Nell Shaw Cohen Engages With Nature Through Music

The Landscape Music Composers Network brings together composers who share a passion for increasing awareness of the natural world through music
Nell Shaw Cohen at Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, N.M. The site is depicted in many of Georgia O’Keeffe’s landscape paintings, which inspired several of Ms. Cohen’s compositions. Burt Cohen

As the National Park Service celebrates its centennial, Terry Tempest Williams, a conservationist, activist, and writer, asked the question, in an article published in The Los Angeles Times, “Will Our National Parks Survive the Next 100 Years?” 

“Remove our national parks and wildlands from the United States and what remains?” she wrote. “An intolerable and lonely self-constructed world without the wisdom and beauty of a landscape much older and wiser than we are.” She concluded on a hopeful note, quoting Thoreau: “We need the tonic of wildness.”

To commemorate the 100th birthday of the park service, the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill will present a program of music inspired by nature on Friday, Sept. 9, at 6 p.m. Nell Shaw Cohen, a composer who is the founder and director of the Landscape Music Composers Network, proposed the event to the museum and to Cadillac Moon Ensemble, which will perform the works.

The evening will include world premieres of two pieces composed specially for the occasion: “Refuge,” a narrative suite by Ms. Cohen inspired by three species’ conservation stories, and “Of Wolves and Rivers,” Justin Ralls’s piece that integrates soundscapes made from field recordings with instrumental textures. 

Also on the program are “Hall of the White Giant” for marimba by Stephen Lias, inspired by Carlsbad Caverns National Park, “Vista” for violin and electronics by Alex Shapiro, and “Celestial Seasons” for cello by Stephen Wood. All five composers are members of the Landscape Music Composers Network, which brings together composers who share a passion for increasing awareness of the natural world through music.

Ms. Cohen, who grew up in Sag Harbor and San Francisco, is a composer, librettist, and multimedia artist who writes music for chamber ensembles, orchestras, and voice. Her parents, Burt Cohen, a filmmaker, and Deborah Cohen, a writer, encouraged her creativity and curiosity about the arts at a young age.

“When I was in my early and mid-teens I got really focused on rock music,” she said. “I started creating music as a multi-instrumentalist playing multiple instruments, and I recorded a solo album as a teenager.” 

At that time she was actively researching the opportunities in her field. “I found classical composition was a path that would enable me to go further than I was able to go with my rock music, both creatively and professionally.” She enrolled at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston for her undergraduate degree with concert music composition as her primary focus, and went on to earn a master’s degree in music from New York University.

Though only 28 years old, she has not only composed some 45 works since 2006, she has also put together multidisciplinary projects that combine her music, video, photography, and interactive media design, among them “Explore John Muir’s Yosemite” and “The Faraway Nearby: Georgia O’Keeffe and the New Mexico Landscape.” She also started LandscapeMusic.org, a website that provides a platform for such music by publishing essays by and interviews with composers whose work is inspired by the natural world.

Ms. Cohen began writing music inspired by visual art when she was 20, and, in 2012, “Watercolors,” a piece for wind quintet inspired by the watercolor paintings of the artist Charles Burchfield, was performed as part of the public opening of the Parrish Art Museum’s new building in Water Mill.

“My interest in writing music inspired by the natural landscape really emerged out of my interest in visual art and particularly landscape art,” she said, citing O’Keeffe and Burchfield as two artists who were passionate about the natural world. 

While chamber ensemble music affords more concert opportunities than works for orchestras, Ms. Cohen thrives on variety. “Different musical forms enable me to explore different kinds of ideas and different kinds of scale. I’m currently working on a full-length opera, but I want to continue writing chamber music and orchestra music and doing work with multimedia components. Each allows a fresh way of working at music and musical ideas.”

“Refuge,” the piece she composed for the Parrish concert, is a 16-minute suite, the three movements of which explore conservation stories of three species and the National Park Service’s role in wildlife conservation. The first movement depicts the life cycle of the world’s most endangered sea turtle, the Kemp’s ridley, and its connection to Padre Island National Seashore.

Her interest in the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle was piqued by an experience she had several years ago at the Elizabeth A. Morton National Wildlife Refuge in Noyac. While walking there, she and her family encountered a cold-stunned sea turtle stranded on the beach. They alerted the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation and carried the turtle back to the trailhead.

The second and third movements deal with the Mission blue butterfly at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and American bison at Yellowstone National Park. 

While she has come to realize that her aim is the sonic equivalent of what visual artists accomplish with landscape art, she stresses that “music inspired by nature should never be taken as an objective representation of the natural world through sound. The perception that a particular melody played on the flute signifies or captures the experience of sunlight filtering through the leaves of a tree has more to do with the composer and/or the listener than it does with sunlight or trees themselves.”

Ms. Cohen was born in San Francisco but started coming to Sag Harbor as an infant. “During those first 17 years, we spent three or four months a year in Sag Harbor. It was more of a summer thing because during those first years my sister and I were in school in San Francisco. Then, as we were being homeschooled, we were a little more flexible about the scheduling.” She feels that a bicoastal upbringing and the unstructured, self-directed setting of homeschooling gave her the freedom to discover her own path.

Ms. Cohen works on different projects simultaneously. “My composing setup is very portable,” she said. “I have a tiny midi-keyboard and my laptop. I work primarily in my Brooklyn apartment, but I can compose pretty much anywhere as long as I have a desk and a power outlet.”

Cadillac Moon Ensemble, which is based in New York City, has an atypical instrumentation for a quartet. It consists of Karen Kim on violin, Roberta Michel on flute, Aminda Asher on cello, and Sean Statser on percussion. “Their unique sound results from just having flute and no other winds and adding percussion in the context where there isn’t a piano or other melodic instrument,” said Ms. Cohen. The group is also unusual in that all of the works they perform are composed specifically for them by living composers with whom they have personal relationships.

In addition to Ms. Cohen, three of the composers featured on the program will travel to Water Mill from Oregon, Texas, and Georgia in order to introduce their work and interact with the audience. Tickets for the program are $20, $10 for members.