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The Impact of Artist Residencies | Michael White

“By the residency’s end, I had taken a frighteningly intense soul-searching journey that led to a new spiritual consciousness, heightened musical awareness, and new levels of creativity - and nearly two-dozen original compositions.”

Dr. Michael WhiteMy introduction to A Studio in the Woods happened when I played there for a friend’s wedding. There was something about the location that immediately drew my attention and curiosity. I remember asking a staff member: “What exactly do you all do out here?”—and the rest is history. My two-month residency at the Studio was somewhat experimental for proprietors Joe and Lucianne Carmichael, because I was their first musician resident. Having a solitary retreat to compose new traditional jazz music was a foreign but appealing concept for my career as a jazz clarinetist. What I initially viewed as just a good opportunity to “rest, listen to music, and maybe write a new song or two” turned into much more. By the residency’s end, I had taken a frighteningly intense soul-searching journey that led to a new spiritual consciousness, heightened musical awareness, and new levels of creativity—and nearly two-dozen original compositions.

The physical and psychological separation between central New Orleans and the peace, quiet, and isolation of the Studio’s natural rural environment became the catalyst for a dualistic consciousness that greatly affected my mood, thinking, and creativity. Without really knowing exactly where to begin writing new songs, I settled into a routine of intense practicing, listening to recordings of different musical styles, and writing down harmonic structures that might serve as new and interesting forms for traditional jazz melodies and improvisation.

These conscious musical activities were greatly enhanced by the Studio’s natural surroundings: woods, a pond, and a variety of animals. Solitary practice sessions and walks there and along the Studio’s front yard—the Mississippi River—contributed to a sense of oneness and harmony with nature that inspired and transformed me. My clarinet became involved in call-and-response conversations with birds. The trees gently echoed the instrument’s phrases. There were regular visits by curious animals (obviously jazz fans) that would fearlessly venture close and listen for hours. Facing and feeling the sheer magnitude and power of the Mississippi River was a hypnotic and humbling experience, which brought on self-confrontation and much reflection. The river took on new meaning for me: it seemed to come alive as a nurturing entity that gently lulled me to sleep at night, leading me to connect with untapped levels of my unconscious spirit.

Soon new themes, melodies, harmonies, and rhythms began to fill and flow out of my head. Many ideas were written down, but others were lost before I could sketch them out. At one point I had to consciously stop the flow of new ideas to complete others. More surprising than the amount of new songs was their source. In those themes I could hear my life story being told: from my early years to recent events that occurred during the residency. Rather than reflecting a nostalgic view of the oldest jazz form, these new pieces were influenced by my experiences, knowledge, character, sense of humor, emotions, human contacts, travels, dreams, as well as by various music styles. The essence of a contemporary life was being converted into the sounds and rhythms of traditional New Orleans jazz. The songs were designed for configurations of three to seven musicians, and represented a new way of viewing, writing, and performing traditional jazz.

My residency at the Studio was a life-changing experience, which opened many doors in my quest to both preserve tradition and find valid ways of contributing fresh, personal, and contemporary material to the genre. It also unlocked the door to a rich source of internal inspiration and creative potential that I will probably explore for the rest of my life. Among the many rewarding aspects of my stay at A Studio in the Woods has been the organization’s support and encouragement to share the results of my residency experience by sponsoring a concert and workshop premiering and discussing the new music. The desire to preserve and spread the fruits of my retreat experience are also incorporated in a new CD, Dancing in the Sky, which contains ten of the songs originally written at the Studio. The benefits of my time at A Studio in the Woods extend beyond a new phase of learning, development, and musical output. The benefits include new directions in local cultural preservation that will inspire musicians and artists of all kinds, as well as serve as an example of the positive value of developing, supporting, and seeking out the artists’ residency experience. 

Dr. Michael White: listen to his music