Shenzhen is the place where lots of people come to reinvent their identity,’ says architect Thomas Tsang about the city which – together with its neighbour Hong Kong – hosts the Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture, or UABB. Tsang’s own contribution – an immersive installation designed to amplify the soundwork by composer and vocalist Ken Ueno – is one of the exhibition’s highlights that mark the 2017 Biennale’s active involvement with contemporary art.
The notions of identity and authenticity are central to this year’s edition of UABB. Titled ‘Cities Grow in Difference’, it celebrates the city as a ‘complex ecosystem’ and promotes urban policies that ‘acknowledge diverse values and lifestyles’ rather than imposing ‘globalised and commercialised standard configurations’ that render cities ‘homogenous and generic’.
The four members of PRISM Quartet, an award-winning ensemble based in New York City, Philadelphia, and Ann Arbor, have been singleminded in their pursuit of new sonic and stylistic frontiers for their mutual instrument of choice, the saxophone. But that’s not to suggest that Timothy McAllister, Taimur Sullivan, Matthew Levy, and Zachary Shemon have been close-minded in matters of ensemble integrity. Alongside strictly four-part inventions, PRISM has engaged in eye- and ear-opening collaborations with other artists and ensembles, including prominent jazz saxophonists such as Steve Lehman, Dave Liebman, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Greg Osby, Tim Ries, and Miguel Zenón; the ensemble Music from China; esteemed choir The Crossing; and early-music consort Piffaro.
Disparate though all these projects might be, what they all share in common is an enviable combination of integrity, individuality, and instant appeal – no mean feat, given some of the more rigorous creative modes PRISM has investigated. Those qualities are amply evident on Color Theory, issued April 14 as the second release from the quartet’s new label, XAS Records (distributed by Naxos). Without question one of PRISM’s most elaborate undertakings, the project finds the foursome working with So Percussion, another pioneering quartet devoted to breaking new ground and forging new alliances, and Partch, a West Coast percussion ensemble that focuses on the Seussian microtonal instruments created by maverick composer Harry Partch.
The common thread among the three pieces on the album – Blue Notes and Other Clashes by Steven Mackey, Future Lilacs by Ken Ueno, and Skiagrafies by Stratis Minakakis – is the notion of saxophones and percussion used as raw materials to build a new repertoire inspired by and based on the notion of musical colors. Ueno took the concept a step further, calling for the physical transformation of one of the saxophones and adding an electric guitar in altered tuning to the mix. Derek Johnson, a skillful and versatile Bang on a Can associate, handles the guitar assignment; Minakakis is also present, serving as the conductor on his own piece and Ueno’s.
Both Ueno and Minakakis opt for long spans rather than discrete segments in their works for PRISM and Partch. Ueno – whose creative span runs from solo improvisation and the rugged intricacies of Central Asian multiphonic throat-singing to rigorously constructed symphonic works and opera – found inspiration for Future Lilacs in “Futures in Lilacs,” a 2007 poem by Robert Hass sparked in turn by Walt Whitman’s iconic “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”
Opening with a stinging guitar note played obsessively on alternating strings to produce shifting overtones, Ueno gradually introduces the unconventional Partch instruments – “Castor” and “Pollux” canons, chromelodeon, adapted viola, cloud chamber bowls, and bass marimba – their unconventional tonal and timbral qualities at once disorienting and inviting. The saxophones make their presence known some three-plus minutes into the piece, notes bending and slurring in accord with Partch implements and roiling guitar alike. Ueno compels the PRISM players to make full use of their horns’ capacity to sputter, hiss, and clack, and further deploys what he calls a “hookah sax”: a tenor saxophone with seven feet of rubber hose inserted between its mouthpiece and body – a method made famous by the seminal New York City noise-improvisation trio Borbetomagus.
Like much of Harry Partch’s music as well as certain Asian traditions that have informed Ueno’s compositional style, Future Lilacs has a ceremonial quality, its players sounding fitfully as if ordained by ritual. Rollicking and meditative in alternation, the music sustains its initial fascination; Ueno’s techniques are novel, but never mere novelty, serving expressive purposes consistently throughout this haunting work.
CORRECTION (Apr. 19, 2017): A previous version of this review listed the diamond marimba and kithara among the Harry Partch instruments used for Ken Ueno’s composition Future Lilacs. Those instruments are included on the album, but are not featured in Ueno’s piece.
United States Ken Ueno: Majel Connery (vocalist), Flux Quartet, Opera Cabal. National Sawdust, Brooklyn. 7.4.2017. (DS)
Ken Ueno – Aeolus (NY Premiere)
It was hard to tell where the sound was coming from or even what it was – dark, hollow, perhaps recorded, perhaps electronic. Turning to look behind the seated audience at National Sawdust in Brooklyn, I saw that it was coming directly from composer Ken Ueno, decked out in a black medieval-inspired robe-meets-spacesuit cloak, and holding a white megaphone to his mouth. As he walked around, he was filling the space with one of his signature sonic skills – this time, sonar clicking – that spread a wooden quality of reverb throughout the whole room. The Flux Quartet sat on stage in front of a video screen, meditatively waiting, between two unmanned standing microphones.
This was the beginning of Ueno’s new opera Aeolus, taking its name from the Greek mythological keeper of the winds. Vocalist Majel Connery of Chicago-based Opera Cabal would soon come to stand at one of the microphones – the other would always stand unused, abandoned. In a deep alto pop-oriented drone, that seemed to connect directly from her jaw to her ribs, she sang, “Myths,” becoming the futuristic chanteuse of this time-warping mythical opera.
Odysseus is a force, a character throughout this 90-minute journey, but he is never outright mentioned. Instead, his angst flows in a first-person narrative, through Connery’s vocals or Ueno’s voiceover poetic verse: “The winds that keep me from Ithaca are my own,” he proclaims. His journey might symbolize that which lives in all of us – yearning to connect yet only finding ourselves to blame for the isolation that abounds. As one pre-recorded phrase so poignantly delivers, with its mantel of self-reflective contemporary black humor, “I have no way of navigating between the silence of your texts.”
In his adept handling of all media, Ueno mixes every component of this work with finesse. Aeolus offers a balance between mesmerizing images of seascapes and dunes set to voice-over with quartet accompaniment. When electronically derived club-culture bass enters the soundscape, it’s as pointed as the textured string tones that intertwine with vocals. Midway, Ueno comes out in front of the stage to speak (not sing) rhythmically in a surreal mixture of lecture and pseudo-comedy routine, using his iPhone to command the beginning and end of pre-recorded percussion samples. It resembled an alien imitating a human stand-up routine with misfired drumming joke punctuations. Perhaps a take on the challenges of modern-day overcommunication – that leads to miscommunication.
As a composer, Ueno plays with the boundaries of space, time, and culture. These components create a unique three-dimensional effect that he laces together with musical techniques. While he calls Aeolus an opera, it could very well be a living sculpture or a poetic collage. Within this eclectic space of exploration (which includes throat singing) he produces songs like There is No One Like You sung by Connery, that you want to add to your soundtrack to reshuffle an evening after work. It is not only testament to his accessibility but also his wide range of musicality that he can touch the tastes of all his listeners.
According to the concert’s organizers, this was the first time the Partch instruments had been combined with a quartet of saxophones. After Sunday’s performances, the symbiosis seemed promising.
The composer Ken Ueno said he had decided to pay homage to Partch in his own response to the color commission by further adapting his instruments. For his “Future Lilacs,” he explained from the stage, he introduced “hacked” instruments of his own invention to the ensemble. One was a juiced-up electric version of Partch’s guitar, tuned to G on all strings, and a tenor sax turned into a “hookah sax” through the insertion of a seven-foot rubber tube between the instrument’s neck and body.
The rubbery sputter that this exotic-looking instrument now emitted added to the dynamic contrast between organic and inorganic sounds in “Future Lilacs.” The work opens with a dynamic rock-charged section in which the electric guitar worries away at a single note with microtonally altered impulses, then settles into a languid postlude that again makes beautiful use of the ethereal cloud-chamber bowls.
From Sunday, I wrote a piece about composer-vocalist-sound artist Ken Ueno's boundary-pushing music, as well as his intriguing residency with local new music group Alia Musica Pittsburgh. I attended Thursday's performance of his vocal concerto (and artistic director Federico Garcia-De Castro's "Contrepoint" for strings) at First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh in Shadyside, which was among the more unusual musical encounters I've had in Pittsburgh. Mr. Ueno gave a lecture prior to his performance — equal parts cerebral and self-deprecating — while the concerto itself was raw, ear-tingling and visceral. Despite thinking that the highest note he could sing was C-Sharp, three octaves above middle C, he in fact hit the D a half-step higher. Quite the memorable evening.
‘SCRAPYARD EXOTICA’ Del Sol String Quartet (Sono Luminus) I could be wrong, but I’m guessing it’s been a while since you’ve rocked out to a string quartet recording. See if your foot can stay still once you put on this funky disc of rhythmically infectious (if often warped) music played by the adventurous Del Sol String Quartet. Mason Bates’s irresistibly oddball collection of four bagatelles layers electronics and percussive accents on top of a crisp, angular score. Mohammed Fairouz’s “The Named Angels” is a smooth cocktail of Middle Eastern dance tunes and film-noirish Minimalism. Ken Ueno’s “Peradam” offers a heady brew of harmonies flickering with microtones, harmonics and vocalizations that draws heavily on the individual talents of the versatile Del Sol players, which in the case of the violist Charlton Lee includes eerily accomplished samples of Tuvan throat singing. (Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim)
Upon arriving at the Zack Box Theatre at The Boston Conservatory, we were told that the house would not be opening until about 5 minutes prior to the performance time. When the doors finally did open, we were asked to remove our shoes, place them on a shoe rack, and only then enter the performance space. Once we were in the performance space, we were told that we would be sitting on beach towels which were laid out on benches. All this, before the performance even begins, and the atmosphere was set for one of Guerilla Opera’s strongest pieces to date, Gallo, by Ken Ueno.
Gallo is intellectual theatre of the highest order, but, unlike most other theatre of which this is true, it refuses to be up tight, and removes just about every ounce of pretention from the air around it. After all, it’s hard to be pretentious while barefoot, on a beach towel, on a bench, in front of a beach of Cheerios. Yes, Cheerios, the beloved breakfast cereal which serves as both sand and projection screen during Ueno’s 90 minute opera about memory, landscapes, and the shifting tides of what it means to exist and be in this world.
Logistically, there are two characters. The first, a Rooster named Farinelli who sings of the very core of the show, waxing poetic over the question of “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” His existential aria embodies the essence of *being* in the world and serves as a dramatic highpoint after an hour or so of absurdist “happenings” which conjure the likeness of Pinter and Beckett if the two got together to drink and write, and watch what unfolded.
Douglas Dodson plays the Rooster and shows off a brilliantly textured counter-tenor voice. I’ll admit that Dodson’s opening off-stage aria about the Lisbon earthquake of 1750 never really took hold, setting me slightly uneasy for a start, but as the opera moves on, he is able to flex some wonderful vocal muscle and impresses with his later scenes.
The second character is a shopper; a trope of modern consumption and commercialism played magnificently by Aliana de la Guardia, Guerilla Opera’s General Manager. De la Guardia is a tour-de-force and never fails to impress with her presence, power, and precision, which is saying something considering the fact that *she* is the reason the house didn’t open until 5 minutes prior to curtain.
While guests would normally be entering the theater 20-30 minutes before the performance, the crew was busy burying de la Guardia inside a casket full of Cheerios. There she stayed for the first 40 minutes of the opera with no light and breathing only through a snorkel. Half way through the opera, several musicians come down from their perch and lift the casket, allowing de la Guardia to burst out of it, trailed by a cascade of Cheerios. Through all this, she never misses a beat or a note, hitting every button and pause gracefully.
Musically, you can’t find a better ensemble than Guerilla Opera. Their musicianship is top-notch and their commitment to their place in the Boston classical music scene is impressive. Like most Guerilla Opera productions, the ensemble leaves you breathless, wondering how they accomplished what seems like an impossible marathon of a score so seamlessly and effortlessly.
Interestingly, while this remains one of my favorite Guerilla Opera (GO) productions, the score is rather light on the vocalists (light, not meaning easy, which is certainly is not). Almost every other piece I have seen at GO is nearly entirely sung-through, while Ueno’s score opens up space for voice-over, soundscape design, extended instrumental solos/duets, and the crunching of Cheerios over otherwise silent moments. The interplay between these elements is delicate, but calculated, adding a surprising amount of depth as voice, music, and digital atmosphere commingled into a sort of temporal and intangible creation.
As if all of this weren’t sufficient, Guerilla Opera is brave enough to ask the audience to participate in the performance. De la Guardia circles the audience, handing them a string and unravelling it, eventually creating an interconnected network, asking us all to work together to further let out the line as she attaches it to a kite and makes it dance in the air, poignantly illuminating the interconnectedness of beings and natural forces.
I was later asked to leave my seat and get in line, a funeral procession for the Rooster who was reclaimed by the landscape. As each audience member passed the makeshift casket, they poured a small amount of the Cheerios over the deceased and kneeled down on the cereal-beach, eventually lying down. Here, from the ground is where I watched the end of the opera, ultimately becoming a part of it; Ueno’s last commentary on landscape and relationships; that of the theatre, and the relationship between the audience member and the performance.
Gallo is brave, bold and daring. Gallo is smart, intellectual and insightful. Gallo is eloquent, lyrical and existential.Gallo *is*… whatever that means..
Gallo, Ken Ueno’s challenging new chamber opera, was given six fully rendered performances by Boston’s Guerilla Opera under the direction of Sarah Meyer during the last two weeks of May at Boston Conservatory’s tiny Zack Box Theater. It was a rare combination of avant-garde and traditional, pop and hermeneutic. Days or weeks later audiences may still be wondering about the content, but most would probably agree this was one of the more exciting.
The opera’s main event is the great Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of 2011 set on a beach of Cheerios. A countertenor, starts out; dressed as the great castrati Farinelli, he morphs into a singing and dancing rooster, and ends up plucked naked like a supermarket fowl. The second singer, a soprano, plays a shopper, becoming a burlesque queen whose bra is dollar bills, and then, with the addition of an apron, transforms into a madona. The score is for cello, clarinets (including a rare Bohlen-Pierce), sax, percussion (including custom-built metallophone), and various taped and electronic sound elements. The audience tossed a beachball, flew a theoretical kite, and participated in a symbolic Cheerio chicken burial. Does it sound like a hoot, a royal cock-a-doodle-do? Well, yes and no.
The Tohoku tsunami devastated the east coast of Japan. Magnitude 9, it was the strongest earthquake on record for Japan: approximately 16,000 people were known killed with thousands missing; more than a million buildings were destroyed or damaged; three nuclear reactors in Fukushima blew up after their cooling systems failed and spewed radioactive fallout over the nearby fields and towns. The landscape was trashed, rearranged. Ueno, who spent several years as a child in nearby Sendai, was asked to write a piece commemorating the disaster. He posed the question of “Why?” After “seeking the consolation of philosophy,” he set his response to words and music.
The opera begins with the instrumentalists playing a passacaglia of ambiguous tonality. Countertenor Douglas Dodson sang offstage, his voice haunting in its unearthly beauty:
I have dreamed and have seen the future
The landscape of my youth mythic’ly wiped out
Who am I to question God…?
