“Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around the lake.” – Wallace Stevens

Whether we live in a high-rise or out amongst the trees, there is a panoply of sound that envelops us, and that we take for granted most days. It is an ever-fluctuating symphony, and without it, our home would not be Our Home.

Commissioned by Chamber Music America for Spektral Quartet, Tonia Ko’s Plain, Air captures the unique sound world of the Lake Michigan lakeshore and transforms it into something both vast and intimate. Employing custom-built and -programmed speakers, Ko surrounds the audience with both field recordings from the lakefront and intricately processed sounds that mimic the surroundings – whether that audience is trekking up a nature path as it did at the world premiere, or seated comfortably in a concert hall.

While the inspiration for the piece resides in a very specific locale, the experience of Plain, Air is universal in its invitation to enjoy the world around us. The purring of cicadas or the thrumming of waves on rock guide the listener toward a blissful meditative state – but this is not the whole story. The layering of avian twittering transforms into a frenetic scherzo, and tight canons between the string players become gripping moments of high drama. When our ears are finely tuned to the minutiae of our natural surroundings, a flutter in the branches becomes a sonic hurricane.

the premiere

Plain, Air was inspired by the natural features of the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve, a beautiful area along a small stretch of Lake Michigan shoreline north of Chicago. On September 15th, 2018, we gathered with music and nature lovers to experience the world premiere of this work.

Our guests walked with three of the musicians along the shoreline for a short time before turning onto a path leading away from the lake, through a ravine and to a central performance spot. Along the way they encountered Tonia’s spatialized collection of electronic sounds, hidden amongst the flora of the trail. The procession featured an extended section of memorized material for the three upper voices of the quartet, whose intricate parts are designed to engage with each other as well as the electronic sounds, and the sounds of the physical environment. The music shifts as the three musicians encounter the cello: an extended cello solo at the end of movement one provides an impassioned transition from the world of the soundwalk to the more concrete nature of the rest of the work.

We wrote a reflection on that experience on our blog, which you can find here:The Lake Michigan Shoreline Is Our Concert Hall There is a set of photos there that chronicles the event beautifully.

Below are excerpts from the premiere performance. Note: the first audio track below is the sound walk, and begins with approximately 1 minute of the environmental soundscape before the strings enter. Headphones are highly recommended.

Plain, Air was made possible by the Chamber Music America Classical Commissioning Program, with generous funding provided by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Photo: Matt Dine

Photo: Matt Dine


The recipient of a 2018 Guggenheim Fellowship, Ko’s music has been lauded by The New York Times for its “captivating” details and “vivid orchestral palette.” She has been commissioned by leading soloists and ensembles, and performed at venues such as Walt Disney Concert Hall, Carnegie Hall, Kennedy Center, and the Tanglewood Music Center, Aspen Music Festival, and the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival. Internationally, her work has been featured at the Royaumont Académie Voix Nouvelles, Shanghai Conservatory New Music Week, Young Composers Meeting at Apeldoorn, and Thailand International Composition Festival, where she was awarded the 2014 Rapee Sagarik Prize. Ko has received grants and awards from the Harvard University's Fromm Music Foundation, Chamber Music America, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) as well as residencies at the MacDowell Colony, Copland House, Kimmel Harding Nelson Center, and Djerassi Resident Artist Program. She served as the 2015-2017 Composer-in-Residence for Young Concert Artists.