I had the great pleasure of spending last week doing immersive field research in Houston, Texas with my librettist collaborator (and sister) Megan Cohen. We’re in the early stages of developing a “feminist rodeo opera” commissioned by Houston Grand Opera’s HGOco for their wonderful Song of Houston chamber opera initiative.
Set at the present-day Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, this opera’s fictional story focuses on women in rodeo culture. Our characters include a professional barrel racer, a CEO of a Western wear company, a rodeo queen, and the ghost of a 19th century cowboy.
Thanks to Houston Grand Opera’s HGOco, and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, our research activities included interviews with seven amazing rodeo athletes (including World Champion barrel racers!); site visits to George Ranch, The Heritage Society, and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Women’s Leadership Conference; and, of course, plenty of exploring and observing the rodeo itself. Check out my Twitter and Instagram feed (#RodeoOpera) for photos and summaries of our experiences throughout the week!
The premiere production of our opera is scheduled for Spring 2021. I can’t wait to share it with you.
It inspired me to compose my first piece for solo piano (way, way past due!). It was my first opportunity to spend countless hours and miles walking by myself through an expansive landscape of astonishing beauty. (I took, literally, a thousand photographs.) I challenged myself to compose on the trail, and at the piano, away from my beloved (and sometimes constraining) Finale. This solitude was complemented by stimulating conversations at group meals, campfires, and sunset-watching sessions with fascinating fellow artists and new friends. I also got to learn more about horses, rodeo, and ranching from an expert and to watch horse wranglers at work (research for my upcoming “feminist rodeo opera” for HGOco).
These experiences will live on through my latest work, Walks at Brush Creek (2017) for solo piano. Here’s my program note for this piece:
Walks at Brush Creek was inspired by my daily walks through rural Western scenery as an Artist-in-Residence at Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts, located on a ranch in southeastern Wyoming abutting Medicine Bow National Forest. In the spirit of John Muir, I slowly “sauntered” for many miles on foot trails and dirt roads snaking through forests, valleys, and hills, and tried various approaches to combining this active mindfulness—a walking meditation, of sorts—with my creative process. The best days were when I generated melodies and motives on-the-move in the morning and fleshed them out at the piano in the afternoon. Walks at Brush Creek is the fruit of these experiments. With this score, I offer a musical illustration of my emotional responses to the landscape of Brush Creek Ranch—from the ever-shifting cloud shadows playing over the grasses and sagebrush to the sweeping lines of wooden fences that frame them.
I’m delighted to say that World Premiere of Walks at Brush Creek will be given at Michigan Technological University by faculty pianist Jon Ensminger on upcoming concert Music of the Landscape: Compositions Inspired by Our National Parks and Other Special Places. This event was coordinated by composer Libby Meyer in affiliation with my group, the Landscape Music Composers Network.
Sunday, December 10, 2017, 3:00pm
Michigan Technological University, McArdle Theatre
Walker 207, 1400 Townsend Drive, Houghton, MI 49931
Tickets: $5 Tickets and venue information
UPDATE: The full recording of the premiere performance Walks at Brush Creek is now online!
Saturday, November 11, 2017, 5:00pm
Parrish Art Museum
279 Montauk Highway, Water Mill, NY 11976
Tickets start at $200 / $150 Members Tickets and venue information
My work for wind quintet, Watercolors (2011), returns to the Parrish Art Museum in The Hamptons on November 11. This performance by the internationally acclaimed Quintet of the Americas will kick off the museum’s anniversary benefit party—five years after Watercolors was performed at their grand opening in November 2012!
Watercolors for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon was inspired by the watercolor paintings of Charles E. Burchfield (1893-1967)—including one in the Parrish’s permanent collection, which will be on display in the galleries in conjunction with this concert. (Learn more about the connection between Burchfield’s art and my music here.)
Long recognized as leading interpreters of folk and contemporary wind quintet music of North and South America, Quintet of the Americas has spent over three decades commissioning over 70 works, performing over three hundred concerts throughout the United States, and in Canada, the Caribbean, South America and Eastern Europe, and recording eight CDs. It will be an amazing honor to have my music performed by this group!
Inspired by the natural setting and artistic life of Long Island’s East End, the Parrish Art Museum illuminates the creative process and how art and artists transform our experiences and understanding of the world and how we live in it. The Museum fosters connections among individuals, art, and artists through care and interpretation of the collection, presentation of exhibitions, publications, educational initiatives, programs, and artists-in-residence. The Parrish is a center for cultural engagement, an inspiration and destination for the region, the nation, and the world.