The words echo Voltaire, who wrote Candide as a parody of contemporary reactions to the great Lisbon earthquake of 1750. Ueno says the opera is fundamentally about ontology, the branch of philosophy which asks questions about the nature of being, the meaning of life. Leibniz among others held that calamities like the Lisbon earthquake were both meaningful and, invariably, manifestations of a greater good. Like Voltaire, Ueno takes on this position, but from a half-dozen different philosophical perspectives, including his own.
One of the questions ontology considers is “Why did the chicken cross the road?” and another is “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” So why not have a chicken hold these fundamental questions up for interrogation? Ueno was also influenced by Beckett, and the setting does recall Godot and Endgame, with actors speaking from piles of trash. It also makes reference to the philosophical concept of absurdity. Humans are driven to find rational meaning for events which have no meaning in the sense that ontology implies. The search for meaning in something like the Tohoku disaster is fundamentally absurd. Who better than a countertenor in a chicken suit to make the point?
Before you stop reading, remember that The Magic Flute is about Freemasonry, and it is fun. As is Godot. Fortunately for the audience, Ueno similarly leavened the 12 scenes with comedic distractions. Scene 4 is a Rooster Ballet, a courtly dance where Dodson’s Farinelli occasionally loses control to his inner chicken. To this inspired madness Amy Advocat played a wonderful solo cadenza on her Bohlen-Pierce clarinet. In Scene 5 the instrumentalists dump soprano Aliana de la Guardia from a plastic coffin filled with Cheerios; thereafter she sings a shopping song set to a bump and grind. “Oh, Lord, give me a Mercedes Benz. I’m a landfill of desire, your plastic Nikki Benz .…” What is this supposed to mean? Who cares—I wanted an encore. In Scene 8, the Gallo returns to sing a “Chickenese” aria, its language sounding like chickens who spoke Latin. It too is fun, even if an assault on ontology.
Ueno is a frequent visitor to Boston, and anyone who has heard his music performed by BMOP and others knows when to take him seriously. Still, it is a tribute to the bravery of the Guerilla theater director and players that they sawGallo’s potential and presented it with full-out enthusiasm and professionalism. For the singers it must have been a challenge to understand some of the passages, not to mention memorize the seemingly nonsense words and syllables. Cellist Nicole Cariglia was asked to bow with a technique Ueno calls “dij” (because it sounds like a didgeridoo) and to provide an ongoing feathery, rasping accompaniment with lateral bowing. Saxophonist Kent O’Doherty provided similar background by breathing an extended line through his instrument. Ueno designed a custom metallophone (played by Mike Williams, percussionist and artistic director) to accompany La Guardia’s final lullaby in microtones approximating her singing. Brilliance here; brilliance.
The wonder of it all: there is more to Gallo than inspired weirdness. One wished for a more coherent narrative arc from beginning to end, and wished that more of the text, a rich pudding of puns and plums, was easier to follow, yet Gallo was ultimately compelling in conception and performance. Nature will serve us with more disasters; “the present-day composer refuses to die.”
Opera, they tell us, is a dinosaur, fossilized, defunct. Yet opera continues to survive the crunch — and even, in its smaller genera, do more than that. Witness Guerilla Opera, specialists in new chamber operas, currently enlarging its impressive catalog of innovation with a world-premiere run of Ken Ueno’s “Gallo,” a disarmingly strange fricassee of sonic exploration and rueful anthropology.
For all its unorthodoxy, “Gallo” has operatic history in its bones. The title character, a rooster (countertenor Douglas Dodson, in bright, pellucid voice throughout), first appears in the guise of the legendary castrato Farinelli, full of 18th-century roulades and graces. And, like its earliest forebears, “Gallo” is a number opera, divided into discrete formal chapters.
The chapters, though, range kaleidoscopically wide. The prelude, a sober passacaglia, explicitly links two natural disasters, Lisbon (1755) and Fukushima (2011), but that subject — man’s contentious relationship to nature — just as often begets avant-garde breeziness. The setting, a beach made entirely of Cheerios (fashioned by Julia Noulin-Mérat), turns commodified excess into a primordial frontier, giving rise to a Shopper (soprano Aliana de la Guardia, vocally fearless, fizzing with theatrical commitment) who sings a Stravinskian pro-consumption bump-and-grind. Dodson delivers a twittering, show-stopping aria: weighty philosophical critiques rendered into a fanciful clucking, chirping patois, then deciphered via that staple of modern opera performance, projected translations.
Other numbers use prerecorded sound as a kind of archeology. Ueno’s speaking voice ruminates on seaside nostalgia and hazard as the instrumentalists — dressed in old-fashioned bathing costumes — toss a beach ball. A sound collage recorded among Beijing nightclubs becomes blurry pop sociology. Sarah Meyers’s direction utilizes slowly unfolding rituals — a dance, a burial, a string woven among the audience. Tláloc López-Watermann’s lighting is dominated by images and effects projected onto the beach, making it a palimpsest of history and memory.
Ueno, a musical omnivore, herds a flock of styles, but in a way that feels wide-ranging rather than overstuffed. The four-player orchestra — Amy Advocat on various clarinets, Kent O’Doherty on saxophone, cellist Nicole Cariglia, and percussionist Mike Williams — is often further subdivided, individual sonorities isolated and explored. The music is rich in inspiration, elegantly stark in effect.
Obliquely narrative, hovering between masque and illustrated essay, “Gallo” repeatedly hones in on striking sounds and tableaux: Williams and O’Doherty combining in a rustling, rasping evocation of the swash of seawater; de la Guardia lullabying recumbent audience members while dead-channel television snow, projected down, mimics light filtering into deep water. It is, in other words, very much an experimental opera, not only in its willingness to try anything, but in that its dramatic impulse is, in essence, its inventive impulse. Opera might be the only form capable of housing the piece’s superabundance of ideas; Ueno recapitulates a bit of genre phylogeny while demonstrating that the family tree still produces surprising branches. The actual dinosaurs didn’t completely die out, either: They evolved into birds.
This was just one of several surprising delights on the evening’s program performed by the West-Coast based Del Sol String Quartet. Another was the concise but scintillating introduction that the composer Ken Ueno (who circled his neck with an orange scarf and made it look cool and not pretentious) gave to his work Peradam. He explained that his compositions are written specifically for the people who will play them. But it was the reasoning behind this that gave me the delightful shiver one feels when someone eloquent goes right to the essence of an idea. He takes rock music as his paradigm. Ueno loves the Rolling Stones, for example. But that does not mean he loves to hear a cover band play the songs of the Rolling Stones; there is no substitute. Thus, Peradam he wrote for the Del Sol String Quartet and only the Del Sol String Quartet, because its members have the unusually particular talent of being able to sing at the same time that they play—in particular, their violist does some mean gargling throat singing.
This multi-talented violist, Charlton Lee, proved to be the undeniable favorite of the evening. In every piece, his dynamic embrace of the alto part was captivating to hear and exciting to watch. He dug into the earthly power of his instrument... He did not hold back in reaching for a combination of the strange and beautiful, as he blended his voice with the transcendent meditative quality evoked inPeradam.
About the only thing Ken Ueno’s Hapax Legomenon had in common with Ruehr’s piece was a similar journey-like feel, and even that seemed to be radically altered, forward motion rejected in favor of a furiously concentrated focus on each present moment. Like a lot of Ueno’s music, the spur was a singular technique—in this case, the two-bow cello stylings of Frances-Marie Uitti, the quadruple-stop possibilities of which Ueno fashioned into ever-more dilated harmonies. (The title, the old scholarly term for any word that appears but once in the corpus, was Ueno’s own self-deprecating reference to his fondness for writing for such only-person-in-the-world-who-can-play-it performers.) One of Ueno’s talents is for taking what might seem gimmicks—not just Uitti’s unusual approach, in this case, but also a bunch of hoary extended techniques in the orchestra, key-clicks, breath sounds, having the players sing, etc.—and confidently turning them to new and convincing ends. Hapax Legomenon seemed to pass in heightened slow-motion, every note and texture a drawn-out respiration, every idea daringly situated in some musical gray area, between silence and sound, noise and tone, different temperaments and timeframes. The ending—a long cadenza which featured Uitti creeping up the fingerboard into a distant, shortwave squeal of high natural harmonics—was breathtaking.
On Thursday evening Ekmeles presented a selection of vocal works by six living American composers at Roulette in Downtown Brooklyn, as part of the Interpretations series, that brought forth sounds from the human body that were at times painful, alienating, startling and haunting, but always fascinating.
Sometimes they were even gorgeous, as in “Shiroi Ishi,” an a cappella work by Ken Ueno. Mr. Ueno is a composer on the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley, who in his own singing explores and expands the eerie overtones created by techniques like Tuvan throat singing.
Here, too, he drew unusual sonorities from the singers in a setting of his own poem, in Japanese, about a white stone sinking into a moonlit ocean. Quiet sustained chords and shifting harmonies that sometimes brought Gesualdo to mind floated in and out of pitchless vocalizations, ghostly exhalations and percussive consonants.
When you see a horn trio that requires a conductor, you know that the players or the audience are in for it, possibly both. Yet Ken Ueno’s Disjecta turned out to be the most compelling work of the evening.
The title comes from a collection of essays by Samuel Beckett. specifically an analysis of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, which Ueno says greatly impacted his ideas about form in music. Disjecta is Ueno’s attempt to come to terms with his own musical development and “reinvestigate diverse elements of my personal compositional vocabulary.”
While it is scored for the same forces as Brahms’ Horn Trio (horn, violin, and piano), there the resemblance ends. Disjecta is more abstract, interested in utilizing the instruments in nontraditional ways and exploring wide extremes of timbral and dynamic contrasts in “four tectonic regions.”
Disjecta opens (“Heavy and Industrial”) with a growling chromatic piano figure that builds in volume and intensity yielding to a thread of extremely high violin tone. The second section (“Stillness”) paints a post-apocalyptic landscape with the horn player making wind sounds by blowing through his mouthpiece and the violinist playing the tailpiece of her instrument. There is a spare hypnotic quality in this music, yet the desolate fragments slowly expand, and the music becomes more tonal, urgent and expressive. The horn is finally allowed to voice its full rich tone in a rising lyrical melody and cadenza that could have descended from Richard Strauss.
Horn player Gregory Flint was challenged at times by the more stratospheric passages, but otherwise he, violinist Rika Seko and pianist Kuang-Hao Huang brought great versatility and concentration to this extremely demanding score under Stephen Burns’ alert direction.
The new work in Alarm Will Sound’s set was Ken Ueno’s
“(X)igagai,” a gripping, visceral soundscape inspired by the Pirahã people of the Amazon basin, a fascinating tribe whose language apparently has no words for colors or numbers. (The title refers to spirits that only the Pirahã people are able to see.)
The charm and power of Mr. Ueno’s score are in its unpredictability. The players vocalize and make amplified, whooshing wind noises. Sudden bursts of percussion explode within calmer textures. Instruments in unconventional tuning systems (microtonal, even temperament) play alongside others in conventional tunings, creating unusually rich, unconventional harmonic textures, and sounds continually morph: a series of piano and percussion exchanges, for example, ends with a brass crescendo that sounds as if it has emerged from the keyboard.
The pentatonic consonance and intensity of Lee’s work was matched by the dissonance, experimentalism, and sheer bravado of Ken Ueno’s piece for Alarm Will Sound, (X)igágáí. Ueno’s piece explored different kinds of white noise and wind-like timbres, utilizing a full array of human- and instrument-generated white noise. Shushing, hissing, heavily breathed vocables, a vibrating alarm clock on a snare drum, the slow ripping of paper, and the sound of air breathed through wind instruments all displayed Ueno’s virtuosic control of sounds and timbres, demonstrating that static can be quite variegated. Punctuating all this white noise were a series of loud dissonant chords, shimmering in colors reminiscent of Kaija Saariaho’s music, with long, eerie string glissandi that sounded like the moment before LOST cuts to commercial.
(X)igágáí wasn’t just wind and loud chords, though, as the group played frenetic, chaotic scales leading up to those crashing percussion moments, and a more mellow polyphony of metal pipes that sounded like wind chimes. Both Ueno and Lee were able to harness the sound of air moving, whether recorded or created live, but also to incorporate reminiscences of ancient music, in Ueno’s metal pipes or in the primal plucked strings and hollow bells of Lee’s sound world. Although coming from two very different aesthetic places, both composers were able to articulate something of the San Francisco worldview, in their marriage of Western and exotic sounds, in their experimentalism with timbres and electronics, and in the directness that each used to convey their musical idea to the audience.
Ken Ueno’s portrait event, presented by the American Academy in Berlin, exemplified the typical new music concert: a glacial piano piece (Disabitato, given an exacting performance by Heather O’Donnell); a world music piece (the tranquil, slowly unfurling Kizu for Japanese koto and Kyoto Kawamura’s dipping, intimate voice); a crazed, extended technique-laden woodwind piece (the tactile I screamed at the sea until nodes swelled up, then my voice became the resonant noise of the sea for clarinet, played grippingly by Greg Oakes); a radical improvisation (a duet of sustained, expanding growls sung by Ueno himself with Robin Hayword, a specialist in microtonal tuba); a timbral large ensemble work (the eerie, spectral Talus, a concerto for violist Wendy Richman and string ensemble).
The typical new music concert, though, acquires its variety from featuring works by a number of composers. Ueno, as he explained in an on-stage interview, sees his compositional process as a kind of channel surfing between styles, in which each piece embodies its own set of distinct rules. Rather than building towards perfecting a certain style, with individual pieces acting as stepping stones, Ueno captures a certain artistic spirit in each work and moves on. The result is eclectic but also unified, a multiplicity of rhetorics which somehow always feel like Ueno’s own. The best piece of the bunch was Two Hands, a placid work for violist Kim Kashkashian and percussionist Robyn Schulkowsky, a success as much for its compositional rigor as for its luminous performance—Kashkashian, the dean of American viola, gave each individual gesture a sense of inevitability, the kind of radiant deliberateness one hears in a great reading of Mozart or Bach.
From the sublime to the -- what's a trendy, early 21st century word for funky? Anyway, after Monday night's exquisite experience with David Lang's "Little Match Girl Passion," presented by the Evolution Contemporary Music Series at An die Musik, Tuesday night's encounter with composer/vocalist Ken Ueno, presented by Mobtown Modern at Metro Gallery, proved ever so slightly different.
Winner of the Rome Prize and Berlin Prize, Ueno is an intriguing talent, capable of humor as well as depth. And Mobtown Modern's program, a salute to Ueno in his 40th year, provided an illuminating sample of his work.
There was the composer's cheeky side -- "Yellow 632," a piece from 1998 for three humans and six mechanical toys. In this case, the sound of Big Bird exclaiming "This is funny" and doing some weird electronic laugh became the basis of a bit of theater, with the "voices" overlapping in increasingly off-kilter ways and the performers ultimately "liberating" the internal mechanisms from the toy bodies. The presentation was assured, the end result mildly interesting.
Ueno's solo vocalizing -- he commands an almost frightening arsenal of unusual and difficult techniques -- left me cold. "Watt," which suggests a jazz improv on severe steroids, gave sax man Brian Sacawa and percussionist Doug Perkins a taut, often explosive workout.
Ueno's "Sabinium," with video animation by Harvey Goldman, turns soap bubbles into massive, threatening creatures and extracts from their movements a strange sonic symphony.
The finale showed the composer at his most persuasive. "Talus" was written for violist Wendy Richman, who broke her ankle in a fall in 2006 -- during a rehearsal for a David Lang opera. Ueno essentially dramatizes that accident -- the piece starts with a scream from the soloist -- but he avoids gimmicky. It's quite a deep and involving work of exceptional lyrical power with long-sustained notes and the spaces in between. Richman was the impressive player. She had the tense harmonic language communicating vividly.
