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, the Ensemble Musikfabrik will give the premiere of Triode Variations, a 30-minute work for 18 instruments, following which the GrauSchumacher Piano Duo will premiere Plus or Minus for two pianos and electronics with the SWR Experimentalstudio in Freiburg.
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. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2021 for music composition.
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.
This biography is to be reproduced without any changes, omissions or additions, unless expressly authorised by the artist management Karsten Witt.
University of California, San Diego, 2000–2007
Doctor of Philosophy in Music Composition
San Francisco State University, 1995–2000
Master of Arts in Mathematics
University of California, Berkeley, 1993–1994
Bachelor Studies in Logic and Philosophy
Columbia University, New York, 1990–1992
Masters of Arts in Ethnomusicology
Berklee College of Music, MA., 1985–1988
Bachelor of Music in Traditional Music Composition
Suzhou University, China, 1984
Exchange Student in Traditional Chinese Music
Principal Music Teachers:
Music Composition: Chaya Czernowin, Brian Ferneyhough, Philippe Manoury
Electronic Music Composition: Mario Davidovsky
Violin/Viola: Ron Erickson
E. Bass: Joe Satriani, Bruce Gertz
Guqin (Chinese Zither): Wu Zhao-ji