Tonia Ko







(14+ players)



(bubble wrap)


Solo / Duo


Commissioned by Young Concert Artists

Highwire features the oboe as a carrier for soaring melodic lines. While my piece seeks expression within this traditional view of the instrument, I also wanted to explore the oboe’s unique ability to color the same note in many different ways. Here, a simple melody is intensified by a full range of techniques, from subtle fingering changes to distortion effects made with the reed position. 

In much of my artistic practice, I investigate musical details in a visual/ tactile way. In addition to the notions of shading a note, I also sought to create drama through texture. The electronic component in this piece essentially perforates the melodic line, mimicking the pulsations created through instrumental techniques. Rather than altering the sound itself (by changing the pitches, for example), the computer generates a series of little “windows” that allow sound to come through at varying rates. The results range from a very tight tremolo to powerful echoes that intersect with what is being played. In addition, a few pre-recorded samples provide a larger harmonic and timbral context for the soloist. These effects— both acoustic and electronic— create a melody that unfolds in a single direction, and seemingly, with a singular mission.


Games of Belief

Commissioned by Young Concert Artists, winner of 2016 BMI Student Composer Award

I have always been mesmerized by its oscillating, lilting quality of Schumann’s Kinderzenen Op. 15. His simple figurations and textures, used to evoke childhood innocence, one feature I paid homage to in Games of Belief. My piece starts by confronting an acoustical reality of the piano: every key is connected to a long metal string that contains all harmonic partials of the fundamental note. By isolating these overtones, the performer essentially creates a series of arpeggios, a familiar trope to so much of piano music. This concept of arpeggiation, of leaping up and down the keys, became a parameter that I freely manipulated by condensing and stretching intervals. Games of Belief is a loose set of variations over series of chords that expand outward form the opening cluster. Even as the texture changes dramatically, these chords serve as anchors for the listener. At the end of the piece, a descending melodic line guides our return to the acoustic overtones of the opening. The music is constantly striving– sometimes violently– and expanding in range, but at its center is a lyrical core.


Blue Skin of the Sea

Winner of 2015 BMI Student Composer Award

Blue Skin of the Sea is also the title of a book by Graham Salisbury, which is a series of coming-of-age stories set in Hawaii. In Salibury's writing, the Pacific Ocean is embodied, almost to the point of being another character. Just like the skin on our bodies, the sea is flexible, wrinkles with time, and is protective of what it surrounds.

Every type of surface, be it our skin, the ocean, or the wood of the marimba, contains intricate and unique patterns that tell a story. The personality of these tiny gradations and how they can combine into larger textures is translated musically in my work. I also expressed this idea in a very literal sense; instead of maintaining a safe distance from the instrument with traditional mallet playing, I felt more compelled to explore physical and sonic breadth of individual marimba bars. Thus, all of the extended techniques that are used are simply an extension of the concept of horizontal, rather than vertical movement.  Over the five movements, I chose particular mallets to create a timbral transformation from soft/ resonant to dry/ brittle and back again.


Tribute | Axis II 

Commissioned by Nicholas DiEugenio for "The Beethoven Project"

Tribute (Axis II) explores the concept of horizontal motion across the surface of one string, inspired by the “anti-virtuosity” of Beethoven’s op. 96. The distinctive opening trill of Op.96 is reinterpreted as an intensification of line– one that is both a melodic line and the physical one of the string. From the outset, the border blurs between “distortion” and “pitch,” especially as the violinist plays along the various axes of bow weight, bow speed, and sounding point. This idea is also prevalent in the piano writing, which maximizes the sound world of the lowest two notes. 


Smoke and Distance

Written for 2013 Tanglewood Music Center

The blue smoke leaps
Like swirling clouds of birds vanishing.
So my love leaps forth toward you
Vanishes and is renewed.

-from "Images" by Richard Aldington, 1920

Our meeting was like an upward swish of a rocket
In the blue night.
I do not know when it burst;
But now I stand gaping
In a glory of falling stars.

-from "Pyrotechnics" by Amy Lowell, 1919



I. The Tongue is but a Clapper [0:00]
The tongue is but a clapper. Simplicity itself.

II. How— Hush!

III. Simplicity Itself
One rose leaf, falling from an enormous height, like a little parachute dropped from an invisible balloon. Turns, flutters... It won't reach us.

Written for the adventurous duo New Morse CodeHush maps the concept of speech and song onto the instrumental combination of percussion and cello. Taking excerpts from Virginia Woolf's short story "The String Quartet," the performers convey the busy-ness of speech and conversation contrasted with the simplicity of song. The metaphor lends itself to extended roles for both performers-- unpitched (un-singing) percussion renders spoken words, while the cantabile cello sound dovetails into vocal singing. The middle movement reminds listeners of the worth in silences, which emerge when we care to hush.