For those of you who missed the concert, here's a taste of Ueno's music, an a cappella work titled Shiroi Ishi: [ stream video MOV ]
The first time I saw Ken Ueno was at the 2004 performance of Philip Glass’s Music in 12 Parts at Alice Tully Hall; he seemed excited and intense, and also strangely disarming. His music is like that, too. We’ve corresponded a few times and I’m always interested in what he’s doing. (He recently joined the music department at UC Berkeley and has already amassed a number of impressive awards and accomplishments.) These three concertos, he explains in the liner notes, are very intimately conceived not only for their soloists, but for the members of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project itself. (Ueno lived in the area while completing his doctoral work at Harvard.)
Given the complexity and depth of Ueno’s music, I’m surprised how well I apprehend the ideas he communicates. A case in point: I stopped reading Ueno’s notes after a remark that the three works on the disc concern mortality and “the multifaceted ways survivorship requires heroism.” Talus, a concerto for viola, begins with a scream; soon afterward, however, Ueno begins a detailed and magnificent exploration of all kinds of sounds and textures, so that in retrospect the scream seems less of a dramatic gesture than another sound that fits perfectly with the rest. (After listening, I was astonished to read much the same thing in Ueno’s own description of the work.)
For On a Sufficient Condition for the Existence of Most Specific Hypothesis, Ueno performs the solo overtone singer part himself. This work includes brass, percussion, and winds along with strings for the orchestra part. And once again the orchestra seems to take up and emphasize aspects of the overtone singing. Here and there I hear a gesture that reminds me a little of early Penderecki, but the treatment of timbre is much more engaging than most of what the Polish composer has even done and reaffirms that Ueno is a composer of his time but speaks with his own voice.
The final work, Kaze-no-Oka, is a memorial for Takemitsu with important solo parts for biwa and shakuhachi. Ueno writes strongly against the grain of standard expectations for the concerto by reserving the second half of the piece for the two soloists alone. And what sounds like a simple, almost banal gesture becomes incredibly moving—a daring decision that perfectly matches the poetry of the work. It is completely in keeping with Ken Ueno, who I believe is going to be an extremely important American composer.
There was a different kind of radioactivity in Ken Ueno's rather severe "Sabinium," for electronic tape with a video realization by animator Harvey Goldman. Ueno recorded the sounds of bursting bath bubbles, convolved them with battle noises and built the results into a sometimes-fragile, sometimes-brutal but always poetic piece of noise music. Goldman's animation -- primordial cell-like structures interacting in a sort of cosmic soup -- elegantly interpreted the score and referenced the underlying story of the Sabine women, and in spite of its mercilessly monochromatic and minimalist materials, "Sabinium" was fascinating throughout.
The second offering was a video set to a sound design created by Ken Ueno (animation by Harvey Goldman), a mesmerizing sort of essay on the violent properties of bubbles - the unsettling sounds Ueno creates evoke violent, fundamental processes replicated across natural, mechanical, and human experiences.
Contemporary music is a top priority at the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival, where the annual resident composers have been some of the most distinguished names in the field, including this year's entry, Stephen Hartke.
But the festival has also increasingly been making room for younger composers with rising reputations, and that trend paid big dividends Thursday with the world premiere of "Two Hands" for viola and percussion by Ken Ueno, a 39-year-old Japanese-American.
A riveting exploration of the thin border between sound and silence, the piece takes inspiration from Anne Sexton's poem "Two Hands," whose eloquent, Genesis imagery is less confessional than much of her work. There are five movements, each a response to a Sexton fragment. Ueno relies on fiercely concentrated, pointillistic gestures and unusual effects to evoke a state of suspended meditation: gentle scrapes, quick slashes, erotic shivers, cold stares, fleeting melodies that shimmer like apparitions.
This is territory staked out by modernists like György Kurtág, Toru Takemitsu and Morton Feldman, but Ueno's voice is individual and robust. The exotic means -- bowed metal, amplified salt vibrating on timpani, tuned cowbells, Thai gongs, sliding pitches, harmonics and curious bowings that create notes that sound cushioned by wind -- make you lean forward with anticipation: What's coming next?
Thursday's performers were Detroit-born violist Kim Kashkashian, for whom "Two Hands" was written, and Gwendolyn Burgett Thrasher. Kashkashian was a marvel, producing a remarkable range of color and delivering every unconventional idea with elegant, vocal expression. Thrasher played with sensitivity, and a solo movement -- the only spot that articulates a steady groove -- was a highlight.
The rest of the evening found festival artists addressing traditional repertoire by Schubert, Chopin and Mendelssohn with varying degrees of success; this was a night to celebrate the new.
It's a concerto that engrossingly reinvents the discourse.
And then there was a blood-curdling scream. Ken Ueno’s Talus, featuring violist Wendy Richman, received a few laughs after its over-the-top, horror-flick beginning but quickly demanded complete silence and deliberation from the audience as the piece slowly unfolded from pitch-less textures to rich atmospheres of complex and beautiful sounds. The piece demanded extraordinary control over extended techniques of the soloist as well as the supporting string orchestra. While the vocalizations - both jarring in the beginning and, more subtly, within the textures later in the piece - may have come off as extremist, even gimmicky, one cannot deny that Talus was the most memorable piece of the evening.
The composer Ken Ueno amplifies traditional instruments to uncover new worlds of sound, and his "Contemplation on Little Big Muff" gave Christophe Roy's amplified cello a strange and unsettling intensity, probing into sustained tones and building drama from the timbral textures that were revealed. There were few concessions to loveliness, but the piece had a fascinating, elemental power that resonated long after it ended.
Ueno was absolutely fearless, growling for long stretches while the orchestra played glissandi and repeating figures.
After intermission, the amazingly creative ”On a Sufficient Condition for the Existence of Most Specific Hypothesis” by Ken Ueno was captivating. A natural blend of dissonance and glissandi, along with rough and sudden entrances of instruments, made a perfect parallel to Ueno’s singing...Most impressive was a cadenza-like throat singing passage, including a brilliant range of dynamics and wide intervals. I’ll listen for more Ueno in the future.
Ken Ueno's absorbing On a Sufficient Condition for the Existence of Most Specific Hypothesis is a concerto for himself, singing, screeching, growling, throat singing - manipulating the growl's acoustic overtones. The opening - a recording of Ueno at the age of 6, babbling - foreshadowed serious play, the complex resonances of Ueno's vocal excursions transformed into bright orchestral fanfares. The work's single-mindedness proved disarmingly generous. It was the evening's far-out highlight.
Intermission came and went and the second half started with the music Ken Ueno with yet another world premier. This one called "On a Sufficient Condition for the Existence of Most Specific Hypothesis."
Ken is an overtone singer. and I was BLOWN away. He generated these powerful deep growls from within his throat that would occasionally be coupled with really high squeals. Behind his intense singing was some really wild string work which had the musicians sliding their hands up and down the strings creating a sensation of the music slowing and speeding. The other members of my group were not as thrilled with the vocals - they thought it seemed too painful or sounded too much like something you d hear out of a horror movie. For me? I couldn t be more awestruck. It was brilliant.
Ken Ueno also drew a loud reaction, and the greatest variety of reactions, with his first classical throat-singing work.
Composer and vocal soloist Ken Ueno offered the audience a rare treat of vocal technique and compositional innovation. On a Sufficient Condition for the Existence of Most Specific Hypothesis (2008) is Ueno's third work for BMOP, and what he calls one of his most personal works, reconciling his own identity as classical composer and experimental improvisator. The piece opened with a recording of Ueno singing as a child, over which Ueno began to hum in unison with solo viola. Out of this was born an exploration of Ueno's many vocal textures, including throat singing, overtone singing, multiphonics and extreme high register, matched to gorgeous orchestral color that grounded the unique vocal techniques in an atmospheric wash. At the risk of sounding simplistic, one could liken Ueno's many vocal sounds to a sound spectrum including swarming locusts, a sports car switching gears, fluctuating radio static, the extreme bass of monk chants, wind gusting through a small space, and the soft scream of fluorescent lights. At times, it felt as though live sound existed in his body's chamber but he was stifling it from release. The tones he produced filled Jordan Hall with unfamiliar vibrations and resonances so that his voice attained an other-worldliness that disassociated the sound from its human element, all the while contrasting it with the sweet sonorities of the orchestra. Met by the audience's enthusiasm, the performance was a rare treat indeed.
Rarely can someone so trained in the "right" way to do things take music down to its basic elements.
Ken Ueno's vocals are incredible. He goes from deep, booming growls to high pitched squeals, the kind that I would normally associate with a boiling kettle or Blixa Bargeld. Using circular breathing techniques Ueno keeps his vocals going continuously for large stretches of time (growling on the exhalation, squealing on the inhalation). As well as being physically impressive, it goes well with Whitney and Worster's rhythms and noise. Ueno is ever present but sometimes gets overwhelmed by the other two. It's not like he's just lost in the mix, he still colors the sound at these moments. On "Delillo" he is particularly remarkable, his rumbling snarls sound like something from Lovecraft calling from the abyss.
The concert opener, the world premiere of Ueno's ''Kaze-no-Oka (Hill of the Winds)" (2005), featured Japanese masters Kifu Mitsuhashi on shakuhachi (bamboo flute) and Yukio Tanaka on biwa (Japanese lute).
The piece began with the orchestra alone. Dense, slowly shifting microtonal sound-masses -- earthy rumblings against ethereal chord-clouds -- painted a vast, brooding aural landscape.
The shakuhachi and biwa kept quiet until the orchestra faded. Then, like a cinematic far-shot cutting to an intimate close-up, Mitsuhashi and Tanaka began a hushed, urgent colloquy, their nuanced brush strokes stark against silence.
In Kaze-No-Oka Ueno drew upon the Japanese aesthetic principle of "shawari" - important to Takemitsu, and now to Ueno himself. To put this many-sided concept into a nutshell, "shawari" can translate as "beautiful noise," "to touch," or "obstacle," and for the artist can mean the use of a deliberate "inconvenience," desired for its creative potential. A relevant example can be heard in the metallic sounds, above the pitches themselves, which emanate from the biwa. Ueno applied this principle to his orchestral writing by combining the instruments in close, sometimes buzzing, microtonal sonorities, and using other instrumental noises - even white noise from the mouths of the players - creating very sensual "artifacts of sound," as he calls them, with a structural rather than ornamental function. The biwa and shakuhachi duo itself was set against the Western orchestra in a dramatic manner. Unlike November Steps, in which the writing for the two instruments is temporally interspersed with the orchestral writing, in Kaze-No-Oka they appeared only after the orchestral section of the piece had fully concluded, in a cadenza which seemed to last as long as the first part of the piece. This was Ueno's response to BMOP's request that the shakuhachi and biwa part be usable as an independent composition, for another concert event. Many composers might shy away from separating these elements so completely, for fear of incongruity. But the tension at the moment of the duo's entry, the sustained intensity and relatedness of the music despite the sudden drop in density, the surprising length of the cadenza - these things resulted in a piece with its own strong sense of balance and "meaning."
The evening was redeemed by the last work, ". . . Blood Blossoms. . .," composed last year by Boston-based Ken Ueno, who was in the audience. Funky and asymmetrical, the score is thick with scary tremolos, punctuated by blasts of percussion or piano. It lopes along all crazylike. It was a nifty piece by a young composer worth following and showed the value of BF's mission: bringing to Atlanta vital contemporary music you can't find anywhere else.
Who ever said that practice makes perfect? UMass-Dartmouth professors Jorrit Dijkstra and Ken Ueno didn't even bother to rehearse for their debut as an improvised duo last Friday at the NAO Gallery in SoWa. With Andy Zimmerman's arresting "Light from Two Sides" art exhibit providing the visual backdrop, Dijkstra played an alto saxophone and a lyricon - an analog electronic wind synthesizer - and then processed, sampled, and looped himself using a myriad of electronic gadgets. Ueno manipulated the sound across four channels (through four speakers in each corner of the small room) by using a PowerBook and light-sensitive photocells that reacted to the movements of two mini flashlights. The effect was hypnotizing;
"Ueno knows his way around instrumentation.,..
My experience living in Europe is that I was hardly ever accepted as an American. In America, we live by the caveat that identity can be formed through participation, that through hard work, we can become “American.” My Plan A, before I became a musician, was founded on that premise: go to West Point, become a general, come back to California, and become a senator. However naïve that dream was, and however problematic I now know it to have been, I am still thankful for it. Had I not been American, I don’t think I would be speaking to you today. It allowed a twenty-five-year-old former cadet to begin composing and start a career in music, whereas in Europe, he might not even have gained entry into the conservatoire. One of the things I learned in Europe is that classical music operates as a different cultural signifier, there than here. There, it is a primary referent. Here, it is a borrowed cultural artifact. We take that for granted. Our assumption that culture is something that can be gained through good-ole American participation does not fully transpose to classical music composition. I have heard many American colleagues talk about the “tradition” as some reverential grandfather who would love us back, if only we kowtowed enough and helped shave the callouses off his hardened feet. The truth is, Beethoven can’t give two fucks about us. Don’t get me wrong. There is much that I admire about Beethoven’s music. I don’t have an issue with the man or the music. The issue I have is that he represents a glass ceiling, a visible reminder of the fact that I don’t belong to the dominant culture of classical composition. It would have saved me much grief, if I had a mentor during my formative compositional years who had gone through similar issues of feeling neo-colonized. My teachers were mainly white males who still believe that they belong to the “tradition.” This is why diversity is important: if you are part of the dominant culture, you are blind to the anxieties of the those who are not.
What we can do, here, is democratize the idea of a “composer” by rebranding it, for wider participation and inclusion. George Lewis reminds us in Improvised Music after 1950, that for Dahlhaus, “The dialectic between composition and notation is critical to the notion of composition itself.” That Dahlhausian notion of a composer as someone who, in part, notates music, still informs our present ontological discussions about “composer.” But, here, the legal standard is that it can suffice that music is fixed as a recording to be claimed as intellectual property. The fundamental tension at issue today is that the cultural values of 18th and 19th century Europe do not resonate with mainstream 21st century America.
21st century America has the advantage of non-notaters who are great cultural influencers, like the Beyoncés of the world. Her musical accomplishment is rich and nuanced and genius. Listen, for example, to the moment in Pray You Catch Me from her album, Lemonade, right after she sings the words of the title. There is a space long enough that we can hear wetter layers of reverb at lower dynamic levels linger. The lingering “catches” the words “catch me,” thereby collapsing object and subject into one, through a technologically mediated orchestrational move. It also obscures the words enough to create a sonic space that feels introverted like a prayer that also projects outwards as a leap of faith. In a few seconds, she text sets a wisdom wrought through the travails of love and life. On the last track of the album, Formation, when she sings, “I just might be a black Bill Gates in the making,” we believe her. She is the CEO of her musical vision. It is notable that she chose “Bill Gates” as a metaphor for success rather than Rockerfeller, as Roc-A-Fella, a neologism in which Brooklyn-ese mutates “feller” into a gendered “fella,” is the moniker of her husband’s record label. Two tracks earlier, on Freedom, when Kendrick Lamar, raps “open correctional gates in higher desert,” “gates” takes on both biblical and criminal justice valences. When we get to Formation, those manifold significations are still in play, when we hear “Bill Gates.” In this way, macro-structural connections across multiple songs are made palpable in Lemonade. Beyoncé is an icon of empowerment not only for women and African-Americans, but for all who ever felt disenfranchised by the dominant other. This is why diversity is compelling: Beyoncé’s rhetoric for change is embodied in her art.
