“Mabel’s Call” at University of New Mexico in 2018

Posted in Mabel's Call, performances, Uncategorized on June 21st, 2017 by Nell

The University of New Mexico Logo

I’m very honored to announce that the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque will be presenting a full-length workshop of my opera Mabel’s Call—with the full score for six soloists, chorus, and seven-piece chamber ensemble—as UNM Opera Theatre’s Fall 2018 semester production! I can’t wait to work with stage director Leslie Umphrey, music director Kristin Ditlow, and their talented students, as UNM Opera Theatre Composer-in-Residence. Performance dates TBA.

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“Mabel’s Call” opera event on June 18 in Taos, NM

Posted in Mabel's Call, performances on June 1st, 2017 by Nell

Ad for Mabel's Call: Celebrating a Remarkable Taos Woman through Music
On June 18, 2016, the Mayor of Taos, New Mexico declared the first annual “Mabel Dodge Luhan Day,” to occur on the third weekend of June. He noted that “Mabel Dodge Luhan was one of, if not the most prominent and globally known resident of our community from 1918 to 1962, serving as our unofficial ambassador, mentor and host to the arts, to the outside world and to many of the most talented, influential, and well known figures of her lifetime.”

In celebration of the second annual Mabel Dodge Luhan Day weekend, the Harwood Museum of Art and The Mabel Dodge Luhan House are presenting a behind-the-scenes look at Mabel’s Call: my new chamber opera that dramatizes Luhan’s self-reinvention in Taos.

I look forward to joining leading Luhan scholar Lois Rudnick in this public conversation and opera video screening, titled Mabel’s Call: Celebrating a Remarkable Taos Woman through Music. We will screen and discuss video clips excerpted from a concert workshop performance of the opera-in-progress, which was filmed live at the Harwood Museum in 2016. I’ll be shedding light on the process of interpreting Luhan’s life and historical context through music. Audience Q&A will follow.

The event will take place Sunday, June 18, 2017, 2:00pm in the Harwood Museum of Art’s Arthur Bell Auditorium in scenic Taos. Admission is free and open to the public. Seating is limited. For venue information, visit the Harwood Museum of Art.

ABOUT THE OPERA

Inspired by the life of Mabel Dodge Luhan, Mabel’s Call is a lyrical opera in one act scored for six soloists, chorus, and chamber ensemble, with music and libretto by Nell Shaw Cohen. A universal tale told on an intimate scale, this work probes themes of identity, love, home, spirituality, and the search for a meaningful life. The opera’s story will resonate with audiences everywhere—even while it is deeply rooted in the culture, history, and physical landscape of Taos, New Mexico in the 1910s and ‘20s. The Harwood Museum of Art and American Opera Projects have presented workshops of Mabel’s Call in Taos and New York City, respectively. To hear clips from the opera and learn more about the project, visit mabelscall.com.

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Residency at The Helene Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos, NM

Posted in Mabel's Call on June 1st, 2017 by Nell

View of Taos Mountain and the Rio Grande Gorge. Photo by Nell Shaw Cohen, 2016.
Taos Mountain and the Rio Grande Gorge. Nell Shaw Cohen, 2016.

Last year I spent ten weeks as Artist-in-Residence at The Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, which supports artists and the creative process by providing housing and studio space in the heart of Taos, New Mexico. I’m delighted that the foundation has invited me back for a second residency.

I look forward to returning and continuing work on Mabel’s Callmy opera inspired by Mabel Dodge Luhan’s journey of self-reinvention in Taos during the 1910’s and ’20s. The Wurlitzer Foundation is located minutes away from Luhan’s historic home and all of the locales that were important to her life in Taos—and, consequently, my opera! It’s the perfect place to immerse myself in completing this opera-in-progress, my largest work to date, which I began researching about a year and a half ago.

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Video of “Mabel’s Call” in Taos

Posted in Mabel's Call, new recordings on September 26th, 2016 by Nell

Enjoy this video compilation of a few special moments from last month’s workshop presentation of Mabel’s Call at the Harwood Museum of Art in Taos, featuring an ensemble of New Mexico-based performers.

Presented in conjunction with the museum’s exhibition Mabel Dodge Luhan & Company: American Moderns in the West, it was a wonderful evening with a great audience!

