Koh Scores Wins in Two Music Composition Competitions

Emily Koh
Photo by Wasin Prasertlap
Emily Koh

Like many 7-year-olds, Emily Koh had no interest in taking piano lessons. It was her parents’ idea, she says. But, despite her apathy, she stuck with it for years.

Then, when she was 15, she traded the piano for a double bass. And in high school, she started to write music — that’s when her life really changed.

Koh, who just finished her first year in Brandeis’ Ph.D. program in music composition and theory, has been named a 2012 winner of the prestigious ASCAP Foundation Morton Gould Young Composer Award. She also won the 2012 PARMA Student Composer Competition.

There were nearly 670 submissions for the ASCAP award. The jury selected 29 composers between the ages of 12-29.

For the PARMA award, Koh’s piece “[circum]-perceptio (2010) for clarinet, marimba, piano, violin and cello” was one of 10 pieces selected from 350 submissions. It will be published in the “2012 PARMA Anthology of Music: Student Edition.”

Looking back, Koh says she’s grateful for her parents’ determination, and recently thanked them for encouraging her to stick with her piano lessons.

“It takes a lot of effort to push a child into something that they don’t really like,” says Koh. “For me, it took a long time to figure out what I wanted.”

Mastering the piano has proved to be a big benefit, Koh says. When she composes, it’s much easier to use that instrument because it can play multiple voices, which the double bass cannot.

Koh, who grew up in Singapore, says she was in college there when she composed her first serious piece of music. 

By her junior year, she realized composing would be her career path. The first composition she was truly proud of, she says, was written in graduate school at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University.

She says one of her biggest influences is Yu-Hui Chang, Brandeis associate professor of music composition, who encourages her to experiment with elements of music that fall outside her comfort zone.

“That is a little challenging, but I think at the end of the day, if I master all of the elements, it’s going to make me a better composer,” says Koh.

So how, exactly, does she begin to compose a piece?

“This is a really tricky question, because every time I compose it’s different,” Koh says. “Yes, I sometimes hear instruments in my head. Other times, I hear little bits of melodies and effects that some instruments produce, so I have to figure out which instrument matches the sound.

“And there are times when I can actually hear exactly what I want.”

— Susan Chaityn Lebovits

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