Where Do You Work?

One thing about traveling a lot is that you start to notice how much where you are affects how you work. It’s difficult to find a place that meets all the persnickety conditions that seem to be most conducive to writing music: Is there natural light? What’s the temperature like? What about ambient noise? Is there a piano? Can I make weird unconscious sub-vocal humming noises without freaking out strangers?

Over the years I’ve gotten more flexible about these prerequisites, to an extent, such that I’m just as likely to be productive in a crowded coffee shop as in my home studio. I don’t need to have a piano around. I can put on giant headphones and, with a little effort, tune out the cafe sound system. (There’s also something to be said for being in an environment where other people are working, or at least pretending to work.) But this seems to have been a trade-off for me, in that I never seem to be entirely at ease working in any environment, including at home. I’ve exchanged comfort for portability.

To broadly generalize from my sample size of one, I wonder if this trade-off is more common lately. In other words, I wonder if it’s tied to financial and geographic stability, and the rising age of first-time home buyers. Then again, it could just be personal preference. After working on over-sized staff paper for years, I’ve gradually switched to using index cards (an idea stolen from John Zorn). Especially for the initial stages of composing, I’ve found it to be a really effective way to spur ideas that can be jotted down quickly, as opposed to the paralyzingly giant blank canvas. I also avoid traditional musical notation at this stage—for example, if an idea is purely harmonic, I’ll write down note names with no interfering info about rhythm, register, or instrumentation. The impermanence here is actually a plus, because I can easily rearrange and modify the cards as I see fit. Is impermanence in process tied to geographical impermanence too?

One definite drawback of having mobile working habits is that it becomes difficult to create a kind of routine. For a while it seemed to me like every successful composer was telling the same story about their working habits—get up early in the morning, maybe have breakfast, then write music for several hours straight. It’s funny how this pattern used to feel like a prison to me, and now it feels like a vacation. The story I hear more often now is about cramming composition time into the cracks of an already busy life. Are we really that much busier, or are composers just more honest about how they’re spending their time?

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One thought on “Where Do You Work?

  1. Jeremy Howard Beck

    This is a really great topic for discussion. I was definitely a “can only work at my desk” composer until this past year, when, for many reasons too complicated to get into here, I was unable to work in my apartment for several months. As luck would have it, I had to write an orchestra piece and a one-act chamber opera in that time, and I ended up writing all that music–roughly 40 minutes between February and the end of May–in various coffee shops around Manhattan and Brooklyn. (They were mostly Starbuckses, but Brooklyn’s wonderful Tea Lounge was “home” for a while, too.)

    What I found was this: when you’re up against the wall, you do what you need to. You learn to be comfortable writing wherever you can, and to be grateful for the chance to write at all, regardless of the location. I could only write at my desk, my first choice, as long as that was an option. When that was no longer the case, I had to adapt. It was really rough for most of it, and expensive–all those mochas add up–but it worked.

    I ended up learning several valuable lessons during that period: I don’t need a piano to write. I am really, really good at tuning out lots of people talking, but one person talking is impossible to ignore. Even when you’re playing air inside-the-piano, you’re still not the weirdest person in that coffee shop. And maybe the most valuable lesson: no one cares. One guy asked me if I was writing R&B (!), but other than that, people saw that I was writing music and either were uninterested or were not interested enough to say anything. Or my goal of making myself appear unapproachable worked.

    I’m grateful for that period. It made me more flexible in terms of where and when and how I can create, and that can only be a good thing. More flexibility is always better than less flexibility.

    Reply

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