UC San Diego's Department of Music

November 14, 2007

  Ming Tsao earned his Ph.D. in composition this year. He's already at work on major new pieces, and says his graduate studies at UCSD give him a solid and diverse foundation for his career.

Interview by Matt McGarvey

Q: What are your ambitions now that you have finished your degree?

A: My main ambition is to have a career as a professional composer. I have a number of upcoming projects, including a large ensemble work for the Australian group ELISION, which needs to be completed within the next year. I came to UCSD to refine my skills and ideas as a composer. UCSD offered me the time, resources and support to learn about myself as a composer.

Q: Your dissertation in two parts is titled 'Pathology of Syntax' and 'One-Way Street'. Could you explain the significance of those titles?

One-Way Street was composed for ensemble recherché, a German new music ensemble. The title alludes to the American Western film genre, where a sense of inevitability determines the structure of many of those films. The genesis of this piece comes from Beethoven's Diabelli Variations. Beethoven suggests that in order for the variation technique to work, the material being varied must be sufficiently rich or else the results of variation can be banal. This, I sense, is the meaning of the seemingly endless repetition of the same notes in Variation III. I begin One-Way Street with this same repetitive figure and gradually transform it into the sound of a loud vibraphone motor, something mechanical. The meaning of this transformation lies in my belief that process in music, if conceived only as a transformation of sound, can lead a listener to a feeling of alienation. Process in a musical composition should at least allude to historical and cultural transformations in music, so that the conceptual scope of the process is not impoverished. Beethoven made the same argument throughout the Diabelli Variations, but with respect to material.

Pathology of Syntax was composed for the Arditti String Quartet, who were at UCSD last winter. This work is saturated with many different fragments that I transcribe from the late Beethoven string quartets, fragments that begin to develop a strange kind of syntax or patterns of relationships. This syntax has a unique pathology: the performer's energy of bowing, plucking, scraping, and brushing materials such as hair, wood and metal tries to achieve an independence from the transcribed Beethoven fragments it represents.

Q: Why did you choose UCSD?

A: At the time I felt that UCSD had the best graduate composition program in the US. After 7 years of study, I continue to believe that. At UCSD there have been and continue to be many diverse faculty members who are exceptionally strong in teaching composition. There is also an amazing group of performers to collaborate with here, which I think is essential for composers.

Q: Whom did you work with here?

A: I spent 6 of my 7 years studying with Chaya Czernowin, whom I consider to be one of the most effective composition teachers in the world today. Her career as a composer and teacher is beginning to reflect that perception. In 2005, I was invited to Stanford University to study with composer Brian Ferneyhough, a former faculty member at UCSD. I finished my degree at UCSD under Philippe Manoury who I think has been a wonderful addition to the department.

Q: I know you worked in other fields before coming here. What were they, and what did you bring from those fields to composition?

A: After my bachelor's in composition, I went on to earn master's degree in ethnomusicology and mathematics. I found that studying ethnomusicology was quite different than simply archiving non-Western music. When doing fieldwork for my thesis, I began to reflect on the process of using notation to transcribe music, which ultimately led me to reflect upon notation as a compositional tool. I developed a sense of invention with respect to music notation. Most importantly, I learned to place music into a much broader cultural context. These two aspects, the constant re-imagining of the role that notation plays in a composition as well as a skepticism toward the idea that meaning in music can be sufficiently conveyed through the internal logic of a composition are two central concerns that I carry with me as a composer today from my studies in ethnomusicology.

I also feel that in some sense, composition could be viewed as a speculative form of ethnomusicology where imaginative contexts are constructed as to how things could possibly have been. Creatively constructing 'what if?' scenarios where a composition alludes to how a particular instrument, such as the cello, could have historically developed in a very different way is interesting to me.

During this time, I also studied electronic tape music at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. Composing directly with sound and using razor blades to edit tape between sounds influenced my compositional thinking. I incorporated noise into my instrumental compositions as well as abrupt shifts between sounds. I began to rely less on narrative continuity in a composition as a means to draw a listener into the work. Now when I compose continuity into my compositions, it is done so with conscious deliberation.

With mathematics, I mainly pursued mathematical applications to music theory, a topic I ultimately wrote my thesis on (and which is now published). Studying mathematics, I developed a certain 'rigor' to my thinking that I carry with me as a composer. I found that mathematical rigor, particularly at the graduate level, is extremely flexible, often moving between a broad conceptual understanding of a problem and a precision with its local details. It is this sense of rigor that I hope one can hear in my compositions.

Q: What was it that turned you from those other fields towards composition?

A: I never really left composition, which was my first study. As I pursued other graduate degrees, I continued to compose. It was extremely valuable for me to compose music outside of a music academic setting for a while. I gained a considerable degree of flexibility in my compositional thinking by composing for musicians who came from different backgrounds that included jazz and rock. I often recommend that composers take some time away from school before going back for a doctorate. I learned a great deal when I had to organize my own concerts and compose for musicians who were not getting course credit for performing my music. I learned what it meant to work with musicians in such a way that the collaborative process was mutually rewarding. When I came to UCSD, I felt very fortunate to be around musicians of the caliber of Charles Curtis, Anthony Burr, Steve Schick, John Fonville and the rest of the performance faculty.

