Archive for the Modern Category

Nell Shaw Cohen, To Create One’s Own World (2009) Inspired by Georgia O’Keeffe

Posted in Art, Modern, Music with tags , , , on February 12, 2012 by Nell

 Guide: Music Inspired by Art

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) is among the most noted American painters of the 20th century. She is well known for her abstracted images of flowers and her images of the New Mexico southwest scenery, which she loved and thrived in for the latter half of her life.

Born in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, O’Keeffe first found success in New York City with the support of photographer, gallery owner, pioneering advocate of Modernism, and future husband, Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946). O’Keeffe discovered the beauty of the New Mexico landscape in 1929, and would splither time between the southwest and New York. After Stieglitz’s death, O’Keeffe moved full-time to her studio homes in Abiquiu and Ghost Ranch.

To Create One’s Own World

I’ve composed several works inspired by the life and art of Georgia O’Keeffe, including To Create One’s Own World (2009) for soprano, flute, bass clarinet, and marimba.

Listen to an excerpt from the song:

Download the complete song

The text for this song combines a selection of short quotations from Georgia O’Keeffe’s writings, letters, and interviews, which I arranged. These excerpts are a brief but vivid articulation of O’Keeffe’s philosophy: a passionate commitment to self-expression, individualism, and creativity. In the song, the singer becomes O’Keeffe, and the mixed chamber trio of flute, bass clarinet, and marimba act as musical echoes and extensions of her sentiments.

Georgia O'KeeffeTo create one’s own world, in any of the arts, takes courage.

Making your unknown known is the important thing.

I don’t see why we ever think of what others think of what we do — no matter who they are. Isn’t it enough just to express yourself?

I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life — and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.

The days you work are the best days.

Related Topics:

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

Posted in Art, Modern, Music, Videos with tags , , , on February 12, 2012 by Nell

 Guide: Music Inspired by Art

I believe that painter Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) achieved an important artistic ideal: to create new meanings, previously unrealized connections, and heightened ways of perceiving the world and filtering experience. I seek to do the same with my music video piece, The Faraway Nearby: to offer new insight and new ways of experiencing the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe and her source material—to bring you into her world as I imagine it.

The Faraway Nearby is about seeing. When I look at O’Keeffe’s paintings of New Mexico, I am reminded of that remarkable landscape in a way that feels almost more immediate and more meaningful than the reality. I see the abstract shapes, colors, and compositional ideas that informed her interpretation of the visual world around her. I see the relationship to place that was immensely important to her, which she forged while hiking for endless hours through desert badlands. This piece is my attempt to create an immersive visual and musical experience that captures these qualities.

The video and music are closely coordinated in phrasing, development, and mood, and the structure of the music dictated my visual choices and pacing, both on a moment-to-moment basis and in larger formal concerns. Repetitions of the primary thematic section (heard at the beginning, middle and end of the piece) coincide with the image of Pedernal, “her mountain”. Pedernal is seemingly ever-present in the video, much as it looms on the horizon at Ghost Ranch. Here it represents O’Keeffe’s lasting presence, and her sense of spiritual ownership of the land. The musical atmosphere suggested to me by O’Keeffe’s visual world is a personal intuitive response which, I hope, speaks for itself.

The score to this multimedia video piece, inspired by the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe, was composed prior to the conception of this video as part of a three-movement work for chamber quintet, Into nowhere (2010). I filmed on location in New Mexico in June 2010, and edited the video over the summer, adding animations and collaging visual elements evoking O’Keeffe’s aesthetic inspirations. The video received its premiere screening, with a live ensemble performing the music, in November 2010. Beyond the Notes: Music Inspired by Art will be the second time the piece has been screened in public, and I am seeking additional screenings (with live performances or pre-recorded score) and gallery installations for this piece.

Production of The Faraway Nearby was funded in part by an Entrepreneurial Grant from New England Conservatory’s Entrepreneurial Musicianship Department.

Related Topics:

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, “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:

An Introduction to Charles Burchfield

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

 Guide: Charles Burchfield (1893-1967), painter

Charles Ephraim Burchfield (1893-1967) was born and raised in Ohio (first in Ashtabula, then Salem). He graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Art, and was employed as a wallpaper designer at H.M. Birge in Buffalo, New York. He eventually quit to pursue painting full-time, and lived thereafter in Gardenville (West Seneca), a suburb of Buffalo.

Burchfield’s middle-period work (roughly the 1920s-early 1940s) focused on realist paintings depicting American small-town and industrial life, which brought him popularity and acclaim in his time. However, the visionary works of his early and late output may appear even more remarkable to us today: Burchfield’s mystical, abstract nature imagery is arrestingly unique.

The videos below were produced by Beyond the Notes and feature Nancy Weekly, Curator and Head of Collections at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, who has written and edited several books on Burchfield including Charles E. Burchfield: The Sacred Woods, and co-curated the recent exhibit Sensory Crossovers: Synesthesia in American Art.

