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).

“Transform the World with Beauty” in performances by The Astoria Choir, Williams College, and Skylark

Several upcoming performances have been canceled or postponed due to COVID-19; see list of all upcoming events for current information.

Transform the World with Beauty, my choral cycle inspired by the visual art and poetry of Victorian Britain, is being featured in concerts by three separate ensembles this spring!

The Astoria Choir logoI am honored that my piece was selected by The Astoria Choir as a winner of their Call for Scores for a program celebrating International Women’s Day. This Saturday in Astoria, Queens, the choir will be performing the first movement, “My First Camera,” which sets a delightful autobiographical text by pioneering photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.

Williams College logoNext month another ensemble, Williams College Chamber Choir will perform the second movement, “In an Artist’s Studio,” in two performances featuring their ensemble of women’s voices. This movement features Christina Rossetti’s poetic critique of a painter’s depictions of an idealized woman.

Looking further ahead to June, the Grammy-nominated Skylark Vocal Ensemble—who commissioned and premiered this work in 2019—will reprise the full cycle, including the third movement celebrating the designs and aesthetic philosophy of William Morris. Stay tuned for details!

In the meantime, listen to Transform the World with Beauty in the brilliant live recording by Skylark, paired with the texts and visual art that inspired my composition.

SATURDAY, MARCH 7, 2020 AT 8:00PM

The Astoria Choir — “Women in Song”
Trinity Lutheran Church, Astoria, NY

Event information

FRIDAY, APRIL 17, 2020 AT 6:00PM

Williams Chamber Choir — “Looking/Seeing”
Hancock Shaker Village, Pittsfield, MA

Event information.

SUNDAY, APRIL 19, 2020 AT 4:00PM

Williams Chamber Choir — “Looking/Seeing”
Williams College, Williamstown, MA

Event information.

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.

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.

Earth Wall

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.

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.

Skylark Premieres “Transform the World with Beauty”

Skylark Vocal Ensemble group photoSkylark Vocal Ensemble. Photo: Sasha Greenhalgh.

I am thrilled that brilliant GRAMMY Award-nominated vocal ensemble Skylark will premiere my work Transform the World with Beauty on April 4, 5, 6, and 7 during their tour of Massachusetts and Washington, D.C.! Concert details are listed below.

​Skylark is one of the leading vocal ensembles in the U.S., praised for their “awe-inspiring” performances (Boston Music Intelligencer), and their “original” (BBC Radio 3), “imaginative” (Limelight Australia), and “engrossing” (WQXR NYC) programming.

Skylark commissioned me to write a piece for their program Masterpiece, offering musical reflections and reactions to the visual arts. Transform the World with Beauty, an 11-minute work 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.)

Transform the World with Beauty will be recorded during Skylark’s tour, and I look forward to sharing it with you all! Sadly, I can’t attend the Massachusetts dates myself, but I’m thrilled to hear the concert in D.C. See the links below and visit Skylark’s website for more information.

THURSDAY, APRIL 4, 2019 AT 7:00PM
Fitchburg State University, Fitchburg, MA
Tickets

FRIDAY, APRIL 5, 2019 AT 7:00PM
Gloucester Meeting House, Gloucester, MA
Tickets

SATURDAY, APRIL 6, 2019 AT 3:00PM
Cole Memorial Chapel, Wheaton College, Norton, MA
Tickets

SUNDAY, APRIL 7, 2019 AT 4:00PM
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Georgetown Parish, Washington DC
Tickets

World Premiere of “Transforming Forest” at SITE Santa Fe

Andy Goldsworthy's "Tree Fall"
“Tree Fall” by Andy Goldsworthy. Photo by Nell Shaw Cohen.

Announcing the World Premiere of Transforming Forest (2018) for piano, violin, and cello, commissioned by Montage Music Society—Santa Fe’s chamber ensemble dedicated to music inspired by visual art.

SITE Santa FeThe World Premiere is presented by SITE Santa Fe, a world-renowned space for contemporary art. The program will be repeated on Montage Music Society’s Altazano Salon Series.

I composed Transforming Forest in response to the four incredible installations created by British artist Andy Goldsworthy in the Presidio of San Francisco. These site-specific artworks resonate deeply with me and I hope to share some small piece of that through my music. Visit my website about the project for descriptions of my music and the artworks that inspired it.

FRIDAY, MARCH 1, 2019 @ 6:00PM
SITE Sante Fe, Santa Fe, NM
Event Website

SATURDAY, MARCH 16, 2019 @ 3:00PM
Altazano Salon Series, Santa Fe, NM
Event Website

World Premiere of “The Sphinx and the Milky Way” for orchestra at University of Wisconsin

Painting "The Sphinx and the Milky Way" by Charles E. Burchfield
“The Sphinx and the Milky Way” (1946) by Charles E. Burchfield.

The University of Wisconsin-La Crosse Symphony Orchestra presents the World Premiere of The Sphinx and the Milky Way—my tone poem for orchestra inspired by the visionary artworks of Charles E. Burchfield. (Pictured: Burchfield’s eponymous painting of a sphinx moth!)

This work was written in 2011 during my studies at New England Conservatory, where it was given a wonderful reading and recording session. Listen to NEC’s reading.

