The American Prize Selects Nell as Finalist for “Sauntering Songs”

The American Prize sealIt’s a huge honor to have been selected as a Finalist in the Major Choral Works division of The American Prize, the national non-profit competitions in the performing arts, for my work Sauntering Songs!

Winners will be announced later this year. See the complete list of finalists.

Commissioned and premiered by Skylark Vocal Ensemble (Matthew Guard, Artistic Director) with guest performances by Juventas New Music Ensemble and James Moore, Sauntering Songs is probably my favorite project to date. So recognition for this work is especially meaningful to me.

Sauntering Songs emerged through my engagement of an array of authors, advocates, and activists who have deeply explored walking as a personal, cultural, and political practice. The work’s musical language encompasses choral music, chamber music, musical theater, and progressive rock, among many other influences, carrying my early background as a rock musician forward into my present practice as a composer.

Album cover for "Sauntering Songs"Engaging with themes of gender, age, race, class, and disability through an intersectional feminist lens—and traversing stories ranging from trespassing in the British countryside to thru-hiking on the Appalachian trail—Sauntering Songs asks the question: “If walking is an essential way of being […] Then who may claim the right to be in this world?

Skylark’s World Premiere live recording of Sauntering Songs (paired with Transform the World with Beauty) is available on all major streaming music platforms (including SpotifyAmazon MusicApple MusicPandora, and Tidal). The physical CD is available for purchase from Skylark. Check out the liner notes for my libretto and introductory essay to accompany your listening.

Looking back on “Sauntering Songs” World Premiere concerts

Nell reaches out to shake the hand of conductor Matthew Guard in front of the performing ensemble, standing for applause after their performance inside a historic church.
“Sauntering Songs” at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Newburyport, MA.

Nell poses with conductor Matthew Guard and an ensemble of 16 singers and instrumentalists, wearing casual clothes, during a recording session in a church venue.

Last week I had the unreal experience of watching my vision for concert-length cantata “Sauntering Songs,” a project many years in the making, come to life through the phenomenal voices of Skylark (Matthew Guard, Artistic Director; Sophie Amelkin, Fotina Naumenko, Carrie Cheron, Doug Dodson, Megan Roth, Paul D’Arcy, Erik Gustafson, Nathan Hodgson, Matthew Goinz, Enrico Lagasca, and Dana Whiteside) and an all-star instrumental quartet (guitarist James Moore with Thomas Barth, cello, Julia Scott Carey, piano, and Stacey Chou, flute, of Juventas New Music Ensemble).

I’m grateful for this project, these collaborators, and this week, for so, so many reasons… not least of which that I was able to join the artists for their rehearsals and three World Premiere performances, and to meet the audiences and hear their response to this work.

The final concert was recorded, and I look forward to being able to share it with all of you someday soon!

Announcing “Sauntering Songs,” a cantata for Skylark Vocal Ensemble

Title reads "Sauntering Songs" with photo of a distant figure walking on a footpath in grass-covered hills
World Premiere Performances in April 2023

I am thrilled to share a once-in-a-lifetime, dream-come-true project, and my third collaboration with the world class Skylark Vocal Ensemble: Sauntering Songs.

A love letter to wanderlust, this World Premiere commission weaves together art songs, choral music, and literature into an expansive cantata on the theme of walking. Influences from rock, folk, and musical theater feature prominently in this score marrying Skylark’s voices with an instrumental quartet. From Walt Whitman to the present day, Sauntering Songs celebrates diverse characters who search for freedom and fulfillment through subversive journeys on foot.

This work is an expression of so much that I’m passionate about, in music and in life. I look forward to sharing this work with audiences in Massachusetts next spring!

Subscription tickets are available now for the three World Premiere concerts as part of Skylark’s 2022-23 season, “a tour de force of innovative programs that re-define the choral experience for singers and audiences alike.” Single tickets go on sale August 25. Learn more here.

THURSDAY, APRIL 20, 2023 | 7 pm
(6:15 pm pre-concert talk)
Simon Center for the Arts
at Falmouth Academy
Falmouth, MA

FRIDAY, APRIL 21, 2023 | 7 pm
(6:15 pm pre-concert talk)
Church of the Redeemer
Chestnut Hill, MA

SATURDAY, APRIL 22, 2023 | 7 pm
(6:15 pm pre-concert talk)​
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Newburyport, MA

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.

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.

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).

World Premiere of “Blue Shadows, Silver Sunlight” by Boston Choral Ensemble

Snow-covered field with tree shadows
Photograph: Nell Shaw Cohen, Taos, New Mexico, 2019

Saturday, December 14, 3:00pm
Boston Choral Ensemble Holiday Concert
Old South Church
645 Boylston St, Boston, MA
Purchase Tickets

Boston Choral Ensemble will give the World Premiere of Blue Shadows, Silver Sunlight,commissioned through their 12th Annual Commission Competition, on the choir’s annual winter holiday concert!

Blue Shadows, Silver Sunlight (ca. 9 minutes) 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. I’ve grouped these poems together because I feel they form an aesthetically cohesive set, providing the basis for a musical narrative arc that moves from quiet contemplation (“Winter Branches”) to joyful exuberance (“A Winter Ride”).

I hope you may be able to join me at this very special performance!