A Conversation with NYFA Fiscally Sponsored Artist Angel Lam

A Conversation with NYFA Fiscally Sponsored Artist Angel Lam

“The arts all stem from the same imaginative creative source, no matter if it is dance, theater, or film.“

Angel Lam is a composer, writer and educator. Her distinguished career embraces experimentation and is marked by investigations between composition, literature and performance. Angel joins NYFA Current to discuss her practice, the role of NYFA fiscal sponsorship and her approach to funding strategies.  

NYFA: Your creative practice reaches beyond your academic training in music composition and theory to include theater, film and puppetry. How did you begin working across disciplines and what fuels your interest in these intersections? How do you find collaborators for these diverse multimedia projects?

AL: I have always believed the arts all stem from the same imaginative creative source, no matter if it is dance, theater or film. Growing up, my father exposed me to many great plays and films. I hear music in that same way you get absorbed into a good play, taking you to special places, or spiritual, soul searching materials, or revealing something about the human condition. Akira Kurosawa wanted to be a painter before he even dreamed about becoming a director and scriptwriter. I love creative writing and it’s been rewarding for me to integrate this with my music compositions.  

Finding compatible collaborators is tough, even though I live in New York City where artists congregate from all over. Many of the greatest, most organic works I’ve seen are through the vision of one creator, but occasionally, with a great partner, the relationship is strong and they can dream bigger together. Currently I am developing a project with a Berlin writer and inspiration flows. Finding the right partner–that feeling is very good.  

NYFA: Your distinguished oeuvre includes commissions from Carnegie Hall, the Hong Kong Arts Festival as well as working with Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. When you were first beginning your career what desires and expectations did you have?  How has your definition of a fulfilling profession evolved over time? What are some of your goals for the next phase?

AL: I don’t know where my inspiration will take me next, but I’m always looking to challenge myself. I started to write music in elementary school. When I reached middle school my dream was to write a piece for symphonic orchestra. So I accomplished that dream in college and composed for different orchestras. After that I was happy working with cross genre projects or any unconventional groupings of instrumentation, such as Silk Road Ensemble and diverse  non-western instrumentalists.  

The multifarious nature of New York is enchanting and I’m intrigued by cross-disciplinary projects. I bring new ideas to concert venues and perform in them as well.  For today’s creative people it is very important to be versatile, to get out of our comfort zones and gain greater perspective.


NYFA: Mining the past is a long-standing theme throughout your work. What draws you to historical narratives? What role does literature and writing play in your creative process?

AL: I often draw on the past to understand the present. For example, in Awakening from a Disappearing Garden, a concerto dedicated to Yo Yo Ma and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra commissioned by Carnegie Hall, I reflect on contemporary society and women’s conditions in China and Asia. The piece is a reinterpretation and response to the 16th century Kunqu opera Peony Pavilion and a mid-20th century Chinese short story. It explores the inner world of a woman through different eras, highlighting the pitfalls of an unspoken nostalgia for the lost age of emperors, and the superficiality of progress towards gender equality in modern China. At other times I want to bring attention to important social issues, such as in my musical June Lovers, about the poor marital conditions in Asian metropolitan cities.  

Artists are always building on the giants of the past and continuing that conversation with new angles and insights. I hope to contribute in new ways and understanding literature opens a wider horizon for me. Music speaks intimately and I hope to tell that great story with pitches, space and time.  

NYFA: In addition to composing and directing, you teach private music lessons and are on the Distinguished Artist Council for the Peabody Conservatory at Johns Hopkins University. How do your pedagogical interests and creative practices influence one another?

AL: To me teaching is another creative exercise, coming up with multitude of ways to fix different learning roadblocks. Every student is unique and has different abilities. Teaching is to be able to spot those aptitudes and bring out the best in each student. The process is rewarding both ways.  


NYFA: In 2011 you were awarded a NYFA Opportunity Grant, a grant awarded to NYFA fiscally sponsored projects, and this spring you applied for a New York State Council of the Arts (NYSCA) Grant in the Individual Artist category. Particularly for those unfamiliar with the process, fundraising and grant writing can appear intimidating. How do you navigate funding? What suggestions do you have for emerging musicians and performers?  

AL: On grant writing, I believe clarity is most important and practicing the ability to articulate your vision is crucial. I also think you can be creative about navigating funding, to not just approach the standard organizations that support creative works, but also businesses and organizations that would be interested in being a part of your project and seeing it grow.

NYFA: How do you sustain your creativity as an artist? What strategies do you utilize to balance your career with other parts of your life?

AL: Going for a bike ride or solo walks, sitting at a cafe to people watch…these help me balance a busy schedule. Larger breaks would be to go away in the countryside for quiet time with nature. If I need a bigger inspirational change, I like to travel to a foreign country. For motivation, studying a great masterpiece (in any genre) keeps my inspiration flowing.  

NYFA: Why did you decide to apply for fiscal sponsorship at NYFA? What opportunities has your participation in the program made possible that might have otherwise been out of reach?

AL: NYFA opened me up to a new network of artist and their projects. Being their fiscal sponsored artist opens up more grant opportunities and allows me to take advantage of support programs and affiliated organizations.

NYFA is the proud Fiscal Sponsor of Angel Lam’s Steal Peaches. Learn more about Angel’s work at her website. Are you seeking funding opportunities for your latest project or emerging organization? The next quarterly deadline for the program is September 30. Click here to learn more and apply!

– Interview conducted by Madeleine Cutrona, Program Assistant, Fiscal Sponsorship

Image Credits: Yale Cellos, Matthew Schlomer, Ellipsis Photography

Amy Aronoff
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