desk work
Bringing a Residency Home
Credit: Green Chameleon

Bringing a Residency Home

I’ve attended a different artist residency every year for the last four years, and at each one, I’ve learned something new about how to structure my life and my approach to composition.

The time at a residency feels sacred, and for that brief period, your life is centered around the pursuit of creativity. I find myself wondering how to take it all—the feeling of having enough time, ample creativity, and room to establish new routines—with me when I leave. Last year was the first time I felt that maybe I’ve finally answered that question. I found myself utterly homesick at a residency last spring, wondering what I was doing there that I couldn’t be doing at home. I realized that, over the last four years, I’ve created a life that has a lot in common with an artist residency.

Time is abundant at a residency. Because your life is suddenly structured around nothing but composing, you learn to confront any anxieties about the act of writing music or about not being good enough. In this way, a residency can serve as a sort of pressure cooker for any self-doubt or habitual procrastination already present in your everyday life. You’re not going to feel like composing every day, but in a place where life revolves around being creative, what do you do when you’re feeling burnt out?

Day to day, you realize that it’s almost less important what you’ve composed than that you have composed at all.

You learn to keep sitting back down at the piano or the desk, which can seem so difficult in ordinary life, with its many distractions: the computer, the phone, other people. Here you learn to just sit down and write. You learn to stop thinking about whether you’re writing the “best piece of your career,” and you learn to stop weighing your measly string quartet in the context of thousands and thousands of other, better string quartets that have come before. You learn what’s most conducive to getting work done, and you learn to abandon what isn’t. Day to day, you realize that it’s almost less important what you’ve composed than that you have composed at all.

At the residency, you’ll have a new workspace. Often, there’s a proper desk: a sturdy, large wooden desk, with room to spread out scores. There’s a piano, or there should be. It should be better than your piano at home, but if it’s not, you find a way to appreciate this piano because, at least temporarily, it’s yours.

Every day offers a new reminder that this is not your ordinary routine. Maybe you’re eating every meal with the same group of other artists, like you’re back at sleep-away camp. You go for a daily hour-long walk, or take up running again for the first time since high school, or find yourself hiking for eight miles on the residency property. You realize that you need to re-think your relationship to exercise at home; namely, you need to do more of it—walking, running, hiking—because you’re much stronger than you thought.

At a more social residency, you realize you’ve had a drink (or three) with dinner every night for the last two weeks. You compose for nearly six hours straight and skip lunch. Maybe one night, you find yourself singing karaoke in a bar in Wyoming. You seek out new things: new cafes, new hiking trails, the seventh-highest bridge in the United States. Maybe one of the other residents teaches you all how to play poker, and you stay up later than you’ve stayed up in months.

Other than when to eat meals, there’s no implicit structure here. Your new routines may barely resemble the ones you’re used to, or they may incorporate the best of your work habits at home with extra room to get things done. You learn what needs to be done to take care of yourself when there is no one else to take care of, and no one to take care of you.

You learn how to structure your days. Going straight from an undergraduate degree into grad school, I’d mistakenly thought I thrived on deadlines. Residencies have taught me that that’s a lie; in fact, I’m happiest when I build my day around one- to two-hour bursts of productivity interspersed with breaks and when I stretch out writing a piece over months, not weeks. I’m happiest when I’m at least a little bit productive each day and when I finish projects far ahead of schedule, with ample time for editing. This realization has completely altered how I compose back at home; now, I start projects as far in advance as I can, and I try to build in space for doing a little bit of work at a time and letting it unfold slowly, unhurried.

I’d mistakenly thought I thrived on deadlines. Residencies have taught me that that’s a lie.

At a residency, you’re confronted with being either “the most productive you’ve been in your life”—notes flowing freely and abundantly, six movements of a 35-minute piece drafted in just two weeks—or completely uninspired. You’re forced to define productivity to yourself and to accept that sometimes, when you’ve been productive enough, you need to figure out what to do with your free time.

I struggle so much with this at home. Even on a day when I’ve gotten plenty of work done on the business side of composing and taught a few piano students, I’ll catch myself complaining about my “horribly unproductive day” just because I didn’t also compose. This is something I’m clearly still working on: defining which work qualifies as “productive,” and trying to expand that definition to “all of it.”

At my first few residencies, I was the most productive I’d been in my life. I accepted “absurdly productive” as my default state at residencies until I found myself at one where, for two weeks, I had no desire whatsoever to compose. I’d met two big deadlines right before I left for the residency, and it was the wrong time to isolate myself for a month with the pressure to write even more.

