Greet the Winter Solstice with choral music!

Listen to Boston Choral Ensemble’s NEW live recording of Blue Shadows, Silver Sunlight, my choral setting of three poems for the winter season, from their holiday concert on December 11, 2021 (Klo Garoute, conductor).

Commissioned and premiered by Boston Choral Ensemble in 2019 through their 12th Annual Commission Competition, “Blue Shadows, Silver Sunlight” features settings of three poems on the theme of winter: “Winter Branches” by Margaret Widdemer, “A Winter Blue Jay” by Sara Teasdale, and “A Winter Ride” by Amy Lowell, all written in the early 20th century by American women. Each of these poets used vivid descriptions of winter phenomena to convey moments of profound connection to the natural world.

Any of the three movements may be programmed separately as standalone works for performance. Read the program note and view the perusal score here.

Skylark Receives GRAMMY Award Nomination for “It’s a Long Way”

List of Nominees for Best Choral Performance, including "It's a Long Way" by Skylark Vocal Ensemble
Skylark Vocal Ensemble’s It’s a Long Way has received a 2022 GRAMMY Award nomination for Best Choral Performance!

I’m continually grateful and honored that Skylark featured this piece I wrote for them as the title track of their beautiful album, which gives expression to experiences of the pandemic through a musical program of courageous stylistic and emotional range.

The album is available for listening on all major streaming platforms and can be ordered directly from the ensemble here.

Skylark Releases Album “It’s a Long Way”

Album cover with black and white photograph of feather, by recording artist Skylark Vocal Ensemble, album title It's a Long Way
I’m deeply honored that one of my dearest collaborators, multiple GRAMMY-nominated vocal ensemble Skylark, is featuring my choral work It’s a Long Way as the title track of their new album! The album includes a varied selection of contemporary and historical music exploring Skylark’s collective experience of living through the 19 months since their last concert.

The album was released today, September 24, 2021 and is available for purchase directly from Skylark and streaming on Spotify, Apple Music, and Amazon Music.

Commissioned by Skylark and originally recorded by a virtual quartet for educational use, my piece has been given further life in this stunning new studio recording by the full Skylark chamber choir.

It’s a Long Way will also be featured on Skylark’s album release tour next month in Massachusetts! Concert dates include Friday, October 8, 7:00pm @ the Simon Center for the Arts at Falmouth Academy, Falmouth MA; Saturday, October 9, 7:00pm @ Belleville Church, Newburyport, MA;  and Sunday, October 10, 3:00pm @ First Parish Church in Weston, Weston, MA. Subscribe to Skylark’s season to purchase tickets.

About the Music
“William Stanley Braithwaite’s poem “It’s a Long Way,” although published in 1904, speaks powerfully to me in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic…I’ve sought to honor Braithwaite’s bittersweet words of hope and determination with a choral setting for all of us striving to safely arrive at our journeys’ shore.” Continue reading & peruse the score.

Virtual Choir Performance of “It’s a Long Way” by SEMMEA Festival Choir

It’s rare privilege to receive a commission and premiere performance during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even rarer: receiving  two performances of a new work within a short time!

I was deeply moved by the virtual choir performance of my choral score, It’s a Long Way, given by the Massachusetts Music Educators Association Southeastern District (SEMMEA) Senior Festival Choir.

In early January 2021, nearly 200 high school students remotely rehearsed and recorded their parts with guidance from conductor Dr. Christopher Jackson. Their individual performances were then assembled into this beautiful performance documentation.

I also had the pleasure of participating in a virtual visit with the choir and a Q&A led by Dr. Felicia Barber, alongside fellow composer Joel Thompson.

Commissioned by Skylark Vocal Ensemble for their New Voices for Education project, this work was composed primarily for study by high school and college choirs during the COVID-19 pandemic. The score and a professional recording of this work may be found on Skylark’s website.

World Premiere Recording of “It’s a Long Way” by Skylark Vocal Ensemble

Painting of ocean, sky, and horizon with bright, pale light
“Seascape” (1901), watercolor, William Trost Richards (1833”“1905). Public domain.

The World Premiere recording of my newest choral work, It’s a Long Way, commissioned by GRAMMY-nominated vocal ensemble Skylark, has just been released!

Check out Skylark’s website for free access to the recording, score, and oodles of supplementary videos and study materials that their team of artist-educators has put together to make my score visible, accessible, and approachable for high school and college-level virtual choirs.

I’m honored to be featured in this project alongside Jonathan Woody, whose new work I Conquer the World with Words is a gorgeous and dynamic expression of the impact of language.

I applaud Skylark’s support of us living composers and encouragement of young singers’ engagement with new music, as well as providing students and educators with world-class choral study materials.

Interviews for Skylark, Reflections on Music and Nature, and Houston Grand Opera

Sklyark Plus poster with portrait of Nell
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).

New Recording! “Transform the World with Beauty” for Vocal Ensemble

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.


video credits

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.

Julia Margaret Cameron, "Pomona," 1872

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.)

William Morris, "Strawberry Thief" wallpaper design, 1883

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.)

New Recording! “Transforming Forest” for Piano Trio

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

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.

Andy Goldsworthy's "Tree Fall"

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.

Photo of Earth Wall installation

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.

Photo of "Spire"

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.

Live Video of “Retrace” Performed by Citywater

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 of Landscape 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.

Related Content

New Videos: “Refuge” Premiere and Landscape Music Interview

The concert I curated for the Parrish Art Museum last September featured 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.

Nell in The East Hampton StarWe 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.