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Interview with Professor Ming Tsao

Ming TsaoMing Tsao is professor of Composition at the Academy of Music and Drama since 2009. In this interview he explains the essentials of the Composition programme in Gothenburg.

What is the musical background like among those who apply for and are accepted to the composition programme? Is this different from other countries, for example the US?

It varies. It ranges from students who are composing more traditionally tonal music to students who have been exposed to some new music practices and have begun experimenting with these in their compositions. Generally, the most prepared applicants, to enter instrumental composition studies at Gothenburg, come from the composition preparatory school in Gotland.

But since we have now opened up electronic music and sound art tracks in our composition program at Gothenburg, we are also receiving many applications from students who have been in other areas prior, such as the visual arts, but want a more focused 'sound' component to their studies. Or applications from people who have been working in the electronic medium for awhile (such as electronica, video game music, programming, etc.) and are searching for ways to develop their artistic practices in a more directed and perhaps theoretical way. Many of the applicants for electronic music and sound art tend to be older than those for instrumental composition.

... a space where ideas are discussed and new ways of imagining sounds, either instrumental, electronic or environmental, are explored”At Gothenburg, who is ultimately accepted into the program regardless of their focus in instrumental composition, electronic music or sound art, depends upon their maturity to ask questions about themselves as artists. Indeed, by creating an environment at Gothenburg where instrumental composers are in dialogue with sound artists, for example, requires that the idea of 'studying composition' moves beyond the mere acquisition of specific techniques or as a place for 'professional development' but rather becomes a space where ideas are discussed and new ways of imagining sounds, either instrumental, electronic or environmental, are explored.

Nowadays, it is much more common for a student to have played guitar in rock bands.”One growing trend which is quite similar to the USA, is the change in the musical background of the applicants. In the past, the vast majority of incoming composition students spent their early music education learning the piano and the Western classical repertoire that it embodies. Nowadays, it is much more common for a student to have played guitar in rock bands. What this tendency has produced, with both positive and negative repercussions, is a student's much more readily engagement with 'sound' rather than with repertoire.

The positive aspect of this tendency which we try to cultivate at Gothenburg is a student's experimentation with sound regardless if the source is a piano, violin, radios or kitchen fans. The negative aspect, of course, is that a student becomes a historical 'blank slate' which means that they must acquire the necessary knowledge "on the fly" rather than already possessing it "in their fingers" when exploring material for their compositions.

How common is it that students with mainly other artistic background than music are applying?

Again, with the development of our sound art program, most of the applicants are coming from other disciplines such as visual arts, choreography, etc. This is somewhat the case with electronic music where applicants come either from music or computer programming (and we hope to get applicants from mathematics and logic in the future). Thus far, all of the applicants who apply for the instrumental music track come from a musical background for obvious reasons such as an exposure to music notation.
But once inside our program in Gothenburg, this changes. We often encounter a sound artist composing a work for a classical instrumentalist where they develop their own graphic notation to indicate sounds or actions on instruments.

...writing text about one's compositional processes, reflections and ideas is a key component ...”Conversely, writing text about one's compositional processes, reflections and ideas is a key component at Gothenburg, as well as an understanding of philosophical and critical theory literature to help one situate one's ideas in a larger artistic context (instead of simply describing how a piece is made, for example).

This is something that is more commonly found in Visual Arts departments than in music departments. But it requires, particularly of an instrumental composer who too often narrows their focus to how a piece is made, to ask broader questions about their work and to situate the meaning of their work in a larger context.

... develop into much stronger artists and composers because of their intense self reflection...”At Gothenburg, composition studies become much more than simply producing pieces, but rather a place where students really unravel their motivations for composing and, I feel, develop into much stronger artists and composers because of their intense self reflection on aesthetics, style, technique and (yes) politics.
The social awareness that a student develops regarding their work, the broader meanings it can impart to a listener, is an aspect we try to develop at Gothenburg regardless if the work is a sound art installation, electronic field recording or (especially) a string quartet.

How many women are applying and what is the percentage of women being accepted?

In instrumental composition and electronic music, too few women apply. And those that do apply and are qualified are even less. The situation is reverse with sound art. Too few men apply and most of our qualified applicants are women.

At art academies, since a decade, there is the possibility to be accepted to the programme in Free Art (Fri konst), where one can work with, among other things, music. Do you see any possibilities for a similar approach within the composition programme?

This is basically what we already have at Gothenburg with the composition program by combining instrumental composition with electronic music and sound art. Most of the sound artists and some of the electronic composers do not have a formal musical education (in fact, some do not even read music). What we have done in Gothenburg is created a structured environment where artists of all types who have a general interest in sound come together to discuss, debate and critique. Again, the most important requirement we have is a student's ability to reflect about their work in a way that engages artists from all disciplines.

... artists of all types who have a general interest in sound come together to discuss, debate and critique”To what extent would you say that the students in composition identify themselves with contemporary music and its history? Again, a comparision with other countries would be interesting.

Too little which is something we try to rectify at Gothenburg. Regardless of what area a student is in at Gothenburg (instrumental, sound art, electronic music), knowledge of the history of post-1945 music is essential because this was a time when composers really began "writing degree zero" and entered into some of the most radical experimentations in sound and composition. So knowledge of Stockhausen's work or Cage is fundamental to an artist writing a wind quintet, a sound installation or building a house (as one student did for his festival piece).

At Gothenburg, we have the attitude that a student should know as much about history as possible without that knowledge becoming too authoritative (and a burden which it has in the music conservatories in central Europe). The environment at Gothenburg then becomes quite active with students with vastly different areas of focus to find common grounds of discussion and possibly collaboration, particularly by creating an awareness of the historical dimension that is part of all musical material rather than reducing material to mere sound.

Our goal at Gothenburg is to invest each student with an intellectual curiosity about the world...”It makes me quite happy when I hear in the distance at Gothenburg a sound artist discuss the artistic implications of Beethoven's Diabelli Variations or the opening of Mahler's 4th, or an electronic music programmer talk about isorhythmic structures in Nancarrow's player piano music, or an instrumental composer talk about the semantics of a Westerkamp field recording in India. Our goal at Gothenburg is to invest each student with an intellectual curiosity about the world and all of its histories and to absorb what they can which somehow finds its way into their artistic work and, most importantly, their growth as artistic individuals.

This interview was made by Andreas Engström, editor of Nutida Musik, a magazine for contemporary music in Sweden, and has been published there. Photo: Johan Wingborg

Contact Information

Ming Tsao

Professor of Composition,

Page Manager: Tobias Egle|Last update: 3/12/2013
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