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“Every year


I have ever learned


in my lifetime

leads back to this: the fires

and the black river of loss

whose other side


is salvation,

whose meaning

none of us will ever know.”

— Mary Oliver, from

      “In Blackwater Woods”


Originally composed for the pedagogy of Kara Madden Brems

at Hope College, Fall 2020.


Recorded at

Yellow Door Music Studio

on a Yamaha N1.


Mastering by Philip Daniel.


Album artwork by Barrie Bowman, represented by Art & Soul Gallery (Traverse City, MI).

Thanks to Mark Herchenroeder for offering feedback on the cover design.


Endless thanks to

Melia Sneden Colwell

for being a superb human, supporting this project from the beginning, and reassuring me on multiple occasions that it was worth putting out into the world.

the fires & the river:


In loving memory of...

Patricia Ann Stephenson (1935–2020)

& Mark Alan Stephenson (1958–2020)

My debut album the fires & the river: piano music for modern dance includes thirteen compositions for solo piano designed for modern dance movement. My hope is that this work offers simple, elegant, and functional music for listeners and dancers alike. Every piece is a solution to a problem in the studio, a work that supports the dancers. In that sense this music isn’t about anything at all. The meaning and frame I’ve given to the collection is rooted in the season of life in which I created it. the fires is about finding and losing.


In Fall 2020, I began a new job as a dance accompanist at Hope College, my first dance gig. With the patient help of Julie Powell and Kara Madden Brems, I learned the ropes of playing for dance, and particularly within the context of Kara’s Modern class, began to rediscover my compositional voice. (This after two degree programs focused on interpreting other people’s music.) Midway through that first semester, I worked up the nerve to improvise an entire class, and by the end of the semester, I found I had a collection of compositions that I was proud of. I had been toying with the idea of recording the pieces when a pandemic-induced shutdown gave me an opportunity to record the combinations for Kara’s final exam. Those combinations, along with two improvisations for stretching, comprise the album.


Against this musical rediscovery and the backdrop of 2020’s myriad collective losses, two of my close family members died within roughly five weeks’ time—my Grandma Pat on November 4 at age 85 after a too-long bout of pneumonia and my uncle Mark on December 10 at age 62 after a COVID-related cardiac event. In a short span of time, two lifelong, loving presences were gone.


Mary Oliver’s “In Blackwater Woods” created space for my grief in its acknowledgement of the essential humanness of loss. As I reflected on finding and losing so much in the same season, I hoped the loves I had lost would stay with me, a bit like the music-making that had lay dormant for so long.


Justin Colwell

November 2021

Grand Rapids, Michigan


I've done my best to make this work as functional as possible for the dance classroom. To that end, each piece includes a 4-count introduction and is phrased in even sets of 8. I've noted the meter and phrase count for each combination and titled each piece by the combination it was originally composed for. I hope you'll find many ways to adapt these pieces to your teaching and performance needs. If you'd like to choreograph one of the pieces for the stage, let's get in touch. Happy dancing!

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JUSTIN COLWELL enjoys making music as a soloist, collaborative pianist, conductor, and church musician. He serves as a dance accompanist at Hope College, choral accompanist and adjunct faculty member at Grand Valley State University, pianist for All Souls Community Church, and a cofounder at Yellow Door Music Studio. He holds a master of music degree in Piano Performance from the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music & Dance. He lives with his family in Grand Rapids, Michigan.