Thoughts on Theses- Jeremy Koo '12
Issue   |   Wed, 03/14/2012 - 01:42

Jeremy Koo ’12
Major: Music
Thesis Advisor: Eric Sawyer

Tell me about your thesis project.

Well, I composed a five-movement piece based on five locations in the woods, the natural periphery of the Amherst campus. Most of them were places that I’d gone to a lot. I really enjoy going on walks here, because we have such an awesome campus. So, having spent a lot of time at these locations, they had some personal significance, and I’m also a double major in environmental studies. A lot of the classes I took were pushing me to reconceptualize what I understood to be natural and what nature was and what my connections to it were. Also one of my good friends, Brooks Turner, in my class, actually had done a painting of one of those locations in his sophomore year. It was hanging in our room, and one day, I was like, okay, I’m interested in trying to write something based on this painting. As I was going through, thinking of locations, and trying to come up with a concept for my thesis — this was back in the spring of last year — about a year ago, I remembered there’s a tree in the bird sanctuary that people have turned into something of a written tradition. So basically there’s a bucket in there that people leave notes in, and they’ve been doing it for 11 or 12 years now. What I decided to do, was to pick five locations, commission Brooks to do a painting of the remaining four locations and [I] compose for soprano, alto, tenor and base (SATB) choir and clarinet, trumpet, two violins, piano and drums. I did a cataloguing of all of the messages and notes that were in the tree, and I constructed a text from different lines that I took from the messages there. So there are about 400 messages or so. I basically pulled the text together and made one continuous 30-minute work, based on those five places.

I’d been wondering how you might combine environmental studies and music in one thesis.

It wasn’t originally intentional, and I realized how convenient it was, though I didn’t quite want to deal with having to make it interdisciplinary, so it’s officially a music composing thesis. I would have probably had to write something about it afterwards if I made it interdisciplinary.

Who were you working with?

My advisor was Professor Sawyer. He advises all of the composition majors who are doing theses. There are actually a fair number this year: my thesis was on the 12th of February with Robert Suits, who is a music and history double-major, and he also had a choral-instrumental thesis; and then Dana Kaufman had her opera at the end of January; Mike O’Connor has his musical on the 31st, right after break; and then John Thaler has his on April 15th or something. So it’s a busy year for composition majors here; it’s a lot of fun.

What was the best part of working on your thesis?

There was certainly the introspective aspect of it, because a lot of it was really thinking about my experience of both natural locations that I’d come to love in part because I grew up in the suburbs of San Diego, and it doesn’t get much more different, coming out here, so I really tried to take that opportunity and get to know the outdoors here. It was so different and really great for me. I spent the summer here just going out to these places and sitting and composing, just writing ideas out for a few hours every day. The other part was definitely getting the performers together. I had 12 singers and six instrumentalists, so at times it was a scheduling nightmare. But it’s really great to have a bunch of your peers who are there to sing for you and who are there to play for you. They’re very receptive; I had a good pool of musicians, and I could push them to do a lot. Especially the choral parts weren’t particularly easy, so they managed to tackle those really well. Bringing it together was a lot of work, but it was very rewarding.

What was the most difficult part?

The composing, dealing with the administrative aspect. It was all well and good over the summer as I was trying to get my thoughts in line, starting on composing, but once the rest of the year got going, I just couldn’t always find time to work on it; you know how it gets. Between also doing choir and Zumbyes, I just had too many other musical ideas in my head, and it was hard to keep straight exactly what I wanted to do. But I managed to get most of the composing out of the way by the end of interterm, so they had enough time to learn everything and prepare it. Administrative stuff was annoying. I sent out this massive Doodle poll, with options so that people could fill out when they could rehearse, and when I printed it out, I taped all the sheets together, and it’s about the length of my couch, and two feet wide, because we had 18 people. And I went through there trying to find times that everyone could rehearse. I started with sectionals, which was more rehearsal time, but was more fun; I got to work more directly with them. So I was like, okay, which of the girls can do this time, which of the guys can do this time, which of the instrumentalists can do this time. And then getting the combined rehearsals together was just like, I’m sorry, can’t do it then, and I was like, we’re two weeks out, we need you at this rehearsal. But things ended up well; we had good musicians.

Are you thinking about a career in music?

Potentially. I have two majors; I don’t feel like I really got any sort of specialization in either. I spend most of my time performing, but I don’t think I can keep going in performance; I’m certainly not a soloist. Composing is potentially an option; that’s one reason I’m hoping to get the TA position [with the orchestra or choir at Amherst], because I want to get some opportunities to conduct more. I conducted my thesis, which was also a lot of fun. I’d get to teach music, think more about music, just kind of focus on that. Maybe one or two more years working, and then I’ll figure out what I want to do, if I go to grad school. Music has a lot of areas, and environmental studies certainly has its own share. I’m just reaching all over the map trying to figure out what I want to do.

Do you have any advice for other students considering writing a thesis?

There’s no harm in starting early. I really started thinking and bringing things together around this time last year. Definitely use the resources of the department, in particular other majors. Students love working with each other and helping each other out, performing in each others’ pieces. Definitely consider relying on your peers when it comes down to it. You can get a summer grant to work on your thesis here, for like six weeks. I definitely recommend that time; it’s great for anyone who’s trying to compose, you just pull yourself out of the bustle of things, and you can get yourself time to work. I mean, I was trying to justify it; I was like, look, I can’t really write this thesis if I don’t get to spend time in these places, so you’ve got to give me a grant.