Making Space

Making Space

It looks like Q2 will soon be unveiling a new series of video guided tours of composers’ homes and studio spaces; the preview looks intriguing, and it’s a really good idea. Who doesn’t want to check out the workspaces of creative people? It’s like being a fly on the wall, sneaking a glimpse of what goes on in the daily life of an artist.

In fact, one of the best parts of traveling around to interview composers for NewMusicBox is often having the opportunity to see their living spaces! It’s always interesting, and in many cases surprising to see the spaces that composers create for themselves. Favorites of mine include the beautiful and serene workspace of Bunita Marcus, the big table overflowing with bits of paper, cables and electronic gear, drawings, and treasures—otherwise known as “deskpocalyspe”—in Nat Evans‘s living room, and the jaw-dropping Liberace-meets-Prince studio of John Mackey.

Some spaces have ghosts attached to them, like the studio of Chou Wen-Chung, who works amidst many of the belongings (including some fabulous gongs!) of Edgard Varèse. During my last trip to the MacDowell Colony, I fell in love with my studio, which was named after Irving Fine, and apparently it had also been the favorite of author Willa Cather. Every morning when I came in and turned up the thermostat, the heating system made such a huge and excellent gamelan-esque racket that I got into the habit of saying out loud, “Good morning, Irving!” Perhaps that’s crazy, but no matter; I really enjoyed the company of those ghosts, not to mention the grand piano, the enormous worktable, and the fireplace! Heaven.

Happiness is a HUGE desk.

Happiness is a HUGE desk.

Like a lot of people, I’m pretty sensitive to the energy of whatever space I’m in; not just the energy of other people who are in that space, but also the feeling of the space itself. As with the weather, a physical space can affect one’s mood, obviously one’s creative output, and even one’s physical wellbeing. For the first time in many years, my composing studio is an actual room, with walls and a door and everything! Although I have never really minded sharing workspace, or having it located in a common area of my home, this situation feels really luxurious. Although I prefer things to be neat and tidy, it’s honestly not my natural state, and every now and then I have to expend a little effort to avoid my own deskpocalypse explosion. My dream is to someday have a studio that is a separate space from my house—a place that requires going outside to get to!

My composing space, taken about 6 months ago.

My composing space, taken about 6 months ago. Still in progress!

But I wonder if the spaces in which we feel the most comfortable are always the best for composing? Maybe it’s not necessarily so great to always be in control of one’s physical creative setting. Some of my very best pieces were composed in odd locations, under unfamiliar circumstances. More than one work has been created while in the process of long-distance moves; in hotel rooms, in unfinished warehouses with only sawhorses and a chunk of wood for a table, on trains and/or airplanes. Although composing under such circumstances is not exactly enjoyable, I’ve learned how to do it and deadlines often demand it. A group of composer friends rent a space that is located just outside of their home city and alternate spending composing time there. It is an absolutely no-frills space in a very small town where there is not much to do, so outside distractions are minimized. Shaking things up can really work—maybe the jostle to the brain that being in a different space provides can also serve up some new ideas.

What is your composing space like? Are there particular arrangements of furniture or gear that you really need in order to compose? Do you have a private space, or do you share one? Do you have a dream working situation that you aspire to? If you have pictures of your working space, feel free to post or link to them in the comments section!

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.

4 thoughts on “Making Space

  1. JHigdon

    I am always wildly curious about people’s work spaces. I’m just waiting for someone to do a book on composers’ work areas (from the long-ago-deceased to the newly-minted composer). We are often shown fine artists’ studios, so why not composers’?

  2. Mark Winges

    A little historical perspective. . .This description from Johann Sebastian Bach – The Learned Musician by Christoph Wolff. It refers to Bach’s space at St. Thomas in Leipzig, where Bach served from 1723 until his death. The mention of heating is of note since many rooms (e.g. all bedrooms) were not heated.

    The cantor’s office suite consisted of the composing studio, a heated corner room with windows facing south and west, and an adjacent chamber as additional work space. . . A large iron stove in the southeast corner of the room was fired from the hallway outside, to the left of the office door; to its right, also outside the door, stood a large book cabinet, with many shelves protected by four lockable doors. How the office suite was furnished is unknown, but besides Bach’s working desk it would surely have contained chairs, musical instruments, and bookshelves. From the hallway in front of his office, Bach could enter the school’s music library, a newly created heated room whose four walls had built-in shelves that accommodated the old St. Thomas library, with its 500-plus titles and 4,500 partbooks, and perhaps also the bulk of Bach’s own sacred compositions. From the library, which may also have served as the principal workplace for Bach’s copyists, a lockable door opened into the auditorium of the secunda class, a large room with four windows facing west that also served as one of Bach’s main teaching and rehearsal spaces.

    The total space of the cantor’s apartment amounted to about 10 by 23.5 Saxon ells; that is, 74.5 square meters or 802 square feet; the largest room in the apartment, the second-floor living room, was barely 23.5 square meters or 253 square feet, and Bach’s composing studio amounted to little more than half that. By eighteenth-century bourgeois standards, the Bach family lived in a big house . . .

  3. Nomi

    For the past few years, Billie Howard, a Chicago-based musician and artist, has been running a blog called By Measure where she features artists and their work spaces. She also includes a wonderful interview including a playlist of the artists favorite works. It’s definitely worth checking out.


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