Please download this document for current versions of Nell’s biography for use in concert programs, press releases, and other publications. Last updated: July 6, 2021.
Nell Shaw Cohen (b. 1988) is an American composer, librettist, and multimedia artist. She evokes landscapes, visual art, and the lives of mavericks in her lyrical works for the stage, concert hall, and digital media.
An active composer of opera and vocal music, Cohen was commissioned by Houston Grand Opera to write Turn and Burn (premiere Spring 2022), a “feminist rodeo opera,” with librettist Megan Cohen for HGOco’s Song of Houston chamber opera initiative. This project garnered an OPERA America Commissioning Grant for Female Composers (2020). In 2018, her chamber opera Mabel’s Call was featured at Fort Worth Opera’s Frontiers showcase and in a full workshop production by the University of New Mexico, with Cohen in residence. Her monodrama The Coming of Spring was given a workshop staging at New York University (2014). Cohen is an alumna of the Composers & the Voice fellowship with The American Opera Project and Nautilus Music-Theater’s Composer-Librettist Studio at New Dramatists, and her work was first runner-up for the 2020 Zepick Modern Opera Competition.
Cohen has received commissions from Skylark Vocal Ensemble, Boston Choral Ensemble, Juventas New Music Ensemble, American Wild Ensemble, The Brass Project, Montage Music Society, New York University Symphony, Boston GuitarFest, soprano Laura Strickling, and WordSong, among others. Her Artist Residencies have included Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts, The Helene Wurlitzer Foundation of New Mexico, NYU Symphony, and a Page 73 Yale Summer Residency with playwright Mashuq Mushtaq Deen. She has produced concerts of her chamber and vocal music with the Parrish Art Museum (Southampton, NY), Harwood Museum (Taos, NM), Peabody Essex Museum (Salem, MA), and the U.S. Forest Service’s Visions of the Wild Festival (Vallejo, CA).
Cohen earned degrees in composition from New York University (M.M. ’14), where she studied with Herschel Garfein, Julia Wolfe, and Missy Mazzoli, and New England Conservatory (B.M. ’12), where she studied with Michael Gandolfi, John Mallia, and Kati Agócs, among others. As a librettist and lyricist, Cohen has studied libretto-writing and dramaturgy with Herschel Garfein and Mark Campbell.
Her honors have included the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Graduate Arts Award, Presser Scholar Award, NEC’s Chadwick Medal, and the Ellen Taaffe Zwilich Prize from the International Alliance for Women in Music . Her works have been selected for performance through calls for scores by Toronto Messiaen Ensemble & Canadian Music Centre, Bold City Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, and The Astoria Choir.
As Founder & Director of LandscapeMusic.org, an international network of over 35 composers and performers active since 2015, Cohen advocates for music inspired by landscape, nature, and place. She directed Landscape Music: Rivers & Trails, a collaborative concert series in Fall 2018 that featured 15 composers, catalyzed the creation of 12 World Premiere works of chamber music, and engaged 35 musicians in five regions across the United States. Her 2022 initiative with Landscape Music, Lungs of the City: Olmsted’s Parks in Music, will take 8 World Premieres on a multi-city tour commemorating the bicentennial of the birth of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.
Cohen has also produced educational media as a multimedia artist and user experience designer (portfolio at beyondthenotes.org). Her unique projects have been viewed by tens of thousands online. The Boston Globe described her web project Beyond the Notes: Music Inspired by Art as “far more extensive than the usual site devoted to an event or artwork…[with] loads of information connecting the music and art.” She has received several university grants for her educational media work and earned a post-graduate certificate from NYU in educational media design.
Raised between dual hometowns of San Francisco, CA and Sag Harbor, NY, Cohen was formerly a longtime resident of Brooklyn. She’s currently based in the Shawangunk Mountains of New York’s Hudson Valley, where she lives with her partner and fiancé John Resig.
Cohen publishes her music under Faraway Nearby (ASCAP). Scores are available for perusal and purchase upon request.
