Colonial Power: An exploration of America’s most prominent artist colonies

In between college and life, I had the great experience of being accepted to the MacDowell colony. I was frankly petrified—here I was, age 30, just out of conservatory, and did not know what the next step would be. I was in the middle of a huge project, an opera, so when I heard that I had been accepted I was overjoyed: this was the third time I had applied, and now I would finally get to be there, among all those brilliant minds.

The drive was oddly full of anxiety—what if these geniuses didn’t like me? I was going to a place where I knew nobody, where I would undoubtedly be on the younger side, and I knew all the people I would be dining with would probably be talented and advanced and perhaps a little intimidating. But when I arrived, it could not have been more different. My first glimpse at my studio—with its grand piano, fireplace, and spectacular view of a ravine full of trees—is something I will never forget. I wanted to keep it and took to it like a six-year-old takes to a new bicycle.

I was taken in by a photographer (with whom I am still friends) who had been there before. She introduced me to everyone, showed me the proverbial ropes, and within a few meals my anxiety melted away. The people, most of them a good decade older than myself, were very inviting—they had all been in my position, and knew how tough it could be, so all were friendly and allowed me into their conversations. I had never been in a room with so many different sorts of artists, so the talk flowed and was fascinating.

That night I set to work. At first the quiet and lack of phones unsettled me—those who live in cities tend to be startled by the country’s darkness and palpable silence—but soon I realized that I could do what I liked: I could pound away at the piano and sing until dawn, and nobody would object. I did just that. As the days flew by, my opera piled up—it was shocking how easily and how well I worked there. Summer became fall, and out my back window was the most glorious view of trees one can imagine. Every morning after breakfast I would retire to my studio (called MacDowell), light a fire, and look over the previous day’s efforts while sipping tea. Even to write this now fills me with a kind of joy and lust—and I cannot wait to go back. Despite a daily noisy intrusion by a canyon full of crows so loud I could not hear the piano, I managed to get more work done than I thought was possible.

MacDowell was for me the first time I realized my own powers as a composer. It is not an easy place to be—being alone with one’s thoughts can be a terrifyingly introspective experience—but it does change you. While there I not only wrote literally hundreds of pages of music, but made dozens of friends, fell in love, read innumerable books (many of which authored by the people with whom I dined each night), saw some spectacular artwork, had some of the profoundest conversations of my life, honed my ping-pong skills and pool table banter (well, a little) and reached a wholly different and new place within me—not only with my work, but with myself. For the first time in my life I felt like I could actually manage the difficult things ahead, could make my way in the dream-the-impossible-dream life I had chosen.

One night after someone’s presentation we decided to go to visit the graves of Edward and Marian MacDowell, the founders. This mission began somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but once there it took a turn. I raised a toast to them, simply with the words “thank you,” and suddenly realized just how much we all had to thank them for. Many, including myself, wept quietly; we really did have something to thank them for. Being an artist in America is difficult, there is so much set against you. But then there are places like MacDowell—great gifts to the world from the people who founded them—where you can be taken for what you are: as an artist. In a field like composing, where acknowledgement is preciously scarce, colonies are a well-earned reward.

From Colonial Power
By Daniel Felsenfeld
© 2003 NewMusicBox

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