As composers, musicians, organizations, and our audiences work to stay connected during this extended hiatus from live performances, many are turning to online video interviews as a way to continue engaging with the motivating ideas and individuals behind the music of our moment.
Last month, I was honored to be invited by three different interview series for public conversations about my work as a composer writing opera, choral music, and music inspired by nature, respectively.
In early June, librettist Megan Cohen and I were interviewed by Patrick Summers, Artistic Director of Houston Grand Opera, in a private Zoom event for friends of HGO that explored our upcoming opera, Turn and Burn, commissioned by the company for a World Premiere production next year.
My next interview was with Matthew Guard, Artistic Director of vocal ensemble Skylark. Our conversation centered on my choral cycle inspired by Victorian art, Transform the World with Beauty, which Skylark commissioned and toured last year. To watch my interview and lots of great content, please consider subscribing to Skylark+—a special platform to support the ensemble’s artists during this pandemic.
Most recently, I spoke with a composer colleague, Ryan Suleiman, for his weekly interview series Reflections on Music and Nature. We discussed my approach and motivations in composing music inspired by landscape, nature, and place; artists as activists of the imagination; and Landscape Music, the international composers’ network I direct and which Ryan is a member of. Our conversation is available for viewing anytime on YouTube (see below).
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.
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.
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.)
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.)
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 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 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.
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.
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.
I’m pleased to share this video of Citywater’s World Premiere performance of Retrace (2018) for flute, violin, and cello, composed in response to the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail. This performance, which took place last September in Vallejo, CA, was part ofLandscape Music: Rivers & Trails—a nationwide series of collaborative concerts I directed for the Landscape Music Composers Network.
The full concert, with works by seven other Landscape Music composers, is available on LandscapeMusic.org’s YouTube channel.
Retrace (2018) – Portfolio entry with accompanying poem and full performance history.
The concert I curated for the Parrish Art Museum last Septemberfeatured NYC-based chamber quartet Cadillac Moon Ensemble in a program of music written by members of the Landscape Music Composers Network celebrating the National Park Service centennial. It was tremendously gratifying to see a year’s planning come to fruition and to receive such a great audience turnout and response.
We received coverage in several publications, including The East Hampton Star, which featured an article about my work on the front page of their Arts & Living section.
This event included the World Premiere of my wildlife conservation suite, Refuge, written for Cadillac Moon Ensemble. You can now watch the performance online!
I also had the opportunity to sit down with three fellow composers, who traveled from all around the country to participate in this event. We had a fascinating and wide-ranging conversation about the processes, goals, and challenges of writing music inspired by nature.
Enjoy this video compilation of a few special moments from last month’s workshop presentation of Mabel’s Call at the Harwood Museum of Art in Taos, featuring an ensemble of New Mexico-based performers.
Presented in conjunction with the museum’s exhibition Mabel Dodge Luhan & Company: American Moderns in the West, it was a wonderful evening with a great audience!
Last month at the 10th annual Boston GuitarFest, the Faculty of the Young Guitarists Workshop (Adam Levin, Will Riley, Devin Ulibarri, and Colin Thurmond) gave the premiere performance of Wanderlust for guitar quartet, which they had commissioned from me for the occasion. A full-length video of this performance is now available, courtesy of Brian Dixon.
Devin Ulibarri also revisited Triptych, a solo work that I wrote for him back in 2011.
This video and music piece inspired by a cross-country train trip, created for the NYU Contemporary Music Ensemble, was given an excellent premiere performance with video projection on April 28 in the Frederick Loewe Theatre at NYU. Now you canwatch the video online with live musical recording. I hope you enjoy it!
Horizon: New York #1 & #2 – Dance & Music Films Online
The audience at my April 29th recital saw the world premiere screening of version #1 of Horizon: New York, a short film I created featuring wonderful dancer-choreographer Callie Lyons and cellist Fjóla Evans. There are actually two versions of the video, shot in two different locations in Brooklyn (Brooklyn Bridge Park and Prospect Park), both of which are now available for viewing online.
Premiere of Commissioned Work at Boston GuitarFest
When guitarist Devin Ulibarri – who I previously collaborated with in 2011 on Triptych – asked me to write a piece for him and flutist Alicia Mielke relating to Boston GuitarFest’s theme of “American Odyssey,” I gravitated towards the woodblock prints and ink and watercolor paintings of the Japanese-American artist Chiura Obata (1885-1975).
Thank you to everyone who came out to see my recital and the staged workshop production of one-act monodrama The Coming of Spring on April 29. This was an extremely special evening for me and the audience response was very rewarding!
The performance was well documented and I’ll be sharing video and audio excerpts with you in the near future.
Last month I had the great pleasure of revisiting the location in the Point Reyes National Seashore depicted in Tom Killion’s woodblock print, from which my composition for orchestra took its name and inspiration. I shot the above photographs while I was there.
The acclaimed JACK Quartet gave an awesome premiere of my string quartet The Winding Pathon April 23 at the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village, New York City, along with nine fantastic works by my colleagues at New York University. See my previous post for more on this performance and my piece.