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!

“The Betterment Society” at New York Theatre Workshop 10/30

Written by Mashuq Mushtaq Deen
Directed by Jessi Hill
Music composed by Nell Shaw Cohen
Performed by Jade Wu, Lynda Gravatt, Zoe Winters, and Matt Consul

Monday, October 30, 2017, 3:00pm
New York Theatre Workshop
79 E. 4th St, New York, NY 10003
Free admission
Venue information

Join me for this public reading of brilliant new play The Betterment Society by Mashuq Mushtaq Deen. I composed a song for voice and guitar that is threaded throughout the structure of the play.

Of this play and workshop reading, Deen writes:

“Three women on a godforsaken mountain.” This abstracted piece is curious about how place affects values, and how this in turn affects the divide between rural and urban value systems in America. It ask questions about the ways in which “community” can liberate us and/or imprison us. (And it’s also about three really fucking strong women.)

There’s something I’m trying to understand about the audience’s response so if you can come, your presence will be TANGIBLY helpful to me. There will be a brief conversation afterwards. I hope you can join us.

I first collaborated with Deen in the New Dramatists Composer-Librettist Studio last winter. Deen then invited me to work on The Betterment Society, which was developed through workshops at New Dramatists and a weeklong PAGE 73 Yale Summer Residency this past August.

“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.

Upcoming Boston Concerts: Works for Guitar

Are you in Boston? Do you enjoy guitar music? I hope you’ll be able to make it out to hear two upcoming performances of guitar music I’ve written for Devin Ulibarri and other Boston-based artists.

Friday, February 13, 2015 at 6:00pm
Devin Ulibarri, Guitarist
On this installment of the “A Musical Apertif” Concert Series themed “Love, Loss, and Love Again,” Devin will be revisiting two works I composed for him:Triptych and Dai-Shizen (Great Nature), which will feature Alicia Mielke on flute. Democracy Center at 45 Mt. Auburn Street in Harvard Square, Cambridge, MA. $10 admission.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015 at 7:30pm
Boston GuitarFest
Young Guitarists Workshop Faculty Recital
I’m thrilled to be writing a new work for guitar quartet for premiere by the Boston GuitarFest’s Young Guitarists Workshop Faculty (Adam Levin, Will Riley, Devin Ulibarri, and Colin Thurmond). Admission details TBA. Watch Boston GuitarFest for updates.

Beyond the Notes: Music Inspired by Art

I’m very excited to announce my upcoming recital, Beyond the Notes: Music Inspired by Art. The concert will be a multisensory, multimedia experience featuring live chamber music performed by wonderful NEC student musicians coordinated with video and slide projections of the art that inspired it.

Beyond the Notes: Music Inspired by Art will be presented at the New England Conservatory of Music on November 2nd, 2011, 6:00-7:30pm in Pierce Hall (241 St. Botolph St, Boston MA). Reception to follow. The event is free and open to the public.

Beyond the Notes screen capture
Beyond the Notes website as seen on a mobile phone

The concert will be enhanced by an accompanying digital companion, which will be launched within the next couple of weeks. Visitors are invited to browse the website ahead of time, or before and after the concert in the hall or on their phones, and explore video clips, audio excerpts, photographs, and information about the artists and music.

The new website will highlight Watercolors, a wind quintet inspired by the paintings of Charles Burchfield, in addition to the portion of the website featuring the string quartet The Course of Empire, which was posted in July.

The section on Watercolors features video clips from a fascinating interview with Nancy Weekly, Curator at the Burchfield Penney Art Center; Carol Steen, painter and co-founder of the American Synesthesia Assocation; as well as a movement-by-movement analysis of the connection between my music and the paintings, which is interspersed with audio excerpts and relevant images from the paintings.

While The Course of Empire and Watercolors are being highlighted on the website/app, every piece on the program has its own dedicated page and content. Other pieces featured on the program and the accompanying website include:

  • Setsugekka for violin and piano, inspired by Japanese woodblock prints by Hiroshige. The website will include videos introducing the genre of Japanese woodblock printing, and the traditional theme of setsugekka (snow, moon and flowers). This section features text and narration by independent print scholar John Resig (ukiyo-e.org).
  • To Create One’s Own World for soprano, flute, bass clarinet, and marimba, and The Faraway Nearby video piece with chamber score, both inspired by Georgia O’Keeffe. The website will include audio clips, song text, and the online video of The Faraway Nearby.
  • Revealed in Stone, a song cycle for tenor and piano inspired by the sculpture and poetry of Michelangelo. The website will feature an analysis of the English translation of the poetry used in the cycle.
  • Triptych for solo guitar, inspired by the formal structure of triptychs (especially as seen in Medieval art). The website will include a comparison of different genres of triptychs.

Both the concert and website have received support from the Entrepreneurial Musicianship Department at NEC.

“Triptych” for guitar

My newest piece, a work for solo classical guitar, Triptych, will receive its premiere on Tuesday, April 26th, 2011 at 8:00pm in Williams Hall at New England Conservatory (290 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA, 02115).

A 13th c. triptych from France
A French 13th c. triptych

Triptych (pronounced “trip-tik”) is a term from visual art describing an artwork divided into three sections that are displayed as a group. Triptych structures have appeared in a variety of genres of art, including Japanese woodblock prints, and they were especially popular in European Medieval and early Renaissance religious art. European 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. The first movement parallels the third in overall tempo, density, tonality, and duration, and contains similar musical devices (e.g., the ongoing use of droning upper strings). The middle movement is somewhat longer, slower, sparser, and more lyrical.

Devin Ulibarri
Devin Ulibarri

As a former rock guitarist with some (minimal) experience with classical guitar performance, I chose to compose most of this piece on the instrument in order to achieve an idiomatic, “guitaristic” effect that would take advantage of the resonance of the open strings and explore the full register of the instrument.

Triptych was composed for guitarist Devin Ulibarri (visit his blog, or listen to his music here). We collaborated throughout the creation of the piece, and Devin has encouraged and guided me since well before I had written a note. Thanks to our teachers, composer/guitarists Michael Gandolfi and John Mallia and guitarist Eliot Fisk, who are working with us on the development of this performance.