My Room, Your Room: Eugenia Cheng

My Room, Your Room: Eugenia Cheng

  • Caius College, Michael How and Eugenia Cheng.

Photography: Sir Cam and Paul Stuart.

Eugenia Cheng (Caius 1994) and second-year organ scholar Michael How share their stories of musical friendships and mathematical foes.

People would just turn up and play music, or sing. They’d climb in through the window, or just let themselves in and I’d find them here.

The walls of Room I2, Caius Court, have heard plenty of music over the years – it is traditional for the College’s organ scholar to reside here. But something special happens when current scholar, Michael How, and mathematician, pianist and author, Eugenia Cheng (Caius 1994), sit down to play Ravel’s Sleeping Beauty pavane together at the grand piano. It’s almost as if there’s a third generation present: Cheng’s friend and mentor Robert Anderson (Caius 1948) – and himself once a resident of I2.

“One of my strongest memories of this room is the day that Robert Anderson knocked on my door and said: ‘Excuse me, but this was my room many years ago. Might I come in?’,” remembers Cheng. “Of course, I said yes – this room was a hub for musicians. He asked: ‘Are you president of the College music society? I was president, too.’ And we became friends. He used to sponsor students from the developing world who didn’t have access to libraries. We would show them around Cambridge together.”

Anderson, a noted Egyptologist, musician and music writer, sadly died in 2015. “Otherwise, he would have been here,” says Cheng with feeling. “Three generations in one room! The way he managed to blend his academic life and his music was an inspiration to me. But I feel, especially in this room, that he is still an inspiration.” How agrees. “I think there’s a real spirit to this room, and the College as a whole. It’s amazing to think that so many influential people have spent time here.”

So little has changed, says Cheng, that it’s easy to let the years fall away. The slightly tattered armchairs Cheng knew are still there. The grand piano, however, is a step up from the digital piano she brought with her in 1996.

“I was having to practise in the practice rooms,” she says. How looks mystified. “You’ve never seen them? They were in Harvey Court. There are eight rooms in a row and six of them are garages, so they always reeked of petrol. Digital pianos were just coming in, and I bought a Clavinova, which ended up lasting me 20 years. And I brought paper, as mathematicians get through a lot of paper. And a fluffy duck my sister gave me.”

How came to Cambridge from Melbourne, Australia. “So I couldn’t bring too much stuff,” he says. He has no fluffy ducks, but he does have the bright yellow Laughing Bag, which sits rather incongruously on the shelf next to The New English Hymnal. “I always had an interest in medicine and music, and initially didn’t know which to pursue. But I’m drawn to the variety of the organ, with its heights and depths, and such wide range of sounds. Bach is probably my favourite – his work is just so perfectly balanced.”

Looking back, says Cheng, the room gave rise to a rich seam of inspiration that continues to run through her life today. “People would just turn up and play music, or sing,” she remembers. “They’d climb in through the window, or just let themselves in and I’d find them here. Now, I run a salon in Chicago – the Liederstube – and it’s the same. People just turn up and we sing and play.

“The very last thing I did before leaving Cambridge was sit in this court, on the little wall, and think: I’ll never find a community like this. I’ll never be able to have that thing where people just wander in and sing with me – because we all go off into the world, and get jobs, and responsibilities. And yet I have. It’s lovely to come back and remember how it started.” Anderson, certainly, would have approved.

Interview by Lucy Jolin. This article first appeared in CAM - the Cambridge Alumni Magazine, issue 81.

Eugenia Cheng (Caius 1994) is Scientist in Residence at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the author of How to Bake Pi and Beyond Infinity: An Expedition to the Outer Limits of Mathematics. Her mission is to rid the world of ‘maths phobia’.

Michael How is a second-year musician and Wilfrid Holland Organ Scholar and is considering becoming a teacher. As yet, none of his friends has climbed in through his window.