Music Inspired by Art in the Whitney Museum’s Collection

Posted in art and music, Beyond the Notes, The Coming of Spring, The Faraway Nearby on May 11th, 2015 by Nell

I recently had the pleasure of visiting the stunning new home of the Whitney Museum of American Art in the Meatpacking district of New York City. Three of the artists prominently featured in their wide-reaching inaugural installation of works from the collection, American is Hard to SeeCharles Burchfield, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Chiura Obata – have been primary inspirations in my ongoing work of composing music in response to visual art. Each of these artists engaged with nature, place, and spirituality, and conveyed a powerful “musicality” in their images, although in very distinct ways.

If you’ve recently visited the Whitney, plan to visit in the future, or if you’re just curious, I hope you’ll enjoy perusing this little guide to music I’ve composed inspired by artists in the Whitney’s collection. Think of it as an art & music pairing menu!

Charles Burchfield

Charles Burchfield (1893-1967), Cricket Chorus in the Arbor, 1917.

On view at the Whitney: Charles Burchfield (1893-1967), Cricket Chorus in the Arbor, 1917. More information

The Whitney has an exceptional collection of works by Charles E. Burchfield (1893-1967), and it was at the Whitney at their 2010 exhibit Heat Waves in a Swamp that I had an impactful first experience with seeing his paintings and drawings in person.

Several of Burchfield’s early paintings are now on display on the 8th floor of the Whitney in a section dedicated to art related to music and sound. Appropriate, then, to pair these works with some music related to art!

My compositions inspired by the works of Charles E. Burchfield include an orchestral tone poem and a one-act opera (listen above).

Watercolors, my wind quintet inspired by four of Burchfield’s paintings, was performed at the grand opening of the Parrish Art Museum. Visit Beyond the Notes to see a complete video of that performance and to learn about Burchfield’s paintings.

Chiura Obata

CHIURA OBATA (1885-1975), EVENING GLOW OF YOSEMITE FALL, 1930

On view at the Whitney: Chiura Obata (1885-1975), Evening Glow of Yosemite Fall, 1930. More information.

On the seventh floor of the Whitney, you’ll find eight woodblock prints by the (in my opinion, vastly under-appreciated) Japanese-American painter and woodblock print designer, Chiura Obata (1885-1975). It’s a special opportunity to see these rarely-displayed works.

Obata’s woodblock prints and watercolor paintings of Yosemite, the High Sierra, and the internment camp in Utah where he and his family were imprisoned, inspired my piece Dai-Shizen (Great Nature) for flute and guitar (listen above). This piece was commissioned by Devin Ulibarri and Alicia Mielke and premiered last June at Boston GuitarFest. Learn more about Obata’s artworks and my music.

Georgia O’Keeffe

Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986), Summer Days, 1936.

On view at the Whitney: Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986), Summer Days, 1936. More information.

My journey creating music inspired by art began in 2009 with Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986), an artist long-celebrated by the Whitney. Summer Days, one of many exquisite paintings that emerged from the landscape of her adopted home in New Mexico, is on display on the 7th floor. A few of her abstract works are also visible on the 8th floor.

My music inspired by O’Keeffe’s paintings – especially her vision of New Mexico – has included an art song for soprano and chamber ensemble; an orchestral tone poem (listen above); and a multimedia video work (watch below). Visit Beyond the Notes to learn about Georgia O’Keeffe and my music.

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Launch of Landscape Music, online publication

Posted in art and music, Landscape Music on February 6th, 2015 by Nell

I’m excited to share my new online publication with you, Landscape Music: Investigating Music Inspired by Landscape, Nature, and Place. With this project, I hope to provide a platform for work by composers and musicians creating what I call “Landscape Music” and to raise the profile of related aesthetics, methods, politics, and philosophies.

Visit About to learn more about the goals and ideas behind Landscape Music, or dive right into my new content!

Interviews

Stephen Lias, Adventurer-Composer
As a self-made specialist in music inspired by the U.S. National Parks, Stephen Lias has been Artist-in-Residence at Rocky Mountain, Glacier, Denali, Glacier Bay, and Gates of the Arctic National Parks, and has written over a dozen park-related pieces.