This more open standard for “composer” is what I experienced three weeks ago, when I served on the panel of the American Composer Forum’s Jerome Foundation Grant. We vetted 155 applications representing a wide range of genres: post-rock, folk Americana, jazz, electronica, pop, and contemporary classical. The validation that artists can receive from such grants can be identity forming.
Aby Wolf, one of my colleagues on one of panels told me:
To me, the term “composer” has always belonged to the avant-garde and classical world. When writing art-pop and loop songs, I’d never considered myself a composer- until I was awarded a MECA grant from the American Composers Forum.”
Another fellow panelist, the drummer/improviser, Davu Seru, said, “Memory, like history is a score in need of violation.”
Our moment is a call to action to violate history. We need to engage in meta-composition, a larger engagement towards cultural, democratic, advocacy. The diversity issue in contemporary classical music cannot be solved merely by commissioning more women and people of color. It needs to be a more holistic shift in academic culture as well. Diversity is not solved statistically. In the zero-sum game of academic hires, real diversity is not served by merely hiring a person of color, if that person’s task is mainly to serve the Western canon. There needs to be curricular space to balance the Western canon. There are latent values, too, that get promulgated when a cadre of all-white professors hire master musicians who are people of color to teach the music practice of their authentic cultures, when, nowadays, there are master musicians of non-Western music cultures who have PhDs. They should be professors. The performance practice of academia is exnomination. “Exnomination (again, George Lewis in Improvised Music after 1950, but here quoting John Fiske) is the means by which whiteness avoids being named and thus keeps itself out of the field of interrogation and therefore off the agenda for change.” Latent values are also messaged in the architecture of our institutions. For six years, I saw Beethoven’s name glaring down at me from a privileged space above the middle of the stage in Paine Hall at Harvard. It said to me that history was closed, that the best music had already been achieved. What hope is there for any of us to continue making new music, then?
At this point, I want to share with you a hopeful picture.
This is a photo of the commissioned composers of the Pacific Rim Music Festival’s Gugak Orchestra project from two weeks ago (George Lewis, David Evan Jones, LEE Geonyong, Shih Hui Chen, Edmund Campion, and missing from this august cohort is Chinary Ung). This, is meta-composition, curated by Hi Kyung Kim (the woman to the far left), the festival director. I am further inspired by the fact that these great composers were commissioned to compose not for a Western orchestra, but for an orchestra of traditional Korean instruments. But, meta-composition requires hard, tireless work. Start with a vision, reach out to composers, partner with multiple institutions, write grants, schedule rehearsals, build a team, book venues, pick the performers up from the SFO, feed and house them…find a sleigh bell right before the dress rehearsal (this is true). And, as anyone with festival production experience knows, you have constantly put out fires. The Hi Kyung Kims of the world are our real heroes. It takes real passion to work this hard to affect real change. This is why we need diversity: people comfortably in the dominant culture rarely have the passion to work this hard to affect real change.
I would like to conclude by quoting Calvino: “The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”
If new music will be able to fix it, it will have to begin to look like this:
Swaying back and forth, his right foot in front of his left, Ken Ueno stared off into the distance, nearly catatonic, as if primed for a fight.
But this was no boxing ring, and Mr. Ueno, a composer and vocalist, had no opponent.
Rather, it was a concert of experimental improvisation and chamber music presented by Alia Musica Pittsburgh in July. It marked the first performance of Mr. Ueno’s yearlong residency with the new music organization.
Ken Ueno, is a composer,vocalist sound artist whose music draws from several inspirations -- from Tuvan throat singing to heavy metal. (Video by Bill Wade)
Nearly everything about this concert was weird. It took place in a living room in Lawrenceville. Admission was $5. The opening act was an improvised music band whose members included a shirtless man wearing a skull mask. The space, with off-white walls, lacy curtains, modest chandelier and anachronistic artwork, made for an unusual environment in which to experience music. Perhaps that was the point.
Mr. Ueno, 45, was educated at West Point, Harvard, Yale, Boston University and the Berklee College of Music, and is on the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley. Some of the premier new music groups in the country, including eighth blackbird and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, have performed his works, and he has a spot in the Grove Dictionary of American Music. What could someone with this pedigree think of this concert in a Lawrenceville living room?
It became clear that he not only was comfortable with the strange circumstances, he seemed to welcome them. That pre-performance trance showed it.
“I guess, in that case, I was trying to prep the audience,” he said later, during an interview at a Highland Park café. “I feed off the intensity of listening.”
For him to be in the zone, his audience needed to be in the zone, too.
His performance opened with a loud, shocking scream. Over the course of his solo improvisation (he later performed with two musicians playing bass and electronics), he produced an eclectic series of sounds: clicks, like quick water drops in a ceramic bathtub; thumping heartbeats; heavy breaths; television static, jarring and surprising. You could feel it in the ground, and, listening to him, you sympathized with your own vocal cords. (“It doesn’t hurt,” he claimed.)
He also used a megaphone, which allowed him to experiment with physical space and with the prop’s own sonic qualities. With his knees on the floor, he placed it on the ground and drilled muffled vocals through it, or he pulled it away to his side, creating, as he later put it, a counterpoint of sorts between voice and body.
When he finished, a man sitting in the living room gasped, “Wow.”
Mr. Ueno’s music is challenging. It is not for the faint of heart, nor for people who cringe at the thought of hearing contemporary music of any sort in the traditional concert hall. That is something the composer acknowledges. “I know people are going to think it’s weird,” he said.
But watching and hearing him perform in that living room was ear-opening, too. On the one hand, his music toes the fringe of modern musical culture. On the other, his success — as he puts it, “I am lucky enough to be able to live from what I do” — suggests there’s something to it.
The second chapter of Mr. Ueno’s residency takes place Thursday at First Unitarian Church in Pittsburgh, when he joins the Alia Musica orchestra for a performance of his vocal concerto, “On a Sufficient Condition for the Existence of Most Specific Hypothesis.” Mr. Ueno will give a lecture about the work prior to the performance. The program also features a piece by Federico Garcia-De Castro, Alia Musica’s artistic director, who met Mr. Ueno during a composition festival in Thailand.
A self-taught vocalist, Mr. Ueno draws on various extended techniques and inspirations: the sub-tones and screams common in heavy metal, throat singing traditions from around the world, multiphonics (producing multiple notes at once), overtones, circular breathing and the ability to sing at an extremely high register — up to a C-Sharp three octaves above middle C. Much of this music is what we might consider wordless; it traverses “the gray area between language and non-language,” he said.
While he often improvises (including during the cadenza of the vocal concerto), he also uses traditional Western notation and his own notation, supplementing it with video when necessary.
There are throat-singing traditions all over the world — including in Inuit, South African, Tuvan and Sardinian cultures — yet Mr. Ueno’s music is not an anthropological study.
“I know he has done the research about vocal extended techniques from around the world,” Mr. Garcia-De Castro said. “He’s not using them in a pure sense. He’s not doing a tribute to these traditions. He’s just incorporating them as things to work with.”
Mr. Ueno’s other influences are catholic: Bela Bartok, John Coltrane, B.B. King, Metallica and, above all, Jimi Hendrix.
“I am a musician because of Jimi Hendrix,” he said. “I was always much more into academics and sports than music, until I started to play electric guitar.”
That happened in earnest after he sustained an injury while in college at West Point. During his recovery, he wrote songs and practiced his instrument eight or nine hours a day. He still needed to finish his bachelor’s degree, so he decided to study at the Berklee College of Music, where he encountered Bartok’s String Quartet No. 4 for the first time.
“I felt like my body understood the music, because it was like heavy metal. It was like a heavy metal string quartet,” he said. But he recognized there were more complex underpinnings to that visceral response. He wanted to figure them out, so he decided to compose.
Mr. Ueno’s Pittsburgh residency is supported by a $35,000 grant from the Pittsburgh Foundation and the Heinz Endowments, which also funds the composition of a new work for Alia Musica. The endeavor illuminates how Alia Musica, which was founded eight years ago, is becoming clearer in its purpose and growing in its impact.
In 2014, the group produced an ambitious festival of new music that included a recital with prominent composer-pianist Frederic Rzewski. Over the past few years, its musicians have performed across the Midwest and East Coast, and in June, it was a resident ensemble at a music festival in Panama.
This project with Mr. Ueno reflects the organization’s efforts to create distinctive experiences around new music — concerts that are relevant to audience members, that they are unlikely to forget.
The composer will visit Pittsburgh several times over the course of the year to become familiar with the area and the musicians who will premiere his work in the spring. This knowledge will inform his composition of the new piece. Over the summer, he was a proper tourist: He visited Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob, went to a Pirates game, attended local concerts and explored restaurants in the city. Next Sunday’s Steelers game is on the itinerary for this visit.
He refers to this process as a “person-specific” approach to composition, the notion that music can be fitted to a place and to its performers much like a custom-made suit.
“I’ve also been using a metaphor of going to a three-star Michelin restaurant,” he said. “You go that place essentially to make a little pilgrimage. There’s something special about that chef, that place.”
Ultimately, it gives added importance to hearing the music in the flesh, something that is vital for Mr. Ueno and Alia Musica. The connection between creator, performer and audience is critical to the experience of listening to some of his favorite artists, and he is aiming to translate that to the classical music world.
“Listening to the Jimi Hendrixes and the Coltranes of the world, I was inspired by the fact that they extended the history of their instruments, and in my own little way, I’m interested in extending my own vocal practice,” he said.
Elizabeth Bloom: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1750. Twitter: @BloomPG.
I pulse, when you breathe, (2008), is a piece of music written by Ken Ueno for amplified soprano and alto flute.
The composer elaborates, “This piece is a song in search of the main melody, a setting of the short text. Throughout much of the piece, the sounds of the text are gradually discovered, through divergences, parries, continuations, and, finally, a short glimpse, which turns out to be a sort of arrival.”
All of it sounds like a dream sequence and a metaphor for life at the same time. Poetry. What flickering light did Ken Ueno follow to jot down the notes and words for this work?
I started with a poem I wrote in Japanese – “this wind, the resonance of song through the trees.”
I like that Japanese consists of mainly pure vowels and that there are fewer words than in English. Endemically, then, there are opportunities for sounds to evoke other potential meanings, or stand isolated as pure sounds. To frame the transition between semantic and non-semantic signification of vocal sounds, I orchestrated the breath and timbre around the phonemes of the poem.
In terms of light and the sense of wonder and the presences of the present moment that light makes evident, I have been inspired by what I call “secret meridians.” (Here’s a short video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OuEgvpdxwqY.) I like Turrell and T.S. Eliot too (“visible reminder of invisible light,” e.g.).
whatWALL? (2003) for alto saxophone and quadraphonic tape. There is so much to experience/learn from this amazing piece. At the very end of the program notes for it, we read, “‘whatWALL?’ is also a personal call to arms, that an artist should always strive to go beyond whatever boundaries stand before him.”
What are the harshest boundaries you have surpassed to achieve the level of confidence and level of superb artistry?
The biggest boundary for an artist is the best that he/she has already achieved. Most of the time, we are living in the past. Even what we normally consider as the present is a latency. Creative endeavor, as acts of faith, are especially potent as mechanisms that give us agency to change the future.
Composing a 20-min work takes months and requires planning and coordination with a team of people (administrators, vendors, the ensemble, the audience).
Each time we take that leap of faith into the future, whatever our realm of creative endeavor might be, taking contingent risks, even if the project itself fails, we are emboldened for having taken that risk, and our aura expands. It is in that space of growth that I might mark my own progress in having lived. It also becomes the wall, a new marker that drives me to go further.
Art is an attitude, at once a way of seeing (and in my case hearing) the world and imaging what one might see (hear) that fills us daily and challenges us to the end of our days.
Listening to your music, reading the program notes, listening/reading about your opinions compares to a thrilling mental speedrace: all the places, the names, timelines, zones, landscapes. You’re not even bragging. You invite/dare anyone to join you on your joy ride or find one’s own. Who inspired you to be so generous with your own knowledge?
I have so many heroes. Jimi Hendrix and John Coltrane. James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Italo Calvino, Garcia Marquez, are other heroes. James Turrell, Agnes Martin, Gerhard Richter.
One of the first things art does is curate empathy. In my own work, I am trying to deliver in some measure what I have received from my favorite art. Art first has to be good and earnest. Then, it can reach almost anybody. I think that many programmers are afraid that their audiences can’t get challenging art. What that means is that they don’t believe in the art and that they don’t trust their audiences.
One of my biggest inspirations in terms of that earnestness and generosity is Robert F. Kennedy’s speech on the death of Martin Luther King. When he was campaigning for the presidency in 1968, just months before his own assassination, he landed in Indianapolis to address a largely African-American audience. Shortly before he arrived, he received word that MLK had been assassinated and it was up to him to inform the crowd. After he broke the news, he reminded them that he had also lost someone important to him and that he, too, was killed by a white man. Then, he did the most startling thing; he shared with the audience a favorite piece of poetry that had comforted through such hard times. It was a selection from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon. Isn’t that kind of extraordinary? A Harvard-educated, rich, white man addressing an African-American working-class crowd quoting Aeschylus? The poem is, indeed, quite moving, but what I think really worked was that Robert Kennedy did not second-guess his audience’s capacity to get it; he shared what was earnest to him. That honesty itself translates. The efficacy of that moment is one of reasons why in the following weeks after that day, Indianapolis did not go up in flames with riots, as did much of the rest of the country. So, that’s what I try to do.
I seek out art that has the power to sooth my soul and try to deliver that to my audience. I trust that whatever might move me, might also move others.
All moments stop here and together we become every memory that has ever been (2003). In our daily struggle to maintain our identity in a post-industrial digital world, we are all music boxes, analog songs seeking a space in which to be heard. Are there any magic key words guiding us to finding that space, all us ‘analog songs’ seek?
In my music, I am seeking to privilege the live experience. Years ago, I remember going to the Guggenheim Bilbao where I saw a room full of black paintings. I stayed there for about an hour. After a while, it occurred to me that these paintings defy mechanical representation – these paintings are not the ones that are on calendars and t-shirts in the gift shop.
Further, over the course of the time I spent there, I noticed that horizontal bands that marked the Franz Klines were subtly different shades of black. The Robert Motherwells were articulated by complex brushstrokes. These paintings said to me that I had to stand in front of them. That I had to make the pilgrimage to experience them live, that that live experience could not be substituted. By extension, it was saying that my individual life mattered.
Person-specific music demands that it be experienced by specific people performing it. In the face of the ever-increasing digitization of our lives, I am questioning the transportability of classical music. “Analog songs” is a metaphor for the uniqueness in all of us that makes us human. I want to help people realize their “analog songs” and have the courage to actualize themselves.
Very assertive definition of self is of utmost importance especially for artists/composers who share their thoughts and feelings with the rest of the world open to all kinds of critiques by professionals and amateurs alike. You’ve said, “I am a multiplicity of identities, maybe unresolved. And maybe one possible contemporary proposition is that it doesn’t have to be a resolved linearity.” Did you always have this clarity about your own definition of self? What helped you reach this conclusion and is it finalized?
It took me years to think of myself as a manifold and be comfortable with it. My formative years were complex – I was born in New York, but my family moved a number of times internationally. By the time we settled in Los Angeles, when I was seven, I spoke English with a British accent and didn’t feel American. In fact, I’ve always felt like an outsider – still do.
