Renaissance Man Composes Natural Spaces
Issue   |   Fri, 05/18/2012 - 13:28
Jeremy Koo

People who know Jeremy Koo usually describe him in two ways. The first is as a renaissance man. Koo may be best known for his singing, but he’s also a composer, violinist, choir organizer, woods adventurer and digital space-explorer. The other way is as a genuinely friendly person. The La Jolla, Calif. native seems to exude a sort of quiet positivity and a willingness to make time for others. Throw on a layer of reflective creativity and we start to get close to a portrait of Jeremy Koo.

Finding His Path

While most thesis-writers spent the vast majority of their senior years researching in the library, Koo sat in the nature preserve and conjured music. He wrote a composition thesis, which musically conceptualized five natural spaces in the woods. Tag-teaming with his best-friend-since-orientation Brooks Turner ’12, Koo selected his five locations from among those he’d seen while exploring in previous years. He asked Turner to draw five paintings describing the locations visually — Koo wanted to describe them musically, so he spent a lot of time going to the woods, sitting in these spaces and putting together the music in his head. These Walden-like moments characterized the first part of his thesis. The harder part, he explained, was actually putting together the ensemble that would perform it. Writing music comes easier to Koo than administrative work does, but, being the Renaissance man he is, Koo has skill in both areas.

A double major in Music and Environmental Studies, his goal of “conceptualizing natural spaces” comes as no big surprise. Yet, Koo arrived at these majors rather haphazardly. A true liberal arts scholar, Koo entered Amherst intending to major in Biology or English.

“I got here, I spread out a lot, I did the whole ‘liberal arts’ thing. I guess I was very passionate about [music],” Jeremy said. “And I’d like to be able to be in a position where the things that I do impact a lot of people, and the environment seemed like something that is getting, in different areas of the world, more attention drawn to it.”

He likes the division between Music and Environmental Studies because it gives him both abstract and tangible areas in which to work — chances to both be creative and help the world.

Koo did eventually end up taking an English class — in the second semester of his senior year. Yet he doesn’t regret his choice of major one bit, and when asked to give advice to incoming students he warned not to lock yourself into any one path too early.
“Being able to sample different studies, different ways of thinking, has had as much effect on me as the majors that I’ve ended up finding myself spend the most time with academically,” Koo said.

Koo’s thesis advisor, Professor Eric Sawyer, described Koo as a “man of many talents — composer, singer, violinist, organizer and musical thinker of clarity and subtlety. And that’s just in the musical realm. Jeremy is also a people person, friendly and empathetic, with an easy sense of humor and a positive energy.”

“Before Amherst, I was really just a smartass, generally-anti-social, World-of-Warcraft-playing geek without many friends,” Koo said, taking me by surprise. Whether this is an accurate assessment of the pre-Amherst man or just modesty, the College represented something special for Koo.

“College, for me, represented an opportunity to start fresh, a place to really try to open up and plunge into an environment where I could be constantly exposed to new experiences and interesting people,” Koo said.

And that he did — far from being a shut-in, Koo reads the newspaper each morning and is fond of adventures in the wilderness. According to Professor Sawyer, in class, Koo is, “always quietly confident but now with an impetus of reaching and affecting other people.” And his musical pursuits have certainly kept him occupied.

Being a Zumbye

Anyone who’s been to a performance of the Amherst College Zumbyes in the last four years has heard Koo sing. Whether soloing or contributing to a harmony, Koo has been an integral member of the group since he joined in his first year at the College. Director of the Choral Music Program Mallory Chernin said that Koo “has the most perfect pitch I have ever encountered!” It is no surprise that as a member of the Zumbyes for four years and director during his junior year, Koo’s spot-on pitch and bass tone has rounded out the group.

As director of the Zumbyes in his junior year, Koo worked tirelessly to maintain and improve the group.
“It’s very much like baby-sitting at times,” he said.

Nonetheless it’s clear that Koo cares deeply about his a capella group. When I asked Turner what Koo cares most about at Amherst, he answered without hesitation: the Zumbyes.

“He has devoted countless hours to them throughout the course of his college career, often giving very, very late, nearly sleepless nights for them,” Turner said.

But, for all the work that Koo has put in, he has also taken away a lot from his time with the Zumbyes.

“It was a different sort of engagement with the music,” he said. “Working in a group I got to engage with the music in a very different sort of context.”

The Zumbyes also grounded him socially.

“It was great to find a niche of people when I was a freshman,” he said.

Every college student knows well the orientation clamor for a group of friends to call your own; Koo found it in the Zumbyes.
“The Zumbyes, as an organization, has been there for me, more or less since the beginning of my time here. Some of my best friends are in the group, as well,” Koo said.

A Man of Many Talents

Koo began singing in elementary school, but he has played the violin since he was three. Music has always been a big part of his life. Coming to Amherst, he played in the orchestra for a year before deciding to focus on singing. And in doing so, he became an important member of the singing community at a place often called “The Singing College.”

“Our department is something of a community,” Professor Sawyer said. “I’ve been struck by how fellow students want to be in projects with Jeremy, and how generous he has been in supporting his colleagues.”

In his free time, Koo is an avid gamer. Preferring the PC to consoles like the Xbox or Wii, Koo is a fan of single-player immersive games like Mass Effect and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.

“I enjoy being totally immersed in the world I’m playing and want to be able to savor the little things, not just be staring at a targeting reticle the whole time,” he told me.

Like all students with a time-consuming hobby, Koo finds it hard to balance fun time with other responsibilities.
“The only problem with games like this is keeping track of time and remembering to do my work,” Koo said.
As the opinions of his professors would demonstrate, Koo usually remembers.
The Future

Koo’s advice for younger students doesn’t necessarily concern music. Koo referred me to “This is Water,” the speech-turned-essay given by David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College’s commencement in 2005. The point Koo was trying to make was about the value of a liberal arts education.

“Really, it isn’t about teaching you about things,” Koo said, “It’s about teaching you the way to think.”

He strongly believes that every student should take advantage of Amherst’s open curriculum. “Really take that opportunity to take many classes and expose yourself to different ways of thinking,” Koo said.

Next year Koo will be staying at Amherst to become a Graduate Associate in Music, working with the Choral Society as a T.A. and general assistant. After that, he has no plans.

“I have to get there first,” he said.

As both a member of the music scene and a superb scholar, Koo has already left his mark on Amherst, and I have no doubt he will continue to do so. Hopefully, he’ll continue to do the two things Amherst made him so passionate about: helping the people of the world and creating beautiful music.