Rachel Panitch: Making Music in Zion National Park
Fiddler, composer, and improvisor Rachel Panitch spent four weeks as Artist-in-Residence at Zion National Park in Utah, where she created several works inspired by the park and performed her music on site.

 

 

Essays

Composing Point Reyes from Chimney Rock
An in-depth exploration of my process for writing this orchestral tone poem inspired by the coastal landscape of Point Reyes National Seashore.

“Landscape” and the role of art in our understanding of nature - Culture is the way in which we humans necessarily make sense and meaning from the natural world around us, whether it’s through an Albert Bierstadt painting or a Disney movie.

Why Landscape Music is more important than ever - How artists best utilize our time, skills, and insights as creators to reconnect ourselves and our audiences with the natural world?

Why I started Landscape Music - I seek to explore commonalities, divergences, exciting new developments, unexplored potentials, and possibly to derive some general principles or practices for musical landscapes.

Additional content will be coming soon! Follow me on Twitter to receive updates.

I’m looking for contributors! Please let me know if you’re interested in writing for Landscape Music, or if you have suggestions of composers or works I should consider profiling.

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Upcoming Boston Concerts: Works for Guitar

Posted in performances on February 5th, 2015 by Nell

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.

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Reflections on an Inspiration: The Hilliard Ensemble

Posted in Uncategorized on December 20th, 2014 by Nell
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.

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Explore John Muir’s Yosemite: OFFICIAL LAUNCH!

Posted in Beyond the Notes, John Muir's Yosemite on November 10th, 2014 by Nell

I am so excited to share with you the final version of this project, which has been in the works for about a year and half!

Multimedia installation for web and iPad app Explore John Muir’s Yosemite, illustrates the writings of naturalist and conservationist John Muir through interactive photography and music, offering an engaging new interpretation of Muir’s vision of nature.

The 2014 launch of Explore John Muir’s Yosemite commemorates the centennial of John Muir’s death, the 150th anniversary of the Yosemite Grant, and the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act.

ABOUT THE PROJECT

Back in June ’13, I traveled with my partner John Resig to Yosemite and nearby Sequoia National Park to capture about 1,000 videos, photographs, and audio recordings of sites that were important to John Muir. You might have seen my travel diary on this blog from this special trip.


Visiting the site of John Muir’s cabin at Yosemite Falls.

Over the following several months, I designed and constructed an interactive media experience integrating selections from Muir’s essays with my photography and a non-linear score I composed and produced specially for this project. John then coded the Javascript engine that drives the animations and interactivity in the installation.

I was honored to exhibit the beta version of Explore John Muir’s Yosemite for renowned Muir scholars last March at the 2014 international John Muir Symposium at The University of Pacific in Stockton, CA, with support from NYU’s Student Senators Council Academic Conference Fund Grant.

Since then, John and I have been refining things under the hood and converting the browser experience into a visually immersive iPad app, which I’m excited to report is now available as a free download in the App Store.

If you like the iPad app, please consider leaving a review in the App Store.

Enjoy the finished product! I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Production of Explore John Muir’s Yosemite was supported in part by a Challenge Grant from New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.

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Premiere of “Dai-Shizen (Great Nature)” at Boston GuitarFest, June 28

Posted in art and music, performances on June 25th, 2014 by Nell

UPDATE: video recording of this performance is now online!

Movements (played continuously):
California
Topaz
Sunset

Devin Ulibarri

Devin Ulibarri

The World Premiere of Dai-Shizen (Great Nature) for guitar and flute will be performed by fellow New England Conservatory alumni Devin Ulibarri and Alicia Mielke on the Emerging Artists concert at the 9th annual Boston GuitarFest this Saturday, June 28, 3:00pm in Jordan Hall.

Alicia Mielke

Alicia Mielke

I am honored to have my music presented on this prestigious festival by these two wonderful performers!

Visit the Boston GuitarFest website for more information about this concert and for tickets.

Dai-Shizen and Chiura Obata

When guitarist Devin Ulibarri - who I previously collaborated with in 2011 on Triptych - asked me to write a piece for him and flutist Alicia Mielke relating to Boston GuitarFest’s theme of “American Odyssey,” I gravitated towards the woodblock prints and ink and watercolor paintings of  Japanese-American artist Chiura Obata (1885-1975). Obata lived and worked primarily in the San Francisco Bay Area and devoted himself to bringing traditional Japanese aesthetics and techniques into American art. Obata’s own “American Odyssey” as an immigrant deeply devoted to the culture and landscape of California was complex and richly represented by his artwork.

