Sarah Kim sits down with oboist and ethnomusicologist Malaysia Billman to chat about her life graduating into a pandemic and dream about what's to come.
Sarah Kim: What is your hometown?
Malaysia Billman: Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania. It's not really a town. I live on a mountain, but it's kind of just in the middle of nowhere. It is like 30 minutes from the capitol of Pennsylvania, but it’s just another, not-really-a-town town.
S: Did you grow up with any pets, or do you have any currently?
M: Yes, I grew up with two cats, but they both died when I was in middle school. For my entire life, we’ve had a snake, a python named Monty, that my dad actually got before my sister and I were born. My dad's a high school teacher, and he used to just live in my dad's classroom but then when COVID started, he moved back home with us. So, now we have a snake. He was in the background of all of my zoom lessons during COVID – it was the greatest thing ever.
S: What is the craziest thing to ever happen to you on stage?
M: I have two. Nothing super crazy has happened recently, because I'm much more of a cautious person with reeds and stuff than I used to be. Once, when I was in high school, I was doing this honors performance series thing… No one told me how the tuning was supposed to go throughout the concert, so I was just kind of like getting by, making eye contact with the concertmaster. We were in Carnegie Hall, and, for some reason, the acoustics were really weird, and I started tuning over the conductor as she was talking to the audience. I could not hear her talking at all. Then, people started tuning to me over her talking – it was the most embarrassing thing, and I had no idea what had happened until after the concert! [They] were like, “Malaysia, what were you doing?”, and I was like, “I was just trying to tune the orchestra!”. I feel like that's my funniest story. Then, it was the first time I'd ever played English horn, in youth orchestra. It was the New World Symphony. The English horn was totally fine the entire time, and then right in the middle of the second movement solo, it got water in its keys, which is just super catastrophic for me in the moment. I didn't have cigarette paper. There were like two measures of rest or something in between the solo and the principal oboe, and we were panicking and searching around for cigarette paper, and I ended up finding a piece just laying on the ground – I have no idea where it came from. I feel like those are my 2 most chaotic [stories]. That was all in high school.
S: Oh, my gosh! What an exciting high school career.
M: It was! I think those things caused me to be super over prepared now, every time I come on stage. I always have many things with me – for every possible scenario that could happen – so I've avoided everything else, so far.
S: What are you listening to this summer? What is your jam?
M: A lot of things. I have been listening to a lot of podcasts, especially when I make reeds. A lot of like 80’s, new-wave, synth-pop stuff – like New Order and Orchestral Maneuver in the Dark – I really like. Spotify keeps recommending modern, psychedelia, music to me, so I guess that, too – everything that they recommend, I really like. Whenever I drive to and from work, I always listen to the classical music station out of Philly, and they always play great bops. The other day, it was Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto – which I had never heard before – and I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is the greatest thing ever,” so then I listened to it like five times in a row… I'm always looking for new music and stuff to listen to, [and the radio] station is a way I discover new classical music [because] they make a really good effort at programming works by a lot of different marginalized/non-canonized composers which I really appreciate.
S: Do you have a podcast recommendation for all your fans?
M: So I listen to a lot of true crime podcasts. I've been listening to Crime Junkie – that one's really good. And then they also have another one where they focus on unsolved cold cases, which is really good. My mom and my sister told me about this other podcast called Scamfluencers, which is basically about Instagram influencers who are also massive scammers… It's kind of insane, and it's really entertaining – it’s absolutely crazy.
S: I need to listen to that one!
M: Yeah, the one that I just listened to was about this guy who was like, your super typical, “Oh, it's all about the hustle, all about the grind,” flaunting all of his Gucci stuff, but then he was also part of like these massive bank heists with North Korean hackers… I don’t even know what was going on, but it was pretty crazy.
S: Who is your dream collaborator?
M: I don’t know if I have a specific person – I’ve never really thought about it. There are people that I’ve always wanted to study with. I've always thought it would be really cool to play on a movie soundtrack – like some huge, massive blockbuster film or whatever – like John Williams level stuff. I would never want to do that forever and ever, as like my main career, but I always thought it would be super cool to do something like that. Now I’m gonna think about that for the next week!
M: (one week later) – I was thinking a bit more about this and a more specific dream non-classical music/orchestral collaborator would be Paul Simon! He’s one of my favorite artists and I saw him on his farewell tour in 2018 which was an incredible, memorable experience. He had a flutist as part of his band and (totally unbiased…) but I think oboe would work so well in a lot of his songs/with his music style.
S: Is there a section of an orchestra that you really would love to play with?
M: I would love to play at least once with the Berlin Phil.
S: I just got chills thinking about that!
M: Yeah. I wanna get my master's in Germany and eventually have a career there, so really any German orchestra would just be an absolute dream… I think if I played with the Berlin Phil, I could pass away. That, or the Royal Concertgebouw…I could die after that and be totally okay.
S: What is the single, most important thing you do offstage and out of the practice room?
M: Outside of music, I think spending time with family and friends, because I think, especially in college, it was really easy to get super caught up and be like, “Oh, no! I have to practice, and do all this.” I kind of had to relearn how to [feel] like it's okay to do other things, especially right now, because I've just been at home with my family. All of us are all together again, which doesn't really happen often, so when I'm not working and not practicing – I live in the mountains – so just spending time in nature, going on walks or hikes, and just spending time with people.
S: Is there anything else you want to add?
M: Oh! Another thing I have also been listening to – I haven't listened to it in a couple of days – but I've been really into contemporary music. John Adams stuff… and Phillip Glass… but mainly John Adams.