One of the youngest students in ANU history is on a path to his PhD, one composition at a time.

When Nathanael Koh appeared in a documentary about gifted teens, his story caused a wave of internet chatter.

Although the 13-year-old was profiled by Channel NewsAsia’s On the Red Dot for his precocious abilities in music and mathematics, it was his sunny smile and desire to improve his social skills that won people’s hearts.

So many viewers offered encouragement and advice that the program posted a follow-up video on YouTube where Koh responded to well-wishers and their offers of friendship. Meanwhile, on Reddit, people joked about their parents comparing them to Koh. “Imagine being related to this guy every CNY [Chinese New Year],” one user wrote.

A composer-in-residence for the Singapore Kids’ Philharmonic Orchestra, Koh started primary school at age three, high school at seven and university at 11. But his youth hasn’t always been an advantage when it comes to his education. After finishing his Bachelor of Music in late 2022, he applied to do honours at a university in Singapore but was unsuccessful.

“They wouldn’t let me in because I was too young,” Koh says. “But then Professor Kim Cunio at ANU said he would take me in based on my merit and not my age.”

Cunio, the Head of the ANU School of Music, remembers receiving the request to assess an “unorthodox” application. It was only once he had been impressed by the strength of the proposal that he noticed the applicant’s date of birth. He consulted with other members of the faculty and the consensus was that age shouldn’t be a barrier.

13-year-old Nathanael Koh is one of 3,384 people graduating from ANU in December 2023. Photo: Jamie Kidston/ANU

“The ANU ethos should be if you’re good enough, we will take you,” Cunio says.

For his honours project, Koh — a recipient of the Chancellor’s International Scholarship — is using linear algebra to create his own musical system. It’s an idea he’s been thinking about since he was 10.

“It’s like messing around with the music of a lost civilisation,” he says. “Imagine an alternate universe where our musical theory doesn’t exist.”

The piece Koh composed using this system is called ‘Eternity’ and was inspired by the vastness of the night sky. To the untrained ear, it evokes the scoring of a suspenseful scene in a black and white movie.

“The reason I’m learning so many instruments is because, as a composer, they all need to make sense.”

ANU graduate Nathanael Koh

Koh credits his interest in musical theory and composition to his first piano teacher, Eli Gray-Smith, a 97-year-old musician based in New Zealand.

“I couldn’t focus very well on piano because my fingers were very weak,” Koh says. “So, Eli taught me about music theory and I absorbed everything like a sponge.”

Koh was just 12 months old when he was diagnosed with global developmental delay, a condition affecting physical and cognitive areas. His parents were told that his lack of muscular strength meant it was unlikely he would ever be able to function independently.

After reading research that suggested a cooler climate might be better for his development, the family moved to Otago. There, Koh began taking lessons with Gray-Smith, in addition to his homeschooling and physical therapy sessions. Piano playing became physically easier by the time he was 10. He now also plays saxophone, clarinet and a bit of cello.

Koh is using linear algebra to create his own musical system. Photo: Jamie Kidston/ANU

“The reason I’m learning so many instruments is because, as a composer, they all need to make sense,” Koh says. “It’s important I understand how they work and what their limitations are.”

When he’s not studying, Koh creates maths tutorials for his YouTube channel. He has shared solutions for entrance exam questions set by Oxford and Cambridge. The questions themselves only take him about 15 minutes to answer, he says. It’s uploading the videos that’s time consuming.

Joining the ANU Singapore Students Association has also been a great way for him to meet new people and improve those social skills he was so self-deprecating about.

“Our genders are all different, our majors are different, but together we can all broaden our horizons,” he says.

At an age where most people are enduring the thrills and spills of high school, Koh is already contemplating a PhD. He’d like to be published in an academic journal one day and hopes to see his compositions performed in Australia. But despite his lofty goals, his attitude is humble.

“As Socrates said, ‘I know that I know nothing’,” he says. “We’re only going to explore a very small part of any subject, even when we devote our lifetimes to it. For me, that space is music.”

Top image: Nathanael Koh. Photo: Jamie Kidston/ANU

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