One-Man Orchestra Composes His Own Path
Issue   |   Fri, 05/22/2015 - 10:55
Photo courtesy of Daniel Ang '15
Daniel Ang (bottom right) is a triple major in physics, math and music.

A triple major with a formidable mind, Daniel Ang is a true poster child for the liberal arts. While majoring in math, music and physics, Ang has composed award-winning musical works, including a thesis, and conducted groundbreaking research in the lab. To Ang, the liberal arts education has made these milestones possible. He was able to meaningfully explore many disciplines, all while connecting and collaborating with professors and peers in an “irreplaceable” way.

Two Passions

Born in Vancouver, Canada, Ang was always surrounded by many musical, scientific and spiritual influences from throughout the world. His mother is an engineer as well as a musician, and she encouraged his interest both in the quantitative fields and in music from a young age. His father’s job as a pastor encouraged Ang to think about the spiritual side of his interests.

During these years, not only did Ang begin to discover his academic interests, but he also became increasingly immersed in the music world, mostly due to his mother’s influence and insistence. At age nine, he began learning the cello — an instrument that would transform his life. At school in Singapore, he played with one of the best string orchestras in the nation, and he was exposed to a diverse array of new musical experiences.

In school, Ang excelled in both science-related courses and humanities subjects like philosophy. However, due to what he described his parents’ “naive view of humanities,” he opted to focus on physics, influenced by his love for quantum mechanics, Linus Pauling’s books and string theory.

Ultimately, Ang wanted to be at a place where he could delve deeply into both music and physics. After stumbling upon a list of top liberal arts colleges, Ang found what he was searching for in Amherst.

Finding His Rhythm

In his very first semester at Amherst, Ang discovered the musical opportunities available to him, playing in the Amherst Symphony Orchestra and developing what would become a long-lasting relationship with orchestra director Mark Swanson.
Swanson describes Ang as “extraordinary in his passion for music.”

“He has been a gifted leader of the orchestra as principal cellist during his four years here,” he said.

In the fall of Ang’s first year, Swanson offered Ang an opportunity to play in a string quartet.

“They needed a cellist for a quartet,” Ang recalled . “We called ourselves the Buckley Boys.”

This group was Ang’s first encounter with chamber music, and he remained in it for the rest of his Amherst career. This year, he was the only senior among three first-year students in the group, so he effectively stepped into the leadership role.
“Daniel puts his passion for music on display every single time he picks up his cello,” the Buckley Boys’ second violinist Elliot Kuan ’18 said. “He has truly found a way to speak through his playing and composing.”

Ang also seized opportunities to branch out and explore different musical styles, participating in several different musical groups on campus. After attending a jazz concert, Ang became excited by the style of music he had not encountered before and decied to take a mater class in jazz. He began to play jazz during his junior and senior years, even joining a combo to explore and experience improvisation. The improvisational process inherent in jazz has subsequently influenced his own composition efforts.

“I would play in church [bands] where I would improvise instead of playing from the sheet music, so I had a bit of experience with improvisation,” Ang said. “I think a lot of what I do compositionally is influenced by what I did in jazz. The willingness to improvise and go beyond the written note, that impulse transfers itself.”

Ang’s long-standing interest in composing led him to many successes and discoveries. In 2013, he submitted a piano composition he wrote over the summer for a competition, and that piece gave him the opportunity to go to Vienna the following year.
In the winter of 2014, Ang decided to pursue a music composition thesis. Over the summer, using his Schupf Scholarship — a research fund given to a select few students at the beginning of their time at Amherst — Ang attended two music composition camps in preparation for his thesis.

“I purposefully planned the stuff I did at the camps so that I would learn what I wanted to incorporate in my thesis. That explains why my thesis is a seven-movement, very diverse, behemoth body of work,” Ang explained. “I composed this thesis which ended up being, 55 minutes long, 16 instruments. I wouldn’t say it’s perfect. I had a lot to learn and things I’d do differently, but at least I’ve satisfied my desire to compose a big work. That’s what I wanted to do — I wanted to end with a big bang.”
Ang credits much of his success in creating his composition thesis piece to the support he received.

“An amazing thing was that Mark Swanson offered to conduct my composition thesis for free. It was the first time he’d conducted any student thesis in his 15 years here. Having Mark allowed me to focus on the composition process,” he said.
Swanson described Ang’s work as a joy to conduct and was impressed by Ang’s “prodigious talent and capacity to compose rigorous, exciting and emotionally moving new music.”

Ang believes composing his senior thesis has led to this tremendous growth in understanding and writing music. Indeed, this growth has not gone unnoticed by his mentors.

“Just last Saturday, Mark gave me the opportunity to compose my own concerto for the senior concerto concert,” Ang said. “That’s my first ever orchestral work.”

Spinning in the Lab

While music took Ang down a long journey of discovery and creation, he also counts physics as integral part of his college years. As with music, the relationships he developed, especially with his adviser and lab supervisor, Professor Larry Hunter, made physics at Amherst enjoyable and meaningful for Ang.

Ang began doing physics research on spin-spin interactions with Hunter following his first introductory physics course. They continued the relationship over the summe and Ang co-authored two papers published in prestigious scientific journals.

Ang has achieved what Hunter called “a level of early success unprecedented in my 32 years of supervising student research at Amherst.” Hunter also recommended Ang for the Schupf Scholarship, which generated the funds to support Ang’s various research endeavors, both in physics and in music.

“Though Daniel came to our lab with little previous research experience, he quickly learned what he needed to know to contribute to our program,” Hunter said. “Whenever I would suggest an aspect of the work that he might undertake, he repeatedly surprised me with how quickly he came back having completed the task at hand.”

Ang eventually did his physics thesis in Hunter’s lab as well, working on subjects similar to those he’d worked on in that first summer. His thesis focused on building and investigating comagnetometers that would allow him to investigate bounds on spin-spin interactions.

“His results are promising,” Hunter said, “and we intend to continue to develop this new system next year.”

In addition to music and physics, Ang majored in math because he was driven to understand and carry out mathematical proofs. Understanding these mystical and mysterious proofs, Ang said, was “worth the major.”

In order to triple major and take classes outside of his majors that sparked his interest, Ang has taken five classes every semester since his first-year spring.

“I don’t regret it at all,” Ang said. “To be a Renaissance man, you have to know a lot about more than one subject. That’s an important part of how I see the liberal arts education here.”

End of A “Double Life”
Ang says that he’s had a “crazy” four years, a statement evidenced by his extraordinary accomplishments in music and physics. At Amherst, he found what he had been searching for since his youth: the opportunity to be both a musician and a physicist, mastering both subjects and compromising on neither. He has led what he calls a “double life” in these two fields: attending academic classes in the morning and music master classes in the afternoon, or conducting research by day and composing by night.

This fall, Ang will be attending the physics graduate program at Harvard. He will work with the same lab in which he conducted summer research two years ago. Ang said that this lab is especially meaningful to him, because its head also mentored Professors David Hall and David Hanneke, two members of the Amherst physics department Ang looks up to.

“I’ll be working with the mentor of my mentors,” Ang said. “I’ll be following in their footsteps, in a way.”