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Composer Institute: An Insider's View with Tonia Ko

Composer Institute: An Insider's View with Tonia Ko

My name is Tonia Ko, and I will be writing about the 2017 Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute as it happens. I’m looking forward to seeing the other six composers on Sunday after my short flight from Kansas City to Minneapolis. (No winter weather joke here, because it is only a little bit colder). Starting Monday, I anticipate many mind- and ear-opening sessions with Kevin Puts, Osmo Vänskä, and the orchestra.


It’s remarkable how this program brings together young composers from all over the world, yet we are all still part of the same small community. Judy Bozone is coming from Bangkok, Thailand, where she teaches, and I will finally (finally!) meet Michael-Thomas Foumai from my hometown of Honolulu. The rest of us are spread out over the continental US–in New York City, Colorado, and me in my new home of Lawrence, Kansas. I am sure that after taking into account hometowns and birthplaces, this becomes even more complicated. 

That is all to say that composers tend to be quite nomadic. This lifestyle of traveling for school, workshops, and performances probably explains why I already know all but one of the participants this year. I can’t wait to reconnect with these folks—and make a new friend! Moreover, it will be so fun to get to know everyone through their music since we are stylistically quite different from each other.

One thing that we will all be grappling with this week is our personal distance from the pieces. I tend to be extremely attached to my work and will obsess over square centimeter of a score if not reeled back in time. So working on a piece with performers, much less 85 of them, is always a sensitive process.

And yet, we might have composed these pieces up to several years ago and have already moved onto other aesthetic and technical concerns. With orchestral music, the turn-around time is much longer than for solo or small chamber pieces (which is more my recent area of focus). The pieces take longer to write, more time to rehearse, and opportunities for such performances are certainly hard to come by. So what happens when I’m confronted with a stupid mistake that I made back in 2015, but definitely would not have in 2017? I shall defer to my colleagues with more experience working with large ensembles for wisdom and advice.

I’m very excited about this upcoming week, but honestly I have a lot weighing on my mind due to the current political events. An event like this institute reminds me of our responsibility as musicians to unite diverse communities and to inspire hope. Even though we might be working on musical details for much of the time, I’m sure the coming days will give me many ideas on how to be a better—politically engaged—artist.


It is Tuesday evening and I am back in my hotel room after the second long day of presentations, meetings and fun conversations. Everyone is excited and jittery about the first rehearsals, which will finally take place tomorrow afternoon. We’ve talked a lot about our pieces and their potential issues, but no one has actually heard anything yet! Since the rehearsals alone will shift the week into an entirely different gear, I’d like to write a bit about what we’ve covered so far.

The Composer Institute offers young composers advice about practical matters, whether it is on the business side or the specifics of part-making and notation. Self-publisher Bill Holab and Norman Ryan from Schott Music presented us with divergent perspectives about the benefits of self-publishing versus traditional publishing. It was particularly interesting to hear their opinions about the changing world of music distribution and how various software and publication platforms are currently undergoing dramatic change. It is now easier than ever for anyone to share music with the public digitally, yet acquiring an expert level of musical craft/development/commitment seems to be a timeless standard to work toward, regardless of individual style. 

These presentations also brought up big, philosophical questions that we discussed more informally between sessions. I was especially heartened by our visit to the (cozy and bubble-themed) American Composers Forum office in St. Paul. There, we learned about their diverse programs, which prioritize individual artists and simultaneously engage local communities. Using these projects as a model in states outside of New York and Minnesota could potentially make dramatic positive changes in our nation’s music scene as a whole. John Nuechterlein, the President of ACF, asked us candidly about rallying support for public arts funding in this time of great political uncertainty. Those of us who were in the conversation had a few ideas: creating a unified front of diverse arts organizations, making our voices heard through calls and mailings on behalf of this singular effort, and showing up in the community as volunteers and educators, particularly in rural areas. 

Our meetings with the Orchestra musicians—harp, percussion and strings thus far—addressed specific technical concerns. It is clear that all of us have had extensive experience composing for different instrumental families. However, we learned from the past two days that expressing ideas to a professional orchestral musician requires a bit of translation from a chamber or new music ensemble setting. Because of the nature of the American orchestral institution, particularly the busy rehearsal and performance schedules, it is crucial for composers to reduce instructions to their basic essence in order to best convey our intentions. We tend to fill our scores and parts with very “composer-ly” reassurances for ourselves, such as expressive adjectives, technical symbols and other markings. Such details are probably crucial during the compositional process, but might actually hinder learning a part in the larger context.