As a sensitive youth, I remember feeling the pressure to conform. This troubled me enough that it was a major factor in my decision to go to West Point. I thought that if I served my country, then I could prove that I am American. That turned out to be naive and misplaced.
One of the benefits of a life in art has been that I have come to terms with my weirdness. The truth is, we are all many things. Contemporary identity is more like Internet channels – we are meta-beings. Hegelian summation is a 19th century, nationalist, non-cosmopolitan construct and outdated.
A composer, performer, sound artist, professor, and overall explorer of all things dealing with the inner workings of mind and soul. What are the constants in your life encouraging and moving you to keep up with your own set pace?
Art is an attitude. Art takes courage every day, as life does too. Calvino says that the world is inferno, so, “seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”
Everyday, I keep with me the most beautiful things I have experienced [e.g. attending a mass at the Pantheon during the Pentecost, when rose petals are made to rain through the oculus; flying over the Blue Hole in Belize; eating at Noma; being in Boston during the ’04 baseball post-season; living for six weeks in a castle in Umbria (Civitella Rainieri), my grandmother’s 102nd birthday party], and at the same time, I document things I see everyday (I put them on Tumblr, Vine, and Snapchat). There is infinite beauty in the world, and art, as an attitude, needs to be flexed to claim some measure of it every day. It’s always on. It is no longer a choice.
You write that reading “Naked Lunch by William F. Burroughs, made you think that beauty can be found in a medium full of potential power and destruction. Power and Destruction, both in one or is there an essential element that draws the line awakening the desire/attraction in choosing one over the other?
My predilection is to defy simple dichotomies – again, letting a manifold be a manifold, rather than seeking to resolve it. I see beauty and birth in distortion, a singular gestalt that is always changing. When I heard Hendrix and Coltrane, the turbulence that they embrace as their sound, it changed my life. Those sounds are not fixed; they are alive, visceral and somatically healing. It saved my life, literally.
Songs for Sendai (2011)
“Traumatic events also have the effect of altering our sense of time.” Measurable as well as unquantifiable amount of loss and confusion – are these determining factors in figuring out a map of our quests for meaning or absence thereof or more reasons to create and explore the labyrinths within?
We come to terms with understanding in different ways. Rational, irrational. Intellectual, emotional.
Often, our intellectual understanding of something and our emotional understanding of something arrive at different temporalities. Understanding something and believing something, therefore, is not the same. Much of the strife in the world is due to this tension.
In the NY Times piece, Finding the Score Within, you explain, “my music ventures into the realm where the limitations of traditional notation are tested. A reader has to know what the sounds are before a syllabary can be useful. This is where technology has proven handy.” How did you come to the realization that testing the limits of traditional notations was your calling? As you say, “technology has proven handy” to communicate your intentions/ideas but do you ever see it as an impediment to some extent?
Several important influences helped shape my relationship to Western classical music and notation. First as I was becoming self-conscious of being colonized by Western classical music, I started becoming familiar with the work of the director, Wim Wenders. He said in interviews, growing up in Germany after the war, he felt colonized by American culture – wearing jeans and listening to rock ‘n roll. As he was beginning to develop as a filmmaker, he questioned whether he could participate fully, when he did not belong to the dominant culture of cinema (Hollywood). Then, at a crucial time for him, he discovered the Japanese director, Yasujir? Ozu. Ozu served as an example of a master working successfully outside the dominant culture. Around the same time as I was getting to know Wenders’ work, I was reading the French philosopher, Roland Barthes.
Barthes says that when we write, we are rewriting as much as we are writing. That is to say, that when we write, we are re-invoking letters and words that already have a well-worn provenance. As I was thinking of my relationship to Western classical music, I too (like Wim Wenders) don’t belong to the dominant culture, because... I’m American. This realization in coordination with my love for certain unusual sounds made me think that my hope (and I’m only talking about myself) in participation is to fuck things up. Fucking things up means – to discover more personal sounds by inventing new techniques, hacking instruments, and/or inventing new instruments.
And if the sounds are new, then, a new syllabary needs to be invented to graphically represent them. The new syllabary creates the opportunity for latent writing, a space that is more mine and less invoking rewriting – like cooking from scratch. In order to facilitate the mapping of the new syllabary to sounds, I make videos of me (or my collaborators) performing the sounds, which I then upload onto the Internet. When I send my scores, I send links to those videos, so that whoever is practicing my music can have a reference to what the music should sound like. (Here’s an example of the hookah sax, a hacked saxophone: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BXtx2qRa7w8.)
All technology is a pharmakon. A pharmakon is an ancient Greek word that embodies two opposites: it at once means medicine and poison. Derrida and Plato refer to it, when they talk about the invention of writing. The cautionary tale is that writing can be an aid to memory, but once it exists and people start depending on it, it can cause the deterioration of internal, human mechanisms for memory. I find videos useful in helping to explain my notational syllabary. And I sometimes use megaphones in vocal performance. But I don’t use laptops in vocal performance anymore (I used to early on). I began to feel sensitive to the fact that if the laptop is on stage, people started to expect that the weird sounds they were hearing were all processed sounds facilitated by software. This ran contrary to how hard I was working to make those sounds, so I stopped using laptops in vocal performances.
You state, “When I compose, I create a context in which our little village can make music together.” You write Person specific music. Sometimes to be performed in one specific space. By default, you belong to so many villages of your own creations and choices, but do you intend to build up or are you mostly interested in the singularity aspect of each shared experience?
Music saved my life.
When I heard Hendrix, it was just so cool transcendentally, that I just had to start playing guitar.
All true loves are irrational. I am trying to give back, trying to offer some measure of that singular, life-transforming experience to the audience. Those are the stakes in being alive. And we can do it together, in our little village.
With regards to your role as a professor at UC Berkeley, you state, “I push my students to test the limits of their comfort zones to broaden their creative capacities.” What are some of the most striking works you’ve experienced as a result?
Joyce Kwon wrote a piece about famine in North Korea. Before performing it for us, she fasted for a week. That commitment was somehow palpable. It was stunning and after eight years of teaching at UC Berkeley, it still stands out.
Nathan Chamberlain, our valedictorian last year, produced a sold-out concert off-campus featuring two radical pieces of his as well as several of his colleagues. His standout piece was a piece for microtonal electric guitar (which he himself performed) and a dancer with a wireless sensor, which sent data that affected the sound of the guitar.
Nathaniel Ben-Horin wrote a piece for two umbrellas as instruments. You might think such resources would be very limiting, but he made it into a surprisingly compelling work. All notated and he performed it too.
Matthew Goodheart, a recent Ph.D. graduate, came to us already a mature artist. During his time in our program, he developed an electronic instrument (custom software) with which he could activate specific frequencies on specific cymbals (which he had pre-analyzed), excited by transducer pick-ups attached on those cymbals. These instruments could be played as instruments, in both written and improvised contexts, or perform on their own as an installation in a space. That hybridity problematized what we normally think of as an instrument. And they make really beautiful sounds too.
The Modern Academy, an innovative and intensive short course in music performance and composition, kicked off June 10th in Hong Kong, drawing a talented cohort of local and international students and young professionals.
Among the distinguished mentors joining the two-week sonic experience, Ken Ueno, a composer/vocalist who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, stands out for his surprising journey to a life in music.
For university, the Japanese-American enrolled at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, his ambitions for a career in politics as removed from classical music training as one could imagine. But a training accident resulted in his honorable discharge and he spent two years at home to convalesce. During this time Ueno discovered Jimi Hendrix, electric guitar, and later Bartok’s Fourth String Quartet.
A fire had been kindled. He believed he had to start composing, formally studying music and earning a Ph.D. from Harvard. “Composing has since been the mechanism through which I have sought, wrought, and augmented my sense of an autonomous self,” Ueno explains. “It is empowering like nothing else to conceive of a ridiculous thing and have it done, especially when other people get it too.”
It should therefore come as no surprise that his unexpected path into music translates into a desire to help aspiring composers and performance artists realise their visions. Ueno has taught at summer festivals before and always thrills to the collaborative learning process. “It’s inspiring to me and reinvigorating – that’s the most important takeaway that I’ll be looking forward to,” he says.
For Modern Academy, Ueno and his fellow tutors will conduct master classes and practice sessions, first at Spring Workshop, a sleek and airy gallery space inside an industrial building in Hong Kong’s reviving Wong Chuk Hang area, then at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. The course includes concert performances that are open to the public.
The composition program comprises three tracks: one devoted to dance and composition, another for film and composition, and the third, which Ueno is taking up, exclusively on composition. In his view, “certain sounds have intrinsic communicative power that they can deliver,” and he will no doubt share this approach this summer. In so doing, Ueno extends a tradition of exploring truth through creative enterprise, a practice dating to the most pre-eminent classical composers.
Appropriate to this spirit of experimentation, The Modern Academy brings a special focus to the works of two giants of 20th century composition: Edgard Varèse, for whom 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of his death, and Luciano Berio, in the 90th anniversary year of his birth.
Ueno offers unalloyed praise for the two featured composers. “Edgard Varèse is one of the greatest composers of the 20th century,” he says. “He led the way towards music that was not hierarchically based on Western harmony alone.” Of Luciano Berio, Ueno enthuses about the Italian pioneer’s masterful experimentation in “maximizing the potential of every instrument” and summoning “utter musicality”.
With a strong appreciation of the rich tradition that precedes him as well as a desire to chart unprecedented paths in music, Ueno is a rare contemporary composer who can bridge classical and new music and nurture works that ring true.
Composer Ken Ueno, Professor of Music at UC Berkeley, recently received a commission to compose “Four Contemplations,” a piece for eleven string players and an extended vocalist, in commemoration of RISD Museum’s restored Dainichi Buddha.
In light of this new work his colleague, Professor Seth Cluett thought that this would be a good time to discuss with Professor Ken Ueno the details of his new piece and the range of his work. Below is the discussion between two composers that leads to fascinating insights into contemporary composing.
SC: Your public profile identifies you quite squarely in the realm of performance and composition, with substantial commissions from a wide array of performers as well as major ensembles and orchestras. At the same time though improvisation and installation clearly represent quite substantial threads running more quietly through your activities and output. Where do you see these more extreme modes of not-very-fixed (improvisation) and much-more-fixed (installation) fitting in your interests as a creative practitioner?
KU: I had a complicated childhood, traversing several languages and cultures. Alas, I have always thought of myself as a manifold – being both Japanese and American, as well as being neither at the same time. Consequently, it feels quite natural for me to inhabit multiple subcultures of art that my output engages (I have written concert works, improvisation, and sound installations). It is true that, at present, I have a more established career as a composer of written works for classically trained musicians. But I wonder if part of that might be because that that trajectory fits more comfortably into an established cultural economy with contingent support systems already in place – for which I feel very fortunate, but it has its limitations as well (everything is a pharmakon – an ancient Greek word meaning both a poison and a remedy). On the other hand, being a latecomer into music (I was twenty-five when I started to compose), I had been interested in the visual arts and architecture, even back into my formative years, but I hadn’t had much opportunity to engage with those mediums in a meaningful way, until years later.
I do want to say, though, that I get a sense that what others think of what I am and what I do is perspectival, meaning if they are a museum curator, they might only know my installation work and if they are a conductor, they might only know my orchestral work. I have an inkling that some museum curators only think of me as a sound artist and don’t know my orchestral work, for example. For a number of years, I led a double life as a legit composer and an improvising vocalist. The vocal concerto was the first opportunity I had to bring those two streams together. The next thing is to bring installations into the fold. I am developing projects in which all three trajectories will coalesce: opera installations in which I will perform. On the other hand, I don’t feel the pressure to synthesize everything.
I am comfortable living a manifold life. The common denominator is that all three practices are not fixed and are temporal. Architecture only feels more fixed since the materials decay at a slower rate than our bodies. Most of my installations were only shown for a limited amount of time. Some of my compositions have been in performers’ repertoires for a decade or longer. In those cases, they are more fixed. In my vocal concerto, the improvised cadenza is meant to be a running thread in my life that keeps going. And the structure of the piece is planned to change as my body changes.
The supposedly fixed score of a Western orchestral piece is thusly problematized. This fixation with fixity in the West…it’s because people are afraid of death. I am not afraid. But I do wish I could live long enough to fulfill the second iteration of the structure of my vocal concerto. What I have planned is that every 30 years I will remake the opening tape part. I will be mixing sounds I can make now with the sounds and I made when I was six and sing on top of it live. My greatest musical ambition is to be able to do this at least two times.
SC: Your installation Four Contemplations opened at the end of March at the RISD Museum in Providence. This piece seems to embody much of the cultural depth upbringing as well as engaging multiple modes of practice. As I understand, your work for this space has both performance and exhibition components. Could you talk a bit about this piece and how you arrived at the final form of the work?
KU: I was commissioned to create a site-specific piece for the RISD Museum’s Dainichi Buddha (c. 1150). This is an unusual idea for a composition. The work, titled Four Contemplations, will have three aspects. The first aspect/event will happen on March 26th. Eleven string players, members of the Community MusicWorks Players, and I will perform while installed in various rooms of the Asian art galleries in the RISD Museum. The evening will unfold in four 30-minute ticketed chunks (this was suggested by the museum to control audience flow). On March 29th, we will perform the piece as an hour-long concert piece in the concert hall of the RISD Museum. On that occasion, I will also incorporate recordings I will make during the March 26th event, documenting the sounds of the audience – so the second aspect will embody a memory of the earlier event, the audience will be part of the instrumentation, if you will. A few months after these live events, recordings of the two live events will be mixed and made available on the museum guide. This will be the third aspect.
Regarding the form of the piece, the different constraints suggested to me by the ensemble and the museum were challenging – the multiple aspects, that musicians will be in different rooms performing at the same time, that the flow of the first and second events would be different, etc. When I was in a quandary composing, I thought of the old parable of the blind men describing an elephant, which has often been used to describe Buddhism itself. Alas, the three aspects are like the different parts of the elephant. The sound world of the piece and the pacing were inspired by the four fundamental meditations in Buddhist practice.
SC: You mentioned your vocal concerto, and you’ve used your voice in previous installation works. Obviously not all of your work incorporates you as an active sound producer, but this thread is strong through your practice and I think it produces a productive complication for your role as the author as well as the subject of your work. How does being a part of your own work fold into your identity as a composer and artist?
KU: A strong biographical underpinning informs James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Not my favorite work by Joyce, but one that made a strong impact early on (the epigraph to Portrait is tattooed on my body). I was similarly impacted by the works of Marina Abramovic and Sophie Calle. Their works blur the line between life and art, sometimes uncomfortably so. But it’s really the musicians I admire most, the Hendrixes, the Coltraines, the Minguses, and Stevie Ray Vaughns, whose sound was really an extension of their bodies, and, by extension, their identities, that inspired that aspect of my practice. Much of my composed works are person-specific, not only to me, but for the instrumentalists for whom I am designing the piece. An instrument is not just an instrument. It only has a soul if played by a person. And a remarkable instrumentalist can project his/her aura to the empathic audience member. At that moment when a strange thing is not only accepted but also empathically received, there is a space that opens wherein the participants (the artist and the audience) feel less alone in the world. Calvino says, “seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.” In the face of the ever increasing digitization of our lives (and therefore the prospect of all of us being rendered anonymous), works that use my voice as subject and object, my person-specific works, and the ephemerality of it all, are moves to try to champion the corporeal, the human, the physical, and somehow stake a claim for the authentic, when it feels everyday that the trace of having lived is increasingly in danger of etiolating.