Also Available :

Elegy | Axis I for cello and piano (2016): 13'

Reaction | Axis III for flute and piano (2016): 9'

Between Us for mezzo-soprano and cello (2016): 6'

Plush Earth in Four Pieces for violin and piano (2014): 9'

Still Life Crumbles for violin and harpsichord (2012): 7'

Glass Echoes for horn (2012): 6’

Siteless Structures for piano (2011): 11’

Moments for piccolo and guitar (2010): 6'

Spindrift for violin (2009): 5’





Written for the FLUX Quartet, Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival 2014

During the very cold winter of 2014, I was struck with a patient mood one afternoon and made a drawing that consists entirely of careful crosshatching using a very frayed pen. Viewed from a distance, the lines evoke a frenetic energy, not unlike the intricate layers of earth and ice that is characteristic of a gorge cliffside in Ithaca. Up close, however, this energy transforms into something steady and linear— the fragile lines now intersect boldly to form squares. This dramatic form is closely echoed in Escape-Landscape, where the listener 'escapes' the overall 'landscape' simply by going deeply into the sound object, beyond its shimmering surface. 

Real Voices and Imagined Clatter

Written for So Percussion residency at Cornell University

Timpani are resonant and thud like heartbeats; their flexible range of pitches can perform sighs as well as large groans. Of all the percussion instruments, they are the most like our human bodies in this regard.

Real Voices and Imagined Clatter begins with an initial exploration of the ringing, metallic, and dry qualities of the timpani sound-world. The drums eventually call forth human voices when the performers begin to listen carefully to their sound. This act of vocalisation is ultimately reciprocal. The players in turn draw out a sustained, bittersweet wailing from a single timpano at the very end of the work. In this way, although there are four performers, this piece serves as a dialogue between eight individual and expressive bodies on stage. 


Also Available : 

Hum Phenomenon for clarinet, piano, violin, cello (2017): 6'

Covers and Uncovers for flute, clarinet, horn, percussion, violin, viola, cello (2016): 12'

Breath, Contained for bubble wrap quintet and electronics (2015): 13'

Moon Lullaby for oboe, vibraphone, violin, viola, cello (2009): 8'


Large Ensemble


Strange Sounds and Explosions Worldwide

Commissioned by the New York Youth Symphony First Music Program, selected for 2017 Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute

This piece explores the sonic world of explosions. The idea originally came from noticing a recurrent gesture in my recent music: that of a strong attack followed by granular fragments. Sometimes I like to think of music as energy that passes between instruments, grows dense, causes reactions, and dissipates. So framing musical events as "explosions of sound" is not that far-fetched.

Strange Sounds and Explosions Worldwide is a smorgasbord of "real" and "imagined" explosions- I clicked on countless YouTube videos, did various analyses of explosion sound les, then electronically created my own versions by combining sampled and recorded sounds. But ultimately, I composed this score with my own harmonic and orchestrational ideas, and the music occupies a space between the physical and the abstract. Explosions are, by nature, violent. Although some are destructive, others simply bring about natural change or are joyful celebrations. For me, the word “explosions” conjures up images of reworks and slow-moving volcanoes, both of which were an important part of my childhood growing up in a Chinese family in Hawai'i. In this way, the sounds of explosions are a happy, current fascination as well as bittersweet remembrances of my home and the family gatherings of my past. 


From Ivory Depths

Commissioned by Volti as part of the Choral Arts Lab

II. Tuesday

From ivory depths
words rising shed their blackness,
blossom and penetrate.
The sky veils her stars
then bares them.


I. Monday

White and distant, absorbed in itself,
endlessly the sky covers and uncovers,
moves and remains.


-from "Monday or Tuesday" (1921) by Virginia Woolf


Eyelids are Islands

Written at the Copland House as recipient of the residency award

The initial idea for Eyelids are Islands came from two works by visual artist Giuseppe Penone entitled Palpebra sinistra and Palpebra destra (left and right eyelid). His works were part of an Arte Povera exhibit in the Kröller-Müller Museum during my visit to The Netherlands in February 2013. These works, shown as a diptych, covered an entire sidewall of the gallery, but its physical scale was marked by utmost simplicity, consisting only of tessellations of a beautiful black charcoal pattern on drawing paper. Upon closer inspection, I learned that the patterns were all impressions of the skin on Penone’s own eyelids. Thus in my piece, the types of dialogue occurring within the ensemble are informed by the dichotomies within our own bodies, the left and right sides, the internal and external.

Also Available :

Very Tall Very Bright for amplified chamber orchestra (2017): 8'

Before Color for youth SSA chorus (2015): 3'

Breath, Contained

Bubble wrap–noun. A type of polyethylene wrapping containing many small air pockets, used as a protective covering when transporting breakable goods.

In this ongoing project, the seemingly mundane object transforms into a flexible musical instrument, emitting sounds that are equal parts whimsical and haunting. The rich sound world of bubble wrap is explored through guided improvisation, augmented by simple processing techniques. By willing these air bubbles to express,  performers attempt to release its breath.

In March 2015, Sandbox Percussion and Michael Compitello premiered a 13-minute quintet that expanded on my original solo piece, along with Steve Reich's Music for Pieces of Wood and Mark Applebaum's Straitjacket.  The concert was held under Cornell University's expansive Sibley Dome. In addition, we wanted to create an experience that is both visually and sonically immersive. Along the back wall, easels showcased some of my paintings for bubble wrap, consisting of large-scale panels.



Small and Large Improvisation (2016)


Quintet for five players and live electronics (2015)


Various recordings (2014)

Solo with live electronics (2013)