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Ming Tsao
University of Gothenburg


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Fragments of a Compositional Methodology

Ming Tsao
for Chaya Czernowin

There is, in my work, no strict methodology of composition. There are ways, habits,
concerns and frustrations to be sure, but no singular approach. This is because I believe
that composition is an anarchic process full of incommensurable approaches that draw
their inspiration from diverse areas of interest and psychological states of mind. I try to
draw into my compositions an abundance of influences that motivate my creative thought
in various ways. On a given day, I may be interested in presenting sound as a form of
play with numbers. On another, I may be concerned with using sound to place familiar
things in new relationships, or to even use sound to document the world around me as
though I were transcribing field recordings. A sense of the irrationalat times hyper-
rationalas the motivator of creative thought, is appropriate. I often find myself thinking
in zigzags, moving from one area of the brain to another, occasionally organizing my
thoughts to such an extent that they inevitably self-destruct, where organization to an
extreme degree touches upon the chaotic from where I derive my creative energy.
There are a few things, however, that I am certain of. It is necessary to be on
intimate terms with one's material, to have a familiarity with one's material in the same
way that a musician is familiar with his or her own instrument. One must know the grain
of the material so well that one can feel the material's tendencies and resistances, to be
aware of a material's potential to move against its own grain.


I do not plan my compositions. I used to and my Rhythmic Study #1 for quintet was my
best attempt at that. But I do not plan them anymore. I reached a point where I could no
longer separate form from content; as I gained more control over my material, form
slowly became "never more than an extension of content."1 If you know your material
well, you can push it into formally new terrain by developing an awareness of the forces
that are already in play. This is what I mean by the "grain" of the material. Perhaps what I
am advocating is a music that discards all forms that are external or abstract or which
confront the material in an inflexible way; a music where one can go by no tract other
than the one the material declares.2
How do I gain an intimate relationship with my material? I learn to play the
instruments I am writing for so that I can feel what it is like to produce a flutter-tongue on
a trombone or to feel the difference between pressing String IV on a violin as opposed to
String I. Sounds never become abstract for me because sounds are a result of human
behaviors. True, there is nothing more abstract than a sound, but this abstraction comes
out of a certain reality. Music is a way to disconnect the normal or habitual links of the
reality we are subjected to, but can never be separated from.3 I am not suggesting a kind
of amateurism where a composer learns to play scales and exercises on each instrument.
Rather, I place myself in the performer's position by being able to imagine the effort
behind instrumental actions and to gain a sensation of the instrument's material. What

does it feel like to place a thick, metal mouthpiece of a trombone to one's lips? What is
the physical effort required in trying to produce high versus low tones on a trombone?
These initial sensitivities form the basis for my material and I go from there.
When composing, I find that the abstract concept of a musical interval can be
replaced by a more perceptual concept of a transformation from one musical state to
another.4 "What is the interval from A to B?" becomes "What action do I need to make to
take me from A to B?" Transformational thinking grounds my material in degrees of
effort required by performers, exposing the work behind aural phenomena. Then I can
talk about the kinetics of my composition in more meaningful terms: the energies or lines
of force projected by performers through the composition into the real world of the
listener experiencing the music. Harnessing and controlling the energies that accumulate
through a performers physical effort are accomplished in part by the way I notate my
music and the concentration that it elicits from a performer.


"The degree to which a music's notation is responsible for much of the composition itself
is one of history's best kept secrets."5 Consider Morton Feldman's enharmonic notation.
Feldman continually renames intervals so that the category of a specific interval is kept
active in a performer's mind and, in his words, never hardened.6 Renaming something
requires a mental translation of that thing, a shift in focus that prevents a concept of it
from materializing. The score becomes a collection of active signs meant to provoke
music making or at least provide a way in which music can be imagined through visual
I view notation as a form of ritual practice that allows me to capture the
phenomena of sound. There is an aesthetic framework, a system of thought associated
with marks on the page that assume a kind of symbolism in choosing to represent very
particular aspects of sound. We often forget that the score is a visual medium and only
represents sound in a symbolic way. How one chooses the appropriate symbolism should
never be solely pragmatic because symbolism must always reflect how things can play
out in the realm of imagination.
I use notation as much as I use sound to enter into a work. Both sound and
notation are continually influencing each other so that the manner in which I move the
pen can often result in new ways of thinking about sound. Training the muscles of the
hand to move on paper is an art often overlooked in the West. Chinese brush painting so
much depends upon training the hand to move independently from the eye (or ear, in this
case) so that, in those fine moments when they work in tandem, energy or qi is
transferred through the brush onto the page and a painting is made once and for all in a
single stroke.7
Sound and the notation of sound are, for me, always in a dynamic relationship.
When a composer says, "This is what I hear, what is the best way to notate it?" they have
reduced notation to a mere tool incapable of thinking back to them. Notation should be a
template for invention where the score is both a form of text, a tissue of traces, and an
index of time. The score attempts to displace presence as prima fascia aural phenomenon;
that is, it attempts to find a visual alternative to the aural, or at the very least to provide an
intermediary position between image, sound and idea.8