SC: You speak passionately and with clarity about the role of the body in the creation and experience of the work. A large segment of your output, however, involves some form of computer intervention. How do you reconcile these two seemingly opposed interests? What role does technology play in your work and how visible/audible should that role be to your viewer/audience?
KU: I use the computer to help me analyze sounds to help facilitate the structuring of harmonies and sounds that are more organic to the physical world, in the same way that contemporary architects are using software such as AutoCAD and CATIA to design spaces that are more fluid and organic. If software can help me analyze my vocal multiphonics and facilitate the designing of orchestral harmonies modeled on that sound, then, the software is helping me extend my body.
The other way I use technology is to automate an ever-changing activation of sounds through space in an installation. In this case of live performance, you are right – I usually don’t use a computer when I am performing. The presence of technology on stage does affect the way people hear. As a vocalist, I am sensitive to the audience thinking that a computer is doing the heavy lifting in my performances.
All technology is a pharmakon. I think if we approach our creative endeavors mindful of the negative aspects of our relationship to technology, then there are possibilities of engagement that could possibly aid in helping us create our aesthetic worlds. It is not a zero sum game.
About Ken Ueno:A Rome Prize and Berlin Prize winner, Ken Ueno, is a composer/vocalist/sound artist. As a vocalist, he specializes in extended techniques, such as multiphonics, circular breathing, and throat singing. Musicians who have collaborated with Ken include Kim Kashkashian, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Joey Baron, Ikue Mori, Joan Jeanrenaud, eighth blackbird, Alarm Will Sound, BMOP, SFCMP, and Frances-Marie Uitti. The Hilliard Ensemble featured Ken’s Shiroi Ishi in their repertoire for over a decade. Ken’s sound installations have been commissioned by galleries and museums in Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Taiwan, Mexico, and China. Currently an Associate Professor at the University of California, Berkeley, he holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University www.kenueno.com
Community MusicWorks of RI received a prestigious MAP Fund grant to commission Ken Ueno, Professor of Music at UC Berkeley, to compose “Four Contemplations,” a piece for String Orchestra and Throat Singer, in commemoration of RISD Museum’s restored Dainichi Buddha.
Community MusicWorks was founded in 1997, Community MusicWorks is a nationally recognized community-based organization that uses music education and performance as a vehicle to build lasting and meaningful relationships between children, families, and professional musicians in urban neighborhoods of Providence, RI. CMW has been featured in The New Yorker as a “revolutionary organization in which the distinction between performing and teaching disappears.” Founder and Artistic Director Sebastian Ruth won a MacArthur Fellowship Award in 2010, and the organization was awarded the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award from the Obama Administration that same year.
The RISD Museumacquires, preserves, exhibits, and interprets works of art and design representing diverse cultures from ancient times to the present. Distinguished by its relationship to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), the Museum educates and inspires artists, designers, students, scholars, and the general public through exhibitions, programs, and publications.
Approximately 1,500 boxes of Honey Nut Cheerios were recently used in a way we haven't seen before.
They helped create a beach in "Gallo: a fable in music in one act," a production by Guerilla Opera in Boston.
“This opera pairs many things, which are both familiar and unfamiliar. The familiar landscape of a beach is made unfamiliar by being made entirely of Cheerios,” explained soprano Aliana de la Guardia.
The Cheerios beach, a representation of our memory, was composer Ken Ueno’s idea.
"I grew up eating Cheerios. The daily ritual of eating Cheerios for breakfast fills the landscape of my childhood memory. Alas, as I was thinking of the opera, I thought, what if we could see all the Cheerios I had consumed over my whole childhood? It would be a beach, a whole beach of memory.”
The beach measured 13 by 18 feet. The Honey Nut Cheerios variety gave it a good sand color.
Director Sarah Meyers told us the unique set created an experience for all of the senses.
“We knew what [the Cheerios] would look like, more or less, but they not only look great, they fill the room with an amazing smell, like breakfast and kitchens,” said Meyers. “And they create a whole new soundscape for the production. Every time someone takes a step, they crunch and crumble underfoot. They feel fascinating. We didn't really know until we got them in the space what it would be like to walk on Cheerios, or lie on them, or crawl through them. They are surprisingly comfortable.”
At one point in the performance, de la Guardia actually became buried in Cheerios. She said it felt pretty nice, although, many Cheerios stuck to her in unexpected ways.
Given all the walking, lying, crawling and burying, Gallo went through a whole lot of Cheerios with each performance. Meyers told us the crew cleaned up the beach and stored it in plastic bins after every show.
They laid it back out and added more cereal before each performance.
“We make an incredible mess! That’s just part of the process. Make the beach, make a mess, clean it up, and do it again," said Meyers.
"Gallo" ended its run May 31. Learn more about the Guerilla Opera at GuerillaOpera.com.
In addition to being a composer, vocalist, and installation artist, Ken Ueno is also a
dedicated foodie. In 2010 he had a singular experience at Momofuku Ko in New York’s
East Village. One of his dishes was a spoonful of frozen shaved foie gras.
“I remember putting it in my mouth,” Ueno said during a Skype conversation from
Taipei, where he had overseen an installation, “and instantly, the heat in my mouth
melted, and it was like this exotic, otherworldly, fantastic new thing.” At the same
time, though, “it’s foie gras – it’s fatty, real comfort food.”
When Ueno was writing the final scene of his first opera, “Gallo,” which Guerilla Opera will premiere next week, he made it an analogue of that experience. The scene is a lullaby, a duet for soprano Aliana de la Guardia and percussionist Mike Williams, who is her husband. “I wanted the piece to end, after all this exotic and weird stuff, with something comforting,” Ueno explained. Williams, though, is playing a homemade metallophone whose intervals are microtones, notes that fall between those of our regular scale. Like the foie gras, the lullaby is both familiar and strange.
“That’s the way I live my life. I’m an artist, and the things that I’m engaged with, the things that I’m reading and eating, are all going into what I’m feeling and composing.”
The negotiation between the recognizable and the alien runs throughout much of Ueno’s music and in particular through “Gallo,” for which Ueno wrote his own libretto. The title means “rooster” in Italian, and it comes in part from the rooster-shaped wine jugs he encountered during an artist’s residency in the Italian region of Umbria. (One of the two characters is a rooster, sung by countertenor Douglas Dodson.)
Rather than tell a conventional story, “Gallo” explores ideas – about landscape, memory, and our sense of place. “It’s a mirror of contemplation of ontology,” Ueno said, referring to the branch of philosophy that explores modes of being. That may seem forbiddingly abstract, but Ueno’s concerns have powerful roots. One of the strongest was the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated the northeast coast of Japan and triggered a meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.
The incident was especially personal for Ueno, who had lived in the nearby city of Sendai for three years during his childhood; the place, he said, “became an irretrievable memory.” And it reminded him of Voltaire, writing about the earthquake that demolished Lisbon in 1755, and how it drove Voltaire away from Leibniz’s idea that our world was the best of all possible worlds.
Those concerns, of how and why we try to subdue a natural world that always eludes our control, are at the heart of “Gallo.” The libretto begins: “I have dreamed and have seen the future/ The landscape of my youth mythic'ly wiped out/ By water/ And fire.” The opera’s set is a beach made of Cheerios. Again, it’s a strange setting that also has reassuring overtones of childhood breakfasts. Besides the rooster, the other character is a woman who represents both a mother (comforting) and a shopper (consumerist).
And though the content may seem strange, the forms Ueno uses to shape it go back centuries. “Gallo” is his take on Baroque opera, opening with a recurring musical pattern known as a passacaglia and containing dances, arias, toccatas, recitatives, and instrumental interludes. The music itself – scored for clarinets, saxophone, cello, and percussion – balances the familiar (it evokes Stravinsky’s reworking of Baroque music) and the unfamiliar (Ueno brings together music of different temperaments, intervals different than those of our usual 12 notes).
Still, for all its allusions to what we’re accustomed to, an opera where the landscape is a character, and in which a rooster stands on stage and delivers an aria about ontology in the madeup language of Chickenese, may be just too weird for comfort. “It’s ridiculous,” Ueno said in an interview on the Musical America website. “And that’s part of the commentary on ontology. It’s easy to complain about the world, or dream of something, but it takes courage to actually realize, actually make the ridiculous thing.”
Expanding on that thought, Ueno came back to the rooster character, and how one of the vernacular meanings of the word chicken is being afraid. “That plays into ontology too, because the risks that we take define who we are, and what we’ve accomplished. “But that leap of faith to go forward, for me, is an essential quality about living,” he continued. He recalled an interview with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, in which the great writer said that he wished he could forget writing “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” so as to be able to go on to the next thing and not repeat himself. Ueno takes that as a model.
“And I also know there are people who, once they have their chops, they feel comfortable re-creating the tool box, keep working at it. But personally, I feel like the only real, tangible thing that I get out of work is what I’ve learned from it. Because I keep my eyes on the future and I want to keep getting better.”
PUTNEY -- Like a paleontologist dreaming of bones yet unearthed or an anthropologist pondering evolutionary what-ifs, a foursome of composers and musicians is following an imaginative and innovative line of inquiry in creating a new piece.
Brought together by Yellow Barn’s Artist Residency program, composers David Smooke and Ken Ueno and the Pictures on Duo featuring Jacqueline Pollauf on harp and Noah Getz on saxophone have gathered at the Greenwood School to create a new piece that extends the range of their instruments -- literally.
Deconstructing and reconstructing the saxophone and harp, the four are exploring new sounds and new ways of playing, while imagining what the instruments would be like if they had evolved differently.
"We are considering the conflated history of their instruments, and the larger history, which I think is the history of the development of technology," Ueno, who arrived in Putney from UC-Berkeley. "We are creating an imaginary trajectory for their instruments ... a tributary that got lost."
The resulting music created for and by these new instruments will be intriguing, it may be beautiful, and some of it may be hard to take. But it is music created in an atmosphere of liberation; the instruments have been cut loose from the evolutionary lines that produced the harp and saxophone as we know them.
"One of the functions of art is to open up people’s expectations. We want to confront people’s expectations of what music can be," said Ueno.
The public can get a glimpse of the creative process in this residency titled "Utopia/Euterpe/Dystopia," this Friday at 7 p.m. at the Greenwood School library. Admission is free. For information, visit www.yellowbarn.org/events/ utopiaeuterpedystopia.
To do that, the four have embarked on an unusual path, one that began with trips to area hardware stores, where they found plastic tubing, metal hardware and other tools and materials to make these new instruments.
"We took a sax down to the hardware store, and began taking it apart. To their credit, we didn’t get a lot of strange looks," said composer David Smooke. "I wonder what you have to do in Brattleboro to get an odd look at a hardware store."
Freshly reassembled, Noah Getz’s sax, mischievously renamed a "hookahphone," is a new animal -- capable of low, rumbly didgeridoo-like sounds and higher, mournful, almost human cries.
For Getz, who is still mastering the new instrument, the experience has been liberating. The music world has challenged the boundaries of key, pitch, rhythm, harmony and form. Now the accepted boundaries that come with playing a certain instrument have been broken down. "Those parameters are not mandatory," said Getz.
Moving to Mike Kohout’s Greenwood School woodshop, the four are also building a new harp -- a 10-foot, two-stringed creature that could be called Harposaurus, capable of ominous, low sonic vibrations.
When asked what her 10-foot harp is like, Pollauf had a disarmingly simple answer: "It’s huge."
"We’re trying to figure out how to transport it out of here. It’s a challenge of somewhat epic proportions," said Smooke.
The four hope this epic challenge eventually results in a full-length production that explores the confluence of music, performance and other art forms -- something all four are interested in.
"As performers, as musicians, we are always participating in an act of drama on stage," said Getz.
Pallouf, Getz and Smooke have worked together on smaller projects and had dreamed of collaborating on something more extensive. The Yellow Barn residency made that possible, and allowed them to welcome Ueno into the project.
"We really want to thank Yellow Barn for giving us an opportunity to work together," said Ueno.
Friday’s presentation will offer a glimpse into the creative process and should be appropriate for all kinds of audiences.
"I think that this is going to be a great community event, of interest to anyone who loves music, theater or the visual arts. It will also be fascinating for families, and we’re hoping that the 7 p.m. start time will help bring out some younger audiences," wrote Catherine Stephan, Yellow Barn executive director.
Music on the Edge is the University of Pittsburgh contemporary music concert series co-directed by composers Matthew Rosenblum and Eric Moe. The series presents a great mix of newer and older contemporary classical compositions. Recent concerts have included a two-day Morton Feldman symposium, the ever-exciting Alarm Will Sound, and NEWBAND, the microtonal ensemble that performs with Harry Partch's Instrument Collection and many new creations. Recent seasons have seen a partnership with the Andy Warhol Museum and their theater. The next concert in the series comes from a newer ensemble called LotUS, short forLeague of the Unsound Sound. The performing ensemble is well-rounded, including a wealth of esteemed composers, performers, and improvisors. Performing in Pittsburgh will be Tim Feeney (percussion), Michael Harley (bassoon), Wendy Richman (viola), David Smooke (composer/toy piano), Ken Ueno (extended vocals), and Shirley Yoo (piano). Michael Formanek, who released a beautiful record on ECM last year, is also a core member. LotUS departs from a lot of other ensembles with their mix of composed and improvised pieces, both backed by a dedication to pursuing new sounds.
I had the opportunity to conduct an e-mail interview with co-curators David Smooke and Ken Ueno. Thanks to David and Ken for their well thought out answers!!
David Bernabo: To start, what is the Unsound Sound?
David Smooke: I like the pun of this phrasing. In a nonmusical definition the words sound and unsound are opposites, but when applied to music their juxtaposition presents somewhat of a paradox. Also, it accentuates the idea that our ideas live in a realm far afield of the musical mainstream.
Ken Ueno: It was David who came up with it, but how I related to it was that it seemed to name a shared concern for advocating for sounds which have traditionally been denied in classical music: those sounds which are not privileged enough to have a letter name.
DB: When you present an improvised work at a concert, do you discuss a method of attack beforehand, is it completely "free", or does it vary depending on circumstance? Are restrictions imposed?
DS: Personally, when playing with top-notch musicians, I very much prefer completely free improvisation. Even in the moment, people like Tim and Ken think in terms of ebb and flow and musical argument, so the end result will sound like a well-conceived composition. The advantage of working freely is that we can challenge ourselves and each other to explore new sonic possibilities that hopefully will surprise even ourselves.
KU: We do not discuss anything before hand, but nothing is ever completely “free” in life. I often liken our approach to that of conversation. Over the course of many years, each player discovers personal sounds on his/her instrument and spends time developing fluency, a dexterous access/control of those sounds. This stage I might liken to developing a vocabulary. What is important to us, aesthetically, is that the sounds are personal enough that there is the possibility of latent writing. That is, a quality that is opposed to the standard classical lexicon of sounds. For example, whenever, say, a middle C is performed or written, there is as much a rewriting -- a borrowing that is impersonal -- that occurs, as there is a new writing. Metaphorically, latent writing might be akin to inventing a new syllabary – especially since new sounds demand new syllabograms.
Next, as we come together to “converse,” we listen, agree, provoke or divert, or perform any of these modes at the same time. There is a particular empathic exchange that can happen, that feels transformative. The accumulation of these empathic exchanges creates trust over time. In the same way that our most important conversations are those in which we share (and develop) our most personal topics, topics that shape our identity (as Milan Kundera said, “friends remind us of who we are”), the most cherished improvised “conversations” are performed with those we trust most musically. It is also true that, in a way, when we perform again with those trusted partners, we reengage in a lifelong conversation. We at once reengage with a shared score (transcribed in our bodies from previous shared experiences) and continue to add to that shared score (thereby creating a richer text to reengage with in future performances).
