosic roles for both instruments. It was performed last year at New England Conservatory on Tuesday Night New Music, and will be performed on Tuesday by Linda Husseini, flute, and Andrew Thompson, bassoon.

Georgia O’Keeffe’s Favorite Music

I visited the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum for the second time in 2010, while I was in New Mexico shooting footage for a multimedia video piece relating to O’Keeffe’s New Mexico paintings. While filming the locations that formed the basis for many of her paintings, I sought to gain some insight into the sources of her inspiration. O’Keeffe paintings are somehow very musical in character, and I’ve wondered how, if at all, music had influenced her (even if indirectly). I knew that she had some personal interest in music, as is obvious from the titles of paintings such as Music, Pink and Blue No. 2, or Blue and Green Music. O’Keeffe herself had played the violin at an earlier point in life, and she considered singing to be “the most perfect means of expression”.

While in Santa Fe I met with museum curator and prominent O’Keeffe scholar Barbara Buhler Lynes, who was kind enough to point me towards some leads for research. I described the video project to her, and how my work is propelled by a musical response to O’Keeffe’s paintings – the musical texture, timbre, and harmony that I imagine as the musical environment in which her visual world would exist.

Georgia O'Keeffe, Music, Pink and Blue No. 2 (1918)
Georgia O'Keeffe, Music, Pink and Blue No. 2 (1918)

Ms. Lynes directed me to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Research Center Library, where I read an essay on O’Keeffe and music by a former curator for the museum, Heather Hole, which was written for a program by the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival. The library also had a complete log of the LPs that were found in O’Keeffe’s possession after she passed away in 1986. This essay, the list of musical recordings, and my later tour of O’Keeffe’s home in Abiquiu, helped to illuminate the role that music played in her life.

Ms. Lynes explained that O’Keeffe was influenced by the concept of synesthesia – the experience of “crossed senses”, i.e. hearing images or seeing sounds – as it had been explored by European modernists such as Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944). These artists sought to find the equivalents of music in color and imagery, and to find a universal language in art that transcends the specificity of language or direct representation.

According to Heather Hole, O’Keeffe had been influenced by one of her teachers at Teachers College of Columbia University, Alon Bement, who had played music in his classroom and directed the students to “draw what they hear”. From early in her career, O’Keeffe appreciated the abstract quality of music because it seemed somehow essentialized or pure, and freed from the superficial details of representational art.

O'Keeffe's Abiquiu home

Once she had permanently settled in New Mexico in the late ’40s, O’Keeffe had a high-quality McIntosh stereo system installed in a peaceful and spacious room in her Abiquiu home. There she would lay in her favorite lounge chair, gazing beyond a wall-sized window at an elegantly framed salt cedar tree, and absorb recordings with full attention. She supported the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival early on in its existence (during the latter decade or so of her life), and invited musicians to perform for her in her home, where she would listen to them, often with eyes closed. In Hole’s article, one of the musicians related how she would listen with a striking intensity of focus.

Her large library of LPs included primarily classical music. Interestingly, O’Keeffe didn’t seem to listen to very much music by then-contemporary composers. Perusing the catalog, I spotted just one or two records each of Stravinsky, Hindemith, Gershwin, and Ives, as well as an Edith Piaf album and some odds and ends.

Although she was friends with Aaron Copland, and owned a record that he conducted, she didn’t seem to be a fan of his music – despite the fact that today’s listener would likely consider her landscape paintings “Coplandesque” in their evocation of American pastoral sensibility, or a classically American earthiness and simplicity of language.

Above all, O’Keeffe collected music of the 18th and 19th centuries – Beethoven, Schumann, Haydn, Bach, etc, and surprisingly to me, a quantity of Monteverdi madrigals, sacred music and operas (including multiple recordings of the opera “The Coronation of Poppea”) – which were relatively obscure at the time she was listening – as well as Verdi and Wagner operas.

Although O’Keeffe is associated with the Modernist and Abstract movements in visual art, it seems natural that her musical tastes reflected the lush, lyrical, conventionally emotive quality of earlier music, rather than the harmonic and rhythmic explorations of the early-mid 20th century. The shapes in her paintings are rounded and flowing, the colors rich, and her paintings are often strikingly passionate and direct in their emotive quality – yet always balanced, elegant, and poignant in simplicity, like a Classical sonata or Romantic Lied.