My notation always begins with the measure as a primary element, like a syllable that I
attach to other syllables to form words and sentences. Meter is one of those "articulate
sounds" of my language because it affects how I pace my material. It provides emphasis
and shifting caesura.9 It allows me to group together things that have different weights
and durations: material that reacts to the implied heaviness of the downbeat and is
phrased by the durational span of the measure. I find that the nature of pacing lies in
using metrical rhythm to determine the correct time interval in which one musical sense-
unit follows another.
The bar line is a form of punctuation in my compositions; it is not merely a time-
keeping device. The use of the bar line informs the performer about rhythm, pacing and
phrasing. It is as active as any other musical parameter. That is how Stravinsky thought
about it. By having the bar line regroup the same phrase in various ways (as in Les Noces,
for example), it attains a degree of presence. "The bar line means much more in my
music than mere accentuation," Stravinsky once told Robert Craft.10 Stravinsky gave
particular weight to the bar line as if it projected something visceral within the music, the
contrary of an impression.
Measures fall into two categories in my music: the short and the long. Short
measures are meant to define weight, accentuation and emphasis. Long measures define
caesura in which events are allowed to breathe. Perhaps this is my way of separating out
impulse from duration, but it is much closer to the feeling of poetic meter. The alternation
of short and long measures attempts to achieve a kind of rhythm that phrases the material
in such a way as to accumulate and disperse energy.
For example, under moderately slow to fast tempi, I read the metric progression:

1/4, 1/4, 1/4, 1/4 differently than as a single measure of 4/4.

Energy is accumulated in the former progression and dispersed in the latter. That is to
say, I segment the material into short bits rather than one continuous phrase. I hear the
former against a series of implied accentuations on the downbeat, an internal rhythm,
causing my perception of time to move at a faster pace because of my expectation for
each downbeat.
I use meter to access things that I could not through any other parameter. It is like
a virtual "click track" against which I project my material to pace things in unexpected
ways. There is a rhythm to having various metric lengths in sequence. I try to be aware of
this rhythm and to sometimes work against it in my compositions.

Consider the following metrical progression:

1/4, 7/4, 3/32, 5/8, 3/4, 6/4, 3/16, 3/32, 7/8, 3/8, 5/4, 3/4, 1/8

The progression suggests a certain rhythm either through subtle additive movements
(such as "+" or "-" one beat) or through more drastic multiplicative movements (such as
doubling or halving the beat unit).

The numbers in parentheses refer to the number of measures away from a given measure, which fall either
into equivalent or sequential relationships.

I find it interesting that no one ever suggests notating the following metric

3/4, 4/4 as a single measure 7/4.

This is because we still carry tonal associations of an underlying beat structure with more
conventionally sized measures. I once performed an experiment with classically trained
musicians to test a relationship between meter and tempo. What I noticed was some sense
of weight always placed on the downbeat of a measure, regardless if the measure length
was in flux. Performers' bodies would often relax after the downbeat and tense up toward
the end of the measure, occasionally causing a very slight accelerando. I think that part of
this is due to the psychology of mentally counting finite sequences, where one has a
tendency to speed up slightly in anticipation for the final count. But another part is due to
training and experience. We have tonal associations with specific harmonic intervals so
why not with certain metrical groupings? Groupings such as 3/4 and 4/4, as learned by
classically trained musicians, have tonal associations to traditional beat structures whose
origins are derived from dance music of specific cultural regions and historical eras.
I try to have meter project a vitality that alludes to diverse rhythmic materials in
music from other traditions. There is sometimes an element of fiction in my metrical
rhythm as if I am trying to describe dances of an imaginary culture. Composition can
become a speculative form of ethnomusicology where imaginative contexts are
constructed as to how things could possibly have been. Creatively constructing "what if?"
scenarios, where a composition alludes to how a particular instrument, such as the cello,
could have historically developed in a very different way is interesting to me.
Meter can also spatialize our experience of music. Brian Ferneyhough uses meter
to enable one to grasp a sense of depth perspective in his music.11 The field of a measure
becomes a means to establish the existence of vanishing points in the mind of the listener,
points in the registral or dynamic extremes toward which musical gestures tend. Yet the