Fear, Hope, and the Sublime in Burchfield’s Paintings

The co-existing themes of fear and hope were central to the character of Burchfield’s artwork. Many of his paintings have an ominous or negative quality, but ultimately his output as a whole may be seen to portray an optimistic outlook.

Burchfield’s Canvas Expansion Technique

Some of Charles Burchfield’s later works were revisions and expansions on paintings that he had created decades earlier, including Autumnal Fantasy and Sun and Rocks, which were started when Burchfield was in his 20s and completed when he was in his 50s. He started with the kernel of an early painting and attached new sections of canvas to create a more expansive and more fully realized vision.

Burchfield’s Influences from Music and Sound

Music had major influence on Burchfield’s paintings and his aesthetic. From Burchfield’s early days in art school when he idolized composer Richard Wagner and sketched abstract symbols representing musical motifs from the opera “Siegfried”, to the maturity of his career when he drew on Beethoven and Sibelius for inspiration in his large-scale watercolor paintings, music served as an ongoing source of inspiration and a reference point for his artwork.

Charles Burchfield is thought to have had synesthesia (check out my video “An Introduction to Synesthesia”). Although we can’t be sure (Burchfield himself never addressed it), some scholars find ideas in his art and journals that are distinctly synesthetic in character.

Related Topics:

Martha Graham, “Frontier” (1935)

Posted in Dance, Modern with tags , on February 7, 2012 by Nell
Graham performing in "Frontier"

Graham performing in "Frontier"

 Guide: Modern Dance in America

DANCE IN PROFILE: Martha Graham, Frontier (1935)

Watch the video on YouTube with an introduction by Martha Graham. (Performance filmed 1976. Danced by Janet Eilber.)

Choreography and costume design by Martha Graham.
Music by Louis Horst.
Set design by Isamu Noguchi.

Frontier is a relatively early work by Martha Graham, created less than a decade after she began dancing on her own after leaving the Denishawn School, where she danced under the instruction of Ted Shawn. During this early period (roughly 1926-1938) she focused on creating solo dances for herself to perform, before developing the theatrical group dances of the 1940s that would define her later career and secure her popularity (such as Night Journey, which depicts a scene from Oedipus Rex, and Appalachian Spring, which depicts an original story of a pioneering husband and bride.)

This beautiful dance embodies some of the major themes and creative methods developed in her early works that would continue to factor into work for years to come, including:

  • Close collaborations with designers and composers to develop a cohesive atmosphere. Graham worked with sculptor Isamu Noguchi and composer Louis Horst on Frontier. They were both important ongoing collaborators for her (particularly Horst, who was her teacher, advocate, lover, and collaborator for many years). It has been said that in her collaborations, Graham was always the director. In this context, she believed the other art forms should ultimately serve the vision of the dance.
  • Exploration of national identity through the eyes of archetypal characters from history. In this dance, a pioneer woman surveys a vast Western landscape (suggested by the sparseness and broadness of Noguchi’s minimalist set). The dancer is a representation of Western expansion: Americans’ progress into the unknown and their hunger for space. As always, Graham imbues this generic woman with a remarkably intimate emotional expression and individual identity. This piece foreshadows the Pennsylvanian pioneers of Appalachian Spring (1944).
  • The use of costume to evoke a setting, to imply a character, and to complement the dance vocabulary. In Frontier, the dancer wears the long-skirted dress closely identified with Graham’s costume designs (she always designed the costumes for her own works). In this case, the dress also refers to the style of dress of 19th century pioneer women. The light pink hue—colors were carefully considered by Graham—suggests optimism and freshness.

In Graham’s method, the contraction and release of the torso (a motion organically derived from the act of breathing) is the center from which all of her sweeping, expressive movements extend. The dress accentuates the movements of the dancer, particularly by elongating the motion of her limbs.

  • The use of the floor as a plane for expressive movement. Graham was intentionally anti-ballet and anti-establishment, and one of the many ways in which she radically broke from ballet aesthetics was the use—rather than the denial—of gravity. (In this, she was apparently influenced by some avante garde German dance.) She often danced while sitting, or fell gracefully onto the ground.

Check out this quotation from Graham’s autobiography Blood Memory:

The designs that Isamu brought to Frontier came from our discussion of the hold the frontier had always had on me as an American, as a symbol of a journey into the unknown. Traveling to California by train, the endless tracks were to me a reiteration of that frontier.
When at last I asked Isamu for an image of them in my dance, he brought to me the tracks, as endless ropes into the future.
I had the idea of Frontier in my mind as a frontier of exploration. a frontier of discovery, and not one of limitation.(…) It makes me triumphant to think that nothing lasts but the spirit of man and the union of man. People cross the border from East to West to shake the hands of those they have not seen before. In a way, they have become each others’ frontier.

Here are images of Graham performing this piece in 1935:

I consulted these sources in researching Graham’s work:

Mazo, Joseph H. Prime Movers: The Makers of Modern Dance in America. Princeton, 2000.
Reynolds, Nancy, and Malcolm McCormick. No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century. Yale UP, 2003.