Seeing Music in O’Keeffe

I’ve been aware of Georgia O’Keeffe for as long as I can remember thanks to my parents, who hung a poster of Music, Pink and Blue No. 2 in my childhood home. But her artwork first grabbed me in 2004, when I saw an exhibit of her paintings at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe. I was captivated by the elegant undulating forms in her paintings, and was especially intrigued by her surreal images of magnified animal bones and flowers looming over skies and distant landscapes.

Georgia O'Keeffe, From the Faraway Nearby (1938)
Georgia O'Keeffe, From the Faraway, Nearby (1938)

A few years later I found myself mining visual art as a source of inspiration in my music, and exploring the idea of creating musical works that acted as an equivalent or a translation of visual experiences. I began imagining a musical language or aesthetic that would relate to O’Keeffe’s visual world.

My first O’Keeffe-inspired piece was an orchestral tone poem, written in 2009. Since this initial work, I’ve composed two more pieces in the search to create a musical equivalent to my experience of her artwork (To Create One’s Own World and Into nowhere), the latest of which developed into a video project fusing my musical and visual interpretations of O’Keeffe’s New Mexico paintings.

I’ve taken a cue in my works from O’Keeffe’s idea of “The Faraway Nearby” (from the title of a painting, above). I feel that this phrase refers to a certain quality, which is captured in her juxtapositions of delicate, emotionally evocative objects (flower blossoms, animal skulls and bones, twisting tree branches) with landscapes of monumental, seemingly infinite, scope.

For me, the idea of “The Faraway Nearby” is the feeling that an object, place, artwork, or experience that is vast (epic?) can also be deeply intimate, and understood in a personal way that transcends explanation. Master symphonists have been noted for their ability to evoke an epic-yet-personal quality (Beethoven and Mahler come to mind).

I feel that this quality relates to the virtually universal human response to nature or landscape as spiritual, powerful, and mysteriously significant. O’Keeffe clearly experienced this response more poignantly than most. She wrote that she wanted to explore through her art “the unexplainable thing in nature that makes me feel the world is big far beyond my understanding – to understand maybe by trying to put it into form. To find the feeling of infinity on the horizon line or just over the next hill.”

“The Faraway Nearby” premiere and recording session

** UPDATE: The Faraway Nearby is now available for viewing online!! Please visit thefaraway.org **

The live performance at Tuesday Night New Music
The premiere at Tuesday Night New Music

The Faraway Nearby: Georgia O’Keeffe and the New Mexico Landscape has just received a very successful premiere screening with musical performance at New England Conservatory on the Tuesday Night New Music on a Wednesday concert on November 10. The piece was performed by a group of NEC students: Lisa Husseini (flute), Christopher Mothersole (clarinet), Wesley Chu (piano), Samantha Bennett (violin), and Marza Wilks (cello).

The ensemble performed  in front of a video projection, listening to a click track on headphones. I programmed the click to match the tempo of the mock-up MIDI track which the video was edited to, so the music in the performance was timed precisely to every cut in the video.

Although we’d rehearsed the music extensively beforehand, this was actually the first time that I’d heard/seen a performance of the music together with the video.

The ensemble with Nell after the performance
Nell with the ensemble

I was excited to discover that being to able to hear and see the musicians really lent a live energy to the video. This gave it the feeling of a true multimedia performance, not just a film screening. I hope to be able to organize repeat performances of this piece with live performers.

Today we went into the studio to record the score that will appear on the online version of the video and future screenings at venues that aren’t able to accomodate a live ensemble. The group knows the piece very well by now, so there was little need for rehearsal or fine-tuning in the studio, and things went very smoothly.

Now it’s left to choose the best take, to mix and master the score, and to adjust the video as needed so that the music and imagery is perfectly in synch.

In the studio
In the studio

Over the coming months I will be approaching galleries and museums, film festivals, and music ensembles with the aim of securing further screenings and performances outside of NEC. If you know of a venue, festival or ensemble that might be interested in this piece (10 minutes duration), either as a video with recorded music or with a live ensemble, please contact me at nell@nellshawcohen.com

** UPDATE: The Faraway Nearby is now available for viewing online!! Please visit thefaraway.org **

Premiere of “The Faraway Nearby” with live music!

The premiere screening of The Faraway Nearby will take place on Wednesday, November 10th, 2010, as part of the Tuesday Night New Music concert series at New England Conservatory. The performance will take place at 8:00pm in Brown Hall (290 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA, 02115). Admission is free and open to the public.

The video will be projected and accompanied by a live ensemble of excellent NEC performers (flute, clarinet, piano, violin, and cello). The ensemble will be going into the studio the following weekend to record the score. The video will be available for viewing online no later than January 2010.

