Ming Tsao, “Theorem 7.3.6.” from the book Abstract Musical Intervals: Group Theory for Composition and Analysis

Visiting Professor of Composition, 2015–2021
Hochschule für Musik, Theater, und Medien Hannover (Germany)

Professor of Composition, 2009–2017
Academy of Music and Drama, University of Gothenburg (Sweden)

Faculty Fellow, 2007–2009
University of California, San Diego (CA)

Seminar: Music Composition and New Materialism

Typical music composition seminars begin with defining and assessing materials that can range from instrumental sounds and noises, instrumental actions, harmonic and set theoretic structures, formal strategies and mathematical processes, rhythmic and metric schemes, field recordings and installations, instrumental preparations and the use of live-electronics. Such seminars often regard materials as the basic stuff from which compositions are extrapolated, conceptual ideas are “fleshed out” and formal procedures – such as mathematical processes – are given substance. Indeed, materials provide what Xenakis refers to as the “inside temporal dimension” of musical composition. Yet materials often reveal much more than simply the raw matter to be acted upon by a creative mind. Indeed, materials suggest a range of other contextualizing factors such as the aesthetics of craft (how the materials are to be formed), historical and cultural forces (what Lachenmann refers to as “aura”) and, most importantly, expression and subjectivity (materials are shaped by an expressive subject). Often, these larger contextualizing factors are taken for granted. But should they be? Writings in the area of “new materialism” raise discussions that address the historical and cultural pressures that are always at work in any materials, the resistances inherent in materials to their being shaped, and the reframing of a “human-oriented” subjectivity to a more fragile relationship with the larger natural and geological forces around us with the aim of understanding Cage’s idea that “contingency” should always be an important aspect of a material based thinking.

Seminar: Music, Language, and the Posthuman

Schoenberg once suggested that the whole task of art is to unexpress the expressible: the expressible being the meanings made possible and contained by convention. These conventions are established through a musical grammar and syntax that determine how connections are made so that every musical phenomenon can point beyond itself, on the strength of what it recalls and by what means it awakens expectation. Questions, exclamations, subordinate clauses occur in music, voices rise and fall: although the expressive gestures of music are borrowed from tonality, they have their origins in the speaking voice, what composer Brian Ferneyhough calls “vocables.”
The composer Helmut Lachenmann has expanded the concept of “vocables” through the notion of the Strukturklang (structure–sound), where expressive aspects of a composition are generally stable rhetorical devices – gestures and cadences grounded in tonality – against which the materiality of sound production becomes perceptible and creates resistances. A Strukturklang manifests itself as the experience of resistance to the lyrical procedures of an expressive subject, procedures that make for an authentic language of personal agency. The desiring “I” as the expressive subject is composed into the music through these Klangtypen (sound–types) against the material resistances of sound production.
In this seminar, we explore ways in which musical grammar can be deconstructed in order to make the lyrical, expressive voice insecure, with the possibility that it may open up to other forms of expression, to Cage’s sense of “anarchic harmony” where sound is freed from a human intentionality and reaches into the artlessness of nature. Not nature as socially–historically mediated nature but closer to what Quentin Meillassoux calls “the great outdoors.”

Seminar: The Aesthetics of Noise

Questions around noise and interference, or “waste,” suggest materials that remain resistant to conceptualization and technical manipulation, materials that reposition musical expression with respect to the complex materiality of music. “Waste signifies excess and rubbish stands as a rebuke and challenge to instrumental systems because rubbish is what is left when the operation of the system is complete and nothing should be left.” Rubbish, according to Julia Kristeva, suggests that the expelled and used-up parts are in a constant process of dissolution and exchange with the world and thus resists being coopted for narrative, technical or structural ends in music. Waste also suggests an ecological concern where there is an emergence of a new process of negotiation between different narratives and systems of cultural meaning for sedimented layers of musical expression to be fused together with the materiality of music and sound production. Noise is not simply “unorganized sound” but rather disruptions that challenge the stable boundaries of nature/culture, sound/silence, foreground/background, subject/environment and other binary oppositions. Noise resists every form of convention and corrodes the boundaries of “the old, ruling idea of music” which include categories of sensation such as rhythm, meter, consonance, melody, pathos. As Helmut Lachenmann has pointed out, the presence of noise makes the question “What is music?” a palpably reflective category for perception. In this seminar, we search for many ways in which noise as a political category can be contextualized in music.

Seminar: Subjectivity and Lyricism in Music Composition

Schoenberg once stated that the act of every composer was to convey powerful feelings of expression. Today the idea of an unmediated lyrical voice in music is problematic is not outright contested. What is being expressed and who is expressing it? In our current political and economic climate, subjectivity has become fractured and complicated, making a consistent form of lyric address untenable. In this seminar, we consider various theories of subjectivity and lyric and how they can be understood through music’s resemblance to spoken language vis-à-vis its various expressive topoi (what Lachenmann calls the “tonal” aspects of music declamation that are mediated through the acoustic–physical aspects of sound). The speculative turn in music composition today is not to excise music’s resemblance to language, and by extension music’s capacity for expression, but to decenter music’s humanized expression from its privileged position for the possibility of a music independent of language, thought and intentions. Is it possible to reveal in music a more fundamental ontology where expression has the capacity to achieve a lyricism beyond subjectivity (i.e., subjectivity as the desiring “I”)? Is it possible to open our listening to a different sense of musical expression, an expression that comprises sounds before they are fully recruited into the action of human agency?

