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The composer Ming Tsao writes music with a sensuality that arises out of a focus on the inherent qualities of sound – what the composer calls its “materiality” – coupled to an extreme formal rigour and a highly precise, finely-crafted compositional style. In the foreground of his music is a contemporary conception of musical lyricism, which is fractured, multi-faceted and problematised to reflect the modern experience.
Many of Ming Tsao’s works are the result of a critical and deep-thinking examination of the Western classical tradition as well as his serious engagement with Chinese traditional music. Increasingly, opera is the forum where Ming Tsao brings these interests together. The chamber opera Prospero’s Garden (2009-2015) consists of two acts that are also separate works: Die Geisterinsel, commissioned by the Staatsoper Stuttgart and premiered in 2011, is a re-working of Johann Rudolph Zumsteeg’s 18th century opera on Shakespeare’s The Tempest; Mirandas Atemwende, premiered in Berlin in 2015, takes Schoenberg’s Erwartung as the starting point for an expressionist exploration of character. He is currently composing a large-scale opera that re-invents the Chinese Ming dynasty Kunqu opera Mudan Ting (The Peony Pavilion).
Ming Tsao has composed works for ensembles including the Arditti Quartet, ELISION Ensemble, ensemble ascolta, ensemble recherche, Ensemble KNM Berlin and Ensemble SurPlus and has had premieres at the Darmstadter Ferienkürse, Donaueschinger Musiktage, MaerzMusik Berlin, Wien Modern and the Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik. In recent seasons his major projects include two works for large ensemble: Refuse Collection (2017), a reaction to the oeuvre of French filmmakers Danièle Huillet und Jean-Marie Straub; and Plus Minus (2012-13), the first full realisation of Stockhausen’s open composition of the same name. This season sees the premiere of the Dritte Stimme zu Bachs zweistimmigen Inventionen for keyboard, given by Joel Speerstra and Ulrika Davidsson in October 2019.
Ming Tsao was born in Berkeley, California in 1966, learning violin and viola before travelling to Suzhou, China, to study with the renowned Guqin (Chinese zither) performer Wu Zhao-ji. He studied composition at Berklee College of Music in Boston and Ethnomusicology at Columbia University in New York before studies in Logic, Philosophy and Mathematics. Returning to composition, he gained a Ph.D. in Music Composition from the University of California, San Diego under Chaya Czernowin as well as studying privately with Brian Ferneyhough. He was Professor of Composition at Göteborg University from 2009 and is currently Visiting Professor of Composition at the Hanover University of Music, Drama and Media.
A selection of his chamber works was collected on the portrait CD Pathology of Syntax, released in 2014 by Mode Records. Kairos Music has released his works on two CDs, Plus Minus and Die Geisterinsel. His music is published by Edition Peters.
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Unbelievable is the music of the American Ming Tsao: every sound pure, good music.
Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Alfred Zimmermann
On this evening, one wishes that the music never stops sounding.
Neue Musikzeitung, Verena Großkreutz - on Die Geisterinsel
Although, from a listening perspective, it involves a fair bit of hanging on for dear life, the shifting tangibility of the words, a multitude of fantastic individual orchestrational details and above all the genuinely dazzling range of invention displayed – no, flaunted – in this piece make it all a magnetic experience. Definitely music that needs repeated listenings, but first contact is pretty damn astonishing.
5:4, Simon Cummings, 2018 - “The Best CDs of 2017” on Mirandas Atemwende
In Europe, Tsao is much nearer to the tradition that he cares so much about: the tradition of Western art music which he exaggerates and dissects, quotes, estranges and deconstructs. The aesthetics of his musical thinking, the style and construction of his works, is the product of a highly complex thinking and virtuosic composing that shows he is a damn good composer.
Rondo Magazin, Raoul Mörchen, 2014
Alone, in this perfect swelling and receding arc of elastic storm music, Tsao has made a veritable coup. In his 50-minute opus, he breaks the prejudice that New Music after Strauss has lost its capacity to be sensual. The kaleidoscopically shattered rhythmic and metric structures, the strange, fragmentary allusions to Zumsteeg’s high classic style, in short: the artifice of the entire work vanishes, as it were, into the foaming waves of a plastic, often noisy music that goes straight into the body of the listener.
Opernwelt, Albrecht Thiemann, 2014 – on Die Geisterinsel
I think it is absolutely successful, lasts a good half hour, and is a very powerful sound language that one experiences, quite fresh and actually sounds in every single beat, as if by Stockhausen himself.
Deutschlandfunk, Jörn Florian Fuchs, 2013 – on Plus Minus
Ming Tsao: Plus Minus; Mirandas Atemwende
Ensemble Ascolta; Johannes Kalitzke, conductor; Kammerensemble Neue Musik Berlin; Stefan Schreiber, conductor
Kairos Musik, 0015014KAI, 2017
Ming Tsao: Die Geisterinsel, Serenade, If ears were all that were needed...
Staatsoper Stuttgart; Orpheus Vokalensemble; Stefan Schreiber, conductor; Ensemble Gageego!; Rei Munakata, conductor; Seth Josel, guitar
Kairos Music, 0013372KAI, 2012
Ming Tsao: Pathology of Syntax, (Un)cover, The Book of Virtual Transcriptions, Not Reconciled, One-Way Street, Canon
Arditti Quartet; Ensemble Ascolta; Jonathan Stockhammer, conductor; Ensemble SurPlus; James Avery, conductor; Ensemble Recherche; Anthony Burr, clarinet; Charles Curtis, cello
Mode Records, 268, 2014