Retrace (2018)

Flute, violin, and cello. 7 ½ mins.

Live recording of by Citywater (Cathie Apple, flute; Amy Lindsey, violin; Timothy Stanley, cello):

Live recording by Juventas New Music Ensemble (Nicholas Southwick, flute; Ryan Shannon, violin; and Matthew Smith, cello):

A work inspired by the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail, explored through an independent artist residency following the trail from Los Angeles to San Francisco, CA. Retrace was written in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the National Trails System Act of 1968, for World Premiere on the Landscape Music: Rivers & Trails concert series.

Perusal Score

View perusal score.

Performance score and parts available for purchase. Please direct inquiries to Nell Shaw Cohen at

Program Note

Retrace was composed in response to the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail. This trail retraces the Anza Expedition of 1775-76 on which 240 men, women, and children followed indigenous routes from modern-day Mexico through Arizona and California to settle the San Francisco Bay Area for Spain. A narrative mapped onto the land rather than a “trail” in the usual sense, it is an ongoing project of cultural and historical preservation.

I followed the Anza Trail on a road trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco, stopping at parks, Missions, Presidios, museums, and areas where the Expedition made camp—from expansive ocean beaches to gritty city parks. With Retrace, I sought to musically express a vivid awareness of the past that emerged for me when this historical narrative was situated within firsthand experiences of physical spaces.

Retrace begins with four sections of music that shift abruptly in mood, alternately evoking the historic expedition (conveyed by a lyrical theme in the violin) and the contemporary urban and rural landscapes its path traverses. Finally, past and present become one. A somber coda reflects at first on the sacred spaces of Missions, then the dark legacy of colonialism seen in the loss of Native lives, land, and cultures.

To my surprise, a poem also emerged through my compositional process. Each section of the music relates to a section of text. While the music may stand alone, I’ve chosen to share my poem in hopes that it will enrich the listening experience.

Poem by Nell Shaw Cohen

Hundreds leave home
Sing the Trail
To make a new life in Alta California.

Vast blue, bright light
Retrace the Trail
On the footpaths of California.

Spanish, Native, Mestizo, Afro-Latino
Dance the Trail
From the Sonoran Desert to the Golden Gate.

City, suburb, beach, and farm
Retrace the Trail
On the highways of California.

1,200 of miles of stories
Thread through the landscape
Map the Trail
Onto the United States.

A Mission church and its gardens
Abalone shells in the cemetery:
A memorial to thousands of Native lives destroyed. They made the trail.
Their legacy and their descendants:
Still here.

We retrace the Trail.

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Performance History
  • Citywater, Visions of the Wild Festival at the Empress Theatre, Vallejo CA, 9/23/18.
  • Michigan Technological University, McArdle Theatre, Houghton MI, 10/04/18.
  • Cascadia Composers, The Old Church, Portland OR, 10/07/18.
  • Citywater, Westminster Presbyterian Church, Sacramento CA, 10/24/18;
  • Juventas New Music Ensemble, Boston New Music Festival at First Church Boston, Boston MA, 10/27 & 11/03/18.
  • Citywater, Sacramento State Festival of New American Music, Sacramento CA, 11/02/18.
  • Juventas New Music Ensemble, Longfellow House Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site, Cambridge, MA, 6/9/19.
  • Toronto Messiaen Ensemble, Canadian Music Centre, Toronto, ON, 3/23/20. Call for Scores winner.  *Postponed due to COVID-19
  • Juventas New Music Ensemble, The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA, 7/16/23.
  • Juventas New Music Ensemble, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, Brookline, MA, 7/23/23.