Archive for the Music Category

Medieval and Renaissance Music: Why is it Important?

Posted in Medieval, Music, Renaissance with tags , on February 26, 2012 by Nell

Guide: Vocal Music in the Medieval and Renaissance Periods

Historians often point to the Medieval period as the beginning of the unbroken tradition of notated (written down) Western music that developed into what we now consider “classical” or “art” music. Although the earlier Ancient music of Greece was very important and influential, only a few fragments of Ancient Greek music have survived. The Medieval period lasted from the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century (specifically 476 AD) through roughly the 15th century.

It was in Medieval cathedrals and abbeys that explorations of the nature of pitches and rhythms began evolving into what would become the practices of composing and performing standardized much later in the 18th century. Important technical tools such as written musical notation and solfege (a method for sight-singing) also first appeared in the Medieval period. Music with increasingly sophisticated counterpoint–simultaneous melodic lines–began appearing in the 1100s.

Music by Orlando di Lassus

16th c. music by Orlando di Lassus (click to view source)

The following centuries after the Medieval period saw new developments in musical style, and Renaissance style reached its peak during the 16th century with the music of Palestrina and Lassus.

Tastes and ideas eventually changed and composers like Claudio Monteverdi paved the way for the new Baroque style of music, which began in the 17th century.

While there were a lot of different musical styles during the Medieval and Renaissance periods, there was a clear continuity of musical forms and similarities in the way that people composed, performed, and listened to music during this entire period.

Vocal Music

Instrumental music was popular in the Medieval and Renaissance periods in the contexts of out-of-doors dancing, lords’ banquets, town festivals and ceremonies, popular songs, etc. The surviving documentation of instrumental music is unfortunately not very good, partly because music notation from this time isn’t always very specific about what instrument or voice should be performing a musical part. A lot of instrumental dance music was also learned and passed on orally—that is, by ear rather than by writing—so we don’t know exactly what it was like.

Vocal music held an important position in the Catholic church, which was the dominant cultural and political force in Western Europe, and many of the most highly respected composers specialized in vocal music. On the whole, instrumental music wasn’t considered as worthy of development in the church as vocal music was until, arguably, the late 1500s-early 1600s, with the beginning of the Baroque period.

For these reasons, vocal music is a good focus of study to trace important developments in music during the Renaissance and before, although a consideration of instrumental music during this time is important for a complete understanding of the history of music.

Nell Shaw Cohen, “The Course of Empire” (2008) Inspired by the paintings of Thomas Cole

Posted in Art, Modern, Music with tags , , , , on February 25, 2012 by Nell

 Guide: Thomas Cole’s “The Course of Empire”

 Guide: Music Inspired by Art

The Course of Empire (2008) is a string quartet by Nell Shaw Cohen inspired by a cycle of five paintings by Thomas Cole (1801-1848) of the same name. Explore these topics to learn more:

  • Inspired by Art – The process of composing music inspired by paintings and how the music and paintings are connected.
  • Musical Styles – Discover connections between music history and the historical narrative of the five paintings.
  • The Mountain Motif – Explore the appearances of a musical motif representing the recurring image of a mountain cliff in Cole’s paintings.

The Course of Empire string quartet was most recently performed in conjunction with an exhibit of the paintings by members of A Far Cry at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA on July 30, 2011 as part of the Inspired by the Land festival, at the opening of the national touring exhibit Painting the American Vision. For more resources on the quartet and the Nell Shaw Cohen’s interpretation of the paintings, read The Boston Globe article on the piece, or visit the New-York Historical Society’s interview with the composer.

Look and Listen

Click the images to view a larger version of each painting. Play the audio below each image to hear a brief excerpt from that movement, or click the link to download a complete mp3 of the piece.

This performance was recorded live at the Peabody Essex Museum on July 30, 2011 by Liza Zurlinden and Ethan Wood, violin; Jason Fisher, viola; Alexei Gonzales, cello. The five movements total slightly over 14 minutes.

I. The Savage State

Download the complete movement


II. The Pastoral State

Download the complete movement


III. Consummation

Download the complete movement


IV. Destruction

Download the complete movement


V. Desolation

Download the complete movement

Nell Shaw Cohen, Revealed in Stone (2009) Inspired by the Poetry and Art of Michelangelo

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

 Guide: Music Inspired by Art

>Listen to the complete song cycle on this website

Michelangelo’s Poetry in Translation

The poems were composed in strict meter and rhyme, and while some English translations recreate this (notably those by Sidney Alexander) I was attracted to the more prose-like translations of James M. Saslow based on their clarity of meaning and dramatic pacing. However, as I began work on the music, I found that Saslow’s word choice and syntax did not always work ideally with music—with the exception of the first selection in this cycle, which I found to fit perfectly and have used without alteration. For the other poems, I adapted the text into my own words, consulting Saslow and Alexander, and occasionally the original Italian (which I can’t read, but felt through with a dictionary and some guesswork!).

While I took a great deal of stylistic liberty with the language and poetic meter, I strove always to retain the essential meaning of the poems and to deliver Michelangelo’s metaphors intact. More often than not I have liberally truncated his complex, interweaving syntax into concise phrases that can be more easily understood in real-time performance. I hope that I have been able to adapt Michelangelo’s ideas into a form that might illuminate them in a new and meaningful way for the audience.

