Skylark: New Voices for Education Commission

I am thrilled to have been commissioned by Skylark Vocal Ensemble to compose a new work for virtual high school and college choirs, to be featured alongside a work by composer Jonathan Woody! Skylark’s fundraising campaign, New Voices for Education, will fund our commissions and the ensemble’s production of free world class online study guides to support young singers’ performances of these new works in this era of remote learning.

I’m continually impressed by Skylark’s innovative projects through the pandemic and so proud to be participating in this fabulous initiative for choral education!

Learn more about Skylark: New Voices for Education and contribute to the campaign.

Free Music for a Fair Election – Fundraising Campaign through October 4

UPDATE:  This campaign is now complete!  Thanks to the generous donors who contributed $275 to Fair Fight, ACLU, and Rock the Vote Action Fund. As thanks, I will be donating free digital scores of Horizon for solo cello from October 5 through November 2, 2020.

"$200+ Goal Met!" with picture of cello over yellow starburst

Want to support our U.S. democracy while making scores of my chamber music accessible to more musicians? Please consider contributing to my fundraising campaign, Free Music for a Fair Election!

Donate through ActBlue here. Your contributions will support three organizations working for the integrity of the democratic process: Fair Fight, Rock the Vote Action Fund, and the ACLU.

To encourage donors to hit my fundraising goals before Sunday, October 4, 2020 (30 days before the General Election), I will be making scores for solo instruments, selected from my composition catalogue, available for free digital downloads:

If we raise $200, I will release the score of “Horizon” for solo cello for free download.

If we raise $500, I will add the score of “Walks at Brush Creek” for solo piano.

Finally, if we raise my goal of $1,000, I will also include the score of “Triptych” for solo classical guitar.

After this campaign is complete, musicians will be able to download the free digital scores from my website (nellshawcohen.com) from October 5 through November 2, 2020.

Thank you so much for helping me to support the incredibly important work these organizations are doing!

(Disclaimer: Only contributions received via my ActBlue fundraiser through October 4 will be counted. But you are very much encouraged to continue donating to these organizations after the campaign!)

About the Charitable Organizations

Fair Fight is an organization founded by Stacey Abrams to promote free and fair elections by fighting voter suppression efforts, particularly against people of color. They defend people’s right to vote through litigation, legislation, and grassroots activism and organizing.

Rock the Vote Action Fund is dedicated to building the political power of young progressives and leveraging that power for action on issues that affect their lives. They are the sister organization of Rock the Vote, which for 30 years has revolutionized the way we use pop culture, music, art, and technology to engage young people in politics and build our collective power.

American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is fighting back against attempts to curtail an essential right in our democracy, the right to vote, and working to advocate for policies that make it easier for Americans to vote.

About the Scores

Click the titles for recordings and more information about these works.

Horizon (2013) for solo cello is a sparse, atmospheric work written to celebrate and reflect the aesthetic quality of the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, NY, and the surrounding landscape of the East End of Long Island (my former home). It has been given wonderful performances by cellists including Louise King, Karlos Rodriguez, Richard Vaudrey, and Fjóla Evans, and became part of a collaboration with dancer and choreographer Callie Lyons. Listen to Horizon.

Walks at Brush Creek (2017) for solo piano 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. With this score, I offer a musical illustration of my emotional responses to this landscape—from the ever-shifting cloud shadows playing over the grasses and sagebrush to the sweeping lines of wooden fences that frame them. Listen to Walks at Brush Creek.

Triptych (2011) for solo classical guitar was composed for guitarist Devin Ulibarri. Triptych (pronounced “trip-tik”) is a term from visual art describing an artwork divided into three sections that are displayed as a group. European Medieval and Renaissance triptychs were usually painted or carved wood or ivory panels connected by hinges for standing or folding, and would have two narrow panels flanking a larger, contrasting middle panel. My three-movement piece for solo guitar reflects this structural model. Listen to Triptych.

“Mabel’s Call” at University of New Mexico in 2018

The University of New Mexico Logo

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.

Reflections on an Inspiration: The Hilliard Ensemble

The Hilliard Ensemble
The Hilliard Ensemble

As I write, The Hilliard Ensemble – the English male vocal quartet that has produced countless wonderful recordings of Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, and contemporary Music – is onstage at Wigmore Hall, where they are celebrating a 40-year career and singing their final concert.

Much has been said about the Hilliard’s music and enormous legacy, but the ending of this group has caused me to reflect on what their influence has personally meant to me as a composer.

It was my encounter with the Hilliards’ recordings of new music around eight years ago that was perhaps the single biggest epiphany leading me to pursue classical training in composition and to channel my artistic efforts into concert music.