For a complete list of works, performances, residencies, and honors, download Cohen’s Curriculum Vitae (PDF). Last updated: July 6, 2021.
Much of my work centers on peoples’ search for meaning through experiences of place. I’ve explored this theme through musical interpretations of the creations of landscape painters and nature writers, as well as composing direct responses to places I myself have known: from urban wilderness in San Francisco to the moors of England. This body of work encompasses chamber and orchestral music, opera and choral music, and music combined with original video and photography.
My projects also often engage with the lives and legacies of mavericks and creative visionaries. I’m attracted to telling stories about people who grapple with tensions between individualism and a yearning for community; celebrate creativity as secular spirituality; and capture an expansive sense of beauty in nature and art as a form of personal and social healing.
I strive to make music that provides emotionally impactful points of entry into this complex subject matter. Driven by lyricism, contrapuntal textures, syncopated rhythms, and an expressive simplicity in harmony and orchestration, my compositional aesthetic reflects my origins as a progressive rock musician and my love of Early Music as much as it reflects my classical conservatory training.
Text and narrative—whether explicitly in vocal music, or implicitly in instrumental music—is frequently at the forefront of my work.
- Gapplegate Classical-Modern Music Review, “Skylark Vocal Ensemble, It’s A Long Way, Timeless Early, Modern, Folk Vocal Ensemble Music” on Skylark album featuring Nell’s It’s a Long Way as title track (9/22/2021).
- Houstonia, “HGO Announces New Season and a Return of Live Audiences” on World Premiere of Turn and Burn by Houston Grand Opera. (5/11/2021)
- Patrick D. McCoy, “Musical Portraits: The Skylark Ensemble Painted a Tapestry of Colors During Recent DC Concert” on World Premiere of Transform the World with Beauty by Skylark. (4/10/2019)
- Santa Fe New Mexican, “Beyond the frame: Music inspired by art” on World Premiere of Transforming Forest by Montage Music Society. (3/01/2019)
- BYU Radio, Constant Wonder, “Fallible Memories, Future of Forecasting, Landscape Music, Science Behind Shopping” on Retrace, Point Reyes from Chimney Rock, and the Landscape Music Composers Network. (2/25/2019)
- The Taos News, “Mabel’s Call to debut” on University of New Mexico workshop production. (11/01/18)
- KUNM Radio, “UNM Opera Looks At A New Mexico Maverick” on University of New Mexico workshop production. (10/31/18)
- Albuquerque Journal, “Mabel Dodge Luhan focus of UNM opera” on University of New Mexico workshop production. (10/29/18)
- THE COLUMN, Review of Frontiers showcase at Fort Worth Opera, featuring Mabel’s Call. (5/07/18)
- Fort Worth Star-Telegram, “Two women and 207,000 baguettes. Here’s what else is new on the ‘Frontiers’ opera scene” on Mabel’s Call in Forth Worth opera’s Frontiers showcase. (4/26/18)
- Broadway World, “Six Composer-Librettist Teams Selected for Fort Worth Opera’s Diverse 2018 Showcase” on selection of Mabel’s Call for Frontiers showcase. (3/16/18)
- Houstonia, “On the Horizon: Two New HGO ‘Song of Houston’ Programs” on commission of rodeo opera. (9/06/17)
- Broadway World, “HGOco Commissions New ‘Song of Houston’ Operas” on commission of rodeo opera. (8/07/17)
- The Taos News, “Mabel’s life in song: New chamber opera explores the early Taos life of Mabel Dodge Luhan” on Mabel’s Call presentation at the Harwood Music of Art. (6/15/17)
- The East Hampton Star, “Nell Shaw Cohen Engages With Nature Through Music” on Landscape Music Composers Network concert featuring Cadillac Moon Ensemble at the Parrish Art Museum. (9/01/16)
- Francesca’s clothing boutique, “International Women’s Day” profile and photoshoot. (3/06/16)
- The Taos News, “Mabel Dodge Luhan, as operatic vision” on Mabel’s Call at the Harwood Music of Art. (8/11/16)