presence of polyrhythms suggests that many listening perspectives are at play, since these
vanishing points follow multiple trajectories that appear incommensurate to the ears.
In contrast, Feldman's late music uses meter as a framing device that patterns the
material to act as a series of modules.12 A measure can then be literally repeated, drawing
one in very close to the musical surface by a flattening of the aural plane that gives the
repeated measure a tactile quality. One achieves not depth perspective but a sensation of
depth through shades in patterning, which is why Feldman was so influenced by Czanne
who achieved the effects of distance and depth entirely in terms of a patterning through
regions of color relief.13


Music as criticism, or perhaps criticism as music is how I view the possibilities of

composition. It allows me to integrate meaning into a work without that sense of meaning
becoming merely abstract or self-referential. I am developing an essay style of
composing that allows me to explore formal and aesthetic concerns within the cultural
and historical context of prior compositions by other composers and musicians. This
means that transcriptions of other music as a form of commentary play an important role
in my compositions.
I use methods of transcription as a kind of energy transfer from one source to
another, collecting fragments of music from various cultures and historical eras that are
either notated or that I notate myself from recorded samples. These various musical
fragments participate in the construction of my sound world. I transcribe these fragments
in many different ways, pulling out various kinds of material that have their own
directional energies and meaning which I then transfer to the composition at hand. The
material acts as under-drawings to the composition that has the ability to influence, attract
or repel, which places these transcribed fragments in a kind of dynamic relationship to
one another where each reference attempts to shape how we hear the composition.
In my composition The Book of Virtual Transcriptions for oboe and ensemble
(2004-05), I transcribed the Adagio movement from the Mozart oboe quartet (K.V. 370).
I began by choosing two remarkable aspects about this movement: an unusually long,
sustained high pitch A in the oboe at the beginning of the movement and the cadence of
the music at the end. The nature of my essay style is to layer these transcribed fragments
from the Mozart quartet with other transcribed material that inflect how the Mozart
fragments are heard. Research always plays a large role in my methodology: searching
for other music that utilize the same high, sustained pitch A in the oboe, or finding similar
types of cadences in music where the oboe (or any other instrument) tries to reach beyond
the extremities of its upper range and, at the same time, provides a sense of closure. In
The Book of Virtual Transcriptions, the high, sustained pitch A in the oboe, at moments,
reflects the high piercing notes of a Chinese suona, a double reed instrument used during
both festivals and war. By expanding the geographical realm of transcribed references in
a composition, I seek to historicize a compositional practice in order to relativize the
aesthetic values that are associated with a particular musical craftsmanship. In the case
of the oboe, I identify Mozarts style of orchestration as arising from a particular set of
aesthetic values that attempt to make the oboe sound pure. When I transcribe cadences
from different fragments of music and juxtapose them with the cadence at the end of the

Mozart movement, I show that the Mozart cadence can also be heard outside of its
aesthetic sphere as a formula meant to easily reproduce a particular sense of resolution,
closure and taste.
In each of my compositions, a variety of metaphors are used to suggest how the
transcription process should proceed. I once transcribed material by using Robert
Rauschenberg's Erased DeKooning as a model. In Rauschenberg's reworking of a
DeKooning drawing, one can see faint traces of DeKooning's mark making weighed
against the negative strokes of Rauschenberg. Imagine what a negative stroke could
comprise in the act of composing without literally erasing material. This would involve
conceptualizing a process of erasure in many different ways.
What kinds of material do I draw out through transcription? It can be something
as abstract as an accelerating harmonic rhythm in a late Romantic composition, a
diminishing rhythmic row in an early Renaissance motet, or as visceral as a pulsating
beat or a repeated series of rasgueado strums on a flamenco guitar: in other words,
processes that generate energy and direction through their historical and cultural traces. I
then compact these processes together in order to create a kind of pressurized material
that prompts me to compose through a moment-by-moment awareness of its energetic
What are some of these energetic tendencies? Think of the way in which Webern
was able to discern chromatic tendencies in Bach's Fuga and projected them by means of
delicately altering the timbre of each note. Or the way that Stravinsky found diatonic
tendencies in Gesualdo's madrigal Asciugate i begli occhi and suspended them through
literal repetitions. Both composers sensed historical tendencies in the original material,
which they energized through different formal processes.
Let's consider the first phrase (mm. 1-7) of Helmut Lachenmann's string quartet
Gran Torso for a more detailed example that references the performance practice of a
Classical string quartet.14