One thing that struck me about our meetings with the musicians were their wonderfully distinct personalities. I find myself wanting to dream up concertos or solos for each of them. They were gracious with their time and offered extremely detailed comments, but definitely gave us some “tough love,” as principal bassist Kristen Bruya said after our strings session. I am curious as to how their individual personalities contribute (or not) into the orchestral effort. How much do the unique qualities of each person’s sound need to be dialed back in order to play successfully in an orchestra? Or do little personality quirks find their way into defining the sound of a particular section, and a particular orchestra? I am sure to be confronted with these completely unanswerable questions at rehearsal tomorrow!


I’ve just returned to my room after a brief breakfast with Mike Boyman and Michael Foumai before they head to the airport. Judy was supposed to join us, but I hope she is sleeping and having an awesome dream about tigers. Mike and I both looked a bit scraggly because we could barely sleep last night after the concert–our minds were still spinning. After such an intense and amazing week, we are all happy and exhausted. 

Leading up to last night’s concert, we were immersed in rehearsals with the orchestra. The first was a quick run of all of the pieces, followed by a more intensive working rehearsal, then a final session to fix last minute details. However, casually listing that in one sentence really does not do justice to the density of information and music-making that happened over the last few days. We set up camp in Orchestra Hall, surrounded by coats and piles of each other’s scores. As the musicians quickly picked up our technical instructions, they gradually began to understand our poetic intentions as well. I was impressed by the extremely efficient pace of the rehearsal and how quickly it all came together. Moreover, this underscored the importance of the composers’ job to communicate with clarity both verbally and in our written materials. 

Throughout the process, we each had the privilege of meeting individually with Maestro Osmo Vänskä. We spoke about specific concerns in our pieces and discussed more general topics about writing for the orchestra. One point that came up frequently was the issue of balance within and between the instrumental families–proving how crucial it is for a composer to have a strong inner ear. While he was accommodating with our rookie mistakes, it was also very clear that he approached our pieces with the same focus as he would Sibelius or Beethoven. The same could be said for all of the musicians. It felt validating to be taken so seriously, and yet humbling to experience their knowledge of the repertoire and the depth of commitment to their roles in the orchestra.

Nothing brings a group of composers together more than anxiety about an upcoming concert. Throw in some public speaking engagements and there will probably be some life-long friendships in the making. We had all kinds of practice with this important skill: in front of cameras, with microphones, in small groups, as well as an entire hall full of people. In spite of the nerves, I was proud that we successfully communicated about ourselves, our music and the work of being a composer. It has been incredibly fun to get to know the other composers over beers and laughs, then to see each person’s little quirks peeking through the more packaged-up formal remarks and responses. And of course, I learned many lessons from my colleagues’ musical viewpoints and am so inspired by each work’s specific strengths. I’ve grown to love all of the pieces and will have them playing in my head over at least the next few days. 

As for the concert itself, we could not have asked for a better performance or a more interested audience. All of the pieces shone uniquely and I could see and hear the accumulation of effort and passion that grew from the first rehearsal onward. It is rare for an orchestra to reach the point of interpretation with brand new music, much less seven pieces on the same program! On top of that, we were buoyed by a hall full of people who were responsive listeners and curious about our work. The entire evening was a thrilling experience and one that I will definitely cherish. 

As I wrap up this very short blog series, I would like to thank Kevin Puts for his guidance and mentoring, Frank Oteri for his lovely presence and cheering us on, and all of the American Composers Forum and Minnesota Orchestra staff for facilitating the week. The composers are particularly grateful to Mele Willis for managing our activities and being so supportive of us. I also want to publicly send love to my colleagues and friends: Katie, Mike, Judy, Michael, Conrad and Phil. This week has reaffirmed for me that music requires making broad connections to be successful and impactful— from the administrators and staff, conductor, composers and musicians, to the audience members. As I return to Kansas with a stack of new CDs and wonderful memories, I hope to always keep in mind the strong sense of community surrounding the Minnesota Orchestra and this particular institute. 


  • This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a Minnesota State Arts Board Operating Support grant, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.
    This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a Minnesota State Arts Board Operating Support grant, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.
  • Official Airline of the Minnesota Orchestra
    Official Airline of the Minnesota Orchestra