That was a useful experience, though; I realized that timing at a residency is crucial. I cancelled a residency that I would have attended this spring, because several months ago, looking at the schedule I’m living right now, I realized the timing—just after several deadlines, a conference, and an album release—would have been wrong again. I’m glad I cancelled when I did. Here I am, months later, in desperate need of a guilt-free composing break and ready to take one.

That brings us back to free time. At a residency, you can’t possibly spend every waking second writing music; you can certainly try, but it’s not sustainable. You suddenly have more free time than you’ve had in years. How do you spend it?

I love to read, and I read fast; when I was younger, I devoured books daily. More recently, aside from reading in bed every evening for 10, maybe 20 minutes at most, reading novels for fun was a habit I’d stopped. It wasn’t until I started attending residencies that I learned to return to books when I needed a little break, or, if I was feeling uncreative, for entire days.

At home now, setting aside an hour or an entire afternoon to read still feels like a luxury. I haven’t yet learned to do it without a small, nagging part of my brain asking whether I shouldn’t be doing something more productive. But at a residency, there’s plenty of time to walk, to listen to podcasts, to watch movies, to listen to music, or to read an entire book in a day. I’m trying to give myself the same permission in my at-home life: to sit still long enough to let myself completely relax, and to spend several hours with a novel without feeling as though I’m neglecting something more important.

At a residency, your relationship with yourself changes. If there are other artists there, you see yourself reflected through your interactions with them. If there’s no one else there, you learn to be alone with yourself. You learn whether you enjoy spending time with yourself. You learn that whatever you don’t like about yourself is with you all the time, not just here; all of it rises to the surface. You learn to live with yourself, and you carry that home with you. If you enjoy spending time alone, you learn to make that a priority when you return home, too.

Here’s how my life is different, four years after I went to my first artist residency. I try to walk most days, and I try to hike at least once a month. When I accept a commission, I set a deadline with time built in: time to compose slowly, with room for the inevitable day or week when I’m feeling creatively stalled. Usually, though not always, I finish in advance of that deadline.

“It’s a luxury,” Ellen Sussman says, “when daily life is what I yearn for.”

I spend a comfortable amount of time by myself, even living with a partner. I am getting better at spending an entire afternoon doing nothing but reading, although when I do, I still check my email roughly every ten minutes, and then I feel guilty about that. I seek out more new experiences in general; I’ve sung karaoke in front of friends here in Los Angeles, not just strangers in Wyoming. I’m aware of what I’d like to change about myself, but in looking back at who I was before my first residency, I can see that I know myself better now; I like myself more.

Writer Ellen Sussman, whom I met at a residency, said something in an interview that has stuck with me ever since I read it. “It’s a luxury,” Ellen says, “when daily life is what I yearn for.” At my residency last year, I realized that I’d finally structured my life so that I already have at home nearly everything I want from a residency. I longed to be back with my boyfriend, my cat, and my piano.

This summer, I’m going to do a week-long residency about an hour and a half away from where I live in Los Angeles. At that very brief residency, I’ll be seeking what I truly can’t find at home, at least not now: isolated natural surroundings that are almost painfully beautiful; a piano that’s better than my upright at home; a span of time during which I truly don’t have to worry about anything other than writing music.

A residency is as close as we may get to living a life in service of nothing but creativity, and for that reason alone, I’m likely to keep going back. Someday, I dream of having my own private “artist residence”—a small house somewhere remote, with an excellent piano and a massive wooden desk. For now, though, I’m going to embrace what I’ve already created at home: a daily life I yearn for.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

2 thoughts on “Bringing a Residency Home

  1. Alex Shapiro

    A lovely piece, Dale!

    When I returned home to Los Angeles from a residency at the MacDowell Colony in 2003, a realization hit me like a ton of score pads: “if I’m so happy and productive living and composing in a little cabin surrounded by nature, why shouldn’t my life look like that every day?”
    And by 2006, it did. Massive wooden desk, and all.

    As a non-performing composer, thanks to the internet I could choose to live anywhere in the world. Over a decade ago I moved north to Washington State’s remote San Juan Islands, and it turned out to be among the best decisions I’ve ever made. Leaving the city and waking up each day to compose music and run my business amidst beauty has been great for my psyche, and proportionately, great for my work.

    Whether it’s in nature, or in a big city, or in anything else, if artists can place themselves where they feel happiest, there’s probably a greater chance that many other aspects of their lives will fall into place as well. With the freedom to imagine and manifest what we think we’d like our life to look like, anything is possible!

    Reply

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