Helmut Lachenmann, Gran Torso (mm. 1-7)

Directional Lines:
Line 1: a ! b ! c
Line 2: d ! e ! f
Line 3: g ! h ! g1
Line 4: i ! j

The first phrase begins with the second violinist applying pressure while moving the bow
hairs vertically up the string (a). One can hear this action in relation to the action at the
end of the phrase by the same instrument (c). That is, the second violinist applies pressure
but moves the hair of the bow horizontally across the strings. Between these two actions,
we have the entrance of the cellist who applies much force in moving the wood of the
bow obliquely up the strings (b). In other words, the bow is drawn vertically as well as
given a bit of horizontal movement with the arm. A few moments later, the cellist's bow
is obliquely drawn back down, an inversion of the cellist's original movement. So these
three actions create a line across the phrase whose direction is determined by the
transition from vertical to oblique to horizontal actions, and whose energy is generated by
the heavy effort required in producing them.
Against this line, we have those actions that require very little effort on the part of
the performer. The light bowing by the second violin obliquely up the strings then across
and then obliquely back down (d), as a kind of augmentation of the proceeding viola
action. This light bowing sounds more the white noise of the bow hairs against the strings
than the harmonics fingered by the left-hand underneath. This is immediately imitated in
the viola by a concatenation of the cellist's actions in the second measure; the violist

lightly moves the wood of the bow obliquely up and then back down the strings of the
instrument (e). Finally, we have the flautato bowing up and down the strings by the cello
(f), a kind of diminution of the preceding viola action. So we have the following line
whose direction is determined by a process of rhythmic contraction: (1) augmentation of
viola action by the second violin, (2) the viola action and, finally (3) a diminution of the
viola action by the cello. All three actions are unified by the light effort required to
produce them, yet energy is supplied by an almost rhythmic alternation among the
players between hair and wood of the bow.
What is the first violin doing? The action in the first violin (g) produces an energy
discharge that extends at least through measure 23. The indication knirschen auf
Ruckwand asks the performer to rotate the bow against the back of the instrument so that
the sound of bow hairs grinding against wood is produced. This action is what I would
call an action of zero-degree movement where there is neither horizontal nor vertical
motion of the bow, simply a rotation of the bow and yet, in a sense, one can say that all
other actions are derived from it. This action requires a good deal of pressure on the part
of the performer. (Against this action in measure 23, we have its augmentation
theatrically. Instead of rotating the bow, the entire violin is rotated right side up so that
the bow hairs lightly fall against the strings as the violin turns, preparing the violinist to
play the violin in the normal fashion.)15 Before the first violinist returns with the
knirschen auf Ruckwand in measure 6 (g1), the second violin drops the bow onto the
strings with the arco balzando creating a new movement perpendicular to the instrument
with very little effort (h). So a third line is created by actions that require neither
horizontal nor vertical motions of the bow. The movement of energy in this line is
suggested by the following alternation: much effort ! little effort ! much effort.
There is also a fourth line that emerges in this first phrase with respect to left-
hand actions. This line is defined by the opposition between a light left-hand pressure, as
exemplified through most of the phrase with harmonics and half-harmonics (i), and a
heavy left-hand pressure, such as the use of the vibrato largissimo in the second violin
(j). The energy of this line is directed through a general increase in left-hand pressure.
In this first phrase of Gran Torso, we have several lines defined by actions that
require varying degrees of physical effort and varying directional movements on the
instruments. These lines are placed in counterpoint with one another since the lines
themselves are related by oppositions such as the "line of light pressure" as opposed to
the "line of heavy pressure" or the "left-hand line" as opposed to the "right-hand line."
But their combined energies direct the material forward toward a conclusion (m. 7) in an
almost classical phrasing.
As a listener, I begin to hear traditional categories such as pitch in new ways. For
example, I hear the left-hand pitch with vibrato less in terms of pitch but rather in terms
of the required effort to produce that pitch, which places it in the same family so to speak
as the overpressure bowing that immediately follows (m. 7). In other words, I become
sensitized to the work behind phenomena, so that I hear pitch as a degree of human effort
rather than as beautiful tone.
The musical grammar that underlies Gran Torso is based on a series of
oppositions such as "much effort" as opposed to "little effort" on the part of the
performer, or instrumental actions that meet with much or little resistance on the
instrument. These stark oppositions allow a listener to build a map in their mind onto