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Concert Presentation of “Mabel’s Call” in Taos

Posted in Mabel's Call, performances on August 9th, 2016 by Nell

Bringing Mabel Dodge Luhan to Life through Opera. Friday August 12, 2016, at 5:30pm at the Harwood Museum of Art. 238 Ledoux Street, Taos, NM 87571. Admission $20/$16.

The Harwood Museum of Art is presenting an evening of scenes and arias from my opera-in-progress, Mabel’s Call, in conjunction with the Harwood Museum’s major traveling exhibit about Mabel Dodge Luhan and her circle. This workshop concert performance will be integrated into a lecture I’m giving about the process of writing the opera.

“Bringing Mabel Dodge Luhan to Life through Opera” is receiving great coverage from New Mexico Magazine, the Taos News, KRZA Radio, and the Mabel Dodge Luhan House blog.

Music from Mabel’s Call will be featured again in New York City on September 30 & October 2 as part of American Opera Project’s Six Scenes program.

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Nell’s Taos Residency and Opera Performances

Posted in awards, performances on May 27th, 2016 by Nell

Nell filming at Ranchos de Taos in 2010I first visited Taos in June 2010 while filming my multimedia piece The Faraway Nearby: Georgia O’Keeffe and the New Mexico Landscape. On that trip, I spent a night at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House: a historic home turned into a B&B.

It was there that my interest in Luhan, a memoirist and influential patron of the arts, was first piqued. Who was this glamorous, eccentric character who attracted Georgia O’Keeffe, D.H. Lawrence, Ansel Adams, Willa Cather, and countless other Modernist luminaries to her salons?

And wouldn’t she be a fantastic subject for an opera?

Fast forward to 2016. I am honored to have been awarded a Residency Grant from The Helene Wurlitzer Foundation of New Mexico—an arts colony in Taos, where I will be for most of June through August. During this time, I’ll be working primarily on my opera based on the life and memoirs of Mabel Dodge Luhan.

I’m thrilled beyond words to have the privilege of spending ten weeks living and working in this artistic haven, situated in the scenic multicultural environment of Taos that inspired many of my favorite works of art and formed the heart of Luhan’s life and legacy.

Harwood Museum of Art. Photo: Drew Flack.

Following this residency, my opera-in-progress will receive two exciting showcases in two very different venues!

On August 12, I will present an evening of excerpts from my opera in piano score at the Harwood Museum of Art in Taos. Visit the Museum’s website for more information.Cover of New Mexico Magazine May 2016 This event will be presented in connection with Mabel Dodge Luhan & Company: American Moderns and the West, a major traveling exhibition that explores Luhan’s impact on the art, writings, and activism of 20th century American Modernism.

The exhibit, and my opera, just received some great coverage in New Mexico Magazine.

Back in New York City, this same project will be featured on AOP’s Six Scenes on September 30 & October 2—the culminating performance of Composers & the Voice.

Six Scenes will feature excerpts from six operas by the emerging composer and librettist fellows in the Composers & the Voice program. After the outstanding performances on the First Glimpse concert earlier this month (recordings forthcoming), I can’t wait to hear what AOP’s resident ensemble of singers and music directors will do with my score.

Bringing Mabel Dodge Luhan to Life through Opera
August 12, 2016, 5:30pm
Harwood Museum of Art
238 Ledoux Street, Taos, NM 87571
More information

Composers & the Voice: Six Scenes
September 30 & October 2, 2016, 8:00pm
South Oxford Space
138 South Oxford Street, Brooklyn, NY 11217
More information

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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 See – Charles 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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Day 7: Last day of filming; the Black Place

Posted in The Faraway Nearby on June 8th, 2010 by Nell

Since I began researching locations to film in New Mexico for my Georgia O’Keeffe video project, I’ve been both excited and a little nervous about the Black Place. Georgia O’Keeffe’s series of paintings on this subject (e.g. Black Place II and Grey Hills) are among my favorite works of hers. While composing O’Keeffe-inspired music (see this post for info), I often felt most drawn to relate my music to the Black Place paintings. I’m fascinated by the sense of infinite movement in her vision of these enigmatic hills.

The Black Place

The Black Place

I was nervous about filming because the location is relatively remote and seemed like it would be difficult to find. Add to that the fact that it’s supposedly “oven-like” in the summer (the grey-black dirt absorbs and multiplies the sun’s heat), and we were experiencing an uncharacteristic heat wave in the southwest.

