Eric Moe, in T-shirt, baggy pants and running shoes, stood before the baby grand piano in the MacDowell Colony's well-worn library, ready to play his work-in-progress, "Dance of the Honey Monkey." But first he wanted insight from the audience, two dozen or so writers, poets and visual artists who were also in residence at the famed colony here in the pine groves of southern New Hampshire.
"Is it too long, or not long enough?" he asked. "Does the ending work?"
He ran through the jazzy five-minute piece, following up, after short introductions, with two recordings and another stint at the piano for a piece he wrote in 1991. When he finished, a few people approached him.
Creativity, in popular conception, is a solitary act. And at colonies like MacDowell, where a studio, a bed and meals are provided, no visitors are allowed and life's distractions disappear, the notes, words, brush strokes and ideas do seem to flow more freely. Productivity surges.
But serene solitude is not the only raison d'etre for these retreats. Cocoon a diverse mix of artists in pleasant surroundings for several weeks, the theory goes, and they will, through outright solicitations like Mr. Moe's or happenstance at communal dinners, cross-fertilize each other's work. Some will try something new, some will change what they are doing, and some will collaborate on works that would otherwise never have happened.
The idea takes some artists aback. "I'm sure some people are not serious, but most come for the total quiet," said Hans Koning, a novelist. "It's pleasant at dinner to talk, but I don't think it's essential. There's very little contact, actually, among artists. It's dangerous. Think what would have happened to van Gogh if he had listened to people. You're really headed for middlebrow kitsch."
Yet to judge from more than two dozen interviews with current and past residents of colonies, and several experts, most believe that interaction often influences what they create.
"The solitude and the ability to work in a supportive environment is primary," said Mr. Moe, a music professor at the University of Pittsburgh who goes to colonies every summer. "But an important secondary benefit is being in the company of other artists -- for feedback on my work, for collaborations that happen and for feeling part of a larger community of artists."
Mr. Moe reels off plenty of evidence. At the library, two writers and a visual artist told him that the ending of "Honey Monkey" was a surprise, that they expected and wanted a longer piece. And now? "I have a few possibilities," he said. "Leave it as it is, add another piece with a resolution or revise it so it's a little more satisfying."
He has listened to such feedback before. On the 1991 piece he played, he said, he "substantially rewrote the ending based on comments I received here." Mr. Moe said that he had collaborated with artists he met at colonies, including Abigail Child, a filmmaker with whom he made three videos, and that he had been inspired to write "Siren Songs" after Paula McLain showed him a draft of her poem "Beauty That Lying Bitch."
Hold the Q.E.D., however. "No one has done research on this," said Howard E. Gardner, the Harvard professor who has written extensively about creativity. "There's no control group, so you can't prove it." Mr. Gardner, who has had residencies at two colonies, agrees that interaction at such places influences creativity, but adds, "This is wisdom rather than science."
Through the ages, artists have gathered in enclaves to exchange ideas and to encourage each other. But artists of different disciplines have met far less frequently, said Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, the author of "Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention" (Harper Collins).
That is where organized colonies come in, with MacDowell and Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., being the oldest and best-known of the many that increasingly dot the United States and the world. "To the extent that you create a chance for artists to rub shoulders with people of other disciplines, that helps," Mr. Csikszentmihaly said.
When Edward MacDowell, a composer, and his wife, Marian, created the nation's first artists colony here in 1907, they drew inspiration from the American Academy in Rome, which was founded in 1894 to give artists a chance to study Rome's classical traditions. MacDowell, a trustee, felt that discussions among the artists, architects and composers there enriched their work.
Nowadays, the 58-member Alliance of Artists Communities says, there are about 80 American colonies. In the most recent tally, from 1995, about 3,600 visual artists, writers, composers, filmmakers, performance artists, choreographers, architects and scholars attended.
More colonies are in the offing. In the United States alone, partly to make up for curtailment of Federal grants to individual artists, "another 40 to 50 are seriously endeavoring to start," said Tricia Snell, the Alliance's executive director. Most have wealthy patrons, though money also comes from foundations and fund-raising events.