How wonderful to think that this will be the fourth time my music has been performed at the Parrish Art Museum. (See blog posts from the first time in 2012, second in 2013, and third in 2016.)
THE BETTERMENT SOCIETY
Written by Mashuq Mushtaq Deen
Directed by Jessi Hill
Music composed by Nell Shaw Cohen
Performed by Jade Wu, Lynda Gravatt, Zoe Winters, and Matt Consul
Monday, October 30, 2017, 3:00pm
New York Theatre Workshop
79 E. 4th St, New York, NY 10003
Free admission Venue information
Join me for this public reading of brilliant new play The Betterment Society by Mashuq Mushtaq Deen. I composed a song for voice and guitar that is threaded throughout the structure of the play.
Of this play and workshop reading, Deen writes:
“Three women on a godforsaken mountain.” This abstracted piece is curious about how place affects values, and how this in turn affects the divide between rural and urban value systems in America. It ask questions about the ways in which “community” can liberate us and/or imprison us. (And it’s also about three really fucking strong women.)
There’s something I’m trying to understand about the audience’s response so if you can come, your presence will be TANGIBLY helpful to me. There will be a brief conversation afterwards. I hope you can join us.
These past few years, I’ve focused increasingly on vocal music and opera—and I’ve been fortunate to have access to workshops, residencies, and fellowships that have moved me towards becoming a better artist and building a career as an opera creator. I completed my first dramatic work, monodrama The Coming of Spring, in 2014, and finished my first full chamber opera, Mabel’s Call, this past summer.
A big question, of course, has remained: How could I make that leap from writing “on spec” and workshopping operas-in-development to securing a premiere production by a professional company? Or, for that matter, having an opera commissioned?
Then, one day, HGOco—the community collaboration and education arm of Houston Grand Opera—loved the proposal I wrote with my collaborator to create a “feminist rodeo opera” (more on that below!) for their award-winning Song of Houston initiative, which has been commissioning new works based on stories that define the unique character of Houston since 2007. Their open call for proposals opened a big door for me.
HGOco has awarded me a commission to compose a 60-80 minute one act opera, which will receive a full production in March 2021 with five soloists and an eight-piece chamber ensemble.
Dream. Come. True.
As if that weren’t wonderful enough, I get to write this opera with the brilliant Megan Cohen—one of the most-produced playwrights under 35 and an emerging opera librettist, recently commissioned by Washington National Opera’s American Opera Initiative. She also happens to be my sister.
(As far as I know, Megan and I might be the first ever professional composer-librettist team of sisters!)
HGOco commissions works that reflect the Houston experience. Our original story, which will be informed by interviews with contemporary Texans, offers a feminist perspective on rodeo culture: “Small-town barrel racing champion Shayla Taylor and her sponsor, powerful businesswoman Jamie Mendoza, aim for a big win at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. When a bronc rider with a tragic past threatens Shayla’s career-defining race, the women discover each other’s strength in adversity with the help of a spirited rodeo queen.”
Over the next few years, Megan and I will be making frequent trips to Houston for dramaturgical research and workshops as we develop the libretto and score.
I am BEYOND thrilled and honored for the opportunity to create work for HGOco. I can’t wait to bring this opera to life and share it with an audience!
For more information about HGOco’s commissions, which also include an exciting project from composer Nkeiru Okoye and librettist Anita Gonzalez, check out the press release on BroadwayWorld.com.
I recently had the honor of participating as a guest artist in Page 73‘s week-long Summer Residency on the Yale campus in New Haven, CT, workshopping a wonderful new play by Mashuq Mushtaq Deen with the all-star team of director Jessi Hill and actors Moe Angelos, Isabel Arraiza, Maya Sharpe, and Jade Wu. We lived and worked alongside artists developing three other projects, sharing readings of new work and exchanging ideas over daily group dinners.
Mashuq Mushtaq Deen invited me to collaborate on his play THE BETTERMENT SOCIETY after we’d worked together in New Dramatists’ Composer-Librettist Studio last winter. We’ve written a song for voice and guitar that is threaded throughout the structure of the play and creates a musical-dramatic arc for one the three women at the center of Deen’s narrative. The song was previously workshopped as part of a reading with director Jessi Hill at New Dramatists, and will receive further development on another reading in New York City this fall. I look forward to seeing where this project leads!
I’m very honored to announce that the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque will be presenting a full-length workshop of my opera Mabel’s Call—with the full score for six soloists, chorus, and seven-piece chamber ensemble—as UNM Opera Theatre’s Fall 2018 semester production! I can’t wait to work with stage director Leslie Umphrey, music director Kristin Ditlow, and their talented students, as UNM Opera Theatre Composer-in-Residence. Performance dates TBA.