But thanks to this website (and thanks to Barbara Buhler Lynes, curator of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, for directing me to that website), we were able to navigate through surprisingly verdant mountains, valleys and ranches to the exact place where O’Keeffe painted (about a 1 1/2 hour drive from Abiquiu). We made an effort to arrive late in the afternoon, when the day’s heat was on the wane.

Filming at the Black Place

O'Keeffe said the Black Place was like "a mile of elephants".

It turns out that the Black Place is located directly on a four-lane highway (which it definitely was not when O’Keeffe painted it in the ’30s and ’40s!). This was both convenient and problematic: convenient because we didn’t need to hike the tripod and camera very far from the car, but problematic because it was difficult to get off of the road at the best spots for filming (not to mention the power lines and fences – and small oil pumps! – that stood in between my camera and the hills).

Despite small setbacks, I think this may turn out to be the best footage of this trip – and, poetically enough, the last footage. The “real” Black Place was fascinating and, more than any other location we had visited, it felt for me like walking into an O’Keeffe painting. While looking through the viewfinder of the camera at those smooth, undulating mounds of painted-looking grey-pink-white-black, I felt like I was seeing some of what she had seen.

O’Keeffe said that she traveled around the world and had never found a place that was better than where she lived. This project has taken me to those places that she considered great, and it has given me a new depth of understanding of her experience and where her visionary artwork came from. After a week of travel and filming, the footage is in the can – five hours in total (eek) – and now, the most time-consuming part of the project lies ahead: editing!

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Day 5 & 6: Return to the White Place; Pedernal with storm clouds; a break in Santa Fe; more at Ghost Ranch

Posted in The Faraway Nearby on June 7th, 2010 by Nell
Cacti at the White Place

Cacti abound at the White Place

I went out early to catch morning light at the White Place (this was our second visit – see this post), and spent a good couple of hours getting footage there. I heard that a major Hollywood flick (“Cowboys and Aliens”) will be filming on location at the White Place very soon, so thankfully we were there just in time to get it to ourselves! (There was, incidentally, a lower-key crew from Britain filming a documentary on dinosaurs at Ghost Ranch during the whole time we were there.)

O’Keeffe once said that when looking at her subjects, they sometimes seem to paint themselves – until you try. That’s how I feel about the White Place. It’s so multi-faceted and filled with different possibilities for angles, lighting, framing, etc, that it felt nearly impossible to get a shot that sufficiently captured what I could see with my eyes.

Pedernal with storm clouds

Pedernal with storm clouds

Later there was a lightning storm (a welcome change from the constant dry heat and sun), and I grabbed the opportunity to take some road-side footage of Pedernal with storm clouds hovering above. Afterwards, we took a break from filming for a leisurely afternoon and evening in Santa Fe (an hour drive away from Abiquiu).

The next day (Day 6), still using the Abiquiu Inn as our home base, we rested and worked on planning our route back to the Denver airport. We also returned to Ghost Ranch to capture just a bit more footage of the landscape from the road.

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Day 4: Tour of O’Keeffe’s Abiquiu home; 1977 documentary

Posted in The Faraway Nearby on June 5th, 2010 by Nell

Today I took a guided tour of Georgia O’Keeffe’s Abiquiu home and studio where she lived from 1949 until 1984 (except for the summer months, during which she lived at Ghost Ranch). The tour had information about the history of the place, the significance of the site in her paintings, and the small realities of her life and relationship to her space and objects, which I won’t attempt to relate here in full detail. The house has been preserved virtually exactly as she left it (“Beware of Dog” signs and all!), and I was struck by O’Keeffe’s distinctive decorative sensibility – spare, earthy, elegant. Every nook and cranny is perfectly composed, with collections of rocks and sculpture pieces on empty surfaces. The style of the furnishings is classic mid-century modernist, tinged with a Japanese aesthetic. It’s relaxing, beautiful, although not exactly “cozy”. Clearly a conducive place for making art and leading a quiet, contemplative lifestyle.

Later in the day I watched the 1977 documentary “Georgia O’Keeffe” by Perry Miller Adato, which features exclusive interviews with the artist herself when she was in her 80s. The film is out of print on VHS and has never been released on DVD, so I was excited to see that it was available for viewing at the Piedra Lumbre Education and Visitor Center at Ghost Ranch. It’s a fascinating and well-made portrait, offering genuine insight into O’Keeffe’s life and identity as an artist.

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