The best residency programs provide the all-important combination of time, financial support, work space, and ideally, other interesting artists with whom to interact. Each retreat experience that I have had has been a response to the particular compositional challenge that presented itself at the time. When I spent a year in Helsinki on a Fulbright, I had set the following objective: either I write a piece that brings my compositional language to a higher level, or I quit composing. Given that I had the opportunity to write for an entire year without the pressures of working to make a living, I felt that it was time for some serious reflection. If I couldn’t produce work that furthered my development in such an optimal environment, then I needed to reevaluate my commitment to composition.
I was free to work as much as I wanted on the commission that I had that year, for the Bang on a Can All-Stars, and the time spent immersed in composing paid off. The piece that I wrote synthesized the previous several years of compositional inquiry and produced a work that summarized my past while pointing the way to the future. This example illustrates the kind of opportunities that artists’ colonies and such can offer to composers; not only a chance to focus on the work at hand, but an opportunity to incite a musical crisis as a catalyst for the future.
Since then, I have had several other experiences working in retreat-like settings, whether at an artist colony like the Djerassi Resident Artists Program in California or through my current long-term residency in Paris on a prize from UC Berkeley. They have, each in their own way, been invaluable opportunities to confront myself and to really listen to the music that is inside of me.