Archive for the Art Category

Music Inspired by Art [GUIDE]

Posted in Art, Guides, Music with tags , on February 10, 2012 by Nell

 Music Inspired by Art is a guide to music I’ve composed in response to ideas, atmospheres, and narratives from visual artworks ranging from 20th century Modernism to Italian Renaissance sculptures.

I believe music has the potential to have a profound effect on the way that we see and understand visual art, and vice versa, in the same way that a score enhances the experience of a film. I aim to create music that acts as a pathway for listeners into a richer and more meaningful relationship with works of visual art. Similarly, I hope the artwork may act as a pathway for viewers into my music.

Most of the content in this guide was originally created for a concert companion for a live performance of several of these works. View the original concert companion here. The concert and content for the the companion website were funded by an Entrepreneurial Grant from the New England Conservatory of Music.

The Course of Empire (2008)

Inspired by paintings by Thomas Cole (1801-1848), English-American)
[learn about the art]


Watercolors (2011)

Inspired by paintings by Charles Burchfield (1893-1967, American)
[learn about the art]


Setsugekka (2011)

Inspired by woodblock prints by Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858, Japanese)
[learn about the art]


To Create One’s Own World(2009)

The Faraway Nearby: Georgia O’Keeffe and the New Mexico Landscape (2010) [VIDEO]

Inspired by the paintings and artistic philosophy of Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986, American)


Revealed in Stone (2009)

Inspired by poems and sculptures by Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564, Italian)
[learn about the poems]
[learn about the sculptures] 

Charles Burchfield, watercolor painter [GUIDE]

Posted in Art, Guides, Modern with tags on February 10, 2012 by Nell


Charles BurchfieldCharles Ephraim Burchfield (1893-1967) was a one-of-a-kind American watercolor painter who created wonderful transcendental images of nature who lived and worked primarily in Western New York.

Visit the topics in this guide to learn about some major themes and influences in his artwork; discover selected representative paintings; and to hear and explore music I’ve composed inspired by the paintings.


An Introduction to Charles Burchfield

Featured Paintings

Music Inspired by Art

Nell Shaw Cohen, “Setsugekka” (2011) Japanese woodblock prints by Hiroshige

Posted in Art, Music with tags , , , , on February 9, 2012 by Nell

 Guide: Music Inspired by Art

Setsugekka (Snow, Moon, and Flowers) is an 1857 series of three triptychs (artworks in three sections) by the Japanese master Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858). These woodblock prints, or Ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating world”), convey Hiroshige’s vision of three different real-world landscapes representing the traditional thematic triad of snow (setsu), moon (getsu), or flowers (ka).

Hiroshige’s prints inspired me to compose Setsugekka, a work for violin and piano in three short movements (composed spring 2011). Each of the movements responds to the atmosphere and mood of the individual triptychs in the series: I. Mountain and River on the Kiso Road, II. Panorama of the Eight Views of Kanazawa under a Full Moon, and III. The Whirlpools of Naruto in Awa Province.

Play the audio below each image to hear a brief excerpt from that movement (and click the image to view a larger version):

Mountain and River on the Kiso Road

Mountain and River on the Kiso Road


Panorama of the Eight Views of Kanazawa under a Full Moon

Panorama of the Eight Views of Kanazawa under a Full Moon


The Whirlpools of Naruto in Awa Province

The Whirlpools of Naruto in Awa Province

Related Topics:

An Introduction to Japanese Woodblock Prints [VIDEO]

Posted in Art, Videos with tags , on February 9, 2012 by Nell

By the 1830s, woodblock printing was a well-established market in Edo, Japan (now Tokyo). Print publishers worked to finance the production of fashionable art in print form. Publishers commissioned artists, like Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858), to design prints which were then carved by professional woodblock carvers and printed by professional woodblock printers.

Hiroshige was a poor samurai who worked as a firefighter and part-time artist to make ends meet. He learned to design woodblock prints in the famous Utagawa school, which was responsible for educating other famous woodblock print designers such as Toyokuni and Kunisada. Hiroshige started creating prints during the early 1810s, but it wasn’t until he began dedicating his complete attention to art in the early 1830s that his career began to take off.

Landscapes became a viable medium for woodblock printing in the 1830s with the import of the pigment “Prussian Blue,” making it possible to create ever-more vibrant blues and greens (essential to creating effective landscape prints). The viability of landscapes, and the new pigment, was solidified after the woodblock artist Hokusai released his famous landscape series “36 Views of Mount Fuji.” The popularity of this series, and quality of Hokusai’s landscapes, encouraged Hiroshige to push head-long into focusing on landscapes as an artistic medium and challenged him to create ever-better works of art.

Text by John Resig (, edited by Nell Shaw Cohen.

Narration written by John Resig (, performed by Nell Shaw Cohen.

Related Topics:

An Introduction to Synesthesia [VIDEO]

Posted in Art, Music, Videos with tags on February 9, 2012 by Nell

Synesthesia, know as the “crossing of the senses”, is a neurological characteristic that can take many forms. It is not limited to artistic individuals (prominent synesthetes include physicist Richard Feynman and engineer Nikola Tesla), but synesthetic responses have fueled the work of many of artists (including Charles Burchfield).

This video produced by Beyond the Notes features an interview with renowned New York-based painter Carol Steen, co-founder of the American Synesthesia Assocation, who curates exhibits of synesthetic art and conducts innovative research into the expressions of synesthesia through visual art.