Editing and animation of “The Faraway Nearby” in progress

Still from "The Faraway Nearby" (work in progress)
Animation from "The Faraway Nearby" inspired by the painting "Deer's Skull with Pedernal"

My Georgia O’Keeffe / New Mexico video project “The Faraway Nearby” is now well into the editing phase. Using a MIDI mock-up track for the score, I’ve been assembling the footage from New Mexico – five hours in total, from which I’ve extracted 220+ individual video clips, to be turned into an eight-or-so-minute video… yikes! I’m also incorporating a few illuminating quotations from O’Keeffe, and enhancing the video with brief animated segments.

I’ve utilized a rotoscoping animation technique – which involves hand-drawing digital animation over a video reference – to briefly depict O’Keeffe herself as a character in the video. More extensively, I’ve been animating still photos to build compositions inspired by the visuals in her paintings (particularly the signature animal skulls and flowers).

I’m using the Adobe Creative Suite 5 Production Premium software bundle to achieve these effects: Premiere for the heavy lifting of video editing and putting together all of the elements; After Effects for animating still images and text; Flash for drawn animation; and Photoshop for the preparation of the images used in the animations. I’m still learning all of this new software and experimenting with different ideas and techniques, but I’m excited about the way the video is shaping up.

Still from "The Faraway Nearby" (work in progress)
Quotation from Georgia O'Keeffe in "The Faraway Nearby"

The trickiest aspect of editing this project is probably the pacing. This is a non-narrative music video packed with a variety of quickly-changing visuals, so the challenge for me now is to find the balance of how long to dwell on a particular image or series of related images, while maintaining enough consistency to be satisfying and, at the same time, the sense of movement which is key to the tone or mood that I’m striving to evoke. But ultimately, everything relies on the pacing of the music.

Day 7: Last day of filming; the Black Place

Since I began researching locations to film in New Mexico for my Georgia O’Keeffe video project, I’ve been both excited and a little nervous about the Black Place. Georgia O’Keeffe’s series of paintings on this subject (e.g. Black Place II and Grey Hills) are among my favorite works of hers. While composing O’Keeffe-inspired music (see this post for info), I often felt most drawn to relate my music to the Black Place paintings. I’m fascinated by the sense of infinite movement in her vision of these enigmatic hills.

The Black Place
The Black Place

I was nervous about filming because the location is relatively remote and seemed like it would be difficult to find. Add to that the fact that it’s supposedly “oven-like” in the summer (the grey-black dirt absorbs and multiplies the sun’s heat), and we were experiencing an uncharacteristic heat wave in the southwest.

But thanks to this website (and thanks to Barbara Buhler Lynes, curator of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, for directing me to that website), we were able to navigate through surprisingly verdant mountains, valleys and ranches to the exact place where O’Keeffe painted (about a 1 1/2 hour drive from Abiquiu). We made an effort to arrive late in the afternoon, when the day’s heat was on the wane.

Filming at the Black Place
O'Keeffe said the Black Place was like "a mile of elephants".

It turns out that the Black Place is located directly on a four-lane highway (which it definitely was not when O’Keeffe painted it in the ’30s and ’40s!). This was both convenient and problematic: convenient because we didn’t need to hike the tripod and camera very far from the car, but problematic because it was difficult to get off of the road at the best spots for filming (not to mention the power lines and fences – and small oil pumps! – that stood in between my camera and the hills).

Despite small setbacks, I think this may turn out to be the best footage of this trip – and, poetically enough, the last footage. The “real” Black Place was fascinating and, more than any other location we had visited, it felt for me like walking into an O’Keeffe painting. While looking through the viewfinder of the camera at those smooth, undulating mounds of painted-looking grey-pink-white-black, I felt like I was seeing some of what she had seen.

O’Keeffe said that she traveled around the world and had never found a place that was better than where she lived. This project has taken me to those places that she considered great, and it has given me a new depth of understanding of her experience and where her visionary artwork came from. After a week of travel and filming, the footage is in the can – five hours in total (eek) – and now, the most time-consuming part of the project lies ahead: editing!

Day 5 & 6: Return to the White Place; Pedernal with storm clouds; a break in Santa Fe; more at Ghost Ranch

Cacti at the White Place
Cacti abound at the White Place

I went out early to catch morning light at the White Place (this was our second visit – see this post), and spent a good couple of hours getting footage there. I heard that a major Hollywood flick (“Cowboys and Aliens”) will be filming on location at the White Place very soon, so thankfully we were there just in time to get it to ourselves! (There was, incidentally, a lower-key crew from Britain filming a documentary on dinosaurs at Ghost Ranch during the whole time we were there.)