which relationships can be drawn. However, a geometry of physical actions on an
instrument, such as moving the bow along or across the strings, is not merely an abstract
set of relationships. Rather, it grounds normative performance practice as well as the
design and make of the instrument in a special set of historical and cultural
circumstances. As I listen to Gran Torso, I often find myself wondering, "What if the
cello had been designed in such and such a way as to privilege its percussive tendencies?"
When I pose such questions, I find myself situating the cello in a much larger frame of
reference where I can consider the cello alongside an instrument such as the Chinese
guqin, a stringed zither. The ceremonial role of the guqin very much required its design
and make as well as performance practice to privilege certain noises over tones (such as
the sound of brushing the left-hand thumb along the strings to imitate the sound of a
monks robe dragging across the floor).

Not Reconciled

In composing Not Reconciled (2002-03) for clarinet, trombone, guitar, cello and
percussion (2 snare drums), I wanted to transcribe the directional energies described
above onto a very different stylistic language. The grammar established in Gran Torso is
really a theater of actions on instruments where one becomes aware of a performer's
effort to produce certain actions.
In Not Reconciled, I attempted to build a cinema of actions where the effort on the
part of the performer is consistently restrained.16 There is a tension between the distance
that this restraint creates and the immediacy with which one is drawn in very close to the
musical surface through a detailing in the texture of sound. What contributes to this
tension is that actions on instruments require very little effort to produce yet are placed in
very exact rhythmic situations. A performer's muscles must be relaxed in order to execute
these instrumental actions correctly: a seemingly "detached" physical and mental state
that often works in opposition to the rhythmic demands. The purpose of this tension is to
create a sense of emotional distance while maintaining a physical closeness to the
material, so that a listener is placed in a position to reflect through a heightened
perception of the senses.
The manner in which actions are performed in Not Reconciled is stylized to a
large extent, where performers are asked to relearn, or rather quote, traditional actions by
meditating solely on the power of each action's appearance. The listener's attention is
directed to the precision of each action, its exact rhythm divorced from any expressive
intention that normally accompanies it, as if instrumental actions have the feeling of
poses. A rasgueado strum on the guitar moves the fingers in a certain order across the
strings that seem to imitate the appearance of a rasgueado strum in flamenco music, but
lacks its rhetorical meaning as a declarative gesture.

Ming Tsao, Not Reconciled (mm. 1- 7)

Undirected Lines (Nets):

Net 1: a ! c ! c1 ! c2
Net 2: g ! f ! l
Net 3: a ! b ! (d + e + k1) ! (h + i + k2 + k3 + j) ! (k4 + d1 + b1 + e1)

Not Reconciled begins with a single rasgueado strum horizontally across the
strings of the guitar that precipitates everything that follows (a). The entire piece draws
its energy from that initial strum. Following the strum is the cellist's battutta twice with
the wood of the bow vertically along String I, then String II, an incomplete arpeggiation
(b). Vertical motion is immediately placed in opposition to horizontal motion, yet both
actions are unified by the iterative quality of the sound material as well as the harmonics
in the left-hand. The cellist continues to arpeggiate the strings with battutta vertically
along String I followed by Strings II and III. This arpeggiation of the strings is "split," as
opposed to the initial guitar rasgueado where the arpeggiation of the strings is one single
The percussionist then taps the head of the snare drum causing the loosened
snares underneath to resonate (c), which continues a kind of resonance that began in the
left-hand guitar and cello harmonics and progressively diminishes to the faint, rattling
snares. This snare drum strike echoes the energy of the initial strum on the guitar, and in
turn is later echoed by the percussive sound of the arco balzando on the cello (c1),
creating a very physical transformation from fingernails to metal snares to bow hairs.
After the snare drum strike, the guitar produces three attacks of the glass slide
vertically along a single string (d), followed by the arpeggiation of the percussionist's
finger horizontally across the metal snares on the snare drum that is upside down (e). The
glass slide and metal snare events represent "broken sounds" where pitch and iteration

