People in the News

New Artist of the Month: Composer Angel Lam

November 2, 2009 | By Pierre Ruhe
Angel Lam sounded nervous. In a pretty pink dress and white shoes, her hair pulled back in a pony tail, she was standing in front of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra on Oct. 15 at the premiere of her "Awakening from a Disappearing Garden." Lam, 31, wasn't there to introduce her piece, a 30-minute cello concerto composed for Yo-Yo Ma and commissioned by Carnegie Hall for the current Ancient Paths Modern Voices festival. (The ASO takes the piece to Carnegie on Nov. 7.)

Rather, she was there as narrator, reading a brief, two-chapter short story of her own creation that is accompanied first by orchestra and then reinterpreted by cello and orchestra. It begins:

"I took a taxi. It wouldn't take long to reach this luxurious mansion where I had been invited for a party. A calendar on the dashboard showed in bright red letters, May 10th, 1953. I asked the driver to circle the block again, spending more time, and then had him drop me off a block away. I left the taxi and walked some distance so that no one would see me coming…”

Lam is a composer of quirky personality and originality, and she bundles her many contradictions into musically compelling pieces. She seems sincere in wanting to satisfy her listeners, yet the "Awakening from a Disappearing Garden" story leaves so much unsaid -- Who are these characters? What are their motivations? What's happening? -- that the plot line remains a deep mystery.

"Everything is me talking to myself in my head," she said after the premiere in Atlanta, cryptically. The music, however, is utterly fresh, assertive and somehow “feminine” (her word) -- all in what might be called a Pacific Rim-eclectic style, spiced by Asian percussion. The audience hung on every note and erupted in euphoria at the end; the heartiest applause went not to superstar Ma [Musical America’s Musician of the Year], but to the unknown Lam, a daring and emotion-charged new voice.

Angel Lam was born in Hong Kong and raised there and in Huntington Beach, California. Her father is a painter and a businessman, importing and exporting tropical fish. Her mother, like many in Hong Kong, is in banking and finance.

"My family is not musical, and I was never into fish," she shrugs.

At eight, she started on piano and the guzheng, a traditional 21-string Chinese zither. She soon caught the composing bug, even entering her music in a Hong Kong radio station's songwriting contest. After undergraduate studies in Hong Kong, she's now enrolled in a doctoral program at the Peabody Institute and at Yale, studying with composers Martin Bresnick and Chris Theofanidis. She is single, intellectual, intensely private. Her music is self-published.

"Every piece of music I write takes a slightly new direction, but I stick to a way of expression, or mood, within each one. My music is always inspired by a story behind it; I have longer stories I'd love to publish."

About writing herself into the music: "I feel very courageous putting myself not behind the scenes, where most composers like to stay, but in front of the audience. It's healthy for a composer to be in direct contact with their audience."

She first wrote for narrator and orchestra in 2002 with a work called "Symphonic Journal: Ambush from Ten Directions" -- where the subtitle refers to a decisive battle fought in China in 202 B.C. (She was not the narrator.) In 2005, Ma's Silk Road Project commissioned her "Empty Mountain, Spirit Rain" and later recorded it for Sony Classical.

Narration returned again in 2007, at Peabody, for "Midnight Run." Choreographer Martha Clark suggested Lam record herself reciting the story. It proved so inspiring to the dancers that Clark asked Lam to upgrade with a videotaped reading; in performance, Lam's face was made huge on a screen as she spoke the words. About the same time, Carnegie Hall commissioned her to write a new concerto for Ma and its Ancient Paths Modern Voices festival.

After the Atlanta premiere, Ma told Lam he hoped she would restore some of the last-minute cuts she made to the narration, to make the story more clear and complete for the listeners. Flashing her independence, Lam said she preferred an unresolved ending. "In art, you don't have to explain yourself," Lam offered, "and the narrator can't make you feel what it's like to have a disappearing garden in a woman's head -- that's something only the music can express."



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