On June 18, 2016, the Mayor of Taos, New Mexico declared the first annual “Mabel Dodge Luhan Day,” to occur on the third weekend of June. He noted that “Mabel Dodge Luhan was one of, if not the most prominent and globally known resident of our community from 1918 to 1962, serving as our unofficial ambassador, mentor and host to the arts, to the outside world and to many of the most talented, influential, and well known figures of her lifetime.”
In celebration of the second annual Mabel Dodge Luhan Day weekend, the Harwood Museum of Art and The Mabel Dodge Luhan House are presenting a behind-the-scenes look at Mabel’s Call: my new chamber opera that dramatizes Luhan’s self-reinvention in Taos.
I look forward to joining leading Luhan scholar Lois Rudnick in this public conversation and opera video screening, titled Mabel’s Call: Celebrating a Remarkable Taos Woman through Music. We will screen and discuss video clips excerpted from a concert workshop performance of the opera-in-progress, which was filmed live at the Harwood Museum in 2016. I’ll be shedding light on the process of interpreting Luhan’s life and historical context through music. Audience Q&A will follow.
The event will take place Sunday, June 18, 2017, 2:00pm in the Harwood Museum of Art’s Arthur Bell Auditorium in scenic Taos. Admission is free and open to the public. Seating is limited. For venue information, visit the Harwood Museum of Art.
ABOUT THE OPERA
Inspired by the life of Mabel Dodge Luhan, Mabel’s Call is a lyrical opera in one act scored for six soloists, chorus, and chamber ensemble, with music and libretto by Nell Shaw Cohen. A universal tale told on an intimate scale, this work probes themes of identity, love, home, spirituality, and the search for a meaningful life. The opera’s story will resonate with audiences everywhere—even while it is deeply rooted in the culture, history, and physical landscape of Taos, New Mexico in the 1910s and ‘20s. The Harwood Museum of Art and American Opera Projects have presented workshops of Mabel’s Call in Taos and New York City, respectively. To hear clips from the opera and learn more about the project, visit mabelscall.com.
Taos Mountain and the Rio Grande Gorge. Nell Shaw Cohen, 2016.
Last year I spent ten weeks as Artist-in-Residence at The Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, which supports artists and the creative process by providing housing and studio space in the heart of Taos, New Mexico. I’m delighted that the foundation has invited me back for a second residency.
I look forward to returning and continuing work on Mabel’s Call: my opera inspired by Mabel Dodge Luhan’s journey of self-reinvention in Taos during the 1910’s and ’20s. The Wurlitzer Foundation is located minutes away from Luhan’s historic home and all of the locales that were important to her life in Taos—and, consequently, my opera! It’s the perfect place to immerse myself in completing this opera-in-progress, my largest work to date, which I began researching about a year and a half ago.
Chiura Obata, “Mono Crater, Sierra Nevada, California”
Sunday, April 2, 2017, 10:30-11:30am
Unitarian Church of Marlborough and Hudson
80 Main St
Hudson, MA, 01749
Free and open to the public Venue Website
A performance of Dai-Shizen (Great Nature) (2014) will be given by Gabriela Ruiz, flute, and Devin Ulibarri, guitar, at the Unitarian Church of Marlborough and Hudson during a Sunday worship service on April 2, focusing on nature and environmental themes. Distribuição de flores by Heitor Villa-Lobos will also be performed.
Dai-Shizen (Great Nature) for flute and guitar looks at nature through the eyes of a visual artist: Chiura Obata (1885-1975). It is my musical response to Obata’s journey through landscapes, as seen through his artworks, in three movements: California, Topaz, and Sunset.
Obata’s woodblock prints and watercolors from the 1920s and ‘30s show some of the most extraordinary visual representations of Yosemite National Park ever created, from El Capitan to Mono Lake. The natural landscapes of California were this Japanese-American immigrant’s greatest inspiration.
Obata and his family were then imprisoned for over a year in internment camps during World War II, primarily in Topaz, Utah. Despite demeaning conditions, Obata strove to bring meaning into the lives of those around him. He founded an art school with his fellow internees and created stunning, emotionally charged watercolor paintings juxtaposing the dreary manmade structures of the prison camp against broad expanses of desert, mountains, and fiery sunsets.
In composing this piece, I was particularly inspired by Obata’s ability to follow his philosophy of dai-shizen (Great Nature)—nature as a source of artistic inspiration and spiritual harmony—throughout the best and worst moments of his life.
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To preview this work, watch a video of the World Premiere performance at Boston GuitarFest in 2014. To view some of the artworks by Chiura Obata that inspired my music, check out this online gallery from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.