MacDowell accepts up to 32 artists at a time, and over the years they have included Willa Cather, Milton Avery, Edward Arlington Robinson, Virgil Thomson and, more recently, Oscar Hijuelos, Glenn Ligon and Alice Walker. Together, they have won 52 Pulitzer prizes, seven MacArthur genius awards and hundreds of Rome Prizes, Guggenheim fellowships, National Book Awards, Academy Awards and other trophies.
In MacDowell's annual mix, slightly less than 50 percent are writers, 25 percent visual artists, 10 percent composers, 10 percent interdisciplinary artists, 5 percent filmmakers and less than 1 percent architects.
Artists colonies are commonly viewed by the public as hotbeds of sex as much as hotbeds of creativity. Many artists have indeed started romances or found marriage partners at them. DuBose Heyward, author of the novel "Porgy," met his wife, the playwright Dorothy Kuhns Heyward at MacDowell, and it was she who quietly wrote the first draft of the play, "Porgy and Bess," after he put aside her suggestion that his book had stage potential.
Lifelong friendships are a matter of course, too, frequently forging a chain of influence. The poet Stanley Kunitz has described how painters he met at MacDowell in the 1950's introduced him to an artist named Elise Asher. She became his wife and "led to my intimate association with the master generation of American Abstract Expressionist painters."
Creative collaborations seem to abound. In the 1950's, Thornton Wilder asked Louise Talma to write the opera "Alcestiad" with him after they had met at MacDowell; they later exchanged hundreds of letters. More recently, "Elegies," a piece written by Richard Danielpour, the composer, and Kim Vaeth, the poet, came together here. The two had met once, but got to know each other here in 1989 and '90, conceiving the piece here in 1996.
In 1997, Mr. Danielpour returned with most of Ms. Vaeth's text; the rest came by faxes. "I would go to the pay phone in the evening and we'd edit the movements down," he said. Finally, he said, Ms. Vaeth joined him for a finale. While he went to dinner and to play table tennis one evening, she worked in his studio. "I came back around 8 P.M.," he said, "and we sat in the studio until midnight, and she finished it that night."
Mr. Danielpour said he was getting "addicted to this process," citing projects with Toni Morrison, Stephen Mitchell, Erica Jong and Maya Angelou.
Amy Jenkins, a video maker, credits colony life with expanding her horizons. "My first residency was at Yaddo, and there was something chemical about being put in with other artists not of my discipline," she said. She met a composer, Jeff Talman, who agreed to work with her there. "I had the idea for a soundtrack, but didn't have the knowledge or the technology to do it completely," she said.
"That showed me what a residency can do, throwing the unexpected into the mix," she said. "I spend a lot of time alone, and work can sometimes be in a bit of a vacuum." Still, she guards against too much exposure, saying, "You have to be careful about how much you allow other things to influence your work."
Maria Levitsky, a photographer, said that David Del Tredici, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer who returns regularly to Yaddo and MacDowell, had influenced her work. Last year, "he said it's O.K. to create beautiful, romantic, decadent work," she recalled. "Atonal composers may be mad at him, but I wrote it down because it reinforced me and gave me courage.".
Evening readings and performances are not required at MacDowell or Yaddo, but they are traditional and central to the interaction. Sometimes the feedback is affirming or helpful, but not always. Ms. Levitsky remembered that last summer one composer did not present his work because of a scathing remark another had made.
Yet creativity can be greased as much by abrasive comments as by compliments. The question for some colonists is whether they are hearing genuine feelings. David Means, a writer, said he would distrust comments made at readings as "fundamentally dishonest." Many artists said they relied more on one-to-one consultations here.
What happens when the artists go home is also a matter of opinion, not science. Mr. Cskiszentmihaly said of the residencies: "Six to eight weeks can have a lasting effect if you see things from a different point of view. It can open up a whole new way of doing things."
But Mr. Gardner, leaving aside influence from continued contact, is a little more skeptical. "It is possible for one person to say something that will influence the work," he said, "But let's just say, I will quote Pasteur: 'Chance favors the prepared mind.' "