Sometimes, when we are most in agreement, it is hard to tell whose sounds are whose. The most exciting moments are those in which we discover new sounds, moments in which the experience has expanded our musical capability, which means we have also discovered an expanded capability for the body. The audience is a participant, too. There is an energy exchange that directly influences the structure of our piece. For example, when the audience is listening intensely, it is an energy we can feel. That energy can translate into an encouragement to take more risks. The restrictions are only the a priori physical constraints of our instruments, which we have yet to discover how to transcend. Sorry that was so long-winded. Ask me about coffee sometime.
DB: I'm going to break this next one into a couple of sections: In Pittsburgh, I've had several discussions dealing with increasing attendance at experimental and new music performances. In your (Smooke) "Scare Tactics" article, you mention that the last two decades of music have been devoid of the public outrage enjoyed by prior 20th century music, while the art world has seen a fair share of controversy. It does seem that contemporary art has the ability to draw a wider audience than contemporary music in the new music sense.
Do you think this relates to the economic impacts of music vs. art?
DS: Well, I was talking about popular music in addition to experimental music, so no, I don't think it's about economic impact. I think it might have to do with the fact that the most egregious popular music receives no overt government funding while experimental music can be easily ignored, whereas contemporary art has tackled controversial topics explicitly and on the public's dime.
KU: I think, yes, contemporary art can definitely draw a larger audience! In late capitalism, the tangibly commodifiable still carries more social prestige – e.g. Damien Hirst vs. any of the most successful composers.
DB: With record labels, radio stations, and music outlets owned by corporations, has the corporate control of music outlets resulted in a less informed public even though all forms of music are generally easier to access?
DS: The audience for experimental music is more fragmented and is a smaller percentage of the general public than reports from 40 years ago would indicate was the case then. However, the internet has been an incredibly powerful tool for getting the word out about non-mainstream acts. I believe that this has allowed for the proliferation of a consumer who is remarkably well informed about all sorts of independent artists and who seek is seeking to experience something exciting and new.
KU: I agree with David. I might posit that we are in a period of greater democratic access, less centralized corporate control of music than ever before! Consequently, each individual consumer of music is more variously informed than ever before. The listener today probably listens to more different kinds of music, from a broader geographic reach, than ever before.
DB: Following this thought process, has frightening music popped up in the past 20 years without the public's knowledge? Thinking of John Zorn's hardcore music among others.
DS: Yes! But whereas the general public felt the need to cavil about the horrors of Elvis and punk music and gangsta rap, they can righteously ignore John Zorn and Matthew Rosenblum and Ken Ueno and David Smooke without worrying about all the fear that our music should probably inspire.
KU: Yes. Rebecca Black’s Friday. Very frightening. In contrast, the Merzbows and Lachenmanns of the world are a womb-wall insulating us from such scariness. Just because the public has watched it on YouTube doesn’t mean it is knowledgeable of how scary it is.
DB: Many of the recent controversies surrounding musc have little to do with music, but deal more with ownership. Take the recent extensions of plunderphonics with The Avalanches and Girl Talk. Would you consider these acts as artists who have frightened the public?
DS: Certainly any art that can be construed as violating copyright frightens the owners of that copyright. Of course, this is not a new phenomenon by any stretch of the imagination! I am old enough to remember the lawsuit that De La Soul lost to the Turtles which closed the original floodgate on free sampling in music.
KU: They are part of a larger movement of what Jacques Attali calls autosurveillance, a post-industrial stage in which the profusion of technology leads to a DIY, and therefore decentralized, culture. So, the Oswalds, the Avalanches, and Girl Talks encourage their audience, though example, to make their own music as well. Oswald extended Tenney’s Collage #1 (Blue Suede). The Avalanches bought studio refinement to Oswald. Girl Talk’s genius is decoupling performance histrionics from the instrument (i.e. dancing in front of the laptop). What is sacrificed in an era of casual information exchange is the traditional trace to the author. My greatest, personal, conflict is reconciling my fervent advocacy of democracy versus my nostalgia for the trace to the author.
DB: From the well-established membership of LotUS, it seems like a built-in crowd would be a guarantee. How is LotUS trying to draw new audiences? Does touring help spread the word about the ensemble's goals?
DS: You are correct that we have been fortunate to have been able to engage with appreciative audiences at all of our previous concerts. In part we try to present limited performances in any one place in order to avoid saturating the market. Also, if I may say so myself, the musicians of LotUS are some of the best around, which tends to create its own sort of built-in buzz. We are thrilled to be collaborating with Music on the Edge and the Andy Warhol museum for this concert. It's always a privilege to partner with like-minded organizations and to help entertain their audiences with some new music. One of the more exciting aspects of working with different presenting organizations has been getting to know the music from the people in these communities, and we are quite fortunate to be able to present a world premiere by Matthew Rosenblum, a Pittsburgh-based composer whom I've long admired, on this concert.
DB: Could you talk about the pieces LotUS has performed that incorporate movement? Can visuals enhance a musical work?
DS: Live musical performance is essentially a performance art, whether or not the players recognize this fact. Guitarists step forward into their solos, and lead singers dance while they croon. While bowing a viola or blowing into a bassoon, the musicians inherently incorporate movement. The instrumentalists in LotUS tend to be very comfortable with conveying the basic musical flow in sound and in visual communication, with each other and with an audience. Therefore, it's a short step from well-articulated musical performance gestures to pieces with prescribed movements. Some works, like Ken Ueno's "Two Hands" are very subtle in their use of theatrical elements--in the case of that piece the different performance techniques (including pouring salt) simultaneously convey visual and aural meaning. My piece on this concert, "Topographies: transit/dis(solve)" is more literal in its use of movement, asking the players to partake in a ritual transformation that will have them gradually move through the venue.
DB: From your first season, each concert has a nice mix of new compositions, older pieces, and improvisation. Do many of the compositions include an improvisational aspect? Is improvisation still a radical concept or should it be (or is it) treated as another tool in music creation?
DS: Thank you! Of course, the oldest piece we've performed is from the 1980s, which in many contexts would be considered blindingly new. I think our repertoire mix has a lot to do with the odd configuration of our ensemble, which really came together around the Gubaidulina piece "Quasi Hoquetus." There are few pieces that use both bassoon and viola, and we've been very fortunate to have had many amazing composers willing to work with us to expand this repertoire. For me, improvisation has always been a part of my basic musicianship, whether public or in private, and always has been part of my basic compositional toolbox. And I find it incredibly fun to be able to collaborate on new performances with musicians like Ken and Tim.
KU: There is no improvisation in my piece, Two Hands. Inspired by the way Gerhard Richter has photorealist paintings as well as abstract expressionist works, from work to work there are differences - there are written pieces and improvised performances. In some pieces, the written and the improvised are both present. Improvisation is still controversial within the milieu of classical music – but accepted elsewhere. The written still carries a heftier prestige value in classical music. It delivers an illusion of fixity, which gives the illusion of rigor, albeit the reality is that it also reduces the possibility of latent writing. The illusion of fixity also delivers comfort for those who are afraid of death.
DB: Who will be performing in LotUS for the Pittsburgh show at The Andy Warhol Museum? What pieces will be performed?
DS: For this concert, we will have Tim Feeney, who was a founding member of So Percussion and who is on faculty at Cornell University playing percussion; Michael Harley, a founding and current member of Alarm Will Sound and faculty at University of South Carolina on bassoon; Wendy Richman, a founding and current member of ICE on viola; Ken Ueno, a composer who has won the Rome and Berlin Prizes and who is on faculty at UC Berkeley will also perform vocalizations; Shirley Yoo, who I met when she was on faculty at Peabody and who is now at Mercyhurst College will play piano; and I will play a little piano (a toy piano, actually). The concert will include two world premieres. The first will be "Two Harmonies", a work for microtonally tuned pianos, viola and percussion that University of Pittsburgh composer Matthew Rosenblum wrote for Wendy Richman. The second is my own "Topographies: transit/dis(solve)" for bassoon and viola, a work that involves movement and several unusual performance techniques, including bowed piano and slide piano. We'll also play two "older" pieces: Ken Ueno's "Two Hands" [which he'll talk about himself!] and Sofia Gubaidulina's ecstatic and highly virtuosic "Quasi Hoquetus" for viola, bassoon and piano. And there will be improvisation as well.
KU: My piece, which Wendy (viola) and Tim (percussion) will play, is Two Hands. It was originally written for Kim Kashkashian, and the percussionist, Robyn Schulkowsky. It was inspired by their suggestion to compose a piece which responds to the poetic selections contained in the anthology, Reich mir die Hand. My five-movement piece responds to Anne Sexton’s poem, Two Hands. The different movements set, or reflect upon different fragments of Sexton’s poem that I found especially moving. The movement titles quote those fragments.
I. …even the prison of their bodies, as Christ was prisoned in His body
II. …with the altars of the tides…closing the eyes
III. Unwind…you angel webs
IV. …with the silences of the fishes…
V. the salt of the mother
DB: Thank you both for the terrific answers!
(Gallery 1412) Seattle's Paul Hoskin is going to play contrabass clarinet, the biggest and lowest clarinet regularly made, and a thing you don't see much, but he's going to be outweirded by his collaborator, Bay Area composer and vocalist Ken Ueno, who admits that his singing makes people think he's throwing up "or I might have digestive problems." Since he was a child, Ueno has been singing more than one note at once—a technique called multiphonics, or throat singing. He also sings so low, it's beneath the middle of the earth. He's kind of like a life-affirming version of a death-metal singer. To Ueno, the body is a lab for resonation: He wants to see what it can sound like that it hasn't sounded like before.
Ken Ueno has thus spit in a bottle for a month until it was full of saliva. In the bottle he gave the confetti cut a score of Handel's opera "Giulio Cesare", shaken vigorously, and then rapidly draufgehalten with a camera.
The long past the moderns and own: After all, the phrase "You too, Brutus" the subject of an entropy-lesson on the California High School was the question then, how many molecules of air, the Julius Caesar set in speaking in movement, still has one's breath are einholbar. The photo of the snow globe bottle, Ken Ueno digitally distorted and www as a background image in its website.
kenueno.com installed - another, even from afar, sounding sign of how far the circles that the American composer draws around himself.
Ueno, born in 1970 in New York, as a child of Japanese parents grew up bilingual, with stations of life in Japan, French-speaking Switzerland and California - since the earliest days of "permanent exile", as he puts it - is one of the most original, both successful fastidious composers of his generation . Since last autumn, he is a guest of the American Academy, in an adjacent building, like the late Gustav Mahler in his composing. Score pages on the desk, a computer and beside kitchen, for whatever reason, a dispenser with beer. On Sunday, the festival "MaerzMusik" Ken Ueno before a concert at the Jewish Museum.
Life Full installations would be called his work, criss-cross intellectually to quirky, wide-ranging synthesis of the arts of a new era, which he wrote himself, or specific artist for her: "I want my life and my music are one." The sound of his compositions often conveys an almost meditative ease, to allow the unconditional desire, no play, no single experiment untried. For example, "talus" for viola and string ensemble from 2007, which begins with a terrible cry, and for the X-ray image of a fellow musician of importance was that investigated Ueno on his inspiration for potential harmonies. The violist Wendy Richman, whose ankle broke once in the overthrow of a stage, it will perform in Berlin.
Or startling, at least strange rattle and tubes of "On a Sufficient Condition for the Existence of Most Specific Hypothesis" with samplings of vocal techniques throughout the world. Self-taught, he has acquired a Sardinian, West African or Tibetan traditions. Or the clickers and dark shards of bass clarinet music "I screamed at the sea until nodes swelled up, then my voice became the resonant noise of the sea" of 2006, a dedicated testing of all possible techniques, which is Greg Oakes devoted to the well Sunday occurs.
Ueno remembered for a plastic instrument, which he had as a child, and thought at the same time on the popular Korean song tradition of Pansori, according to the women for the desired timbre of her voice so long counter screaming roar of the sea, to form on her vocal chords nodules. Ground covering to the Global into the path to art at Ken Ueno, every catch he feeds with, almost like himself a lot of work and vocation options behind him brought before it in 2006/07 the price of the American Academy Rome received, 2008 came as a professor of composition at the University of California at Berkeley and now lives on a scholarship year at Berlin's Wannsee.
A sporty appearance, incarnation of the left-reckless American way of life, Ueno told frankly that he wanted to be a senator at 16, and therefore went to study at the elite West Point military academy. In 1987 he suffered a serious accident there, had to design a new life plan. Shortly before Ueno, until then discovered most familiar with recorder and clarinet, Jimi Hendrix, and even started to take lessons on the guitar. Now he turned his ambition from brand-new: Studied music and composition at Berklee College of Music, where even meeting with Bartók's fourth string quartet, "my second musical epiphany after Hendrix, powerful music, the heavy metal related." Then Boston University, studied with Lukas Foss, another composition student years at Yale and Harvard, where he graduated in 1999 with a doctoral degree.
Sun Ueno proceeds actually times and places, right down to ancient and baroque period, up from California to Rome, from digital to analog, from the sculpture of the artist Kyoko Kawamura (in "Kizu" for koto and voice) to the paintings of Gerhard Richter by the military to rock music, right after the high school subject "Music". And so again and again to himself, Ueno art exudes good-natured narcissism, polyglot and also acts wonderfully based on himself. Political ambitions and pursues maximum extent that it is open, and indeed for all that has to offer the world. Highly ambitious with which imaging, theoretically many basements local contemporary music scene Ueno, which only sporadic contact.
At the concert on 27 March at 11 clock in the Jewish Museum conducts Standley Dodds Ensemble United Berlin.
Date: Winter, 2010
All the composers interviewed for this article have vivid musical imaginations and their music pushes the envelope. But with his use of extended techniques for instruments and voice, ethnic musical elements and instrumentation, and computer analysis of frequencies to shape his orchestration, Ken Ueno '94 reaches even further afield.
Born to Japanese parents and raised in California, Ueno has deep reverence for his Japanese heritage and culture, but grew up thoroughly American. During his youth, he didn't envision a career as a successful new-music composer. "My life plan was to go to West Point, become a general, and then return to California and become a senator," Ueno reveals. "I was really interested in politics and thought that would be my career. I planned for it, worked hard, and got into West Point." But everything changed during the summer after his freshman year, when Ueno suffered a serious injury that necessitated his departure from West Point to recover for a year and half.
"Before I went off to college, I had discovered Jimi Hendrix," Ueno recalls. "So during my year-and-a-half convalescence, all I did was go to physical therapy and play guitar eight, nine hours a day. I really learned to play during that time. As I was planning what I was going to do with the rest of my life, it dawned on me that maybe I should pursue music." Ueno started playing in bands and writing songs and ultimately entered Berklee in the spring of 1991.
Once there, he got heavily involved in jazz and took Herb Pomeroy's legendary Line Writing and Duke Ellington classes, which Ueno calls his "best pedagogical experience in music." Professor John Bavicchi introduced him to the string quartets of Béla Bartók. "When I first heard Bartók's fourth string quartet, it was a kind of second [musical] conversion experience after Jimi Hendrix. This was visceral, powerful music, and I was instantaneously inspired by it. But I also felt that there was something I didn't understand about it. The intellectual part is what got me interested in classical composition."
