The Course of Empire: A Conversation With Composer Nell Shaw Cohen

Art inspires, and sometimes what it inspires is other art. When composer Nell Shaw Cohen first saw Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire at the New-York Historical Society, she was inspired to write a piece that represented the story seen in Cole’s series. One of the defining works of the Hudson River School of painting, The Course of Empire depicts the growth of a fictional civilization, from birth to power to ultimate demise. We spoke to Cohen about her process and how the piece will be used to engage museum goers, introducing them to the deeper emotion behind the paintings, which are currently part of the traveling exhibition The Hudson River School: Nature and the American Vision on view at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA. They will travel to the Columbia Museum of Art, Columbia, SC (November 17, 2011–April 1, 2012) and the new Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, AR (May–August, 2012) before returning to the New-York Historical Society.

New-York Historical: Tell us a little about what you felt when you first saw The Course of Empire paintings. What first made you want to compose this piece?

Nell Shaw Cohen: When I saw the paintings at the New-York Historical Society in 2008 I found them very compelling, and the time from first seeing the paintings to beginning to write the music was a matter of weeks. In particular, the evolution of the landscape and its moods shown through weather and light spoke to me as a kind of universal, almost abstract, narrative that would translate very well into music. Cole's combination of epic scale with detail and nuance is of course very engaging to the eye; and the imagery is incredibly bold, dynamic, striking. There's a lot there to respond to.

New-York Historical: The website says this is a not-for-profit educational resource. How will this be used as such?

Cohen: "The Course of Empire" website is part of a larger project called Beyond the Notes, a new model for multimedia websites and mobile web apps to accompany arts events. I will be creating several more of these websites for pieces I've composed, but my long-term goal is to collaborate with other presenters and arts institutions to develop Beyond the Notes companions that their audiences can enjoy for free online.

New-York Historical: How long did the composition take you?

Cohen: A relatively short period for a piece of this length (15 minutes)—a little over a month, if I remember correctly. It was actually one of the most fun composing experiences I've had!

New-York Historical: Will the piece be performed anywhere after PEM?

Cohen: "The Course of Empire" will also be featured on an evening-length concert of music I've composed inspired by the works of visual artists including O'Keeffe, Burchfield, and Michelangelo, among others. That's taking place November 2 at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. I'll be posting updates about that on my website.

Beyond that, I hope to find another opportunity to have the piece performed at a museum where the paintings are on exhibit. I feel the music will be best experienced when presented in the context of the paintings themselves.

New-York Historical: What do you hope people take away after hearing the composition?

Cohen: I'm a huge fan of visual art, and a composition like this is an extension of my desire to express and share with people what I find especially interesting or meaningful about an artwork. If someone comes away from listening to my string quartet with a deeper sense of engagement with the paintings, and feels that they were able to enter the world of the paintings in a different way than they had before—similar to the way that a score reinforces the emotional and aesthetic experience of a film—then I would feel that my music was a success!

Creative: Tronvig Group