have been decoupled from their combination in the opening guitar rasgueado.
Accompanying the snare iterations, the cello draws the hair of the bow obliquely down
the strings with harmonics in the left-hand (f) that mirrors a similar process in the clarinet
(g), i.e., harmonic to half-harmonic in cello and pitch to half-pitch/half-breath to breath in
So we have a rhythmic alternation between the actions of (1) across the
instrument and (2) along the instrument, as well as cycling through a variety of materials
for drawing out sound: fingernails, wood, metal, glass and hair. The sounds produced are
unified by their iterative quality that mirrors their rhythmic-like patterning.
In the second half of the phrase, the guitarist produces rasgueados obliquely
across all strings (h), followed by the metal brushes of the percussionist that are
arpeggiated horizontally across the rim of the snare (i). This, in turn, is followed by the
cellist's wood of the bow being drawn horizontally across the strings and then eventually
vertically up the strings (j). The phrase ends with a similar state of affairs as in measure
1, but our perceptions have changed. We now hear the iterative quality of the sound
material as less "object-like" and more akin to a diffuse, rhythmic net cast over the held
notes of the clarinet and trombone that occasionally attach themselves to the iterative
sound material through flutter-tonguing (ki).
The lack of clearly directed trajectories show that the organization of material is
patterned by a net of relationships, where diverse instrumentation functions as a prism
through which the energy from the opening guitar strum is scattered and diffused by
dissecting it into logically conceivable parameters. The shadow that this strum casts over
Not Reconciled is magnified through these beginning details, where one perception leads
directly to another in a web-like fashion creating newly structured contexts for rehearing

One-Way Street

One-Way Street (2006), for clarinet, oboe, violin, viola, cello and percussion (1
vibraphone and 1 large timpani drum) was my attempt to approach musical narrative as a
linear process. The title alludes to the American Western film genre, where a sense of
inevitability determines the structure of many of those films.
The piece itself is divided into two halves. The demarcation point between them is
determined by a shift that the "line" makes from a progressively sinking trajectory to one
in which seemingly logical progressions have the larger effect of producing strange
causal relationships. Linearity was a means to reduce a harmonic sound world to its
fundamental. Yet this "fundamental," which turns out to be the sound of a prepared
vibraphone motor, is revealed as somehow alienated, appearing as a natural consequence
of the sound world and at the same time unrelated to anything preceding it, a paradox of
unexpected inevitability.
This piece derives its inspiration from the late works of Beethoven and Luigi
Nono. With a work such as the Diabelli Variations, Beethoven questions the idea of
organic development as a way in which a piece should gain coherence and meaning over
time. He uses music to argue against a compositional assumption that he himself had laid
the foundations for in his middle period works.

In the late works of Luigi Nono, a conscious "craftlessness" is used to expose and
criticize the serial language he had meticulously built up during his early period
compositions. In the late works of both Beethoven and Nono, one feels the hand of the
composer intervening at points, such as placing sforzandi at inappropriate moments, to
remind us of the composer's presence. There is a naked quality to the music whereby, in
Beethoven, one finds "bare axiomatic motifs and polyphonic complexes" as well as
rejections of all ornamentation, just as, in Nono, one finds "naked intervals, minute
hoverings, unisons, and non-vibrati passages."17
Throughout One-Way Street, I expose quotations of sound-objects in order to
draw attention to their referential meanings. What are these objects? Harmonic glissandi,
vibraphone glissandi, quotations from Beethoven and Stravinsky, over-pressure sounds,
etc.: sounds that have a strong referential meaning such as harmonics to nature,
vibraphone glissando to human gesture and over-pressure to a sensation of weight and
There are also quotations in the form of theatrical gestures where half of the
ensemble gathers around the timpani drum to play directly into it, mimicking an old
psychology experiment on the possibility for expressive freedom in situations of social
crowding. The ensemble comes to rest at the end of the piece not as a gesture toward
conclusion, but rather as a sign of resignation that they can no longer compete with the
mechanical sound of the vibraphone motor and must defer to it.
The genesis of these ideas comes from Beethoven's Diabelli Variations. In
Variation XXII, after Beethoven has exhausted the paucity of the theme's material, he
turns to quotation, something from outside the Diabelli theme in order to nourish his
material. In One-Way Street, the quotations of sound-objects as well as theatrical gestures
continually reenergize a musical process that has exhausted itself upon inception due to
the simplicity and directness of its linear unfolding.
A quotation from the Diabelli Variation III (mm. 34-37) is a moment where I find
that concept and sound come together. The repetition of the three-note sequence (x) in
Measure 20 of Variation III brings a listener's attention to its own banality that extends to
the banality of the Diabelli theme that Beethoven critiques throughout the variations (a).18

