Biography

The music of Tonia Ko has been lauded by The New York Times for its “captivating” details and “vivid orchestral palette.”  As a composer, she has been commissioned by leading soloists and ensembles, and performed at venues such as Carnegie Hall, Kennedy Center, and the Tanglewood, Aspen, and Santa Fe Chamber Music festivals.  Tonia has received grants and awards from Chamber Music America, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, BMI, Composers Now, International Alliance for Women in Music, as well as residencies at Copland House, Djerassi, Pocantico Center, Kimmel Harding Nelson Center, and Atlantic Center for the Arts. She served as the 2015-2017 Composer-in-Residence for Young Concert Artists.

Her interests in texture and physical movement play into a larger theme of interdependency between visual art and music. No matter how traditional or experimental the medium, Tonia's creative work reveals a core that is at once whimsical, questioning, and lyrical. Recent presenters of her work encompass a broad range of the contemporary music scene, including the Minnesota Orchestra, oboist Olivier Stankiewicz,  Chelsea Music Festival, Cantata Profana, and Tenth Intervention. 

Tonia's burgeoning practice as a visual artist have sparked interdisciplinary connections— most prominently “Breath, Contained”, an ongoing project using bubble wrap as a canvas for both art and sound. Out of this concept, she also develops interactive installations and sound sculptures, most recently supported by the Studios at MASS MoCA.  Beyond the concert hall, she has collaborated with performance artist Kale Roberts, Periapsis Music and Dance, and Perry Chiu Experimental Theatre.

Born in Hong Kong and raised in Honolulu, Tonia earned degrees from Eastman School of Music and Indiana University. She holds a DMA from Cornell University, where she studied with Steven Stucky and Kevin Ernste. Tonia currently lives and works in Lawrence, Kansas.


Artist Statement

I work primarily in sound, specifically in concert music– but use my visual and tactile instincts to guide and grow my artistic practice. Exploring micro-textures is a central concept in my work across diverse mediums. Whether I am composing for orchestral instruments, improvising on bubble wrap, or creating large-scale paintings, the quality and character of an object’s exterior membrane is my primary focus of research. 

Over the past four years, I have developed a mode of tactile performance— techniques that reveal a material’s potential as both art and sound object.  For example, bubble wrap’s buoyancy, transparency, and inherent rhythm determine its sonic identity and the performer’s physical movements. I investigate the space where pressure meets friction.

My work is concerned with how tactile experiences and physical motion convey the immediacy of a moment, something easily forgotten in today’s virtual clouds of information and incessant commentary. Along the way, several conceptual questions guide my work: How can we bring out the instability seemingly flat and inert surfaces? What are the sonic images of these surface imperfections? How closely does our sense of touch align with our visual and aural instincts?

Although my interests are articulated here as an intellectual pursuit, they are deeply connected to my personal background. I have always loved music as an abstract construct, yet my most distinctive and powerful musical memories are visceral, narrative, and communal. I vividly remember breathing and stepping together with my youth chorus while we danced and sang Hawaiian folk songs, or hiding backstage during one of my father’s musical theater productions, waiting for an actor to step onstage at the perfect moment. In this way, the elements of movement, timing and texture are important to me because of their innate, powerful emotional content.