March 4, 2009

Student Artist Spotlight: Adrianne Ngam '13

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A self-confessed “music nerd”, Adrianne Ngam ’13 loves to find humor in every little thing she does, be it playing doo-wop beats on the cello or designing a soaring skyscraper, and considers music more personal than professional. Sitting across a table in The Green Dragon, every architect’s favorite hangout spot, this winner of the fifth annual Cornell Concerto Competition and guest performer at the Cornell Symphony Orchestra’s recent concert talks about her passion, her profession and their confluence.
Sun: What was it about the cello that attracted you?
Adrianne Ngam: I guess it was the sound. I think it’s the voice. I feel that musicians get attracted to their instruments based on the tone, the kind of expression that you can get out of that tone. I like how it’s so deep. It’s really very cool — it has like the largest range in the string instrument family. I’m still learning though, still trying it out.
Sun: You had heard the cello before?
A.N.: Yes, I had heard the cello before. Probably Yo-Yo Ma … .
Sun: Is he your favorite cellist?
A.N.: He is not my favorite cellist, but what I appreciate about Yo-Yo Ma is how important cello is for his culture. How he incorporates cello and culture in the Silk Road Ensemble. He is always playing traditional Chinese cello music. I think that it’s great how he can take music that isn’t necessarily composed for cello and make it completely centered around his instrument. My favorite cellist though is this Norwegian guy named Truls Mørk. [He’s a] giant Scandinavian man [and] makes [playing cello] look so easy. I’ve seen him a couple of times in my city.
Sun: Any other cellists who have influenced you?
A.N.: Oh definitely. I met this guy at a cello clinic out in Kansas City and his name was Mike Block and he had graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Music and he is actually on tour with Yo-Yo Ma right now — he’s a part of the Silk Road Ensemble. He writes his own music and he sings along with it and it’s not necessarily classical even though he is classically trained. He uses his classical training to play rock or funk or blues and he really pushes boundaries of having a classical background by playing non-classical music. And that kind of woke me up as to what kind of possibilities there could be, what kind of doors I could open …
Sun: If you could play with any one person or orchestra who would that be and why?
A.N.: I would have to play with Mike Block I guess. In just five days he taught me more than I had learnt in my entire life in music. He’s always doing something new. With a mind that fresh, I feel like I can learn something more from him.
Sun: What did you perform with the Cornell Symphony Orchestra?
A.N.: I performed the piece called Pampeana No. 2 [Op. 21] by [Alberto Evaristo] Ginastera; he’s a 20th century Argentinean.
Sun: What really influences or inspires you when you are playing the cello?
A.N.: I think to perform my piece my best, I really have to understand what the composer intended the piece to be written about. So for the Pampeana for example, it was about these plains, the Pampas and the guy’s experience traveling them. For different passages, I kind of try to write a story in my mind on what it is narrating. Then that makes accepting it so much more real for me and it makes more sense.
Sun: Which is your most memorable concert that you performed in?
A.N.: My first high school chamber music concert. We told our conductor that we were going to play some Beethoven quartet that I didn’t really know, but instead we played a rendition of “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin and he was so pissed. And I didn’t even use my real cello — I used one that I had painted over the summer and it had flames on it, and rhinestones. He was really mad, but it was so worth it!
Sun: Do you feel yourself getting an adrenalin rush?
A.N.: It always starts out with [how] you can feel your heart thumping and you have to go, “Oh, what’s my tempo, I can only hear my heartbeat.” Your hands start to shake. Personally I get really nervous, but once you start playing, you have to fight it through, and after a while it turns into more of a Zen experience.
Sun: Have you ever written an original composition?
A.N.: Not really. I [am] kind of just getting into it. Some of the Cornell musicians have been into collaborating and stuff like that. I am not great at theory, so I can’t write it out but I have experimented with [composing]. [Those experiments are] probably more along the lines of modern, rock, alternative, funk maybe.
Sun: Ever tried playing or composing non-classical music?
A.N.: Oh yeah. I recently, over winter break, I transcribed Muse’s “Knights of Cydonia.” I wrote it for two cellos and I am trying to find another cellist who will help me play through and see if we can make it happen.
Sun: Tell me about your relationship with your instrument.
A.N.: I got this instrument when I was in the 6th grade, I was kind of serious about it but I didn’t really know anything. I didn’t fly to Europe and pick out an instrument — I am on a budget! I went to a local string shop, tried one and then I ordered one from the maker which was similar and it came in a box in the mail. But it’s a really nice instrument. I treated it a little rough, not poorly, but it has its marks where I clunked it around. But it’s a part of me, and it’s definitely my most valued possession.
Sun: Have you named it?
A.N.: What’s weird is when I first got it, it had a red varnish so I called it “Big Red.” I don’t really call it that anymore but …
Sun: And now you’re at Cornell. Foreshadowing much?
A.N.: I don’t know … Maybe!
Sun: Thinking like an architect, and thinking like a composer. Two different mindsets?
A.N.: For me, I really went into architecture thinking that I was really crossing along the same lines. But the question you are asking in music and in architecture is, “What am I trying to say and how am I going to express what I am trying to say?”
Sun: So was it just a logical connection between architecture and music that led you to major in architecture?
A.N.: It’s a combination of each. I have always been interested in drawing and design and I feel that the biggest similarity between music and design is that its never finished. It’s always about practice; it’s never going to be perfect; and it’s something that is really interesting. I think [music and architecture] are both fields where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. They both take teamwork; they both take being a strong leader and a strong follower. You really have to be receptive as to the kind of conditions you have to adapt to: who are you performing for? Who are you building for? What is your audience? You have to take all that into account.
Sun: And do you find that in your life these two influence each other?
A.N.: Yes, definitely. As an architecture major, I kind of use music as an outlet. I don’t have a developed skill sets in architecture as yet, by no means. So I guess if I am trying to express something in my own voice, I’ll hit the practice room for 20 minutes and get it out of my system.
Sun: If I were to take away your cello for a day, what would you do?
A.N.: I would work on architecture because I am so behind! [Laughs] No, that’s ok. There are days when I never get to practice; there are weeks when I will practice only 30 minutes a day; but it’s more an overall lifetime commitment rather than a day-by-day commitment.