An excellent article from Duke Magazine catches up with alumni composer George Lam (Ph.D. '11). George is currently an Assistant Professor of Music at York College, The City University of New York, as well as a co-artistic director of Rhymes With Opera.
A year after finishing his PhD in composition, George Lam is a busy man. In June, he had three back-to-back premieres. The first was Transfiguration Sunday, an anthem he wrote for Christ Church United Methodist in Manhattan. A week later, still in Manhattan, his chamber opera, The Love Song of Mary Flagler Cary, was performed in—no coincidence—the Mary Flagler Hall at the DiMenna Center. Then it was off to the other side of the world, where the Hong Kong Sinfonietta played his commissioned arrangement of a Cantonese folk song.
In addition to composing, Lam has a full-time position as Production Associate for Gotham Chamber Opera and Music-Theater Group. His role there is to shepherd new productions through the early stages of preparation and make sure the artistic director's vision and the priorities of the organizations' executive directors are translated into reality. Along the way, he says, "I'm catching all the information that's necessary for the production team until they come on board three or four weeks before we open. Once we start rehearsing it's also a whole bunch of running around as necessary to keep it running pretty smoothly." At the same time, he continues his role as co-director of Rhymes With Opera, a group he helped found in 2007.
The job, as much as the recent compositions, is a natural outgrowth of his graduate career. "My experience at Duke and also Rhymes With Opera was key to presenting myself as a viable candidate for this job," Lam says. But of course it wasn't employment he was thinking about when he founded and directed the Duke New Music Ensemble (DNME) and then produced an opera of his own. It's common for composers to be deeply involved in the performance, production, and promotion of their own music and the music of their peers. Often it's a deeply pragmatic choice, but it's usually more than that, too. "Part of the reason I wanted to start DNME and also wanted to write an opera about Durham," Lam says, was to connect "new music with people, just to get it out of Biddle." He is far from being the first young composer hoping to break out of the music building and find a broader audience (or better yet, create one). What stands out, in his case, is the way he brings the same impulse to the creation of his music—connecting music to the people, for him, starts well before the musicians step in front of an audience.
The sense of connection is especially strong in Lam's opera about Durham, The Persistence of Smoke, which was the culmination of his graduate studies. In it, Durham's transformation from a tobacco town to a post-industrial "City of Medicine" is dramatized by the relationship between Curtis, a former cigarette factory worker with vivid memories and a persistent cough, and his estranged son Kevin, an architect with a master plan to turn his father's old haunts into lofts, offices, and restaurants. Lam approached the composition as if it was a documentary, conducting interviews with a wide range of Durham residents, to hear all sides of the story from the people who lived it. Local playwright John Justice used the interviews as the basis for his libretto. The history was palpable at the premiere, which took place in raw, un-renovated space at Golden Belt, a former textile mill that has been remade as artist studios, lofts, and retail space. Lam worked by first bringing the community in and then putting the piece back into the community.
Lam's newest chamber opera, The Love Song of Mary Flagler Cary, marks a return to the documentary technique he developed at Duke. It was written for Rhymes With Opera, which hosted a June event at the DiMenna Center, part of a "multimedia salon concert series" called NYsoundCircuit. Lam's idea was to open the program by inviting the audience to reflect on the "giant philanthropist for the arts" whose name is attached to the hall they were sitting in. "I wanted to connect with that," he says, "so I worked with a long-time collaborator, Benjamin Rodgers, to find a piece that would be a response to this person. There wasn't much drama to her life, so it was more of a meditation on her love for the arts."
Lam is currently working on a documentary piece about expatriates for New Morse Code, a trio based in New Haven, CT. He and the three ensemble members are interviewing expatriates living in the U.S. to talk about their experience and find out what's keeping them here. The new pieces aren't as large and ambitious as Persistence of Smoke, partly because he doesn't have as much time to compose as he did in graduate school. "But I think more so," he says, "I just want to try different things that are rooted in a non-fiction base. And a lot of people, a lot of different composers are starting to do that now. There are a lot of different pieces that incorporate recorded audio or oral history or are based on real events. More so than before, I think, and that's definitely exciting."
Lam looks back at Duke as an ideal setting for developing his own distinctive approach to composition and production and the relationship between the two. He believes that the path he took would have been more difficult at a conservatory, where the strong orientation toward performance means that there is a great deal of musical infrastructure in place. At Duke and in Durham, the field was open enough for him to make his own way but he was still able to find the resources he needed. Also, the documentary focus was a natural fit in a place where composition is part of a liberal arts rather than a performance-based curriculum. And as a liberal arts institution, Duke offered resources like the Center for Documentary Studies, which played an important role in shaping and supporting Persistence of Smoke.
"I think the most important thing was that Duke gave me a lot of flexibility in what I could do," Lam says. "The faculty is there to guide you, but it's up to you to figure out what you're going to do. And that's the refrain when people talk about a liberal arts education, right? You are free to take different bits of what you learned from different things and have room to put it together."