SATURDAY, MARCH 2, 2019 @ 2:00PM
University of Wisconsin-La Crosse Symphony Orchestra
La Crosse, WI
Event Website
(Special shout out to The Institute for Composer Diversity, whose database led this orchestra’s director to find my work!)

Quintet of the Americas Performs “Watercolors” at Parrish Art Museum 11/11

Quintet of the Americas

Saturday, November 11, 2017, 5:00pm
Parrish Art Museum
279 Montauk Highway, Water Mill, NY 11976
Tickets start at $200 / $150 Members
Tickets and venue information

My work for wind quintet, Watercolors (2011), returns to the Parrish Art Museum in The Hamptons on November 11. This performance by the internationally acclaimed Quintet of the Americas will kick off the museum’s anniversary benefit party—five years after Watercolors was performed at their grand opening in November 2012!

Watercolors for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon was inspired by the watercolor paintings of Charles E. Burchfield (1893-1967)—including one in the Parrish’s permanent collection, which will be on display in the galleries in conjunction with this concert. (Learn more about the connection between Burchfield’s art and my music here.)

Long recognized as leading interpreters of folk and contemporary wind quintet music of North and South America, Quintet of the Americas has spent over three decades commissioning over 70 works, performing over three hundred concerts throughout the United States, and in Canada, the Caribbean, South America and Eastern Europe, and recording eight CDs. It will be an amazing honor to have my music performed by this group!

Inspired by the natural setting and artistic life of Long Island’s East End, the Parrish Art Museum illuminates the creative process and how art and artists transform our experiences and understanding of the world and how we live in it. The Museum fosters connections among individuals, art, and artists through care and interpretation of the collection, presentation of exhibitions, publications, educational initiatives, programs, and artists-in-residence. The Parrish is a center for cultural engagement, an inspiration and destination for the region, the nation, and the world.

How wonderful to think that this will be the fourth time my music has been performed at the Parrish Art Museum. (See blog posts from the first time in 2012, second in 2013, and third in 2016.)

“Dai-Shizen (Great Nature)” at Unitarian Church of Marlborough and Hudson


Chiura Obata, “Mono Crater, Sierra Nevada, California”

Sunday, April 2, 2017, 10:30-11:30am
Unitarian Church of Marlborough and Hudson
80 Main St
Hudson, MA, 01749
Free and open to the public
Venue Website

A performance of Dai-Shizen (Great Nature) (2014) will be given by Gabriela Ruiz, flute, and Devin Ulibarri, guitar, at the Unitarian Church of Marlborough and Hudson during a Sunday worship service on April 2, focusing on nature and environmental themes. Distribuição de flores by Heitor Villa-Lobos will also be performed.

Dai-Shizen (Great Nature) for flute and guitar looks at nature through the eyes of a visual artist: Chiura Obata (1885-1975). It is my musical response to Obata’s journey through landscapes, as seen through his artworks, in three movements: California, Topaz, and Sunset.

Obata’s woodblock prints and watercolors from the 1920s and ‘30s show some of the most extraordinary visual representations of Yosemite National Park ever created, from El Capitan to Mono Lake. The natural landscapes of California were this Japanese-American immigrant’s greatest inspiration.

Obata and his family were then imprisoned for over a year in internment camps during World War II, primarily in Topaz, Utah. Despite demeaning conditions, Obata strove to bring meaning into the lives of those around him. He founded an art school with his fellow internees and created stunning, emotionally charged watercolor paintings juxtaposing the dreary manmade structures of the prison camp against broad expanses of desert, mountains, and fiery sunsets.

In composing this piece, I was particularly inspired by Obata’s ability to follow his philosophy of dai-shizen (Great Nature)—nature as a source of artistic inspiration and spiritual harmony—throughout the best and worst moments of his life.

* * *

To preview this work, watch a video of the World Premiere performance at Boston GuitarFest in 2014. To view some of the artworks by Chiura Obata that inspired my music, check out this online gallery from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Landscape Music Comes to Boston on April 15

Chiura Obata, "Mono Crater, Sierra Nevada, California" (1930)Chiura Obata, “Mono Crater, Sierra Nevada, California” (1930)

Landscape Music Composers Network is a project I started last year bringing together composers from across the country who create music inspired by landscape, nature, and place. We’re kicking off our inaugural concert season in 2016—the centennial year of the National Park Service—starting in Boston on April 15.

The epic landscapes of Zion, Grand Canyon, and Yosemite will be brought to life in New Music of Our National Parksconceived and presented by violinist/composer Rachel Panitch. The concert features several outstanding Boston-based musicians and ensembles in performances of new chamber music inspired by national parks, written by members of the Landscape Music Composers Network.

The program includes Dai-Shizen (Great Nature), inspired by the artwork of Chiura Obata, which I wrote for Alicia Mielke and Devin Ulibarri (below) in 2014.

Alicia Mielke   Devin Ulibarri

Check out the concert preview on Landscape Music, which explores each of the works on this program.

April 15, 2016, 8:00pm
Advent Library Concert Series
The Church of the Advent
30 Brimmer St (corner of Mount Vernon St)
Boston, MA
$10 suggested donation