Chiura Obata, "Mono Crater, Sierra Nevada, California"

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

While composing this piece, I considered specific images and qualities I perceived in Obata’s art and used those as prompts for musical ideas. I felt the lush yet restrained, and powerful yet delicate expressiveness of Obata’s prints and paintings would be reflected very effectively by flute and guitar. On a more personal level, my choice to respond to Obata’s artworks relates to my own background as a Bay Area native and love for California landscapes, as well as Devin’s deep commitment to Japanese culture and language.

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. Obata and his family spent over a year in internment camps during World War II, primarily in Utah. Despite these 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.

Chiura Obata, "Sunset, Watertower, March 10, 1943"

Chiura Obata, “Sunset, Watertower, March 10, 1943″

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New videos “California Zephyr,” “Horizon,” and upcoming premiere in Boston

Posted in art and music, new recordings, performances on May 27th, 2014 by Nell

California Zephyr - Video and Music Online

This video and music piece inspired by a cross-country train trip, created for the NYU Contemporary Music Ensemble, was given an excellent premiere performance with video projection on April 28 in the Frederick Loewe Theatre at NYU. Now you can watch the video online with live musical recording. I hope you enjoy it!

Horizon: New York #1 & #2 - Dance & Music Films Online


The audience at my April 29th recital saw the world premiere screening of version #1 of Horizon: New York, a short film I created featuring wonderful dancer-choreographer Callie Lyons and cellist Fjóla Evans. There are actually two versions of the video, shot in two different locations in Brooklyn (Brooklyn Bridge Park and Prospect Park), both of which are now available for viewing online.

Premiere of Commissioned Work at Boston GuitarFest

When guitarist Devin Ulibarri - who I previously collaborated with in 2011 on Triptych - asked me to write a piece for him and flutist Alicia Mielke relating to Boston GuitarFest’s theme of “American Odyssey,” I gravitated towards the woodblock prints and ink and watercolor paintings of the Japanese-American artist Chiura Obata (1885-1975).

Devin and Alicia will premiere my Obata-inspired composition Dai-Shizen (Great Nature) at the Emerging Artists concert on the 9th annual Boston GuitarFest on Saturday, June 28 at 3:00pm in New England Conservatory’s Jordan HallVisit the Boston GuitarFest website to learn more about the concert.

The Coming of Spring: Success

Thank you to everyone who came out to see my recital and the staged workshop production of one-act monodrama The Coming of Spring on April 29. This was an extremely special evening for me and the audience response was very rewarding!

The performance was well documented and I’ll be sharing video and audio excerpts with you in the near future.

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Listen to “Point Reyes from Chimney Rock”

Posted in art and music, new recordings on April 15th, 2014 by Nell


The NYU Symphony gave a beautiful premiere performance of Point Reyes from Chimney Rock, recording above. Mark Greenfest of SoundWordSight writes: ”[it] sounded like an impressionist fantasy – a tone poem – and was most appealing sonically.” The premiere was also featured on the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation blog, which selected me for their “Scholar Spotlight.”

Last month I had the great pleasure of revisiting the location in the Point Reyes National Seashore depicted in Tom Killion’s woodblock print, from which my composition for orchestra took its name and inspiration. I shot the above photographs while I was there.

I hope you enjoy Point Reyes from Chimney Rock! Read more about the inspiration for this piece in my previous blog entry.

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Premieres in NYC, April 28 & 29

Posted in art and music, performances, The Coming of Spring on March 31st, 2014 by Nell
Save the dates: new music and multimedia works of mine will be presented on two different concerts in New York City on April 28 and 29 (see below for details). I hope you will join me!

