Sunday, August 26, 2012

At the hop

Every once in a while, another really nice article is published about how very cool and valuable artist retreats are — or artist colonies, or artist residencies. I read the articles with interest, since I've done plenty of residencies, I love doing them, I love seeing how my experiences may have been similar to and different from someone else's — and I love staying at home with Beff, too. Except for the part about where I cook for us both. This nice article made the rounds of the Book of Face recently, written from the point of view of a writer who did several residencies and has much to say. The classic article in the genre, from the point of view of a composer, was written more than nine years ago by one Danny Felsenfeld.

Also you can browse a whole mess o' articles about the MacDowell Colony experience. Or listen to a radio story about the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Or watch a cool Yaddo video. Hey, I know some of those people in that video! For the record, I myself have done 29 residencies (so far), as detailed on VIII. of this — which also has, OCD like, a log of what I wrote at some of them — under XI, XII and XIII.

Plenty of my composer friends don't see the value of an artist colony residency at all — they have very particular setups at home that make them feel comfortable, or they have an established routine that they don't feel they could or should break, or they don't feel they could pull themselves away from their home base for very long, or it's too hard to find catsitters or babysitters, etc. It wouldn't work for them. Residencies aren't for everyone. Where would you put them?

Just what does happen at one of these residencies? To a lot of people, they seem like mysterious places where talented but crazy people are cordoned off from the real world, hedonistic things happen in bulk, people get all crampy from backpatting and pampering, and somehow art happens. In an equally mysterious way.

The articles referenced above mostly give brief passing glimpses and impressions about what happens when you go to a residency. Remember, they are competitive, you must apply rather far in advance of when you want to go, and there's a pretty complicated apparatus — which goes into high gear two or three times a year — for evaluating the applications. The people who get to go were judged worthy by juries of their peers, while others were not; that's already a big honor; and a resumé item! And then the worthy ones get shuffled into a pack of strangers who might do completely different stuff — and the only common thread is only they were worthy ones. What good could come from that? After all, every resident at an artist colony is living out a resumé item.

Well, okay. An artist colony residency is much, much more than a resumé item. I didn't apply to the MacDowell Colony to get tenure.

I applied because I wanted to write a symphony that sucked. The sucking part wasn't on the application, of course; it was my deliberate compositional effort that made it so.

I hadn't heard much about this artist colony thing until Ross and Beff had done it. Beff went to the MacDowell Colony in (I think) 1986, and Ross went some time around then, too, maybe 1987. I had heard from Ross that he had a great time, that he'd made friends, and that he got a lot of good work done. As I recall, he was writing a piece with the working title Uptown (I wrote that name on the side of a metal shelving unit I once owned, thinking ahead to potential future blackmail, all the while rolling my eyes lustily), which eventually got titled Along the Way. And he said that MacDowell had a wonderful community of artists, and it was very collegial, very relaxed. And that he played pool. I think all Beff ever told me about being at MacDowell was I was in Veltin.

So when I had a nice grant to take a year off and do nothing but write (and eat and go to the bathroom and sleep), I decided to look into this artist colony thing, and maybe even do a whole bunch of them. I was going to write a big, long serious piece that might take a whole year to write, after all — how serious? It begins with unaccompanied trumpet at a soft dynamic! On C-sharp! — so of course I tried to plan out the whole year such that there was colony time, Beff time, repeat. Ross suggested several residencies I should apply for, and a few other friends had been to other ones, too, so I knew about several.

So, maybe I'd apply for six or seven weeks at each of ... five places? This was pre-internet 1990 (it turns out all of 1990 was pre-internet), so that involved the cumbersome process of writing physical letters that went into envelopes and got stamped in order to ask for official application materials, information on deadlines, etc. And durned if they didn't all send me that stuff!

So far, it was going well.

All of the five places to which I was applying requested work samples — bound scores and cassettes (cassettes are pre-internet, too), a narrative of what I expected to be doing there, a resumé, and one or two letters of recommendation. All this necessitated buying mailing bags, making scores, making cassettes, having a few beers, and plaintively asking people who were older than me to write said letters of recommendation. In 1990 there were a lot more people older than me than there are now, so I had a pretty big pool from which to choose.

(I was so polite that in 1991, after the year of writing was up, that I wrote a thank you letter to each and every recommender — both of them. I only know that because I still have the Microsoft Word files.)

So, once all that administrative stuff was accomplished, it was up to me to send it off in the proper format, twiddle my thumbs, and wait.

And wait.

While I was waiting, I got to wondering if the official notifications would be like the ones for colleges — a thick envelope means you got in, a thin one means you were turned down. An envelope with a perfumy smell means you got in, one with no smell means you were turned down. A green envelope meant .... I also wondered what a Veltin was.

Then in fairly rapid succession, I got four thick envelopes (my instinct was correct) and a thin one. I had been waitlisted at Bellagio, and got into VCCA, MacDowell, Yaddo, and the Djerassi Foundation. Woo hoo! At the same time, Beff had gotten full-time teaching in Worcester, so before all of that started, we moved out of New York City to an exceedingly rustic house in ruralville, Massachusetts!

Out of New York City? How could be out of New York City? Didn't we just get some more New York City last week?

While we both acclimated to country living (we bought firewood and an axe! And our first car (a morceau de merde 1986 Ford Tempo GL)) and swam a lot (we were on a lake!), I wrote the first few phrases of my symphony. Which, alas, I had characterized as a "vocal symphony" in my applications, because three of its five movements were going to be settings of really serious poetry for soprano (and orchestra). Yup, the first movement would be sonata-allegro with a slow introduction, and all I got around to all summer was the first 20 or so bars. Which was fine, because I had a bunch of artist colony time in my future! And we had to get caught up on our swimming, of course. And one of my recommendors called to ask what a vocal symphony is.

Keep in mind, too, that this was my slow, careful period. If my pieces were full of anything, it was thought. It's the most serious word to rhyme with snot, ever.

As Beff wound up to her teaching year, I wound up to my colony hop (I didn't know then that that's what it's called), and I also had to do parts to my violin concerto, being premiered that October. Which, in 1990, meant do paste-up parts. Sigh. I had a lot of extra pages and office supplies in my suitcase than I normally would have.

Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (Sept-Oct 1990)

My first stop: Lynchburg, Virginia. I flew from Logan to BWI and from BWI to Lynchburg. I was picked up by an extremely friendly and gregarious man with a quick smile and a patient southern accent named Robert Johnson. Not Bob. I was soon to learn that pretty much every colony has one gregarious and smily guy around whom a lot of stuff centers — and that guy did just about everything. Not only did he do rides from the airport — he also did rides to/from the train and bus stations, packed and delivered lunches, did handyman stuff, and even cooked meals on weekends. In his down time, he got poker games together with the Fellows, nickel ante, lots of fun. For years and years, when I thought about VCCA, the first thing that came to mind was Robert.

On the half-hour drive from the airport, I noted the lovely mountainous vistas, the red tinge of the soil, how salt-and-pepper yellow and green the grass was, the gentle rolling quality of the many hills, and how very many "84" lumber stores we passed. As Robert noted, "yeah, we got a lot o' those 84's!" We took the turn into the VCCA, navigated some hairpin turns on a narrow driveway that seemed to be in the middle of a vast pasture, and arrived.

Robert dropped me off at a two-winged sort of junior Sheraton, retrieved for me a thickly-stuffed envelope with welcomes, rules, and keys, pointed to where my room and studio would be, and excused himself to pick up someone at the bus station. Or at least that's how I remember it. On my left was a big room dominated by a grand piano, on my right a locked door and a staircase. My room was upstairs, and I let myself in. It was a small private room with a bunch of paperback books stuffed into the crannies, and dormitory furniture. I had a desk, a dresser, a single bed, and a bathroom that was shared with the guy in the adjacent room. I also had a floor-to-ceiling window looking out towards that pasture we'd driven through.

I unpacked and gathered up my portfolio and other composer stuff. I exited the building, and walked toward a huge barn complex in the distance, which sported several silos, and which had a very complicated structure. I was supposed to find "C1", my studio, off in a somewhat remote corner of the complex. My key worked, and I let myself in to a large room with a grand piano, several tables, a small bed with a Chilean flag blanket, a few table lamps, and the sound of a lone cricket, very loud. I took out my mechanical pencil and placed it on the piano's music rack, along with some music paper, and lined up my paste-up parts. I was ready to get to work. I didn't.

I walked around the grounds a bit, taking note of the cows in the pasture that straddles the road connecting the dorm to the studios, taking note of an elegant gazebo on the grounds, passed by what seemed to be an actual house, saw Robert bringing in another new arrival, returned to my room — and napped.

And nobody rapped on my door to ask me why I wasn't working.


I came back downstairs after my nap to see that the piano room was festooned with lots of art, including a giant painting of cows. Behind that, a TV room, and further back still, a library with round tables and hundreds of books. I ambled into dinner, served cafeteria style, and sat at one of the several round tables suitable to seat six or eight. This was my first time meeting artist colony types! There were the expected pleasantries of welcome, what are you writing, here's what I'm doing, as well as stories of everyone's working day. Lots of people had taken long walks that day and said they got ideas during them.

I remember a surprising number of people from this residency, given that it was twenty-one years ago, and I would figure out by year's end that quite a few were sort of archetypical — which is to say, at the other residencies I encountered people that had a lot in common with these, to wit

  • A composer in his 60s on the faculty of a small college and who had studied with Persichetti.
  • A bubbly, friendly, and really fun New York painter in her 50s. It turns out she had painted the cows.
  • An avuncular and very confident poet who could tell you all the workings of the VCCA and quote lots of poetry, especially his own. Almost exclusively his own.
  • A young novelist who had just married and was wrestling with a juncture in her novel
  • Another vivacious woman painter who was doing a series of paintings on wood
  • A very young novelist who was probably still in graduate school who just marveled at how wonderful the place was and how friendly everyone has been and how much work she was getting done and how great it was that they made you dinner and stuff
  • A composer about my age, from New York, who wrote theater music and serious music in a post-Copland style
  • A writer and university professor from the south
  • a novelist from Philadelphia with exceedingly wild eyes
  • A soft-spoken photographer whose name I don't recall
  • A poet from Charlottesville
  • A local writer who wrote for a newspaper, and this was her first residency
  • An established novelist
  • The novelists's wife, a painter doing a project of painting shrines on sardine cans
  • A painter of very bright and splashy canvases.
  • An Israeli historian writing about current affairs in the Middle East
... and some others. I left out names in case any of them self-google (a sentence that made zero sense in 1990).

The avuncular poet had been there the longest, and as is often the case at residencies, the one who's there the longest is the one who's got all the answers for the newbies (what about laundry? when will I get my lunch? What do I do with my lunch pail? Is there anything within walking distance? Can I make photocopies in the office? How do I get more toilet paper?) The poet told me that the VCCA was right across the highway from Sweet Briar College — it was, in fact, on Sweet Briar College land — and that he'd show me how to get to the bookstore the next day, since he planned on walking there. I said great.

That evening, most of the fellows took the short traverse to their studios in the barn complex to work. I started doing my paste-up parts, and returned to the Sheraton after dark.

I took the walk with the poet the next morning to Sweet Briar College, which was about two miles, and explored the campus on my own. I got some tape at the book store and saw a Dan X. Solo book of brush script fonts. The fonts looked really interesting, so I bought the book, in case I had any free time to play with them when I got back home. I got some snacky stuff for my studio and brought it back. And I returned to the pasting up of parts.

Sad to say, my first week at a colony ever was spent making paste-up parts. All that magic stuff, all that hedonism and back-patting were not in evidence. But there sure were a lot of nice people.

On my third night there, the New York composer gave the first colony presentation I ever went to. He held it in the library, and used the very good stereo there for playback. He also laid out a fair amount of beer and snacky things. He told us he had two sides — a serious one (scare quotes around the word serious) and a theater one. And durned if he didn't play everything he ever wrote ... arranged in two parts separated by an intermission. Part one, serious. Part two, theater. It started at about 8:10 and finished around 10:20.

I found it very refreshing, after having spent so many years in and around academia engaging with a rather narrow range of music, to encounter this music that was unlike what I normally encountered, and that was unlike anything any of my students ever wrote — and to have a chance to talk to the actual composer about it. Whoa, expanding horizons here, people. The music was expertly written and interesting, and, even though the theater world wasn't something I knew much about, I found a lot of interesting and subtle touches in the music that I was pleased to comment about; of course, the technical stuff went above the heads of the most of the others, but that was fine. I also liked the questions the non-musicians asked, which were mostly about style, timing, and collaboration.

