Making Time

I’ve just returned from completing a residency at an artist colony, and I am amazed at how much I was able to accomplish when the distractions of everyday life were not present. No teaching, no cooking, no shopping, no housework, no phone calls, no childcare, limited e-mail—all in the company of people whose only purpose, for the moment, was to make something. As a result some of the “normal” social niceties were blissfully not required—excusing yourself from dinner, for example, as everyone assumed you needed to return to the studio. Occasional brief readings, open studios, composer listening sessions, and quick games of ping-pong added richness and inspiration to the stillness.

Subtracting and adding these elements made for a rare state of being, in which all there was to do was to imagine and create. It made me wonder about how much creativity is out there that simply can’t find the time and space to flourish. My life is, frankly, relatively easy compared to many others—but so many of us are so exhausted from the complexities of life, and we bring that exhaustion to our creative lives, which in the end feel shortchanged as a result.

Of course, in the end it also is true that the experience of family, friends, and life in general feeds our expression. But I so wish that the kind of time I just experienced could be available to all of us regularly. What music will we never hear because this is not the case? If we all had this time, how much better could the quality of cultural life in the United States be?

7 thoughts on “Making Time

  1. jchang4

    ..of an interview that FJO did with Milton Babbitt where Babbitt said:

    MILTON BABBITT: I tell them the facts of life. Here they can look around and the facts of life confront them every moment of their lives. They know, first of all, most of these people are not going to get academic jobs because they don’t have the academic qualifications, because the jobs are so few and far between. They want PhDs; they want things that these people don’t have. Many of them go into computers; many of them do commercial work. They’re still doing it already while they’re students here. Many of them just drop out. Look, two of them (I’m not going to name names of course), two of the most remarkably gifted people I’ve ever known in music dropped out. One, you won’t believe, he’s a big, big, big shot at the technical end of IBM. Another one went off to Australia where he’s teaching at a university, not teaching music. And these were remarkable talents. And everybody admitted that this was not just some quirk on my part. These are not idiosyncratic cases; these are kids that could do all kinds of things. And there’s a third one who’s here in New York whom I won’t embarrass by naming, who was one of the most remarkable students that ever came here, who wrote an orchestral piece for a doctoral thesis that they wouldn’t play, the conductor here wouldn’t conduct it and Peter Mennin was then the president of the Juilliard School and he looked at the score and he said, “We must do it.” And he brought in an outside conductor to do it. This man also was a terrific pianist and has an LP of difficult contemporary music and couldn’t get a teaching job. He’s now doing some kind of business. He’s now writing occasional articles for the newspaper that remained nameless in our discussion.

    What music are we missing on because we are kept too busy? What music are we missing on because promising composers are turned away from the profession?

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  2. rtanaka

    Most great musics have come out of some sort of struggle, and many have survived largely because some artists felt strong enough about it to pursue it despite setbacks. If Messiaen wrote his Quartet for the End of Time inside a concentration camp, weathering our busy schedules shouldn’t be too much to ask, I think.

    Residencies were created as a way for artists of different cultures and geographic regions to meet and interact in order to share ideas — it was never really meant to be an extended vacation for artists, although I guess a lot of the times it does tend to appeal to the romantic image of the composer working in the middle of the woods in isolation. But that type of lifestyle has all but disappeared at this point (it’s kind of a nostalgia for the early pioneering days) so I don’t know if really helps musicians to produce better work. If it means that much to them, people have a knack for finding time, even if they’re busy. I did a residency program a few years ago, although there was something very anachronistic about it that felt kind of weird to me — as if my experiences there wasn’t real. I was much more productive when I got back, even while working full-time.

    Keep in mind that Babbitt was the very one who was advocating that composers ought to specialize in their own respective field and shouldn’t really pay any attention to the audience because they were no longer a necessary part of the process. I’d say that he pretty much got what he wanted, because his attitude is prevalent at least in most academic compositional programs that I’ve seen. Music itself is doing fine (most studies would show that music consumption rates are up by any standard), but it’s flourishing more in the commercial and popular industry at this point because classical music had managed to make itself irrelevant in the eyes of the public during the last couple of decades. I decided not to pursue my education in composition further mostly because of the reasons above — there tends to be an atmosphere of pessimism and self-pity among New Music circles that you can’t help but project its impending doom.

    Classical music culture is going to have to change significantly if we want people to listen to us again — that’s the bottom line. It’s kind of too bad in some ways, but Babbitt’s stories signify an end to a certain type of compositional approach that is no longer viable in this day and age. But it’s not the end of music, just a certain style of it.

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  3. mdwcomposer

    so I don’t know if really helps musicians to produce better work. . . I was much more productive when I got back, even while working full-time.

    Ryan, I would suggest that your experience is atypical. Certainly I have been more productive during the time I’ve done residencies at an artist’s colony. More telling, however, was that the majority of artists I talked to over the years, across various disciplines (writers, visual artists, filmmakers as well as composers) have echoed that sentiment: that they were more productive and their focus was better when not having to deal with the demands of “life”. This sampling seems to occur across the board: from first-timers to those who have done many residencies. Several also spoke of “breakthroughs” in their art that was a result of their being at a colony; they felt that would not have happened in their normal environment.