The challenges of contemporary music composition is to speculate upon “possible worlds” as a counterpoint to our contemporary understanding of place, where lyricism in music is sensitive to relations between human impact and presence in the more–than–human world. Such sensitivity arises from a compositional superfluity where subjectivity is “dislocated presence” for new modes of perception to appear that resist representation, conceptualization, enframing, quantification and instrumentalization. Music composition should ask listeners to listen beyond anthropocentric terms, including the ways in which the resistance of the world – its conflicting and dynamic materiality – exceeds both conceptual thought and technological control. Such a listening suggests a mode of expression in music synonymous to the lyric of the Anthropocene.

Seminar: The Forces of Meter and Rhythm in Music Composition

Rhythm and meter are rich, untapped resources in music composition that often remain underexplored. They are generally subjugated to harmonic principles and derived from the patterning of various dance forms in music. Yet, meter and rhythm make audible a range of ways music affects us that cannot be parsed through the traditional resources of music theory. Meter and rhythm can inscribe new sets of sense bearing differences upon the schedule of old ones and can act as possible resistances to the violence of an over–humanized musical language with its “domesticated” categories of sensation (such as consonance, melody and pathos). Meter and rhythm, as possible parameters that harness the energies of a composition, can bring awareness to the forces of this violence in order to corrode, what Lachenmann has called, “the boundaries of the old, ruling idea of music.” Indeed, rhythm and meter can convey a music whose very integrity is unstable, signaling the opposition and resistance that certain lyrical procedures meet or defy. Experience of rhythm and meter is often somatic in its effects and can be used as forces to fundamentally shape musical expression, including a resistance to an unmediated lyrical voice and subjectivity, and thus provide a challenge to the humanist paradigm. In this seminar, we consider how various composers have articulated these parameters as vehicles for new ways of musical expression, that range from meter in the music of Stravinsky, Janacek, Messiaen and Feldman to Ferneyhough’s “irrational” meters and “lines of force.” We also examine connections with meter and rhythm to other artistic disciplines such as poetry and film, ranging from poets Gerald Manley Hopkin’s “sprung rhythm” and Ezra Pound’s “absolute rhythm” to filmmakers Sergei Eisenstein’s “rhythm of montage” and Stan Brakhage’s “visual rhythm” in experiencing film. We also consider rhythm from the standpoint of the biological and physical sciences and how rhythm is essential for any organic sustainability.

Analysis of contemporary music

In this seminar we focus on aesthetics, musical techniques and historical context as well as interdisciplinary connections between music and other arts.

The following composers and music are analyzed:

  • Second Viennese School (Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Anton Webern)
  • Igor Stravinsky
  • Edgar Varèse
  • Oliver Messiaen
  • Darmstadt School and serial composition (Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Henri Pousseur, Luigi Nono, Bruno Maderna)
  • Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Plus Minus
  • Jean Barraqué
  • Experimental Music (John Cage, Christian Wolff, Morton Feldman, Cornelius Cardew, Earle Brown, Alvin Lucier)
  • Texture music of György Ligeti, Dieter Schnebel, Heinz Holliger
  • Theater music of Mauricio Kagel
  • Late works of Luigi Nono
  • Late works of Morton Feldman
  • Late works of John Cage
  • Bernd Alois Zimmermann and Postmodernity
  • Iannis Xenakis and stochastic composition
  • Post-war Italian music (Bruno Maderna, Luigi Nono, Luciano Berio, Aldo Clementi, Franco Donatoni, Salvatore Sciarrino and Pierluigi Billone)
  • Gérard Grisey and spectral music
  • Helmut Lachenmann and critical composing
  • Brian Ferneyhough, Klaus K. Hübler and new complexity
  • Composers in the 21st century

Selected Teaching Experience


  • Music, Language, and the Posthuman
  • The Aesthetics of Noise
  • Music Composition and New Materialism
  • Subjectivity and Lyricism in Music Composition
  • The Forces of Meter and Rhythm in Music Composition
  • Music Composition Seminar
  • Private Composition Lessons with Students
  • Analysis of Contemporary Opera and Music Theater
  • Analysis of 20th and 21st Century music
  • Compositional Aesthetics
  • Models of Musical Transcription
  • Schoenberg’s Musical Writings
  • Interdisciplinary Models from Poetry, Painting and Film
  • “Gender and Music” Seminar
  • Phenomenology of Music and Sound
  • Realizing Stockhausen’s “Plus Minus”
  • Advanced Rhythm Reading
  • Orchestration and Instrumentation
  • “Open Score” Seminar
  • Film Sound

Faculty Fellow

  • Music Composition Seminar
  • Private Composition Lessons with Students
  • Film Sound
  • Diatonic and Chromatic Harmony
  • Baroque Counterpoint
  • Analysis of Baroque Period Music
  • Analysis of Classical and Romantic Music


  • The Late Music of Beethoven
  • Analysis of late 20th Century Music
  • Music Composition Seminar
  • Analysis of Romantic Music
  • Renaissance Counterpoint
  • Analysis of Medieval and Renaissance Music
  • Statistics
  • Calculus

Teaching Assistant

  • Baroque Counterpoint
  • Diatonic and Chromatic Harmony
  • Renaissance Counterpoint
  • Analysis of Medieval and Renaissance Music
  • Analysis of Baroque Music
  • Analysis of Classical and Romantic Music
  • Analysis of late 20th Century Music
  • Analysis of early 20th Century Music
  • Musical Psychoacoustics
  • Max/MSP Computer Music
  • Musical Acoustics