Meanwhile, whenever I felt the urge for Skittles®, I now knew where to get them. Plus, the walk was refreshing. I also looked through the font book every once in a while. It was cool.

I had asked for a seven week stay, so by the time I got around to working on my symphony, there were six weeks left. I figured it would take about that long to write what I had projected as a nine-minute movement. Remember, I was slow and careful guy.

Maybe a week in, the historian writing about the middle east gave a talk about his work, and it was very interesting and insightful. One of the best lines ever came out of the Q&A — one of the writers asked a question about "West Bankers", and the historian said, "You can't call them that. First, they're not bankers. And second, if you have West Bankers you also have to have Gaza Strippers."

During the time I was there, people left, more people came, things became more social, and there were lots of presentations, which I liked. The connects and disconnects between the social version of the artists and the actual art were interesting, and in a way it helped me to focus on my own process and my own goals. And the other artists were genuinely interested in my work, too.

I acted as a model for two of the artists there: a photographer wanted to experiment with a particular black and white film and figures in front of a full-length mirror, so I posed as he asked. The vivacious painter was doing a big project in which she would paint various people she knew onto wood panels as part of a large project celebrating the 500th anniversary of Columbus — thus did she take photographs of some of us, posed as we were directed, which she used to paint from — we represented, metaphorically, the sailors on the ships. She had asked us to bring something to pose with that represented us, so I brought a piece of blank manuscript paper and my "magic pencil" — an ordinary mechanical pencil that I always used for writing because it was the last thing my father gave me before he died (I still have it, but now I use the cheap Papermate pencils because they have full erasers). The painter with the explosively bright canvases went to the visual artist open studios with an 5x7 frame, which she would apply to all areas of all the canvases — reason being that if the frame stopped on any area that size that wasn't interesting, it was a dead spot in the composition — you could tell with her work that she applied it ruthlessly. People started buying and eating sardines (or more likely, throwing them out) so that the painter who painted shrines on sardine cans would have more "canvas".

Meanwhile, I chugged on my symphony, in a relative way of speaking. I wrote and orchestrated maybe 4 to 7 bars a day, which for me at the time was miraculous. I was satisfied with the quality, but I was more satisfied with the daily walks and the social interactions.

About halfway through my stint, three writers from Russia arrived and stayed for about a week as part of a big cultural exchange. On their first night at dinner, dinner lasted about three times as long as usual — mostly because ceremonial vodka was awarded to all of us, and none of the Russians could take a drink without first offering a long toast, which was doubly long because it had to be translated. One of them became my bathroom mate, and we used all of our German in conversation: "Hier ist wasser." "Ja, wasser ist gut."

The Russians really were there as a ceremonial thing and not so much to work — they hung around the common areas all night drinking vodka, and it was hard to escape them. One night wasser ist gut guy started chasing me with a vodka bottle and an extra glass, so I escaped to my studio and worked all night writing a dissolution. It's one of the few all-nighters I've ever pulled, and the music is some of the best in the piece (yeah, I know. And moose turds taste better than deer turds). I also learned that getting out of getting drunk was a pretty good motivation to work. I'd been thinking a lot about that dissolution in my daily walks anyway.

I finally gave a presentation, including some pretty notey, strident, noisy stuff. The morning after the presentation, the poet from Charlottesville handed me a poem she wrote that she said was inspired by my music. I was touched. And confused. The Beatles were in it.

Anne Weatherwax and Patrick Cribben in silhouette
I finished the movement in four weeks instead of six; nine minutes of orchestra music, no waiting. There was certainly a feeling that I was working faster than normal. I compensated by joining Robert's poker games, normally losing about 45 cents each evening. I had made a special point of going to a bank for nickel rolls and dime rolls.

As my term was ending, fall was in the air, the sunsets got redder and redder, and I gradually became avuncular knows everything about everything guy. Two young writers arrived and we went out and took that picture to the left. And one of them said he'd forgotten to pack shampoo and toothpaste, and would I have any idea how he could get some. I said they could get them at Sweet Briar College across the highway, and that I'd be glad to walk there with both of them the next day.

Robert drove me to the airport, noting, "We got a lot o' those 84s" en route. When I got back home, I scanned some of the fonts in the font book I'd bought, figured out Fontographer, and uploaded my first font to Compuserve: Polo-Semiscript. I got my VCCA pictures, including the sunset picture, developed at the local photo store, who promptly gave the sunset shot an award. I got a free roll of film. It was their picture of the month for November.

MacDowell Colony (Nov-Dec 1990)

Beff drove me to the MacDowell Colony, since it wasn't far from where we were living. We pulled up to Colony Hall and I was given an envelope with welcomes, rules, and keys, and we drove into the woods to the end of one of its roads to my studio: New Jersey. There we unpacked my stuff, and then we drove to the building where my teeny weeny bedroom was, and I unpacked my clothes. There was just barely enough room in my bedroom to turn around (unless my arms were extended). My studio, however, had a vast picture window looking into the woods, an excellent grand piano, and a giant working table. And it was extremely, extremely, extremely quiet. Excellent. After we took a brief walk through the town of Peterborough, a mile away from the compound, Beff drove back home, and I got straight to work.

The architecture for my symphony of seriousness was planned to be like that of a suburban mall, or of a Mahler symphony: two giant movements at either end, and little movements in the middle. Thus, at VCCA I had written a Macy's movement. And somewhere, somehow, I would eventually write a Sears or JC Penny movement. The next task was to write the Radio Shack, Vitamin Store, and KB Toys movements. Two of the movements were to be vocal settings — one an orchestration of an existing Louise Bogan song, the other an e.e. cummings setting. In between them, the scherzo. That was a lot of music to write in six weeks, and I had to get cracking. Remember: serious.

I made it to dinner at the expected time, and had the expected awkward newbie conversations. There were considerably more Fellows than there had been at VCCA, so it took me longer to find the social groove. The rectangular tables in the dining room seat six, the food is served family style, and most of the conversations were either about recent trips people had made to local towns or about the work they'd accomplished that day. Everyone asked me what I was in for, and I'm writing a symphony was either greeted with For orchestra? or a change of topic.