Ludwig van Beethoven, Diabelli Variations (Variation III, mm. 20-23)19

Ming Tsao, One-Way Street (mm. 34-37)

One-Way Street asks the listener to compare the Beethoven quotation (b) with the
sound of the prepared vibraphone motor at the end (c). By extending the banality of the
Beethoven quotation to the machine-like sound of the vibraphone motor, I imply that the
effects of banality can lead to a feeling of alienation.
The vibraphone motor continues for one minute, eventually drawing a listener
into the complexity of its sound through slight imperfections. This trance-like listening
state aims to erase one's conscious memory of preceding details in the piece, leaving
behind only a disturbing sensation.

Ming Tsao, One-Way Street (mm. 182-184)

In employing the stylization of a simple and direct musical process, One-Way

Street articulates my belief that process in a musical composition, if conceived only as a
transformation of sound, can become impoverished. Processes in my compositions allude
to historical and cultural transformations in music, to avoid a sense of abstraction and
purism. Beethoven made the same argument throughout the Diabelli Variations, but with
respect to material.
Yet One-Way Street also attempts to present a meditative, contemplative work,
sometimes broken, where a sense of beauty depends on disassembling what we assume is
beautiful (such as harmonics, drones, ecstatic rhythms). With late Beethoven, I hear such
devices as cadences, appoggiaturas, etc.devices that are meant to imply beautyas
broken, damaged. But damaged in such a way that the device is structurally disassociated
from its traditional context and not merely altered in some bizarre manner for stylistic
reasons. In the same way, it is through a structural disassociation of expected ways of
listening that I hope beauty surfaces in my own work.

Charles Olson, Collected Prose (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 240.
Theodore Adorno, Quasi una Fantasia (London: Verso, 1998), 272; Charles Olson, ibid.
Jean-Luc Godard, Interviews (Mississippi: University of Mississippi Press, 1998), 64.
David Lewin, Generalized Musical Intervals and Transformations (New Haven: Yale University Press,

Morton Feldman, Give My Regards to Eighth Street (Cambridge: Exact Change, 2000), 144.
Chris Villars (ed.), Morton Feldman Says (London: Hyphen Press, 2006), 198.
Raul Ruiz, Poetics of Cinema (Paris: ditions Dis Voir, 2005), 86.
Peter Eisenmann, Feints (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 2006), 204-05.
Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading (New York: New Directions, 1934), 198-99.
Igor Stravinsky, Conversations with Stravinsky (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1958), 24.
Brian Ferneyhough, Collected Writings (Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1995), 52.
Morton Feldman, Give My Regards to Eighth Street, 142.
Horst de la Croix and Richard G. Tansey, Gardner's Art through the Ages, 8th Edition (New York:
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, 1986), 864.
Helmut Lachenmann, Gran Torso (Wiesbaden: Breitkopf & Hrtel, 1988), 1.
Ibid., 3.
Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematographer (Los Angeles: Green Integer Books, 1997), 65.
Theodore W. Adorno, Beethoven: The Philosophy of Music (Stanford, CA.: Stanford University Press,
1998), 152; Helmut Lachenmann, "Touched by Nono" (Contemporary Music Review 18/1, 1999), 27.
William Kinderman, Beethoven's Diabelli Variations (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 68
Ludwig van Beethoven, Complete Variations for Solo Piano (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1986),


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