Over the past year and a half since I started my interview project, I find myself unable to just “take a trip” without bundling the excursion with at least one or two sessions with composers in the area. I just got back last night from a three-day trip to New York City and Philadelphia that was initially planned as just a quick day-trip to hear a premiere of mine at Symphony Space, but after some frantic negotiations I was able to surround the concert with no less than four interviews over three days in two cities. As fun and informative as each meeting was, this particular set of interviews—all but one in the home of the composer—allowed me to notice one small but mighty aspect to any creative artist’s life: the room in which they work.
The first thing that most composers will tell you is that there isn’t just one place where they work, since what they do involves so much more than just inscribing notes to a staff (or creating graphic scores, manipulating sound digitally, etc.). The gestation period of composing can require anything from long walks in nature to staring out the window, from tackling household chores to intense research in the library. Whatever their process is, though, inevitably composers will have created for themselves a workspace where the bulk of their creative output is dreamt, planned, hewn, sandblasted, polished, and completed.
While each composer’s space is, of course, unique to that individual’s taste, I’ve noticed some consistent traits that run through most of the rooms I’ve seen:
• A door. More often times than not, the place in which the composing gets done is not in a public area of the house or apartment in order to allow for thinking without interruption. This being said, I’ve seen my fair share of apartments (especially in NYC) that were small enough to force the workspace into the main living area; usually these end up serving as multitasking spaces with the monitor replacing the television.
• A desk. This could be anything from a simple particleboard structure to a utilitarian work desk from Ikea to a custom-made DIY project that was form-fitted to the room’s dimensions. Some like to have a lot of space to spread out laterally, others are stackers whose organizational proclivities seem to run vertically. Whatever the setup, these desks project the results of years of trial and error on the part of the composer to discover exactly what tools they require for their work and how they choose to use these tools.
• A monitor. No, not just a monitor: a big, freaking monitor. The type and make of computer can vary quite a bit (though Apple does seem to have the edge here), but when it comes to digital screen space, most composers seem to go with the “more is more” approach. This can depend somewhat on how much work each composer does personally on the computer, but even those who use copyists will still gravitate towards lots of screen space in order to see as much of their work at one time as possible.
• A piano keyboard. While I have run into a few composers who enter their music into a notation system through the computer QWERTY keyboard, most composers will have some variance of white and black keys somewhere close by. A piano is sometimes part of the composer’s work space, but not as much as one might think—many composers I’ve met with simply use their digital keyboard as both a tool to create with and as an input device. Again, often this is due to space considerations as much as anything—many of the composers I’ve talked to are apartment dwellers in large urban areas where a piano is unfeasible.
• Clutter. Most spaces I was lucky enough to see had an effective balance between being organized and showing how busy each composer was (if you ever worry about your own work space being cluttered, fret not—you’re in good company). That being said, in every space I saw I also got the sense that it was comfortable to live, work, and think in.
All of the composers I’ve spoken with were born in or after 1960, which may help to explain the overwhelming use of computers in their creative process. Some will still have the drafting table with large reams of blank score pages and sharpened pencils at the ready, but setups like that have been rare up to this point. Oftentimes, there is an additional room or space that the composer has fitted with printers, binding equipment, tape, etc.—all the necessary tools for a self-published composer.
We all tend to focus on the “important” stuff when we think about composers—what they’re trying to say, how they’re saying it, and what effect their work is having on the world around them. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this, but it tends to foster the habit of thinking of a particular composer as more of a concept than a person. By getting a chance to walk through the spaces in which these talented artists work, I am reminded of who they really are—not as names, but as simple, everyday people.
(A brief postlude: I realized this morning that today marks my one-year anniversary of writing this column for NewMusicBox. Thanks to all whose remarks, comments, and questions continually remind me that my musings are actually being read, and I look forward to continuing this fun adventure-in-prose during the upcoming year.)