At around age 18, I found myself at a crossroads. Having independently released my one-woman-band progressive rock opus Tempus, my next steps were unclear for reasons both practical and creative. I felt that my current approach was no longer fulfilling my artistic inclinations and professional ambitions.

Although I first began listening to The Hilliard Ensemble because of my long-standing love of Early Music, it was their recordings of contemporary music that showed to me that the kinds of artistic expression I’d been seeking through other genres and methods of music making could be realized through “classical” performance practices, aesthetics, and venues. The album A Hilliard Songbook, in particular, opened up a world of possibilities to me.

The new music The Hilliard Ensemble recorded was unlike anything I’d heard. And, unlike the broad gloss of choral music, or the 19th century-derived aesthetic of modern operatic singing (both of which I have come to appreciate in their own right), there was an intense, jewel-like delicacy in the Hilliards’ singing. In one of my old favorites among their interpretations of newly-composed music, Stephen Hartke’s Cathedral in the Thrashing Rain, every note, rhythm, and gesture emerges in sharp relief; every opportunity for expression is captured and realized, born out of a tremendous sensitivity to text, line, and harmony.

Their performances were immaculate yet intimate; technical, yet seemingly effortless; overwhelmingly beautiful but, above all, utterly human. They blended their voices in a way that was both balanced yet individualistic, taking full advantage of the inherent transparency of the small ensemble sound. Whenever I have listened to this group, I hear not only “The Hilliard Ensemble” but the perfectly allied voices of David James, Rogers Covey-Crump, Steven Harrold (or John Potter), and Gordon Jones, plus the ineffable ambience that the combination of those voices produces.

Although I had certainly experienced classical music before hearing The Hilliard Ensemble, through their recordings I began to realize that contemporary concert music might be “my” music.

It was with all of this ringing in my ears that in 2007 I wrote a 12-minute setting of Saint Augustine for solo soprano, countertenor, tenor, and bass, titled Memory (listen to an excerpt). This was my first completed composition that was 1) fully notated, 2) envisioned for classically trained performers, and which 3) didn’t involve drum set and/or guitar! I was extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to record this work with top-notch singers in NYC (members of Lionheart, et al).

This recording went into my artistic portfolio and helped me to secure spots and scholarships in several composition programs (including New England Conservatory, where I went on to pursue my Bachelor of Music). Now, seven years later, I’ve completed a Master of Music at New York University and produced compositions and performances for chamber ensembles, orchestra, multimedia, and voice, including a staged one-act monodrama for tenor, The Coming of Spring, .

As The Hilliard Ensemble ends its long career this evening, I’m faced with the knowledge that I’ll never have the opportunity of fulfilling my “bucket list” dream of composing a work to be performed by this group. However, while contemplating the pivotal influence that the Hilliards had on my path, I renew my hope that I might someday have an opportunity to revisit writing for small vocal ensemble and continue following the inspiration of this group in future, unforeseen ways.

Recording of “Symphony No. 1”

I was honored to be selected for the New York University Orchestra composer reading and recording session on November 19. The student orchestra had a brief rehearsal and run-through of the second movement of my Symphony No. 1, led by David Rosenmeyer, conductor.

You can listen to the recording on my website, alongside the reading of the first movement of the symphony from last spring by the New England Conservatory Philharmonia.

Listen to Symphony No. 1, first and second movements

Two more movements of this four-movement symphony have not yet been recorded.

Going to NYU Steinhardt for my Master of Music!

I am very happy to announce that, with funding from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation (see this post), this fall I will begin a two-year Master of Music in Music Composition program at NYU Steinhardt’s Department of Music and Performing Arts Professions located in the heart of New York City. NYU Steinhardt offers a hybrid conservatory and university setting where performers and researchers work alongside each other and composers are encouraged to develop interdisciplinary collaborations with choreographers, visual artists, writers, filmmakers, and scholars in other departments at NYU. In addition to the concert music composition program, directed by the wonderful composer Julia Wolfe (founding member of the legendary Bang On a Can collective), Steinhardt offers high-caliber study in composition for film and multimedia.

The composition faculty includes Julia Wolfe, Ron Sadoff, David Spear, Ira Newborn, Michael Gordon, Justin Dello Joio, and Herschel Garfein, among many others. As a first-year graduate student, I will receive a performance of a new string quartet by the internationally renowned JACK Quartet in a public New York City venue, in addition to opportunities for student performances. I am thrilled to be able to take advantage of the many opportunities that NYU will provide, not least of which will be getting a head start in developing ties within the music and arts community in New York.