The Joys of Colonizing

This summer, I’ve been fortunate enough to spend time at two different artists’ colonies: the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Ragdale Foundation. These communities provide composers and other creative types with a studio, a place to sleep, and meals. I find them to be an ideal place for me to produce new music and to connect with the greater artistic community.

The best aspect of these residency programs is that once you arrive, your time becomes shockingly unstructured. Generally, you are asked to meet for dinner at a specific time, but that remains the sole commitment other than to your own work. Otherwise, you spend time in your studio. Lots and lots of time in your studio. While a good day at home might find me at my composing station for several hours in the morning and again in the evening, during a typical residency day I might stay alone in my studio for 20 or more hours (of course, that does include sleeping time). This allows me to replace my typical habit of working until I get stuck and need to contemplate my next move, then waiting until the following day to return to composing, with a cycle in which I can compress several days worth of work/rest into a single 24-hour period. I find myself able to press through the moments when composing suddenly seems difficult, simply because there’s nothing distracting me from the task at hand. And even though I’m working quickly, there still seems to be plenty of time to think about new ways to approach musical problems, to find creative solutions rather than falling back on well-established habits. In general, I can count on completing what I consider two months of regular composing during one week at an artists’ colony.

In addition to an environment conducive to productivity, these programs allow us to meet people from the larger artistic community. In addition to other composers (and I have met several of my favorite people in the composition world at these residencies), you live with visual artists and writers in all genres. This allows for a cross-pollination of ideas as we learn to translate our musical thoughts into terms that make sense to nonmusical creative types and as we discover ideas from other fields that we might not have otherwise encountered. In addition to developing several long-standing friendships through these communities—and even meeting my wife, a fiction writer, during a residency at the MacDowell Colony over 15 years ago—I have found collaborators for several interdisciplinary works. These relationships have allowed me to remain connected to the broader world beyond the music community, and they continue to provide me with new ways of viewing familiar ideas along with access to new modes of creative expression.

I find it difficult to imagine the level of commitment to engendering artistic expression that must be required in order to create a thriving artists’ colony. These communities are built around the idea of solitude and quiet, requiring large amounts of space, but also must be readily accessible so that it will be worthwhile for people to travel there. These large grounds and studios need to be maintained and cleaned, and food must be procured and prepared accounting for a variety of restrictive diets, along with all the other work that goes on behind the scenes to allow these communities to continue to function.

As I finish my final residency of the summer, I’d like to express my thanks to those people who have provided these resources. I know that I speak for many current, former, and future residents when I say that artists’ colonies provide an invaluable experience.

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