Tonia Ko, composer

Tonia Ko headshot

Tonia Ko’s creative evolution is largely guided by three conceptual pillars: texture, physical movement, and the relationship between melody and memory. These ideas permeate her recent works across a variety of media—from instrumental solos and large ensemble pieces, to paintings and sound installations. No matter how traditional or experimental the medium, Ko's work reveals a core that is at once whimsical, questioning, and lyrical.

Ko is the recipient of a 2018 Guggenheim Fellowship, which she is deferring until 2019, a year after her position with the CCCC. Ko’s music has been lauded by The New York Times for its “captivating” details and “vivid orchestral palette.” She has been commissioned by leading soloists and ensembles, and performed at venues such as Walt Disney Concert Hall, Carnegie Hall, Kennedy Center, and the Tanglewood Music Center, Aspen Music Festival, and the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival. Internationally, her work has been featured at the Royaumont Académie Voix Nouvelles, Shanghai Conservatory New Music Week, Young Composers Meeting at Apeldoorn, and Thailand International Composition Festival, where she was awarded the 2014 Rapee Sagarik Prize. Ko has received grants and awards from the Harvard University's Fromm Music Foundation, Chamber Music America, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) as well as residencies at the MacDowell Colony, Copland House, Kimmel Harding Nelson Center, and Djerassi Resident Artist Program. She served as the 2015-2017 Composer-in-Residence for Young Concert Artists.

Recent presenters of her work encompass a broad range of the music scene, including the Minnesota Orchestra, New York Youth Symphony, Los Angeles-based collective Wild Up, percussion/ cello duo New Morse Code, oboist Olivier Stankiewicz, and the Da Capo Chamber Players. Upcoming projects include a large-scale piece for the Spektral Quartet in conjunction with Openlands Lakeshore Preserve, a work for viola and electronics for Kurt Rohde, "Mapmakers", a chamber opera for five soloists with libretto by Tyran Grillo, and a concerto for percussionist Michael Compitello with wind ensemble.

In the attempt to follow aural, visual, and tactile instincts in a holistic way, Ko increasingly mediates between the identities of composer, sound artist, and visual artist. This has sparked interdisciplinary connections—most prominently “Breath, Contained”, an ongoing project using bubble wrap as a canvas for both art and sound. In 2015, she co-curated an event under Cornell's iconic Sibley Hall Dome, featuring Sandbox Percussion performing on bubble wrap with live electronics. Her visual and installation work has been further supported by a residency at the Studios at MASS MoCA in the summer of 2017. Beyond the concert hall, she has collaborated with the Perry Chiu Experimental Theatre in Hong Kong and the Periapsis Music & Dance in Brooklyn.

Ko was born in Hong Kong in 1988 and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii. She earned a B.M. with Highest Distinction from the Eastman School of Music and an M.M. from Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. At IU, she served as Associate Instructor of Music Theory and was awarded the Georgina Joshi Commission Prize. She holds a D.M.A. from Cornell University, where she studied with Steven Stucky and Kevin Ernste.

Tonia Ko's piece Simple Fuel premiered with the Grossman Ensemble on December 7, 2018. 

Performance notes:

Simple Fuel explores concepts of movement: our emotional motivations, physical momentum, and the repetition of gestures. An initial feeling of hesitation, represented by various stutters and pops, eventually gives way to unstoppable acceleration forward. In the aftermath of this short journey, each impulse proliferates exponentially, creating a pointillistic and 6 | Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition pixelated sound world. At the same time, the harmonies that once drove the music forward continue their ebb and flow until the end. These chords depict a sensation of “wading” through water or thick fog, which is embodied literally in the mournful sound of friction mallets on timpani. While writing this piece I had two images in mind, each of very different speeds. First is that of a snail moving through space — surely a slow creature, until one notices its antennae deftly sensing, reaching and retracting against its surroundings. The second is a freight train barreling down the tracks. Although relatively “fast”, its unwieldy and seemingly endless length certainly feels slow, and the sounds that it makes are repetitive, perhaps even meditative. By way of these paradoxical images, the classical adage of festina lentae, to “make haste slowly” also served as a broad inspiration for the work.

Grossman Ensemble premieres Tonia Ko's "Simple Fuel"