    Linda, one thing you don’t mention (or perhaps only imply) in your post is the positive effect of being in an environment / community where art matters. It’s not only the other artists. It’s also knowing that there is this support staff (and behind the staff, the board and funders of an artist’s colony) who also believe that making art is an important activity, and they too are supporting you and your work. I’ve also talked about this with staff myself, and I have come away with the feeling that these are regular folk who get it; that they realize that art, and especially making art, is a necessary part of human existence. For the head cook, preparing the meals is a job, but I think there’s this other level of awareness, and that is a part of the residency experience as well.

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  4. rtanaka

    Well, I think it’s safe to say that residency programs are pretty big luxuries for most people. At this point in my life I can’t really afford to take vacation leaves without seriously jeopardizing my job security, especially in these bad economic times. I’m not against the idea of it, but I think it’s reasonable to say that it’s an anachronism compared to how the rest of the world operates.

    It can be frustrating, but I think there’s something to the idea of having to make personal sacrifices in order to produce artworks. If it isn’t obvious already, I’m also particular to artworks that say something about the world we live in, so I have a tendency to prefer what comes out of the day-to-day experience of living life itself. It just didn’t feel that way when I did my program, although it turned out to be a good experience anyway because I got to meet different people from around the country.

    Even the works of Beethoven come out of what was happening during his lifetime. Many of his ideas exemplify the struggles involved during the process of nation-building which (at least according to him, anyway) eventually leads to the joyous unification of the world. It’s supposed to be a uplifting piece, but at the same time the idea of violence is inherently built into the music.

    You could say the same thing about the recent surge of Hip-Hop culture, which comes out of the struggles of inner-city youths living in decaying urban areas. It’s arguably one of the most successful genres to emerge during the last couple of decades because the issues raised tend to resonate with so many people around the world. I’m not saying that artists should be delegated to a life of suffering, but that suffering is often at the source of why people produce art to begin with.

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  5. Chris Becker

    “It can be frustrating, but I think there’s something to the idea of having to make personal sacrifices in order to produce artworks.”

    I’m sure Linda and everyone here has made personal sacrifices in order to produce their art. In fact, I personally don’t know anyone in music or dance or the visual arts who hasn’t made such sacrifices.

    People in other industries go to conferences, take sabbaticals, and schedule “down time” in order to recharge and stimulate their creative batteries. But artists are (in my experience) generally so industrious and so used to juggling a variety of tasks that I think we tend to forget that we too might benefit from a such a respite. Or worse, we fear that if we do “unplug” – for a day or a week or a month – that someone close to us might suffer (our spouse might get lonely, our family might not be able to reach us, the cat might not get fed, etc).

    Ryan, you’re right in that we do in this day and age have to be able to navigate an uncertain world and at times put aside our desire to “indulge” in our creative life. But I’d hate to live a life where I sacrifice that indulgence completely. Furthermore, if we have a gift, I believe it is our job to nurture it. Putting that task aside in order to be “responsible” or “grown up” or whatever is actually being truly selfish; selfish with the time that is needed for your art to grow.

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  6. rtanaka

    Well I agree that taking time off can be a good thing, although I don’t really understand the point of travelling thousands of miles away if you’re not going to try to interact with new people. I guess some people feel like they’re too “distracted” at home, but with a little bit of discipline you can teach yourself how to focus even within a hectic atmosphere. This is something I had to pick up after graduating, since time became more and more scarce. It’s sort of ironic in some ways, because we now have all of these tools (ipods, laptops, cell phones) that allow us to phase people out of our surroundings, but at the same time a lot of people find them to be a distraction. You can, though, at any time, turn them off.

    The last theory paper I wrote (which I’m going to be doing a presentation for in the fall) I wrote mostly during slow times at work — sometimes directly into gmail for copying and pasting. Imagine me sitting in a cubicle eating potato chips and caffinating myself with some soda while listening to internet radio under the atmosphere of fluorescent lighting — all while I’m pretending like I’m doing something else.

    Unromantic, I know, but I’d say that my situation probably resonates with a lot of people out there doing the same thing. Unlike a lot of people, though, I’m perfectly comfortable with the situation I’m in because I can appreciate how lucky I am to have this job. I mean, working in a cabin in the middle of the woods is a very 19th century thing, back when America was still expanding its borders — I get the feeling that the Amercian New Music community tends to find this type of mythology fairly appealing because its embedded in our roots.

    Course, 100 years later now we only remember the good stuff of that type of lifestyle — the freedom, the quaintness, appreciation of nature — not so much the bad stuff, like catching syphilis with no doctors around to help, derangement that happens from prolonged isolation, Native American robbings/killings, etc. I find it kind of strange that we would want to recreate that type of atmosphere again.

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