The Vagabond Life

Having spent the bulk of the last few years “in residence” at various artist colonies, I’m looking forward to being home for nearly eight months—without a doubt the longest I’ve managed to stay put since I was enrolled in school. After my recent year in Berlin, especially, I’m enjoying once again being a composer “based in” his own living room.

Now that I’ve had some time to reflect on these residencies en masse, I’ve realized that the residency experience offers a lot more than just the requisite interruption-free work time. For one thing, being abruptly thrust into a new working environment can have the effect of hitting some kind of mental reset button, in addition to any benefits that derive from the new workspace itself being superior; sometimes I’ve found this fresh perspective at least as useful as the free time.

Residencies, naturally, are also places where one meets and interacts with other artists. MacDowell has a large and constantly morphing community of artists, and while I formed only a couple close friendships there I think I benefited greatly from the other fellows’ sheer variety of disciplines, tastes, and interests. I’ve found that in smaller groups, relations with other fellows can become greatly amplified. At the Academy in Berlin, for example, the ten fellows cultivated a “college dorm” atmosphere in which everyone became pretty close to everyone else. This was fine while it lasted, but when tensions between two fellows arose it had a huge impact on everyone else, the kind of impact that would have been almost unimaginable in a larger community like MacDowell’s. So while in general I’ve benefitted from my interactions with other fellows, there have also been times when the social element of the residency became a distraction. After all, when you have few responsibilities besides your own work, it can be easy to lose focus.

That’s O.K., because fortunately most residency programs also provide some form of guilt—er, motivation—to counteract the natural tendency to wander. I remember being shown to my apartment in Berlin with a parting “good luck; this was Arthur Miller’s room, so you’ve got some big shoes to fill”—no pressure there! There is only one composer in residence at a time at Copland House, and as residents are given their own car for the term and supervision is lax, you might expect that this residency leads to a lot of hooky-playing. But after being offered such a great historical place to live and work, I would sit down at AC’s piano and look at the manuscript from Appalachian Spring on the wall and say “Alright! How am I not going to get some serious work done here? I’m not crashing at Copland’s and then leaving with nothing to show for it!” Usually, I am so thankful for whatever residency I’m attending that I will work especially hard out of guilt, whether or not I would be “feeling it” normally.

So why am I so happy to be working at home this year, if residencies have been so helpful to my work? Simply put, the precise value of a residency is that of a vacation from normal life, something that balances normal life with benefits that we’re not able to acquire there—a quiet room, some free time, etc. A vacation is something we take to escape normal life, until we’ve spent enough time away for normal life to regain some of its luster. And after almost three years of near-constant moving, I’m reminded again of what attracts me to my own tiny, noisy space at home: it’s my own, not Aaron Copland’s, or the German state’s, or anybody else’s. After a long time on the road, that seems like a good enough reason to stay.

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