Music may have its roots in the sense of hearing. But when woven and wielded by the able composer, music can transcend any singular sense and even find power in another.
For Tonia Ko, a DMA degree candidate in Music, sight is her music’s harmony. Ko draws her inspiration from the intricacies of daily visual details. As a result, her music’s enchanting quality is rivaled only by its brave originality.
Her composing career stretches back to age 15, when she composed her first piece. After graduating from the Eastman School of Music and Indiana University, she enrolled in Cornell, seeking and finding a smaller, more academic community where she could focus on exploring and composing.
“I’ve always been a visual person,” says Ko. “Coming to Cornell…was the perfect opportunity to explore more [of the visual aspect of composing].” She took an independent study in art to pursue this perspective. “Thinking about visual shapes and processes has become more of an inspiration now, and concurrent with that is I’ve started to do more electronics. It’s thinking of sound as an object, instead of just notes and rhythms,” she says.
The sound-art project, Breath, Contained, is a continuation of that exploration. Ko transforms bubble wrap into a musical instrument, capable of producing a wide array of sounds ranging from the playful to the poignant. “It’s my favorite thing right now,” she says. Leading to the project, Ko talks about the discussions with Gregory Page, Art, who advised her independent study: “We talked about how ‘it’s about transparent textures in music’ and being able to ‘hear every sound, every relationship clearly.’” She started by drawing on transparent objects but eventually became enticed by the sounds produced by bubble wrap. Combining that with what she learned in a computer music seminar, she electronically processed the sounds and ultimately wrote a quintet performed entirely on bubble wrap. The quintet is intensely intriguing, evoking an eerie tribal and sonic feeling through its interplay of everything from piercing, high-pitched rustles to deep, mysterious groans. She is shifting away, however, from relying on electronics in order to find the full potential of the raw sounds. And she hopes to write a concerto featuring the bubble wrap instrument.
Hush, the Cello and Percussion Are Talking to Each Other
Ko’s compositions for more traditional instruments and settings also have her distinct visual-based, exploratory touch.
“One piece that is still important to me [from my early days at Cornell] is called ‘Hush,’” Ko says. Written for percussion and cello, the piece is inspired by the same spirit of transparent textures that is prevalent in Breath, Contained. “I want to see the percussion and cello talk to each other. They are very different from each other, but I managed to find techniques where they both were doing the same thing. So it really made them one ensemble instead of percussion accompanying cello.”
She rearranged the ensemble on stage, putting the double bass in the middle to reflect the pumping human heart, and a vibraphone and celesta on each corner.
A larger piece that she wrote to explore that concept further is Eyelids are Islands (2014), written for the Festival Chamber Orchestra at Cornell. The piece, through dialogue among the instruments, depicts the dichotomies of the human body. She rearranged the ensemble on stage, putting the double bass in the middle to reflect the pumping human heart, and a vibraphone and celesta on each corner. “The music kind of shoots out and was effective conceptually, so I was happy with that,” Ko says. “I don’t only think of music so much as a language, but even the visual gestures of someone bowing, the side-to-side [movement] of it, or a percussionist’s up-and-down [movement]—there’s a theater there that I like to play with.”
Many have begun to take special notice of Ko’s music. For the 2015-2016 season, Ko was the selected composer for the Volti Choral Arts Laboratory in San Francisco, an ensemble of 20 professional singers led by Robert Geary. The program consists of a collaboration with the Volti singers, culminating in a world premiere performance.
In 2015 she was selected as composer-in-residence of Young Concert Artists in New York City. In Spring 2016, her solo piano piece Games of Belief was premiered by pianist Daniel Lebhardt at the Young Concert Artists Series—its daring exploration of sound gracing both Merkin Hall of the Kaufman Music Center in New York City and the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. The score calls for a wide range of sounds from the piano, and at many points Lebhardt reaches into the piano with one hand to activate overtones on the strings while still hitting the keys with his other hand. The result is a fascinating, haunting piece. The New York Times noted the way it “combined percussive thumps with sighing harmonics… and involved rustling runs, skittish riffs, and high tinkling figures that evoked pagoda chimes, all splendidly played.” Ko will receive a commission for another work to be premiered in the 2016-2017 season.
Following closely in March 2016, Ko’s orchestral work Strange Sounds and Explosions Worldwide received its premiere at Carnegie Hall, featuring the New York Youth Symphony under the direction of Joshua Gersen. Ko based the piece on spectral analyses of explosions and other sounds. “Ms. Ko’s vivid orchestral palette included fragile whispers in the upper strings interrupted by ominous brass flourishes, with sonic explosions following more sparsely orchestrated fragments,” according to another New York Times review.
A Music Community of Explorers
Amid all the accolades, Ko seeks to delve deeper into uncharted waters. She loves the support that she gets from the music community at Cornell. “There is a huge emphasis on diversity that is supported by the faculty, so I feel very free to explore all these things. I’m no longer afraid to explore, to push the boundaries a bit,” she says.
Ko credits the late Steven Stucky, Music, for guiding her in her musical explorations. He was open to novel ideas, and he was involved in all aspects of the contemporary music community in the United States. He also believed strongly in his students. “I walked away from lessons being like ‘I should stop doubting,’ because for him it was no question, but to just do it.” Ko also credits the open-mindedness and conceptual thinking of Kevin Ernste, Music, as an important influence.
“Sometimes it’s hard because our department is small, and everyone is spread thin. But everyone is extremely supportive. It feels like family,” she says. That, and the freedom to explore, seems to be the prevailing tune of the community.