Q: Who are your sources of inspiration?

A: The late works of Beethoven are perhaps my greatest source of inspiration. In these works I find quotations of many different compositional styles familiar to Beethoven that are placed in some kind of dynamic relationship to one another. These stylistic references influence one another; each offers the listener a logic that attempts to circumscribe how we hear the composition and, in so doing, changes our perception of the music. There is the presence of many diverse aesthetic points of view in this late work that enter into a kind of dialogue. For myself, Beethoven is the first composer who uses quotation in a consciously critical manner.

Equally important, and this is something that I draw into my own music, is the level at which Beethoven elevates composition to a form of critical inquiry. With a work such as the Diabelli Variations, I find that Beethoven questions the idea of organic development as a way in which a piece can gain coherence and meaning over time. He uses music to argue against a compositional assumption that he himself had laid the foundations for in his middle period works.

The late works of Luigi Nono are another source of inspiration and, I find, very close to the late works of Beethoven. It is through a conscious 'craftlessness' that Nono exposes and criticizes the serial language he had meticulously built up during his early period compositions from the fifties. With the late works of both Beethoven and Nono, one feels the hand of the composer intervening at points, such as placing sforzandi at inappropriate moments, to remind us of the composer's presence.

Q: It seems to me that in many arts beauty has become forbidden. (We shouldn't just make pretty things.) Yet there is definitely a beauty to your pieces, and a kind of meditative, contemplative space, sometimes broken. What's your thinking on beauty and consonance?

A: I am not afraid of beauty, but beauty has to be something earned by a composer. I mentioned earlier how I began to rely less on continuity in a composition as a backdrop to create coherence and interest for the listener. I feel the same way about beauty. To my ears all sounds, if played sensitively and for a certain amount of time, possess an inherent sense of beauty. A sense of beauty that is earned is one that does not rely on the inherent qualities of a sound but rather on how a sound is re-contextualized through its relationships with other sounds. Re-contextualizing a sound allows me to experience that sound in a new way.

It is interesting that you mention the word 'broken'. Beauty, or at least my experience of beauty, depends more on a disassembling of what we assume is beautiful. With late Beethoven, I hear such devices as cadences, appoggiaturas, etc.- devices that are meant to imply beauty- as broken, damaged. But damaged in such a way that the device is structurally disassociated from its traditional context and not merely altered in some bizarre manner. That is how I hope beauty surfaces in my own work, through a structural disassociation of habitual ways of listening.

Q: To what degree is music an object of contemplation, and to what degree something... else?

A: The filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard once remarked that he reached a point where he stopped writing criticism and decided to film his criticism instead. Music as criticism, or perhaps criticism as music is how I view the possibilities of composition. It allows me to integrate meaning into a work without that sense of meaning becoming merely abstract or self-referential. I am developing an essay style of composing that allows me to explore formal and aesthetic concerns within the political and historical context of prior compositions by other composers and musicians. This means, of course, that transcription of other music as a form of commentary plays an important role in my compositions, whether at the level of immediate perception or more subcutaneously as an under drawing.

Q: What's your attitude toward the usage of computer means and amplification in conjunction with more traditional instrumentation? Are these means a sort of augmentation, or are they central to the composition itself?

A: I am critical of using electronics only as a means to augment traditional instrumentation. I think that it is more important to constantly re-imagine the materials of traditional instrumentation that have formed a central part of one's vocabulary; to not turn toward electronics because one feels that their well of materials has been exhausted.

Central to my own compositions is the relationship between instrumental actions and their resultant sounds. I always have the physicality of performing my material in mind as I am composing it. This gives an added dimension to the music where actions can be disassociated from their resultant sounds. In some live-electronic works, there can be a disassociation between instrumental actions and resulting sounds. But this disassociation appears more as a byproduct of using instrumental actions to trigger electronic sounds. In this case, I feel that the composer would prefer to have the studio recording rather than a live performance as representative of the work, since in a studio recording the live instrument can be made indistinguishable from its electronic counterpart. Yet I often wonder why not simply compose an electronic 'tape piece'.

I have also re-evaluated the use of amplification, which I have used in the recent past. Amplification can be a means to project an intimate musical experience, so that sounds that would normally be imperceptible can be clearly heard. However one can rely on this sense of intimacy to draw a listener into a work, either by saturating the listener's ears with sound textures or to assume a heightened listening state in which each sound appears to crackle with meaning. I feel that a composer should create contexts in which this sense of intimacy is composed and not simply a priori elicited by the conditions of the piece. The music of Richard Strauss is an example, where a chamber music continually breaks through the orchestral texture to create an intimacy that sounds not just 'close' or delicate but fragile as well.

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