Comparing the Texts

To give a sense of how similar (or dissimilar) the poems in this cycle are to the originals, here are excerpts from Michelangelo’s original Italian poems, English translations by a published scholar, and my own adaptations.

In this first excerpt, I makes the four lines of this stanza rhyme rhythmically (although the words do not), which allows for a “song-like” setting.

Michelangelo’s Original

Passo inanzi a me stesso
con alto e buon concetto,
e ‘l tempo gli prometto
c’aver non deggio.

Excerpt, poem 144 [Girardi numbering]

Translation by James M. Saslow

From The Poetry of Michelangelo, An Annotated Translation. Yale University Press, 1991.

I get ahead of myself
with a lofty and fine conception,
and promise it the time
that I’m not to have.

Nell Shaw Cohen’s adaptation (“The Years I Cannot Know“)

I plan for the time that I will not have
to realize a lofty goal.
I promise myself completion
in the years I cannot know.

In this next example, I took only the essential meaning behind the poem and dramatically altered the rhythm of the text in order to suit my purposes in setting the words to music.

Michelangelo’s Original

S’egli è che ‘n dura pietra alcun somigli
talor l’immagin d’ogni altri a se stesso,
squalido e smorto spresso,
il fo, com’ i’ son fattoda costei.
E par ch’esempro pigli
ognor da me, chi’ i’ penso di far lei.

Excerpt, poem 242 [Girardi numbering]

Translation by James M. Saslow
From The Poetry of Michelangelo, An Annotated Translation. Yale University Press, 1991.

Since it’s true that, in hard stone, one will at times
make the image of someone else look like himself,
I often make her dreary
and ashen, just as I’m made by this woman;
and I seem to keep taking myself
as a model, whenever I think of depicting her.

Nell Shaw Cohen’s adaptation (“I Become the Model“)

Sometimes one will make
the image of someone else
look like the image of himself.
So, I make her gloomy just as she makes me.
I become the model whenever I model her.


In the following example, I stayed much closer to Saslow’s language, choosing to collapse some of the poetic syntax into simpler phrases.

Michelangelo’s Original

sì che mill’ anni dopo la partita,
quante voi bella fusti e quant’ io lasso
si veggia, e com’ armarvi i’ non fu’ stolto.

Excerpt, poem 239 [Girardi numbering]

Translation by James M. Saslow
Excerpted from The Poetry of Michelangelo, An Annotated Translation. Yale University Press, 1991.

so that a thousand years after our departure
may be seen how lovely you were, and how wretched I,

and how, in loving you, I was no fool.

Nell Shaw Cohen’s adaptation (“A Thousand Years After We Are Gone”)

so that a thousand years after we are gone
all can see how lovely you were,

and how pathetic I was,
and that I was no fool in loving you.


>Listen to the complete song cycle on this website

Related Topics

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:

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] 

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 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:

Madrigal and Word Painting

Posted in Music, Renaissance with tags , , , , , , on January 30, 2012 by Nell

Guide: Vocal Music in the Medieval and Renaissance Periods

Madrigal was a form of non-religious (secular) Renaissance vocal music for two or more singers, which reached the peak of its popularity in the 16th century. In France, the equivalent form was known as chanson.

Unlike most sacred music of the time, madrigals were composed in the vernacular language (English, French, Italian, etc) rather than Latin. Composers generally used secular poetry as texts, and sometimes utilized word painting (see below) as a notable compositional device.

What to listen for:

  • Madrigal was sung in the vernacular, i.e. the common tongue, rather than Latin.
  • The use of word painting (it’s not in every madrigal, but it’s in a lot of them).
  • Madrigals are often (though not always) playful, lively, and clever in tone.
Word painting is a device used frequently in Renaissance vocal music, especially madrigalsalthough it certainly also appeared in church music—in which the musical events are designed to illustrate or reflect the text. (Examples below.) This practice is still very much alive in music today, although it used differently. Word painting is related to the concepts of tone painting and program music, in which instrumental music tells a story without text.

Recommended listening:

This piece a classic and clear example of word painting. Pay special attention to the way the words and phrases “ascending,” “descending,” “running down,” “two by two,” etc, are treated by the composer in this piece! To begin with, I suggest you listen and look at the score to perceive this on your own—but here’s a “cheat sheet” of notable moments.

I personally think this chanson (French madrigal) is completely fantastic, and it’s a great example of word painting and musical depiction. In this piece, titled “The Song of the Birds,” the singers imitate bird calls as a musical illustration of the content of the text. (Check out the music 3 minutes in!) Here’s a translation of the French lyrics into English:

Wake up sleeping heads! The God of Love calls you! The birds will work wonders this May Day to dispel your worries. Unplug your ears.

Everyone will be filled with joy, for the season is pleasant, and the song-thrush will make sweet, original music. Everyone will laugh and rejoice. The nightingale sets the woods ringing with twittering throat.

Flee regrets, tears, and cares! The season is pleasant. Away Mister Cuckoo, everyone regards you as a traitor. “Cuckoo” . . . treacherously laying eggs in each nest uninvited. Wake up sleeping heads! The God of Love calls you!

[Source for this translation]

Further reading:

Wikipedia article on madrigal