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20 Nov 2020

CSS Composer of the Month for Nov 2020: Emily KOH

The Composers Society of Singapore (CSS) kickstarts 2020 with a new monthly series for our Musings section called Composer of the Month!

The next composer to be featured is Dr Emily KOH, a Singaporean composer based in Atlanta, GA, USA! She is currently an Assistant Professor of Composition at the University of Georgia’s Hugh Hodgson School of Music. She was also awarded the 2019 Young Artist Award by the National Arts Council (NAC) Singapore.

Emily KOH

Interviewer: Timothy TAN

How did you come to be a composer-performer with your double bass? 

I was a double bassist first (really, I started out playing the piano but really hated it), and from there, expanded into composing.

I strongly believe that musicians must be holistic beings and should participate in all avenues of music making (and I might argue creative being) outside of their main musical focus. For me, that means that I compose, I play bass, I teach, I am an advocate, arts administrator, producer, multi-disciplinary artist and so on. To me, all my other creative and artistic activities fuel my compositions; I cannot compose unless I am doing all these other things as well.

I see that you have spent a great deal of time in SG and the US developing your musical craft. How different are the SG and US musical landscape, and what did you learn? 

Having been away for a long time (11 years!), I can say that the world in 2009 (when I left) and 2020, is very different.

Back then, it seemed like the Singapore new music scene was small and not very diverse compared to the scene that I was introduced to at Peabody and in Baltimore. There were only a handful of groups that performed new music, and even fewer ensembles that focused on new music.

Today, I think it is quite the opposite! The Singapore scene has grown a lot in the last 11 years, and there are musicians of all inclinations here (in Singapore), some that is not even heard very much in the US (for example, new music for traditional instruments (Chinese instruments, gamelan etc.) I use the word ‘seems’ because this is all subjective and based on my observations and understandings then and now, which has also changed considerably as I learn and explore more.

I also see that you are passionate about food. You even mentioned in the 2019 Young Artist Award film by the National Arts Council that if you were not a musician, you would be a hawker or a cook. What about food excites you, and how does that relate to your music? 

As a Singaporean artist living overseas, I find it important to embrace the Singaporean-ness that sometimes emerges in my psyche and in my works. To me, that Singaporean-ness comes in our food (I was brought up by amazing women–my grandmothers and mother–who were whizzes in the kitchen); our language–Singlish, and in my family, Teochew; and the cultures that are inherited by the Straits-born Chinese (I am 1/4 Peranakan)! These Singaporean-nesses excite me, because while it is the everyday humdrum life in Singapore, it is most special and not at all everyday here in the US. It also keeps me connected with family and friends in Singapore, and allows me an avenue to research these traits from an academic point of view.

Making food is an art, just like composing music! For food, like music, there is a very fine line between good and mind-blowing amazing. There is subtlety, wide variances and subjectivity, and last but not least, there is a sense of fragility in all of it because it is similarly ephemeral. Because eating is an everyday thing does not make it less important or special, and this perspective is one that I take to my creative output frequently–I’m interested in the everyday things, the everyday sounds and experiences that people miss or overlook because it is so basic that it needs a special reminder of its importance. It is in these day-to-day commonalities that I hope my work can be used to connect people from different walks of life. There is no ‘high’ art music, or ‘low’ ‘popular’ music–it is just music, and it is for everyone.

You have interviewed all CSS Composer/Member-of-the-Month since the beginning of this series in January 2020. What have you learned from your fellow Singaporean composers?

One would think that because Singapore is a small country, that Singapore is a society of very strict social standards, that our educational system is so standardized and offers so little leeway in terms of expressive creativity, our composers will come in one shape and a few shades only. However, that is totally untrue!

I have found that in the 10 previous interviews of the CSS Composer/Member-of-the-Month series (9 composers, and 1 conductor and new music ally), that we all approach the creation (I consider composing and realization of works to both be ‘creation’) of new works very differently–not two of us are even similar in our creative activities. This richness, diversity and mutual respect that we all have as composers and fellow arts practitioners is something so special… I hope we continue to support and elevate one another, and in turn, Singapore’s new music scene.

Recently, Emily KOH’s work mega[byte] for solo viola was performed by Christoven TAN in CSS Showcases SG New Music Talents 2020! Come watch at the link below!