O’Keeffe once said that when looking at her subjects, they sometimes seem to paint themselves – until you try. That’s how I feel about the White Place. It’s so multi-faceted and filled with different possibilities for angles, lighting, framing, etc, that it felt nearly impossible to get a shot that sufficiently captured what I could see with my eyes.

Pedernal with storm clouds
Pedernal with storm clouds

Later there was a lightning storm (a welcome change from the constant dry heat and sun), and I grabbed the opportunity to take some road-side footage of Pedernal with storm clouds hovering above. Afterwards, we took a break from filming for a leisurely afternoon and evening in Santa Fe (an hour drive away from Abiquiu).

The next day (Day 6), still using the Abiquiu Inn as our home base, we rested and worked on planning our route back to the Denver airport. We also returned to Ghost Ranch to capture just a bit more footage of the landscape from the road.

Day 4: Tour of O’Keeffe’s Abiquiu home; 1977 documentary

Today I took a guided tour of Georgia O’Keeffe’s Abiquiu home and studio where she lived from 1949 until 1984 (except for the summer months, during which she lived at Ghost Ranch). The tour had information about the history of the place, the significance of the site in her paintings, and the small realities of her life and relationship to her space and objects, which I won’t attempt to relate here in full detail. The house has been preserved virtually exactly as she left it (“Beware of Dog” signs and all!), and I was struck by O’Keeffe’s distinctive decorative sensibility – spare, earthy, elegant. Every nook and cranny is perfectly composed, with collections of rocks and sculpture pieces on empty surfaces. The style of the furnishings is classic mid-century modernist, tinged with a Japanese aesthetic. It’s relaxing, beautiful, although not exactly “cozy”. Clearly a conducive place for making art and leading a quiet, contemplative lifestyle.

Later in the day I watched the 1977 documentary “Georgia O’Keeffe” by Perry Miller Adato, which features exclusive interviews with the artist herself when she was in her 80s. The film is out of print on VHS and has never been released on DVD, so I was excited to see that it was available for viewing at the Piedra Lumbre Education and Visitor Center at Ghost Ranch. It’s a fascinating and well-made portrait, offering genuine insight into O’Keeffe’s life and identity as an artist.

Day 3: Ghost Ranch and vicinity; the White Place

Chimney Rock
Chimney Rock at Ghost Ranch

We started the day very early in an effort to capture the morning light, and to get out before the day’s incredible (uncharacteristic) heat set in. We walked a short way into the Chimney Rock hiking trail to shoot a stunning 360 degree vista. We spent the rest of the morning exploring other views in the area, and the part of Ghost Ranch known as the Piedra Lumbre basin, which includes the several acres of land that O’Keeffe actually owned. Unfortunately, we discovered that the hiking trails there are currently closed to visitors – but we were able to enjoy the landscape from the side of the road, and caught a distant glimpse of O’Keeffe’s home and studio (owned and maintained by the museum, but closed to the public), where she painted views of Pedernal and the badlands that surrounded her.

After an afternoon of filming and walking, we left Ghost Ranch to check in at the Abiquiu Inn, where we will spend the next few days. The inn is a short drive away from Ghost Ranch and close to the town of Abiquiu, where O’Keeffe kept a home for the non-summer months.

The White Place
The White Place

Following our arrival at the inn, we promptly drove to the nearby “White Place”, an area which was the subject of several O’Keeffe paintings. Her paintings focus on isolated detail views, which highlight the shapes and negative space in the column-like rock formations (see “From the White Place”). I didn’t know quite what the White Place would be like in person.

It was breathtaking. Cliffs, columns and mushrooms of soft white rock roll off into the distance, giving the appearance of an ancient Roman palace from Mars. I took time walking, filming, and admiring this place (which is host to plenty of insect life, including hundreds of gnats which seemed determined to land on my face and neck at the very moments I was attempting to execute precise camera maneuvers…).

The accessibility of the White Place was a relief: leaving the car in a parking area, I was free to hike into the site and station the camera up close without the limitations of power lines, fences, buildings or private roads in the way, as has been the case with every other location I’ve filmed. Although the light was beautiful, the angle of the late-day sun cast shadows on much of the landscape, so I decided to return on another day.