Edward Sien grew up in Flushing (the same Queens neighborhood as President Joseph Polisi) and was a classmate of former costume-shop supervisor Traci DiGesu at Stuyvesant High School. He attended Wesleyan University, where he received a B.A. in philosophy and literature. After graduation, he lived in China for a year, teaching English at Sichuan University. Following a peripatetic further few years, he moved to Seattle and became a research coordinator in cardiothoracic surgery. In 1999, he resettled in New York and embarked on a new career in nonprofit administration and development. At Juilliard, he is responsible for all fund-raising from institutional sources. He lives on 152nd Street in Hamilton Heights (yes, it’s still Manhattan!) with his partner, Russell, and the several thousand worms they are raising in a composting bin in their boiler room.
What job at Juilliard would you like to try out for a day and why?
I typically have only occasional contact with Juilliard students, but the ones I have been fortunate to get to know have been amazing people aside from their incredible talents. I would love to tackle [Dean and Provost] Ara Guzelimian’s job for a day in order to see firsthand the challenges that face these truly exceptional young people as they work to transform themselves into performing artists. His office isn’t too shabby either!
What is the most memorable job you’ve had?
In 1993, I worked for four months as a volunteer at a dolphin research center in the Florida Keys. Part of my job was mixing up cakes of spirulina algae and stuffing them into the gills of frozen herring. It was supposed to be good for the dolphins’ health, but who knows. The algal cake had to be just firm enough so that it could be manipulated, yet soft enough so that it would not tear the skin of the herring. It was a task worthy of Dante’s Inferno. The dolphins were cute, though. One, named Tina, would wave at me with her flipper when I showed up for work.
What’s the craziest day at work you’ve ever had?
When I was working as a substitute science teacher in a high school, I decided to replicate a demonstration that I had been shown in high school. It involved a beaker of sugar and sulfuric acid. It was supposed to make a black snake of burnt sugar undulate out of the beaker but the result was choking fumes that forced an evacuation of the entire floor. Miraculously, they continued to allow me to work there.
If out of the blue your boss said to take the day off, what would you do?
In the morning, I’d bake a loaf of bread. I’d grab a hunk of cheese and go have a picnic on the banks of the Hudson, reading the rest of the afternoon away.
How do you balance your job and your artistic endeavors?
I do enjoy writing (well, maybe “enjoy” is putting it too strongly), but I’d hardly call myself an artist. I am not sure I am quite brave enough to be an artist, which is why I admire the students at Juilliard so much.
What other pursuits are you passionate about?
I am a passionate, if amateur, cook. I love to read about food and dream over recipes that I’d like to prepare. Sometimes I feel sad when I’ve been neglectful of vegetables that I love, like parsnips or artichokes. Doesn’t everyone? I also enjoy studying foreign languages and doing the best to keep up my knowledge of the ones I already know. I am currently working on my Icelandic.
What was the best vacation you’ve had and what made that trip so special?
In 2010 my partner and I spent a magical week driving around a remote region of Iceland called the Westfjords. It was our second trip to Iceland together; the previous one, taken during the winter, nearly ended in calamity when our car got stuck on an ice-bound back road as the daylight began to seep away—at 3 p.m.! But this time it was June: the sun shone around the clock, there was abundant bird life, incredible landscapes, surprisingly wonderful food, and an entrancing sense of desolation. Our photos almost make it look like we were the only people in the entire country. We hope to make another trip this coming winter in search of the northern lights.
What might people be surprised to know about you?
Although I am a devoted fan of classical music and have been since I was a child, I grew up with deaf parents. I studied the violin as a kid, and I like to joke that the only reason I was permitted to do so was because my parents couldn’t hear me practice. O.K., so it’s not a joke. You definitely don’t want to hear me play the violin.
What is your favorite thing about New York City?
The Empire State Building. I love how different it appears from every vantage point—stern and foreboding or as elegant as a spear of asparagus. I never get tired of imagining what it’s thinking about as it gazes over the metropolis around it.
What book are you reading and what CD are you listening to?
One of the most valuable benefits of working at Juilliard (aside from my paycheck, for which I am very, very grateful) is access to the library. My five years here have been one of constant exploration to the far reaches of the musical universe, from Indian Carnatic music to saying “Yes, yes” to Luigi Nono. I have recently been listening to symphonies by the 19th-century Swedish composers Franz Berwald and Otto Lindblad. The wealth of excellent, relatively unknown music out there is just astonishing. It’s reassuring to know that I won’t run out of things to listen to anytime soon.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
The value I’ve tried to keep foremost in my life? Curiosity.