Why MacDowell Now? On lockdown, wood pigeons, and grounding ourselves in the natural rhythms of creativity.

Emily Doolittle - August 14, 2020

Type: Buildings & Grounds, Artist News, Fellowships

Composer Emily Doolittle gets in a little practice in MacDowell's Sprague Smith Studio. (Joanna Eldredge Morrissey photo)

When Scotland went into COVID-19 lockdown on March 23, 2020 – a date now permanently emblazoned in my mind – I found it very hard to do any of my work as a composer, researcher, or writer. There were the immediate logistical problems such as procuring food, moving my teaching online, and figuring out how to cope with having my four- and seven-year-old home all the time. But beyond that, my mind was in chaos: worried about the future, obsessed with the news, claustrophobic inside our flat but too anxious to leave for my allotted daily hour of exercise. I read a number of articles about the arts being a lifeline during these early weeks of the pandemic, but I felt numb, unable even to enjoy art, let alone create it. A week or two into lockdown a journal editor sent me a breezy e-mail saying “now that we all have extra time on our hands, perhaps you’d like to write a little commentary for us,” and I felt like I was living on a different planet entirely.

But once we figured out our new routine – where to get groceries, how my husband and I would divide the day between work and childcare, how to tire out the kids with improvised obstacle courses in the hallway – I made myself return to my working room for my scheduled four hours a day. I wasn’t feeling inspired in the least, but I have never been the kind of composer who could wait for inspiration to compose. I need to put in the hours at the piano or the desk in hopes that I’ll be sitting there when the rare moments of inspiration do come along. And indeed, after several of weeks of anxious nothingness, some inspiration crept in, albeit in a form I did not recognize at first. That form was a common wood pigeon, Columba palumbus, which took up residence in the cherry blossom tree outside my window. Those of you who have spent time in Europe in the spring will need no description of its call, but for those who haven’t heard it, some words that come to mind are “repetitive,” “persistent,” and “intrusive.” In the best of times, wood pigeons may provide an atmospheric background to a lovely spring day, but this was not the best of times. As I sat there contemplating the implications of a global pandemic and wrestling with my restless mind, I felt certain that this insistent wood pigeon would prevent me from ever again being able to concentrate or create. The traditional mnemonic for the wood pigeon call is “take two cows, Taffy,” but some people suggest “for f***’s sake, shut up” is more appropriate, and I fully understand why!

I had the idea to write a piece called, in reference to a baroque form based on repetition, Chaconne for Bassoon and Piano: or, Is This Wood Pigeon Ever Going to Go Away? (I may yet write this piece.) And suddenly, as soon as I thought of turning my annoyance into music, I was back. I could think again, could feel, could engage with my surroundings: perhaps I could even appreciate and create art again. Because in wrenching my attention away from my unsettled brain and the newsfeed, this wood pigeon reminded me to attend to the world around me. Pandemic or no, the shared garden outside my window is home to a kaleidoscopically varied wealth of life: not just the insistent wood pigeon, but also the joyfully melodic blackbird, the tiny but mighty wren, the carefree blue tit, the marauding flocks of lesser black-backed gulls. I may be complaining about the persistence of the wood pigeon’s call, but it was this very persistence that brought me out of my own head and back to the world.

In a bit of well-timed good luck, I was asked to write a short lockdown-related commission for violinist Ruta Vitkauskaite by the organization Contemporary Music for All. I decided to transcribe the songs of the birds which came to our garden – not just the species, but the individual birds – and create a piece in which Ruta could record or loop multiple layers of birdsong and environmental sounds to create her own garden soundscape. As I listened, made recordings, and transcribed the songs, I began to relax into our bizarre time. I relearned how to appreciate what was still around me, rather than just mourn what wasn’t. I thought about past times when increased attentiveness to the natural world helped form who I am as a composer and a person: when I moved to Amsterdam in 1997 and heard a European blackbird for the first time; when I participated in workshops and collaborative projects with Canadian composer Murray Schafer and learned to make music outdoors working with rather than against the environment; when I followed my interest in Scottish folklore to the Outer Hebrides and heard grey seals howling in response to human singing; and my two wonderful residencies at MacDowell (2004 and 2012) when I was able to immerse myself in the natural rhythms of days and seasons, and let these permeate the rhythms of my own creativity. I began to feel like myself again.

Obviously a pandemic is a terrible thing, and I have no wish to romanticize this time. The destruction COVID-19 has caused is enormous, and it will cause more before it is over. Existing social inequalities have been greatly exacerbated by this crisis, and I can only hope that this will finally spur people and governments to do better. But we are here now, and we need to survive as best we can. I look forward to when we can return to travel and the openness that comes from being in a place for the first time. I look forward to when we can again experience the sense of community and creativity that comes from working together with other artists, and can once again share the electricity of presenting work publicly, in person. And I look forward to whenever MacDowell will reopen. I hope very much to return one day, to again ground myself in the daily patterns of creativity, sharing, and rest, and I wish this experience for as many artists as possible. In the meantime, I’ll draw on the deep sense of connection to the world around me that I (like so many artists before me) learned to cultivate through my time at MacDowell. Remembering to stay open to possibility, attending to our surroundings, sitting with difficult feelings, reaching out, and finding beauty and inspiration wherever we can is what will get us through.

Visit Emily Doolittle's (04, 12) MacDowell page.

Read other essays from the MacDowell Now series:
Nell Painter: Why MacDowell Now?

Vijay Seshadri: Whitman, Melville, the Virus

Susan Choi: MacDowell Has Space to Forge a New National Vision