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Space to Play With

Jaime Boddorff speaks to the New York musicians working from their living spaces, and finds that a lack of work/life separation isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Words Jaime Boddorff

Photographs Jaime Boddorff

“Do we know anyone in New York who has space for working?” Chris Cerrone, a composer based in Brooklyn, New York, asks. After a moment of silence, Sarah Goldfeather, a violinist and singer also based in Brooklyn chimes in: “No.” We all laugh sympathetically, realising the financial challenge of acquiring a separate workspace in New York City. For most New Yorkers, barely affordable rent is the standard. For artists and freelancers, the term ‘live/work’ is not a hip real estate description — it’s a fact of life, and it’s often a very cramped one.

Karl Larson, a pianist, lives and works in Red Hook, Brooklyn, an industrial neighbourhood along the East River. Larson lives on a quiet corner in an apartment shared with three roommates. His room is small, but it’s arranged efficiently, and the space is clean and bright. “When I moved to New York in 2012, I didn’t have a job or anything. I just had a bunch of artistic connections with people in the city but no guaranteed income, so I got a really cheap room, and it was a lot cheaper for me to rent a piano rather than go pay for a space. Putting the piano in the room was the only financial reality… and now it’s more of a lifestyle choice.” Larson practices anywhere from four to six hours per day during the busy seasons, so he weaves his work seamlessly into his day. Considering much of his work includes planning projects, setting up concerts, and communicating with collaborators, a separate space would be less conducive to his multi-tasking.

In Williamsburg, a busy Brooklyn neighbourhood known for its nightlife, Vicky Chow, also a pianist, lives in a first-floor open railroad apartment with her dog Lola. Her piano exists in the living space between her bedroom and kitchen. If New York apartments are stepping stone, Chow is well on her way: her previous apartment in the Upper West Side was half the size with an open floor plan, so the only space for her upright piano was in the kitchen. Chow shares Larson’s feelings, stating, “It’s really more space and financial reasons, but even if I had the choice I don’t know if I would get a separate space. I know for some people it feels better if their work is outside their home, but I’ve always had erratic working schedules.”

Despite the blurry live/work lifestyle, Larson and Cerrone find equilibrium considering their space constraints. Cerrone, who lives in Bed-Stuy, states, “I’m a very social person in general — the rare extroverted artist. Evenings are fun, days are for work. The balance is essential.”

Larson values neighbourhood friends who are not musicians, and he takes advantage of what New York offers as an escape. Alternatively, Goldfeather, also based in Bed-Stuy, finds the line difficult to distinguish: “It’s like how you’re not supposed to do anything in your bed except sleep, otherwise you associate your bed with doing other things… if you’re always working from your apartment you associate your apartment with working and it’s hard to stop.” While a separate space would bring a sense of efficiency during an allotted work time, the disadvantages include working out a schedule, as most practice spaces are shared. Goldfeather admits a separate workspace is a foreign idea.

Personal hurdles aside, New York living is a constant dance of coexisting with others. As pianists, Larson and Chow feel lucky to have little trouble with neighbours. Chow remembers, “I think the worst was when I was doing the solo piano arrangement of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which is really harsh, and I was practicing so it’s not like I was just playing through once — it was all day. I felt really bad, but my neighbours were nice enough to not say anything.” Setting boundaries for practice hours and taking relaxed views on others’ noise levels helps. Goldfeather notes, “Nobody has ever complained, and in return we don’t complain when neighbours have loud parties.”

Perhaps Frank Sinatra was right. Making it in New York as an artist provides a success that is universally transferrable. Is it possible to live the same creative, sustainable, and prolific lifestyle elsewhere? Larson says, “I think about this all the time. There’s many places I would maybe even prefer to live, but I don’t think it would be possible for me to be doing what I’m doing in those places yet.… At the same time I do love living here. It is great, especially for young artists. Roughing it, having everything by a shoestring with low checking accounts…. It’s a good way to cut your teeth and do something.” It’s hard to romanticise New York while immersed in balancing work, play, failure, and success, but uncomfortable as it is, if you can make it work, it’s an amazing experience.