The other composers in residence included much younger versions of Jack Perla, Robert Een, and Bunita Marcus, whose work was about as different from mine as you could imagine. It was a nice collegial bunch. I also hung out a lot with several writers and a filmmaker.

In time I got to see colony prototypes I'd learned from VCCA at MacDowell. The gregarious (I'm using that word a lot in this post. Deal with it) does everything and delivers your lunch and drives you into town guy was Bill Gnade, and he was certainly a lovely person. The concentration of artists was much more New York, and several of them made trips there and back during their residencies. There were several first-time-at-a-colony writers who were amazed that they even got in, a few established writers and painters, and a lot of writers who had recently gotten college teaching jobs who were very grateful for the working time. And many of them, at every age, worried aloud at how they would pay the bills when they got back.

At this residency there was a new twist on other artists interested in my music; some painters and sculptors asked for tapes of my music so that they could listen to it while they worked; occasionally one of them would offer to show me what he or she made while my music was playing. I had not yet encountered this aspect of how to use music. It had also not ever occurred to me that someone would follow listening to my music with, say, the Greatful Dead — and not miss a beat, continuing to work on the same pieces of art. Interesting.

The grounds of MacDowell are fairly vast, quite forested, and every Fellow, save a few visual artists, has his/her own cabin, quite distant from other cabins; 15 or 20 of them have baby grand pianos in them, which is way more than how many composers are ever there. Many fellæ have a long walk from meals to working — my walk was only twelve minutes, but in the dark with moonlight, it was pretty spectacular. I also took a lot of long walks through the woods on the grounds, and beyond the edges of the grounds — which took me to old stone walls, small ponds, streams, and one spectacular mountain view. Also, the walk downtown for Skittles® was a pretty short one.

There being more fellows, there were also considerably more presentations, and of course I went to all of them. Visual artists would invite you into their studios, writers would read their work, and at all of them, there was a setup of booze and unhealthy snacks. Often they were followed by dance parties. I especially appreciated the give-and-take between artists of different disciplines. A sculptor had created a beautifully shaped and textured speed bump designed to be positioned as a speed bump would. Is that cool, or what? One writer asked, "how is this art?" and the multifarious answers from all the disciplines were pretty refreshing.

So it came as a small surprise to me when, after a snowstorm and a very quick thaw, one of the composers recorded the dripping of the melting snow for 45 minutes (one side of a C-90), played it on a boombox before a presentation and announced it as "my new piece." The response was largely silence, or who farted? expressions, but later, several of the fellows approached me in private to ask me how is this music? I entered university professor mode and simply said, "how is it not?" I was becoming very good at the profound-sounding nonanswer.

And this made it clear to me that a lot of creative types will tolerate stuff outside the box for visual art and writing, or for their own fields, but not so much for music. Hmm ... how is painting to a recording of snow melting different from painting to the actual sound of snow melting? Cosmic.

I also noticed that established writers tended to speak of their work in terms of affect, of its relationship to other writers, and it relationship to other works by the same writer. The writers who were amazed they were there at all talked about technique, their life stories, and their day jobs. And how amazed they were that they were there at all.

My work progressed at what was for me a pretty quick pace; and while I was there, my friend Jim Goldsworthy — I knew him from Stanford — asked me to write him a piano four hands piece to play with his friend Sara Doniach. I said okay, since the performance was going to be when I was on the west coast anyway. I felt like I was getting enough done that I could add that piece to my plate.

November is fairly cold in New Hampshire, and most of the MacDowell cabins have fireplaces. All you had to do was ask Bill Gnade — when he delivered your lunch in a pic-a-nic basket — for firewood, and within an hour a truck pulled up and some was delivered to your porch without you being bothered. Cool. The fires I made had a comforting crackling sound, so I made that sound the basis of the four hands piece — which I called Crackling Fire. It actually got written pretty quickly, and that surprised me, too — had I sped up, or had I taken leave of my critical facilities? Answer: yes.

A better answer to that question lies in the way I felt after I finished the e.e. cummings movement (the fourth of the symphony). I thought it was one of the best things ever written by anybody, anywhere, any time. So the isolation of the artist colony can play tricks with your self-critical skills. Thankfully, I figured that out pretty quickly. At the same time, even after I finished Crackling Fire, I didn't think all that much of it. Except for the low, rumbly crackly beginning that seemed to represent smoke.

The composers who presented had widely divergent music — from jazz to experimental to improvisatory. These were composers and styles I wouldn't have otherwise encountered, so I appreciated how it seemed my own aesthetic horizons were broadening. I especially dug the improvisations of a composer who played 'cello.

Perhaps the most memorable line of that residency was from Jonathan Ames, a young writer with a wild streak. A very wild streak. After a presentation one night, he bounded into the big field behind Colony Hall and yelled How far do you think I can run without falling down?

Dutifully, I did a presentation of my music, and I was the kind of guy who got beer and Cheez-Its for the required snacking. Figuring out how to present what I did to artists who know the creativity thing but not specifically about music — especially music of the less-than-tonal persuasion — was one of the most valuable things I learned there. Breaking down the problems in that particular way eventually helped me focus on technical things I was thinking about from a different angle.

Meanwhile, they loved E-Machines. Which was not, at the time, called that.

I made some very good friends at this residency that I am still in touch with, including April Bernard — whose poetry Beff and I eventually set. April's book Blackbird Bye Bye was the first book I ever bought whose author I knew personally. While there, April also met her future husband Marc. They were both pretty wild at the time. I was pretty wild at the time.

No I wasn't. More like zany.

Somehow I hit it off with the cooks at MacDowell — they're pretty nice people, too, especially the breakfast cooks — and I mentioned that I make a pretty mean pizza. Actually, I think I said I made a pretty epic pizza. Thus was I invited to cook for the entire colony one night, and boy was that fun! Of the 32 in residence, a good 10 had egregious dietary restrictions I had to work around, and of course the maintenance staff, Bill among them, surreptitiously hung around the dining room right around the time they expected the first pizzas to be done (yes, they got free samples). I did an octuple recipe, and didn't even have to shop for the ingredients. The best part of the cooking, I guess, was having an actual kitchen staff assisting. After the meal was done and it was announced that I had made it, the ovation was superior to the one I'd gotten for my Violin Concerto.

My cooking brought other cooking fellows out of the woodwork, too; a sculptor (the one who made the speed bump) revealed that his day job was as a cook, and he made a fantastic gourmet chicken meal for all of us. And as I was about to leave, several newer fellows volunteered to make dessert for a future meal.

I left the day before Christmas with my new piano four hands piece and three new symphony movements — one of them really really fantastically great. I wrote almost zero music for the next two and a half months. I got more font books and gradually became the font guy, somewhat to my eventual chagrin.
Djerassi Foundation (Mar-Apr 1991)
The 12-sided barn at Djerassi reflecting the fog bank rolling in from the ocean

I had made more progress on the symphony than I had thought I ever would, so by the time I arrived at the Djerassi Foundation in Woodside, California, all I had left was the nine-minute finale, and I already knew that one of the things I was going to do was give words to the opening trumpet solo — which by now was already ten months old. And what words?

Ooh baby, e.e. cummings again.

Thankfully, I had already come to the realization that the other e.e. cummings movement wasn't all that. So I was composing from a position of strength.

I had six or seven weeks at Djerassi, and I rented a car for my first week there and my last two weeks. I had plenty of friends in the area from my year at Stanford, so it wasn't hard to find people to give me rides — especially because it meant they got to see the Djerassi Foundation.

And what a place it is! It is two buildings — a ranch house and a 12-sided barn — on a 600-acre cattle farm with one of the most gorgeous and scenic views ever as you enter the compound and drive a snaky, narrow driveway. That view is burned in my memory, and I've never encountered its equal. I probably drove that driveway two or three dozen times, and every time it seemed fresh and no less unreal.

This being northern California, the chef was named Sky Power, and the meals she made were quite tasty; on weekends the colonists had to cook on their own, with ingredients that the Foundation bought. Thus on weekends we took turns cooking for the whole cohort, and guess what meal I made? My pizza was always a highlight, specifically because the visual artists got to abscond with the sauce, artichoke, and mushroom jars to hold their paint.

Speaking of which. This was a small cohort: there seemed to be three or four bedrooms/studies in the ranch house for writers, two visual artist studios carved out of the twelve-sided barn, a dance studio, and the composer studio. Thus were there 4 writers, 2 painters, a number of dancers from a San Francisco troupe, and me.

Djerassi is the only colony where everyone is jealous of the composer's digs. They take up about a sixth of the 12-sided barn, with a large working space and a loft with a bed. Two large open windows face due west, and thus there are gorgeous sunsets to behold; it's only about three miles to the Pacific Ocean, and all that is between the Djerassi Foundation and the ocean is Neil Young's ranch — or so they said. There was a state of the art stereo system set up there, a video camera, and a recording Walkman for the composer to use as he pleased; I had never used a recording Walkman before, so I walked around and made recordings of stuff I would never really need — mostly the sound of the streams on the property.

Yes, there are streams on the property. And, it seems, three distinct microclimates. There is a small Redwood forest, a frog pond, and a whole bunch of open ranch. I took a lot of walks, especially in the forest, and grooved on a whole bunch of site-specific sculptures that had been left by previous fellows; my favorite was the bow of a boat, in the forest, made of glass, sticking straight up.

Djerassi was the first residency I went to with someone I already knew there — Richard Moore, who taught the poetry, modern poetry, and math and literature courses I took at New England Conservatory, was there as a fellow. And he just as spry and funny as ever (he suggested the slogan you bet Djerassi for the colony, with which I countered can you tell the difference between Djerassi and Djerelbow?) I also met the poet Marilyn Chin, with whom I had a rollicking good time, and with whom I overlapped at Yaddo several times (including a few months after this). I use one of her poems in my introduction to composition class.

There was a young performance artist there who wrote comedy routines and who wrote and performed evening-length monologues peppered with video and sound cues. She was working on a show about her many years temping, and while there she filmed an "office scene" in my studio in which the dancers from the resident troupe posed as male strippers. Three or four years later, Beff and I caught a feature article in the Baltimore Sun about the show Temporary Girl coming to town in Baltimore, and there she was! We surreptitiously went to the show, and there was that film, made three or four years earlier in my studio, as part of the show. Better still, she did a pantomime of the temp's day, compressed, accompanied by James Brown's Dr. Feelgood — a tune I played incessantly while I was there. 'cause, you see, the stereo was state of the art. So yes, I felt like I had a palpable influence on someone's art. (I also caught her at La Mama Galleria the next year in New York, which is only notable because I ran into Milton Babbitt on the subway while I was on my way, he asked where I was going, I told him La Mama, and he said, "I know it well." Sure he did.)

So the artists and writers I was meeting were people I would know for the rest of my life. That's cool, too.

On occasion, Carl Djerassi — who owned the ranch that bore his name — came to dinner and would chat about just about anything. He was conversant with all the disciplines represented there; and on occasion his wife, a noted professor and biographer came, as well (once she saw that I had set Louise Bogan's poetry, she wanted to have a long talk about Bogan's work, and that was pretty valuable to me).

I was writing faster and faster, and taking lots and lots of walks, and much sooner than expected, the symphony was finished. I still had three weeks left to my residency, so boy did I walk a lot, and walk, and walk. I took pictures, too, but I sent them to the Director at her request, and she never sent them back. I also helped out the performance artist with her multimedia needs, since mine was the multimedia studio.
While there, I also got to attend the premiere of Crackling Fire. It was a great performance, and the piece sucked slightly less than I thought it did. I rented a car for my last two weeks there, and made up reasons to go into Palo Alto — mostly because it meant I got to see that gorgeous view entering the compound when I got back.

By now I was an old pro at presenting my music to nonspecialists, and afterwards, one of the writers made a very perceptive comment: above all, your music is relentless. See this post for why I agree with that. The same writer also bought lottery tickets for us all, and we didn't win.

So my friend Judy Bettina, who was still teaching at Stanford, said that since I'd finished my project, how about writing her some encores? Oooh, cool! So I wrote a tinkly piano part with a dumb vocalise, and I was satisfied. I called it Vocal Ease. Then I wrote its yang, a slow and turgid, but pretty tune, recycling the harmony from my symphony, and I called it Vocal Angst. Then, going completely against type, I wrote a complicated and very jazzy one simply called Scatter.

Scatter was my first nod to vernacular music, ever. Being remote and in those three microclimates, and not being anywhere near my teachers, it seemed like an okay thing to do. Besides, the piece was really, really hard, and that's supposed to be the norm, right? And I didn't hear Scatter until 2004, and a wait of 13 years is the norm, too, right? By the way. It looks really cool. Sounds cool, too.

Better still: I wrote the three encores in five days. Man, had I sped up. It turns the encores  were kind of an antidote to spending eleven months on a very serious symphony.

While at Djerassi, I got an invitation to a 60th birthday bash for Marty Boykan. Being 3000 miles distant was a pretty good excuse not to go, but I ended up promising I'd write Marty a 60th birthday piece. Gee, with my plate cleared, I guess I could work on that at Yaddo.

I don't recall there being an avuncular does-it-all guy at Djerassi; it turned out the guy who was in charge of the cattle on the ranch was a college roommate of Marty Boykan, and the son of a prominent composer. Cool. Plus, I'd say he was avuncular, too.


I had two weeks at home before Yaddo beckoned. So I made some fonts.

Yaddo (May-Jun 1991)

Yaddo was in full summer season when I got there. There were about 35 fellows, the large majority of them writers. The large mansion, pictured above, was open, and all manner of rooms and studios were in it. The studio in the tower there? That's the coveted Tower Studio. Below it, and sticking out into the main building, with the big window — that's the even more coveted Katrina's studio, which I got to see when Henri Cole, the poet who had it, gave a reading in it. Yes, it's big enough to hold a reading with 35 people. I get ahead of myself, which in the space-time continuum is theoretically possible, but not currently feasible.

Yaddo Ice House studio
Yaddo has a stately mansion (as just noted), plus several buildings spread around a large, forested estate that have studios for writers, visual artists, and composers. The old ice house, way out in the woods, is also a composers studio, and there is yet another blue cabin even further in the woods that serves as a composer's studio: that's the studio I had, and it's called Woodland. It is the most distant studio, and you get to use a bike to get to it if you want. It is not, however, anywhere near as distant as some MacDowell studios are from the center of the colony. The dining room is palatial and opulent, and the cooking was pretty fantastic. There is a main table that seats about 15 or so, and a bunch of smaller tables that seat six. It was hard to have a conversation at the main table, since you tended to be pretty far away from the people facing you.

The does-everything guy at Yaddo was James, with whom I took rides into town often. For I wanted to get stuff, and in town was where the stuff was. Particularly the Skittles. He was not so much avuncular as super-nice, and soft-spoken. Maybe he was talking at a normal level and his prodigious red beard made it come out softer, I don't know. James is still there!

The level of work being done by those at Yaddo was very, very high — most often veering into the amazing. Robert Carl, Alvin Singleton, and Tania Leon were the other composers there at the time I arrived, and I felt very privileged to meet and get to know them. Especially Robert, since he let me borrow his car on occasion. I countered by lending him the boombox I'd brought so he could give his presentation in the Ice House studio, which he was in. CDs were freely exchanged, so I got to know all the composers' work very well, as I listened to it when I was (hand-) copying.

Yaddo Woodland studio
The level of all the other fellows was pretty high, too. I hung around a lot with Tom Chandler. Joe Duemer and Helen Winternitz, and also with Marilyn Chin — whom I knew from the Djerassi Foundation. My first compositional efforts while at Yaddo were to set to music Tom Chandler's fake state song lyrics for Rhode Island: O Rhode Island, I would pound nails in my eyes ... It was such a fun kind of thing to do, and I rediscovered my tonal writing chops (I had to relearn and deliberately misuse the French augmented sixth to write it). Everyone at the colony learned the tune, and I played it often when the assembled were near a piano. There was a very young poet there, who wrote very chewy poetry meant to read quickly, who mused, I can't believe anyone could write such beautiful music just as a joke!

There were the established writers, beginning studenty writers, definitely very established composers, and — well, I don't remember anything about the visual artists on this particular trip. It was the beginning of the summer, so everyone was giddy about the weather, and we loved being able to use the inside of the mansion — especially the huge screened-in porch  on the second floor, where many late nights were spent. In fact, I don't think I ever returned to my studio to work after dinner — that's how much of a party residency this one turned out to be.

Joe Duemer and I hit it off smashingly — indeed, we edited a (never-published) book together, I set some of his poetry, and he wrote several poems to order for a whole bunch of songs I wrote. Thus was a very fruitful and long collaboration begun at this residency. I also set an actual serious poem of Tom Chandler. Cool, huh? Oh yeah — and I blurbed one of Tom's books. I've never used blurb as a verb before, and that could be a pop song. Blurb as a verb, don't be perturbed, don't be like a Serb or an herb. I'll work on it.

No I won't.

As to the work. It was time to write Marty Boykan's 60th birthday piece, and I set myself a gauntlet: write it for orchestra, quote some of Marty's actual melodies, and make it exactly 60 pages. Thus did I bring 120 or so pre-printed orchestra pages with me. For the first time in my life, I set a regimen: each day I had to write two pages of orchestrated score — which, depending on how complicated the music was, amounted to 8 to 12 measures per day. I had never written that fast, but, since this was going to be — or was supposed to be — a fun piece with no restrictions, I knew I could do it. And it would take exactly thirty days — because I know simple math. Keep in mind that I was not yet using a computer to copy music, so it was all by hand, and with a sock.

After writing and copying O Rhode Island, I had exactly 31 days left to my residency. I was going to finish on my penultimate day.

Incidentally, Yaddo borders the race track in Saratoga that is the famous race track in Saratoga, and although I wasn't there during racing season, I was there on Memorial Day weekend, during which time the track is opened and operated. Thus was I privy to my favorite colony meta-moment: a novelist said that she had been unable to write that day because she was distracted by the noise coming from the race track. So she picked up a Raymond Chandler book, eventually getting to a passage where Chandler describes being at Yaddo and unable to work because of the noise from the race track.

At Yaddo I did not take lots of walks because — hey, I was working hard! Writing, orchestrating and copying practically all day. And when I was slightly more than half-finished (I knew because of the page count), Beff called — since nobody had cell phones in 1991, people had to call the pay phones near the dining room — and told me that I'd been taken off the waiting list at Bellagio and could I be there — in northern Italy — in about ten days? Whoa. Northern Italy. In June and July. Yes, please.

But I had to leave Yaddo about five days early to do that. Not to mention, I had to really crank it up to get Marty's piece finished. Thus, the official regimen suddenly became three pages written and orchestrated per day. Ride 'em cowboy! I was becoming a fast composer!

Tom Chandler suggested we do a day trip to see the touristy Revolutionary War stuff at Fort Ticonderoga — not too far of a drive from Yaddo. I jumped at the chance, even though it meant I had to write even faster. Bring it on! We returned with coonskin caps. That's how touristy it was.

And how giddy were we with the weather? Every night there was a fantastic presentation, after which we would go to a dance club in town. This is how I first discovered Gypsy Woman by Crystal Waters. On nights we didn't go to the dance club, we occasionally had a dance party in an auxiliary building, using my boombox. Chet, a writer from Cambridge, was a particularly silly dancer, and we often found ourselves in the same part of the room. We eventually developed a routine in which we would look at each other with wild eyes and immediately leap as high as we could. A writer noted, "you guys should get married!" In unison, we retorted, "already married."

I still have and use that boombox. Sony, you make machines that last and last. It may be the only thing in our house that can play a cassette.

One Sunday morning at breakfast in the mansion's dining room, a moose came to the window and peered in at us. That is the only time that's happened to me at a residency.

The stereo system for presentations at Yaddo was, at the time, housed in the mansion's chapel. Thus were the fellows relegated to pews when I played my stuff, usually pretty loudly, and from a cassette. By now I had mastered my presentation schtick, and writers in particular professed to enjoy the music — especially Slange. No visual artists asked for cassettes to use it to paint to.

Meanwhile, I got to page 60 on my piece, and I had no title for it. So I asked the writers assembled to suggest titles for an orchestra piece that would make you want to listen to it. The winner was Winged Contraption. I called it that, and then realized — I wrote a 9-1/2 minute orchestra piece in 23 days? Really? Bitchin. And it was way more fun than my symphony. What's more, I can still listen to it without cringing all that much. Bitchin.

Beff picked me up at Yaddo — it was a three-hour drive to ruralville — and we had a whirlwind day ahead of us. Beff had gotten both of us plane tickets to Milan at a good rate and on short notice, but we had to go to the STA office on Newbury Street in Boston to pick them up. Plus, we had to buy our special STA IDs that proved we were entitled to the special discount airfare. Yup, some people get fake IDs to buy alcohol. We got fake IDs to get a student airfare rate.

But you know, we were worth it. And, uh, um, we all learn from life, so we're all students, right?

Beff had a gig the week following, so she joined me at Bellagio a week late. Incidentally — Bellagio was the first residency I went to that welcomes your spouse.

Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Study and Conference Center (Jun-Jul 1991)

Thus did Beff drive me to Logan Airport, and I took Sabena to Malpensa Airport via Brussels. Of course I hadn't had time to learn any Italian, and — hey, this was my second time ever in Europe! — my packing was necessarily haphazard. But I had projects coming out of every orifice. Oh, that just sounds wrong.

Not once did I have to flash my STA ID card.

I was told Bellagio would have a driver waiting for me at the airport to take me to the Foundation's property, which was a 90-minute drive, often through craggy, twisty roads and lots of short tunnels. I expected a driver with one of those bigass homemade signs like you see at airports in America — reading RAKOWSKI or BELLAGIO CENTER or something. Instead, there was a very unassuming man wearing a small card reading Villa Serbelloni. Ah, I vaguely remembered that Bellagio was at the Villa Serbelloni from when I sent in my application. So I approached him and simply asked, "Bellagio?" "Sì. (pause) We were expecting your wife." "She's coming in a week." "D'accordo."

My driver may have been mild-mannered, but he sure knew the roads. It was really a three-hour drive to, um, Villa Serbelloni, that he managed to cut to 90 minutes. And so I drank in the Italian countryside, noted how the roads got twistier and twistier the further north we went, and how the rolling hills quickly became — ohmigod, those are the Alps, right? The Alps! The Alps? Turns out they call them the pre-Alps, or something like that. The mountains around Bellagio are mere pimples compared to the real things.

But geez. The Alps, people!

Distressed by the thought of small mountains. Send Alp.

We finally made it into the small, very beautiful, touristy town of Bellagio on Lake Como (my high school American history teacher had ancestors from the area, and his name was Comi), with stunning and amazing views in every direction. The car went up the twisty driveway to a beautiful 18th century Georgian mansion, I took out my stuff, and the first thing they said was, "we were expecting your wife." "She's coming in a week." They took me to my gymnasium-sized room, which had a "David Rakowski and Beth Wiemann" nametag on it. The director gave me a ten-minute tour of the grounds, including the one composer studio out in the woods, and when I got back to my room, the nametag on the door read "David Rakowski".

Yes, the room was palatial, with very high ceilings and a very expensive bed, and there was enough room in it for a shuffleboard court. The bathroom was the same size, which means I had space to run around and airdry myself after a shower if I felt so inclined. The room also had a teeny balcony with a couple of chairs on it that had a view of — did I mention the Alps?

And every day at 4:00, local church bells would ring on the notes G and D. They did so as I was unpacking. In my welcome packet was revealed the daily schedule (the times may be misremembered):
  • 8:00 breakfast
  • 10:00 tea and cookies
  • 12:30 lunch
  • 4:00 tea and cordials
  • 6:30 dinner
  • 7:30 a cart of alcoholic beverages is wheeled out, help yourself
The schedule didn't actually list the last one — it just happened regularly.

I was introduced to this place's gregarious does-everything guy, a generous and smily man dressed like a butler, named Yanni. No, he didn't do New Age music on the side. But he seemed to be everywhere, doing everything at once.

At Bellagio, you must dress up for dinner (the same rule applies to the Bogliasco Foundation) so I had packed my meager collection of dress clothes. I brought my stuff to my studio and set up, and noticed a collage of first pages of scores of pieces written at Bellagio: every one of them began on G and D. Including Otto Luening's The Bells of Bellagio. I kept that in mind.

Shortly it was time to dress for dinner, and I felt like I was putting on a costume. The group was a much older and much more distinguished group, by and large, than at the other colonies. At any one time there is only one composer, one creative writer, and one visual artist in residence; every one else was a scholar writing serious books for an audience of smart people. Hence, a scientist writing about the germs in your mouth; and a lawyer writing about the early days of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

Hey, that lawyer is a Dean at Columbia! My dean! It's my dean, Jack Greenberg! My boss's boss! Cool. Let the sucking up begin. We hit it off; eventually I got him to demonstrate that he can make little bubbles on his tongue.

Also in residence was a poet from Vermont who was the father of a trumpet player I had played in the Vermont All-State Orchestra with. Small world. Also there as a spouse was the daughter of my high school American history teacher, who graduated from the same high school as me, and in my sister's class. Smaller world still. And yes, it was a Comi on Como.

In the evening, fellows were invited to share their work, and boy did it range the gamut. I never thought slides of the germs in your mouth could be so interesting. The presentations were in a room with a fireplace, thus they were called fireside chats; the booze was unintrusive.

I had three projects that had been backburnered during the year that I was eager to start on: a piano piece for Karen Harvey to pair with E-Machines (that's not what it was called); a piano trio for my violin concerto soloist's trio; and a triple clarinet concerto for Beff.

The weather was beautifully sunny, so I took sketch paper outside, and wrote in the shade, under a statue of a naked flutist, with an astoundingly beautiful view of Lake Como. I started with the piano piece, which came out pretty quickly; it was another barn burner that I called BAM! — Karen had written that on a part for a piece of mine in which she played — and already after five days I had a new piece.

A picture of one of my Bellagio pictures
Writing outside is a cool thing, since there's the fresh air aspect, and the drinking in of all the gorgeous scenery; the cypress trees on the grounds made interesting patterns, and the shadows they made changed. There were flocks of birds flying by all the time. I got to watching the straight lines and the V shapes the flocks made and wondered how they decided who gets to lead. One of the flocks, though, got disrupted when some bird in the middle violated the formation, and several birds followed it; shortly, the bird got back into the formation and the shape was restored.

After thinking about that sequence for a while, it occurred to me that it could have an interesting musical analog: suppose I were to write some fast, jittery lines in unison that would slowly break apart into several lines and/or chords, and then go back to the fast unisons. What would that sound like? What would that feel like? I kept that in mind for the piano trio.

Meanwhile, it was time to start work on Beff's triple concerto — the idea was to make her an equal part in a trio of clarinets and gradually have her emerge as the soloist over the course of a brief slow introduction to an allegro. Thus I started using the composer's studio — a small building way out in the woods, maybe a seven or eight minute walk to the mansion, and with no bathroom. Which meant bathroom breaks would either take fifteen minutes of walking, or ... well, there was this tree. Perhaps I only imagined it, but the bark was a little softer than normal. And yes, I helped make it just a bit softer, too.

Naturally, the trio of clarinets started with the notes G and D, and the music flowed out so naturally and at its own leisurely pace that rather quickly, I abandoned the notion that I was writing a slow introduction — it was a whole slow movement. And in six days, I wrote the whole seven-minute movement. Six. Days. Six days!

I was fast composer guy now.

But I still had to dress up for dinner.

Beff arrived while I was writing her concerto movement. She used the piano in the mansion to work, and of course she wanted to explore the area. Eventually we did the whole town of Bellagio, where Beff bought me an outrageously colorful tie, and where we ate at the one restaurant in town that was profiled in the Michelin guide. We also noted with amusement a plaque in the town noting that Cosima Liszt (later Cosima Wagner) was conceived here. We also learned how to take the ferries to the various other towns on the lake, so we got our touristy stuff in, too. And that gorgeous view of the lake we had from the mansion? Pales in comparison to experiencing a summer thunderstorm while riding a ferry in the middle of Lake Como. Then again, I think being outside, but dry, in a thunderstorm is always a cool thing.

There were also the fireside chats, very cool and informative. We did silly things with the painter in residence — who is the one everyone is jealous of, since he got his own villa to himself — one floor of residence, one floor of studio. And — here I am influencing someone else's art again — without me knowing about it, the painter did a "Self-Portrait As David Rakowski" which he gave or sold to one of the other fellows. It is briefly described here. I have never seen it.

After my concerto movement was finished and copied, it became time to explore the unisons-breaking-apart notion that I'd gotten from the birds. I realized that this piano trio would be the first unconducted chamber music I'd ever written — how'd that happen? — and I was initially a bit confused about how to write it in my pulse-eschewing milieu so that the players could easily keep together. Duh, I decided to take that buttstik clean out, use pulse, full speed ahead, and syncopate very, very zanily. Perhaps that would sound cool.

I'll say. This was music completely unlike anything I'd ever written, and I finally had a clear idea what I wanted to do with it. It was coming out — to my ears — like the blues recorded at 33 and played back at 78 (I'm old enough for that to be a meaningful reference). Hyper blues! I got to an a-splode™ after two pages of writing, and then I went back to the beginning. The ideas were solid, but the notes weren't the right notes yet. Sigh. So I re-entered slow, careful mode, if briefly, and spent the rest of my working time fixing the notes. Finally, it was right.

And it turned out that this piece, this hyper blues was a watershed piece for me, a piece where everything changed. And imagine that, at a residency! And, incidentally, it was about time. In the benefit of two decades of hindsight, that symphony had to be written because it was the only way for me to release the obsession I had with Lulu for all of the decade prior (now we're just good friends). Thus was I able to make the beginnings of a clean break with the hyper blues.

The residency was over, and as our plane made its way out of Milan, the captain amusedly pointed out that we were going left and right and left and right to pick up altitude instead of straight north because he decided it'd be best not to crash into an Alp.

So that's the story of how I did five artist colonies in one academic year and lived to tell about it. I've been back to some of them lots of times, encountering yet more archetypes — particularly the people you see there year after year. They are called colony sluts. Every once in a while I become a colony slut. And I have met some truly great people, many of whom became friends and collaborators.

I also became the font guy that year.

The story picked up with my next residency, December, 1991 to January, 1992 with Beff!, at the VCCA ....

In case you were expecting a concluding paragraph, here it is: I like pickles.

Future blog post: my three other European residencies — excluding the AAR.