The Coming of Spring and Multimedia Works

Tuesday, April 29, 2014 at 8:30pm
Provincetown Playhouse
133 MacDougal Street, New York, NY
Free and open to the public (no tickets needed)
Charles E. Burchfield, Wind Blown Asters, 1951

My Master of Music graduating recital at NYU will feature a full-length, staged workshop performance of The Coming of Spring and screenings of multimedia works.The Coming of Spring is my one-act monodrama for tenor, accompanied by flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon, and piano, based on the artworks and writings of visionary American painter Charles E. Burchfield (1893-1967), who was also the inspiration for my wind quintet Watercolors. This is my largest compositional undertaking to date (ca. 36 minutes) and the overarching focus of my time at NYU.

This workshop performance is being created by a group of outstanding professional artists, including conductor David Rosenmeyer, an advocate for opera and new music with companies and orchestras in the U.S. and abroad (notably as Associate Conductor of the Oratorio Society of New York); stage director Herschel Garfein, who is also a composer and GRAMMY® award winning librettist; tenor Tyler Lee, who will portray Burchfield; and The Chelsea Quintet, which gave wonderful performances of Watercolors at the Parrish Art Museum, joined by pianist Alice Hargrove.

Also on this program:

Horizon: New York

Horizon: New York is a short film collaboration with two extraordinary colleagues of mine at NYU: dancer-choreographer Callie Lyons and cellist Fjóla Evans.

I originally composed the music for solo cello for performances at the Parrish Art Museum in November 2013. I was delighted to see this work reinterpreted by cellist Fjóla Evans and reinvented through Callie Lyons’ choreography and solo dance performance (conceived specifically for this film). With my father Burt Cohen, I filmed Fjóla and Callie in three locations around New York City to create this short film.

* * *

NYU Contemporary Music Ensemble Premieres
California Zephyr

Monday, April 28, 2014 at 7:30pm
Frederick Loewe Theatre
35 West 4th Street, New York, NY
Free and open to the public (no tickets needed)
View this event on the NYU website

In June 2013, I traveled from New York City to San Francisco by train. I departed from NYC on Amtrak’s Lakeshore Limited line and transferred to the California Zephyr in Chicago.

The California Zephyr, which journeyed westward via the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada, is a classic train famed for its scenic views. With a camera pointed at the window along the way, I attempted to capture the scenery’s transitions from farmland to mountains to desert.

California Zephyr, created for the New York University Contemporary Music Ensemble, summarizes my three-day journey on the Zephyr in eight minutes of music and video. Neither a film score nor a music video, California Zephyr features equally prominent music and video that I produced simultaneously, in dialogue with each other.

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NYU Symphony to Premiere “Point Reyes from Chimney Rock” on March 3

Posted in art and music, awards, performances on February 6th, 2014 by Nell
Tom Killion, "Point Reyes from Chimney Rock", 2012. Used with permission of the artist.

Tom Killion, “Point Reyes from Chimney Rock”, 2012.
Used by permission of the artist.

UPDATE: The recording of this performance is now available, below!

As Composer-in-Residence with the NYU Symphony, I will receive the honor of having a newly commissioned work for orchestra, Point Reyes from Chimney Rock, premiered on Monday, March 3, 8:00pm at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, 566 LaGuardia Place, New York, NY, the preeminent venue for the presentation of cultural and performing arts events for NYU and lower Manhattan. The concert will also include works by Britten, Tchaikovsky, and my colleague Kyle Tieman-Strauss.

While Point Reyes is my sixth composition for large ensemble, it’s the first to be publicly performed. I hope some of you will be able to share this special moment with me.

About the Music

A tone poem inspired by the coastal landscape of the San Francisco Bay Area where I was born and raised, Point Reyes from Chimney Rock takes its title from a woodblock print by contemporary artist Tom Killion (www.tomkillion.com), which I received as gift from my parents in Summer 2013.

The print depicts a view of Point Reyes, the peninsula jutting into the ocean north of San Francisco, from which the rugged Pacific can be seen on one side of the rocky, grass-frosted land mass, and Drake’s Bay on the other. Wild irises and grasses in the foreground appear to tremble in a brisk wind, while the water’s horizon and a looming orange-red sky stretch far into the distance.

Killion’s artwork, along with my personal experiences walking in this and similar environs on the Point Reyes National Seashore, informed the sound world I strove to create within the orchestra. This landscape is broad and sweeping on the large scale, yet delicate and intimate in the details; it is bold yet ethereal, in both sunshine and fog. My love and yearning for this place is embedded in the music.

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