I recently spent three weeks at Yaddo, an artist’s colony in Saratoga Springs, NY. Located down the road from the Saratoga Racetrack, Yaddo is one of the most famous artist colonies in the world, and is the largest in the U.S. Tons of great people have worked there, including Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, David Del Tredici, Truman Capote, Langston Hughes, Sylvia Plath and Philip Roth—the list goes on, seemingly forever. It was an honor to be there among so many talented people.
While there, I wrote over sixty-five pages of score for Invisible Child, the opera I have been working on with writer and librettist David Cote. I wrote more in three weeks than I have ever written in that period of time in my life. It was amazing to be able to work in solitude, and to think big thoughts, for long spans of time. In this crazy email-centric, cell phone-tethered world we live in, large, uninterrupted moments are becoming a rare commodity, and I think this is what makes the difference between the kind of work—and the amount of work—that is being created these days, compared to, say, a hundred years ago. Not necessarily better or worse, just different.
In some ways we have less to worry about—we have cleaner water, less disease, and more (but not necessarily higher-quality) food, at least in the U.S.—but we are also very distracted and seem to have shorter attention spans. Sitting through a Chopin Nocturne seems like eternity for some folks, and you can almost seem their fingers itching for the remote during a live performance. It does not help that we are over-saturated with content and media, and not all of it great, but it is really all about distraction. We are pulled in a many different directions at once, and we kid ourselves into thinking we can really multi-task to great effect. Mozart had almost none of the gadgets we have now, and look how much he created. That tells you something.
What is so great about artist colonies such as Yaddo is that you have time to really concentrate. It is amazing how much you can get done when you are left alone. Ironically, I had better cell phone reception at my little cabin in the woods than I get in Manhattan (it is near the highway, however distant and in the background), so it was a mental thing. The physical distance from NYC and separation from other people created a sense of calm that is really hard to find, and with birds—and not people—twittering in the background, it is much easier to turn off gadgets or conveniently leave them behind.
Don’t get me wrong: artists love to party. Almost every evening consisted of sharing bottles of wine and great conversation, but during the day, at least during my stay, people were either working very hard, thinking very hard, or even just thinking about working very hard. Artist’s minds are usually churning in the background, even when they look like they are paying attention to what you are saying. It’s faint, a distant look in their eyes, but you will notice it if you look closely. You learn to not take it personally: they are just existing on multiple planets at once.
Some people do not work well at colonies, but others thrive. I loved my time away, although I missed Victoria and Dylan immensely. I work well at home, surrounded by my things, but there is nothing like working in a space so quiet that you can hear the blood rushing in the back of your neck, away from honking trucks and WiFi connections. It was truly a gift to be there.