Nell Shaw Cohen, “Watercolors” (2011) paintings by Charles Burchfield

Posted in Art, Modern, Music with tags , , , on February 9, 2012 by Nell

 Guide: Charles Burchfield (1893-1967), painter

 Guide: Music Inspired by Art

Watercolors (2011) is a work for wind quintet I composed inspired by the watercolor paintings of Charles Ephraim Burchfield (1893-1967), a brilliant American artist of the first half of the 20th century.

The four movements of Watercolors correspond to four paintings: An April Mood, Autumnal Fantasy, Sun and Rocks, and Glory of Spring (Radiant Spring). Although these works were not created by Burchfield as a series, they have common threads: each is a mystical, semi-abstract vision of a natural environment, and expresses the changing seasons (especially the coming of spring).

In Watercolors, I created a sonic atmosphere that expresses my interpretation of each of the paintings: both on a general level of mood or ambiance and through specific musical details that relate to visual elements in the paintings. Here is a guide to some of the more prominent musical ideas that relate to identifiable features of the paintings.

See below for images and details from each of the paintings, text describing my interpretation, and audio clips of relevant excerpts from the music.

I. An April Mood

An April Mood

I feel this painting [watch a video about the painting] has a lonely, introspective quality, yet it captures the unique and noble beauty of a stormy spring day. I chose to begin this movement with a horn call, echoed by the bassoon, that captures this juxtaposition of loneliness with nobility (the latter a quality traditionally associated with the horn).

Repeated notes in the upper winds were my attempt to evoke the pitter-patter of raindrops, and the overall sense of movement in the windy atmosphere of the painting.

Burchfield creates a dark, almost angsty, image (exemplified by the dead, barren trees in the foreground) with an underlying sense of hope for the coming spring. There is a section in the music that is repeated and varied in the piece (and ultimately ends it), which represents Burchfield’s poignant sense of yearning for spring and wonderment at the regenerative powers of nature.

Download the complete recording of “An April Mood”.


II. Autumnal Fantasy

Autumnal Fantasy

This painting [watch a video about the painting] is remarkable for its depiction of sound. Burchfield symbolizes bird calls and insect noises with abstract ‘reverberating’ shapes. The viewer is given a rich sense of the world of noises in these woods, and so it was an irresistable choice for me to base this piece on musical motives that resemble bird calls or insects. They are meant to suggest such sounds, rather than recreating any individual animal noise.

“This staccato bird/insect music is juxtaposed throughout the movement with slow, lyrical, chordal music. In its first appearance, this music represents the incredible sun in this painting (or “diamond star”, as Burchfield called it), which for me evokes a warm, healing light.”

“Slow, chordal music returns later in the movement with a more haunting mood. This music represents the darkness in the lefthand background of the painting–the woods appear to extend far into the distance, which suggests that the forest contains a mysterious realm beyond our view.”

Download the complete recording of “Autumnal Fantasy”


III. Sun and Rocks

Sun and Rocks

This painting [watch a video about the painting] is incredibly bold: high contrasts between light and dark, strong colors, and dramatic, sharp contours, and I wanted to create a sonic palette that reflected this. I scored the ensemble in the extremes of the high and low range for the primary section in the piece (which undergoes a series of variations). I also chose to include piccolo flute in the place of C flute for just this movement. Its register is extremely high in comparison with the other instruments, and it expands the range of the ensemble and the contrast between registers.

There are extended sections in the music where layers of throbbing, swelling, dissonant notes stretch out over each other. I was attempting to capture both the physical sense of vibration, and the otherworldly, hallucinatory quality, in this painting—Burchfield’s image and my music reverberate with waves of heat, sound, energy, or all of the above.

Download the complete recording of “Sun and Rocks”.


IV. Glory of Spring

Glory of Spring

‘Glory of Spring’ [watch a video about the painting] to me is almost simple–both visually and emotionally–in comparison with the other more tumultuous, complex paintings in this set. Accordingly, this movement is shorter and more lyrical than the others.

The movement centers on a melodic theme, stated most prominently by unaccompanied horn, that has a nostalgic quality. For me, this melody, and the clear, pure sound of the horn in its upper register, reflects the peaceful beauty in this painting. It isn’t joyous or overbearing–it is gentle, light, and has a healing quality.

The feeling of clarity and light, simple beauty, is also expressed through lush, high-register chords which echo the golden light in the painting (“liquid light”, as Nancy Weekly sees it).

There is a lovely balance of visual elements in this painting, and an unmistakable suggestion of holiness–the sky and trees even resemble the architecture of a cathedral. The aesthetic of Renaissance music sees beauty in balance and subtle nuance, and through church music, it’s also inextricably related to our sense of the holy. At the time I composed Watercolors, I was studying Renaissance vocal polyphony, so I incorporated some imitative counterpoint techniques adapted from polyphony into this movement.

Download the complete recording of “Glory of Spring”.

Related Topics:

Charles Burchfield, “Glory of Spring (Radiant Spring)” (1950) [VIDEO]

Posted in Art, Modern, Videos with tags on February 9, 2012 by Nell

 Guide: Charles Burchfield (1893-1967), painter

Related Topics:

Charles Burchfield, “Sun and Rocks” (1918-50) [VIDEO]

Posted in Art, Modern, Videos with tags on February 9, 2012 by Nell

 Guide: Charles Burchfield (1893-1967), painter

Related Topics:

Charles Burchfield, “Autumnal Fantasy” (1916-44) [VIDEO]

Posted in Art, Modern, Videos with tags on February 9, 2012 by Nell

 Guide: Charles Burchfield (1893-1967), painter

Related Topics:

Charles Burchfield, “An April Mood” (1946-55) [VIDEO]

Posted in Art, Modern, Videos with tags on February 9, 2012 by Nell

 Guide: Charles Burchfield (1893-1967), painter

Related Topics: