Emily Koh wins music composition competitions

The double bass turned out to be her instrument of choice

Emily Koh plays the double bass

Like many seven-year-olds, Emily Koh had no interest in taking piano lessons. It was her parents’ idea, she says.

Despite her apathy, she stuck with it for eight years. When she turned 15, she traded the piano for a double bass, and her life changed. Koh, who just finished her first year in Brandeis’ Ph.D. program in music composition and theory, was recently named a winner of the prestigious ASCAP 2012 Morton Gould Young Composer’s Award as well as the 2012 Parma Student Composer Competition.

There were nearly 670 submissions for this year’s competition for the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) Morton Gould Young Composer Awards. The jury selected 29 composers between the ages of 12 to 29 years of age.

For the Parma Student Composer Competition, Koh’s piece “[circum]-perceptio (2010) for clarinet, marimba, piano, violin and cello,” was one of ten pieces selected out of 350 submissions. It will be published in the 2012 Parma Anthology of Music: Student Edition, which will be provided to educators and performers free of charge.

“When playing a bass, you play in an orchestra and with other people,” says Koh. “When you play the piano, it can be a very lonely instrument, I think.”

Looking back, Koh says she feels a lot of gratitude for her parents’ determination, and recently thanked them for encouraging her to stick with her childhood piano lessons, as what she learned then helps in her current composing.

“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.”

Koh says, in terms of composing, she feels it’s much easier to work through pieces using the piano because the instrument can play multiple voices, which the double bass cannot.

Koh grew up in Singapore and says she was in college there when she composed her first serious piece — though she began composing in a high school music program.  It was one of her high school teachers who suggested that she study composition in college instead of focusing on the double bass.

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

Koh says one of her biggest influences has been Yu-Hui Chang, associate professor of composition, who has encouraged her to experiment with elements of music that fall outside of 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 one begin to compose a piece?

“This is a really tricky question, because every time I compose it’s different,” says Koh. “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 and I know exactly what I want.”

People have their best ideas in all sorts of unusual places – in the shower, jogging, driving their car. Koh says “I think I get my best ideas flying from place to place, which I do a lot. On the plane there are hardly any sounds or things to distract me.”

Between visiting her family in Singapore and traveling to oversee her work being performed, Koh has logged quite a few frequent flyer miles – and gotten plenty of time for ideation.

Like many professionals who have gone digital, Koh takes notes on her iPad, which has digital manuscript paper. She composes using a program called Sibelius. She began integrating computer programming into her writing a long time ago.

“When I first started writing my pieces it was for high school exams,” says Koh. “It was a requirement to use computers to submit your pieces, which is why we were all pushed into using the computers to write music.”

Koh says that personally she doesn’t use any plug-ins, or additional computer programs, for composing, just for calculations, such a musical timing. Her work has been played in Milan, Italy, London, Japan and Taiwan. She will have a concert in Israel in the fall.

“My career has taken me on a [never-ending] around-the–world trip,” says Koh. “It’s also made me learn a lot about myself because many of the trips I take alone.”

When you’re by yourself for weeks at a time, you learn what you like and what you don’t like, Koh says. When she arrives in a new city, she researches the cultural opportunities, such as the architecture, history and gastronomy. She enjoys learning about food so much, she has created a food and travel blog called Emylogues. Some of her most memorable meals were a Cambodian curry that she sampled in Siem Reap and shawarma that she enjoyed in Turkey.

Koh dedicates two weeks a month to searching for new opportunities to showcase her work. That’s part of a composer’s job, she says.

When she’s not hopscotching around the world, Koh also plays electric bass, primarily with a group called the Gentlemen’s Very High Arts Society of South Waltham, an experimental improvisational group of musicians from the music department.

“Emily is a very bright, hard working composer,” says her professor Yu-Hui Chang.  “She has the skill and capacity to accomplish whatever she puts her mind to.”

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