I enjoyed reading Kate Guadagnino’s recent article in the New York Times Magazine, “The Rooms Where Writers Work.” As the title implies, it’s a look at the physical spaces where writers do their writing, what I would consider the literal “creative space.” While it only provides profiles of writers, the article’s concerns could just as easily be applied to the creative spaces of composers. We all have our preferences and habits, and changing them can be met with resistance, depending on personality type. Some composers need a piano for most of their work, while others see the piano as a crutch. Some composers need total quiet, while others find a certain level of sound distraction to be helpful. There are those who work in the morning and those at night. Christopher Rouse once described himself as “an afternoon composer.”
I have often found myself composing in coffee shops or other public spaces. (Case in point: about two-thirds of my dissertation orchestral work was composed on the second floor of a Philadelphia Starbucks.) Counterintuitive as it might seem, I find myself more focused when working in public, including places where I must “tune out” some background sound. Perhaps my working intentions are clearer when confronted with a level distraction. At the same time, I must use the piano during certain stages of the compositional process, and for this I am adamant about needing a grand piano (Baby grands work; what I need is a certain resonance.) and have found great benefits in the quiet isolation and beautiful views often found at artist colonies. I would specifically cite the whole atmosphere—piano combined with the acoustics of the room combined with open windows looking out on to the Mediterranean, with its birds and waves and sunsets—at Camargo Foundation in France as being directly responsible for some of the warm, lyrical sound world of my Sandburg Songs. I cannot speak for other composers, but it is clear to me that environment affects my work. (As I walk the busy streets of Hong Kong, I have nearly planned out the form of an upcoming Hong Kong-inspired string quartet I will write this year!)
One of the ongoing challenges of creative work is to understand how one does it best, and part of that is when and where to work. Of course, there are no rules, no correct or incorrect; only successful or unsuccessful, or more or less ideal. Like almost everything about the creative process, it is a combination of observation and action that allows us to complete our task.