- The Mabel Dodge Luhan House Blog, “Mabel Dodge Luhan Inspires Nell Shaw Cohen Opera” on Mabel’s Call workshop concert at the Harwood Music of Art. (8/10/16)
- The East Hampton Star, ‘The Coming of Spring’ on monodrama workshop at NYU’s The Provincetown Playhouse. (4/22/14)
- “Scholar Spotlight” on the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Blog on Point Reyes from Chimney Rock. (3/14/14)
- The East Hampton Star, “Watercolors: Painting With Sound” on Watercolors at the Parrish Art Museum. (11/06/12)
- Newsday, “LI artists open new Parrish” about the grand opening of the Parrish Art Museum, featuring Watercolors. [PDF download] (11/04/12)
- New-York Historical Society Blog, “The Course of Empire: A Conversation With Composer Nell Shaw Cohen” (8/22/11)
- The Boston Globe, “Inspiration becomes backdrop: Namesake composition to be played before ‘The Course of Empire’ paintings” on “The Course of Empire” and Beyond the Notes. [PDF download] (7/29/11)
“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 Nell Shaw Cohen’s characters each seemed to be lost in…The three moments Cohen selected were mostly downbeat, her characters rattled with uncertainty. Her music magisterially elevated these noncommittal, commonplace feelings – the composer most called to mind was Ives, who had an innate talent for matching disjointed, natural conversation and the disjointed, natural emotions such conversation usually falls short of capturing.” —Ryan Maffei, THE COLUMN
“A highlight of the concert was commissioned piece by Nell Shaw Cohen [Transform the World with Beauty]…the singers reflected the opulent beauty of each spring creation. As the work progressed, the listener was presented with a full bouquet solidified in this work of tremendous thought and contemplation.” —Patrick D. McCoy, Music Journalist
“Nell’s extraordinary interdisciplinary vision…was an ideal program to introduce the public to the Museum’s collection through music and images. Two “standing room only” performances [of Watercolors] were met with high praise from attendees. The Director of the Museum cited this event as one of the best of the opening weekend.” —Andrea Grover, Curator of Special Programs, Parrish Art Museum
“[Workshop of opera Mabel’s Call] was a triumph of beauty, power, and art. To live to see this was a gift from the muse of music. We wept…Nell Shaw Cohen will take this opera all the way to the top!” —Lois Rudnick, Biographer of Mabel Dodge Luhan
“Nell Shaw Cohen deserves superlative praise for her compositions inspired by art, particularly her understanding of [painter] Charles E. Burchfield’s rapport with nature.” —Nancy Weekly, Head of Collections and Curator, Burchfield Penney Art Center
“Far more extensive than the usual site devoted to an event or artwork, [Beyond the Notes: Music Inspired by Art] contains…loads of information connecting the music and art.” —David Weininger, The Boston Globe
“[Point Reyes from Chimney Rock] sounded like an impressionist fantasy – a tone poem – and was most appealing sonically.” —Mark Greenfest, SoundWordSight
“[It’s a Long Way is] a Modern-Early Modern sequence that happy spans the great divide between our ever evolving present and the living brilliance of pasts both yesterday and far, far away in time.” —Grego Applegate Edwards, Gapplegate Classical-Modern Music Review
“[Movements from Nine Muses for solo flute] were alternately distant but lyrical, lively and playful, and contemplative and precise. [The movements for solo harp] had the most complex musical textures: lush and polyphonic, busy and punctuated, and lively and joyous.” —Basil Considine, The Boston Music Intelligencer
“I am so glad someone has at last given voice to what one imagines Burchfield might have been hearing in so many of his watercolors. Congratulations on bringing Burchfield alive in a way that I think he would have much appreciated.” —Richard Kahn, art collector