Transforming Forest is an upcoming work of chamber music inspired by Andy Goldsworthy‘s four art installations in the Presidio of San Francisco, CA. Santa Fe chamber ensemble Montage Music Society is commissioning San Francisco-born, Brooklyn-based composer Nell Shaw Cohen to create this piece, which will be premiered and toured during the 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 seasons as part of an evening length concert program of new chamber music inspired by visual art.

We are currently seeking venues, collaborative partnerships, and financial support for the commission and recording of Transforming Forest and Montage Music Society’s national tour of the accompanying program of music inspired by visual art. For more information, please contact the composer at nell@nellshawcohen and the ensemble at Read below to learn more about the collaborating artists and their vision for this project.

The Composition

The composer writes:

“In Transforming Forest for violin, cello, and piano, four short movements—ca. 15 minutes total—will each take the form of a response to one of the four site-specific installations 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, “Spire,” “Wood Line,” “Tree Fall,” and “Earth Wall,” were created by Goldsworthy between 2008 and 2014 using organic, on-site materials such as tree branches and soil.

Goldsworthy’s works are transformed through the growth of surrounding vegetation, the elements, the passage of time, and visitor interactions. In my response, I seek to evoke different kinds of transformation connected to each of the four installations. My tentative plan for the composition is described below.


In the first movement, OBSCURING, I envision using bold gestures, with wide intervallic leaps in the violin and cello, 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 the piano—tender at first, becoming increasingly robust—gradually consumes the opening texture. This process reflects the stand of young cypress trees surrounding “Spire,” which will eventually obscure it over the years as they mature to their full height and density.

Earth WallIn the second movement, EXCAVATING, my music will reflect how 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 densely interlocking contrapuntal texture, conveying the spherical tangle of branches at the core of the wall, will be revealed in fragments—moving from placid stillness to steady undulating activity.

Tree FallThe third movement, CRACKING, will respond to “Tree Fall”: 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. A dark, chorale-like music, conveying the womb-like interior of the building, will develop “cracks”—new rhythmic patterns imposed on the material through negative space (rests).

Wood LineThe final movement, TRACING, responds to “Wood Line”: a long, curving line of eucalyptus branches (1,200 feet) placed along the forest floor. Many times, I’ve traced this line 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 this movement, a cantus firmus melody will be “traced” and transformed through heterophony, picked up by each of the instruments in different tempi and registers.”

The Ensemble

Montage Music Society logo

► Hear samples of Montage Music Society’s music inspired by visual art

Founded in 2004, Montage Music Society has established itself as a versatile ensemble primarily dedicated to music inspired by visual art. Their projects have resulted in a variety of commissions and performance venues and an acclaimed recording, “Starry Night,” on the MSR label. MMS has been heard at the Library of Congress, Washington DC’s Corcoran Gallery, the Chautauqua Institute and the International Piatti Festival. In 2007 they commissioned composer Andrew List to write a new work based on a centerpiece of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts collection. Funded by a grant from The Argosy Foundation Contemporary Music Fund and Greg DePrince, “Noa Noa, A Gauguin Tableau” is now performed by groups internationally.

In 2017-18, Montage Music Society is touring a program of newly commissioned works inspired by visual art. Composers to be featured are Bruce Wolosoff and Ofer Ben-Amots. Wolosoff’s piece is based on paintings of renowned abstract expressionist painter Milton Resnick, whose centennial was in 2017.

Debra Ayers
Debra Ayers

Our group has a deep commitment to exploring the possibilities for chamber music to increase appreciation of visual art—as well as reaching museum-based audiences who may not have had prior exposure to New Music. I share Nell Shaw Cohen’s enthusiasm for Andy Goldsworthy’s art and the possibilities for interpreting his work through music.

-Debra Ayers, Director & Pianist, Montage Music Society

The Composer

Nell Shaw Cohen at Point Reyes National Seashore
Cohen at Point Reyes National Seashore

Brooklyn-based, San Francisco-born composer Nell Shaw Cohen (b. 1988) evokes visual art, natural landscapes, and the lives of mavericks and artists in lyrical works from orchestral tone poems to mobile apps. Cohen has presented several concerts of  music inspired by visual art at the Parrish Art Museum, Harwood Museum, and Peabody Essex Museum. As Founder & Director of, she advocates for music engaging with landscape, nature, and place.

Cohen has been commissioned by Houston Grand Opera to write a chamber opera (premiere 2021) for HGOco’s Song of Houston initiative. Her chamber opera Mabel’s Call (2017) received readings in New York City and New Mexico and in 2018, the University of New Mexico will workshop the full score with Cohen in residence. Her monodrama The Coming of Spring (2014) was given a workshop staging in NYC. Cohen is an alumna of the Composers & the Voice fellowship with American Opera Projects and the Composer-Librettist Studio at New Dramatists.

Cohen’s residencies have included Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts, The Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, NYU Symphony, and a Page 73 Yale Summer Residency with playwright Mashuq Mushtaq Deen. She studied at New York University (M.M.) and New England Conservatory (B.M.).

Nell Shaw Cohen
Nell Shaw Cohen

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 particularly formative: my childhood home was steps from the site where Goldsworthy’s WOOD LINE was later created. Having made countless pilgrimages to Goldsworthy’s Presidio installations, I feel impelled to formulate a musical response to these powerful places.

-Nell Shaw Cohen, Composer