After graduating from Berklee, Ueno earned his Ph.D. in composition from Harvard University. His music has since won him the Prix de Rome, and last fall, he received the Berthold Leibinger Berlin Prize from the American Academy in Berlin. Now Ueno is a faculty member at the University of California, Berkeley. He has received commissions to write for virtuosic classical instrumentalists, including violist Kim Kashkashian, percussionist Evelyn Glennie, the Hilliard Ensemble, clarinetist Laura Carmichael, and many more. A work commissioned from Ueno yields a piece tailored uniquely to the sound, technique, and abilities of the work's dedicatee.
"I take into consideration the specific skills of the performers and analyze them using computer technology to develop structures, form, and sounds from the analysis. When I write for myself and orchestra, I do overtone singing and multiphonics, then analyze the frequencies and create an acoustic resynthesis of some of my sounds. I think in frequencies even when writing for traditional instruments."
Often the result is music that can be performed only by the person for whom it was written. "When I saw Jeff Beck, I thought there's no other guitarist who could do what he does. But we don't think a lot about that in classical music. If it's a Beethoven piano sonata, anybody with the technical skills should be able to play it. Listening to Hendrix, Coltrane, or Bob Dylan, the meaning of what I perceive seems so intrinsically linked to the persona and aura of the person that it's hard for me to divorce musical materials from that person."
Historically, classical composers have written music with the hope that it will be performed by various artists and have lasting appeal, but Ueno feels differently about composition. "In this postcapitalist society, there's so much music. Even the pop music I like to listen to sometimes seems so ubiquitous. I want to write music that somehow privileges the people who want to go see the live performance. . . . I'm not out there for ubiquity but for people who are more committed. When the audience hears the music, they realize it's something that they can't get anywhere else."
Composer, experimental improviser, extended vocalist, and electric guitarist Ken Ueno defines his music as walking the “juxtaposition of extremes: visceral energy versus contemplative repose, hyperactivity versus stillness.” Fusing an awareness of European modernism with the culture of Japanese underground electronic music, Ueno’s output is permeated with metaphoric symbolism, poetic musings, and subtly interwoven social commentary. Greatly influenced by the writings of Samuel Beckett, particularly the essays collected in Disjecta, Ueno says that “the poetic goal of my work has been to create music that is not about something; it is that something itself. I have worked to keep myself free of the trappings of compositional technique. Though I am invested in the power of poetics in music, I also believe that music itself has a communicative power to express something only music, in and of itself, can.”
Though not formally trained as a singer, Ueno possesses a unique vocal instrument, and frequently incorporates and performs his extended vocal techniques (including multiphonics, overtone singing, circular breathing, and a preternatural vocal range) with his live electronic compositions. He cites a wide range of vocal influences, including Tuvan throat singing, Shomyo incantation, Inuit women throat singers, Death Metal growlers, Arthur Miles (the cowboy overtone singer), Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, choral music from Sardinia, Bulgarian women’s choirs, Sainkho, Diamanda Galas, Joan La Barbara, Cathy Berberian, Bob Dylan, the Sex Pistols, the Langley School kids, Judy Garland, and Mahalia Jackson. “Basically, I like to listen to any vocalists who make interesting sounds,” Ueno explains. “I listen and try to continually expand my vocabulary of extended techniques. Beyond experimental singers, I spend most of my listening time listening to people who I think deliver honesty.”
Born in New York, Ueno spent his childhood in Japan, Switzerland, and California. His Japanese ancestry and love of Japanese culture clearly permeate his musical style, as seen in his use of traditional instruments (such as the biwa, shahuhachi, and sho), his use of Japanese texts, and his interest in the experimental rock scene pervasive in modern Japanese culture. Ueno describes his musical objective: “I want to make a kind of tribal, folk music of the future. But in my fanciful future, East and West coalesce into an irresolvable but beautiful manifold destiny. Cross-genre elements—Heavy Metal sub-tone singing, Tuvan-inspired throat singing, early 21st-century European avant-garde instrumental techniques, American just intonation, sawari (“beautiful noise,” an aesthetic of noise in traditional Japanese music)—are no longer disparate elements focused and unfocused at will, no longer exotic and familiar. Instead, they have integrated with one another to such an extent that their individual qualities become part of a single fabric of sound, a democratic sonic landscape.”
Ueno composes in numerous mediums, including acoustic classical works and electronic pieces. As a composer/performer/laptop artist, he has written a number of “Works for Self” (vocals +/- laptop), in which he integrates his unique vocalisms with digital instruments he designed in Max/MSP. Kage-Uta (Japanese for “shadow song”) for throat singer, electronics, and quadraphonic spatialization elicits an eerie, supernatural terrain. Ueno’s impressive throat singing blends seamlessly into the electronic landscape, evoking images of primal incantations conjoined with unearthly sonic exclamations. Summarized by Ueno as “a large-scale cross-fade between the live voice and the electronics,” he describes his goals as twofold: “to create sounds which clearly evolve out of my vocal performance and to create sounds electronically which I could then mimic myself—a discourse in which, if the sounds were likened to shadows, it is unclear which are the shadows and which are the shadows of shadows.”
Ueno frequently uses technology to help strategize his composing, regardless of whether the composition will include electronics in its final version. He also delights in using unconventional musical objects as performance controllers, in particular his iPhone. Referencing Reverse Swastikas Mark the Place of Buddhist Temples, Ueno notes that “for a while I’ve been gradually moving away from using electronics when I perform with my voice. Whenever people see speakers or a laptop, those things color people’s expectations of what they think they are hearing. The tendency is to think that the sonic frequencies are produced by computer treatment, though I am actually creating these sounds with my voice!” One way he addressed this problem was by putting the computer offstage and making a wireless network between his iPhone and his laptop. He uses the multi-touch screen “to send coordinates to control the ambisonic movement of my sounds in a surround-sound environment controlled by a patch I made using Max/MSP. At the same time, I use the accelerometer in the iPhone to trigger events in the same patch in Max/MSP. What I’ve used the trigger for most is to engage a freeze object (created by my friend Jean-François Charles). What the freeze object allows me to do is to make a real-time FFT analysis of my vocal multiphonics as a table of frequencies and amplitudes. This table then serves as a filter through which noise can be sent, creating a sound very close to my multiphonics. I then spatialize this sound, often singing new multiphonics to further saturate the spectrum, playing games of harmonicity vs. inharmonicity.”
Ueno’s thought-provoking program notes reveal an intensely emotional and poetic artist who compiles his words (and composes his texts) as eloquently as he composes his music. In discussing his deeply personal work a thick band of gray, a line that elides the end of day into the beginning of night, Ueno describes his experience visiting his grandfather as he lay dying, bedridden and catatonic in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease: “I was affected by what I read as signs of communication: motoric animation, irregular breathing, changes of heartbeat. This foreign language of physical gestures transcribes that which we want to interpret as signs of life continuing. In this piece, by using real-time sensors on my body and my voice, I want[ed] to investigate that gray line between language/gesture and non-semantic sound/movement.
What I see is a thick band of gray
a line that elides the end of day
into the beginning of night
stretched out over many years
perhaps a lifetime,
when we begin
we are already beginning
Ueno’s performance of a thick band of gray, a line that elides the end of day into the beginning of night is wrought with dramatic intensity. Though the use of gestural controllers and sensors can often seem invasive and/or non-organic, Ueno manages to flow gracefully through the movements, evoking a sense of Eastern spiritualism while channeling and communicating profound and honest human emotion. In discussing his compositional process, Ueno admits, “The poetics and the musical structure reveal themselves to me differently each time. Thomas Mann likened writing with facing the ‘marble block of words.’ I think of composing in a similar fashion.” He explains that he begins an overall impression, “and as I begin to sculpt out the local moments, I learn more about what the piece needs to be. My ideal would be to do what I feel Isamu Noguchi accomplished in his later works: to do just enough to a block of material to liberate what is already present in nature. As I am constantly thinking of poetics that inform my life, I am also thinking of sounds. At some point, they begin to inform each other.”
Despite the anxieties impacting life in the early days of the 21st century, Ueno remains decidedly optimistic about the future, and describes his artistic desire to communicate emotion and “serve as the social conscience of society.” Technology is an inherent piece of that vision. “The transformation that art can create in people is a powerful and necessary function of art in society,” he says. “As far as electronic music is concerned, I see technology becoming easier to use, more transportable, and we will see greater personalization of gestural controllers. One thing will never change: no matter how sexy the gizmos get, it will still require the unique contributions of creative people to make good art.”
Ken Ueno is a man comfortable with a gear shift—a composer of music that thrills with its interior complexity in one case and probes the ear deeply with a simple overtone vocal line in the next. He is also as likely to pick up the inspiration for his work inside a candy store and a childhood memory as in the text of Calvino, Beckett, or Joyce. "I think about the influence of the internet and cable television and globalization," says Ueno, a Brooklyn-born Japanese-American. "I am a multiplicity of identities, maybe unresolved. And maybe one possible contemporary proposition is that it doesn’t have to be a resolved linearity. I think that's part of the liberation of being a musicmaker today; we can engage with all of these things."
Ueno was a bit delayed to that engagement. As a West Point cadet he was headed towards a career in civil service and politics before an injury redirected his course. An guitarist by avocation, he opened a window on a professional music career at Berklee College of Music, and topped that off with further study at Boston University, Yale, and Harvard. A year at the American Academy in Rome followed, and this fall he leaves an assistant professor position at University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, to teach at the University of California, Berkeley. A scan down his resume paints a picture of a man deeply engaged with the theory and the production of music in addition to one with an impressively weighty library of scores—one which encompasses everything from work for his own solo voice to full orchestra pieces.
That's not to overlook the scuba diving license in his wallet and the Mohawk that accents his head (though it would be hard to miss it).
As you might expect with a CV that loaded, Ueno comes to the table with a few ideas about music, but he has a tendency to speak in a way that builds up the dinner-table conversation without dominating the room. And maybe it's fitting, then, that no matter the number of players on the stage or the amps flowing through the gear, Ueno is focused on the real over the reproduction: The alchemy of performers and audiences in a room.
"Usually you think of technology and recordings as something that enhances the means of art in reproduction, but I've been interested in ways that that can be kind of subverted," explains Ueno. "If you privilege the live experience, then you privilege the fact that it’s ephemeral."
In his own life, the most important listening experiences—the ones that have stuck with him and transformed his thinking—have been those dynamic live concert experiences, and those are the kind of experience he wants to create for his own audiences. "The audience knows there's a certain part of it that is not reproducible through mechanical means; that having gone to see it, they know that they've shared in this communal thing that happened and then at that moment realize that if they were to experience a CD or DVD representation of what had happened, they know that they would have definitely lost something."
It's also a focus he applies to composition. Though his music can convey expansive plains, it often also carries an intimacy that feels expertly fitted to the performer on stage and that's no accident. "It's one of the things I have to think a lot about. Who am I writing for? What would make them feel comfortable and in what ways can I engage with what they're good at doing so that together we can create something that's meaningful for all?"
Ueno equates his role in this process with that of an expert tailor. "I get a look at the guy [and ask], 'So are you going to wear this on your wedding day or is it everyday you're going to wear this?' and I take the measurements. Then hopefully it's comfortable and the person wears it and everybody thinks 'Hey, you look good, man. Where'd you get that suit?'"
Date: May 27, 2005 Page: D15 Section: Living
CAMBRIDGE- "If it wasn't for Jimi Hendrix," says Ken Ueno, "I wouldn't be a composer." Ueno, a Cambridge resident whose piece "Kaze-no-Oka" ("Hill of the Winds") gets its world premiere tonight at Jordan Hall and whose music let it be stated at the outset sounds absolutely nothing like Hendrix's, nonetheless had his artistic Big Bang as a guitar-noodling 16-year-old, during a lonely afternoon in a California ski cabin, with a copy of "Are You Experienced?"
"It was like being hit by a bolt of lightning," Ueno, 35, recalls over coffee at Harvard Square's Cafe Algiers. "The complexity of the sound, and the rawness! I later found out that this is a very common phenomenon for guitar players when they first hear Hendrix, but at the time I thought I had some sort of special communion." Ueno (pronounced, he says, "like the Spanish word `bueno' but without the b") writes "new music," or modern classical: drones, forebodings, weird scribbles of strings, and sudden percussive jabs. His work has been called a fusion of Japanese underground electronic music with European modernism, and he's composed using pen, paper, and computer for everything from the baritone saxophone to the hand-cranked music box. His work has been performed in places from Lincoln Center to the Norfolk Music Festival, and he's written for ensembles from Philadelphia to Holland.
The composer himself cuts an engagingly paradoxical figure: He's a theoretician committed to "visceral energy," an avant-gardist with a taste for the basics. He will discourse with subdued intensity on the patterns made by cigarette butts on the paving stones of European cities, or on the concept in Japanese traditional music known as "sawari," whereby the rattle or buzz of an instrument is given the same value as the notes being played.
But he can also talk heavy metal. "I think the attempts to politicize the differences between types or classes of music are less relevant for my generation than they ever were," he says. "There's a level of commonality between Metallica and Bartok some grammatical differences, sure, but at the visceral level they're the same. I mean, when I play Xenakis [Iannis Xenakis, a legendarily "difficult" Greek modernist composer] to my friends in LA who are in heavy metal bands they get it. It's just gritty, fantastic music."
Ueno's "Kaze-no-Oka" is part of a tribute to the 20th-century Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu, presented by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and featuring internationally acclaimed soloists Kifu Mitsuhashi on the bamboo flute and Yukio Tanaka on the short-necked lute. The two soloists will also be performing some of Takemitsu's more famous pieces. "When I thought of commissioning a piece for a tribute to Takemitsu," says BMOP's founder and artistic director Gil Rose, "I immediately thought of Ken. I thought he could take us into that sound-world, that meld of the ancient and the modern, of East and West"
Takemitsu, for Ueno, is the "Akira Kurosawa of Japanese classical music, the first and greatest example of an Asian composer who's been able to garner international respect, and he's such an inspiration to those composers who are not part of the dominant culture."
Ueno's own attempt, as a Japanese-American, to participate in the dominant culture ended when he was 18. Born in Bronxville, N.Y., he was guaranteed a peripatetic childhood by his father's job with Japan Airlines, and he lived in Japan and Switzerland before settling in California. Ueno's grand plan, as an adolescent, was to go into politics and become a senator, and at the age of 17 he entered the US Military Academy at West Point.
"I was a sensitive young man," he says, "and I suppose this was a dramatic way of proving that I was American." One year later, a neck injury ended his time as a cadet, and for 18 months he did nothing but play his guitar and endure physical therapy. "My life plan had been shattered," he says, "so I had to reinvent myself."
By the end of that period, Ken Ueno the musician had been born. At Berklee College of Music he was exposed to Stravinsky and Bartok; there was no going back. Now getting his doctorate in music composition at Harvard, he is an assistant professor and the director of the Electronic Music Studios at the University of Massachussetts at Dartmouth. Under the name DJ Moderne, he also hosts a show on Cambridgepublic-access television that has featured such prize-winning local composers as John Harbison and Bernard Rands.
A conversation with Ueno is a split-level affair. Above, hovering over the table as it were, is the cold and radiant world of theory, from which words like "hierarchicize," "intentionality," and "psychoacoustic" come blowing down. Below, darkening his brow and agitating his hands, is the more human restlessness of a young composer trying to get his work heard.
"I just want to offer people, for this 15 to 20 minutes of their time, which is not going to come again, an experience some sort of life-changing excitement," he says. "My favorite music has done that for me."
One of the tasks of a composer of new music, he says, is to "try to think up new mechanisms of interaction," ways in which what he calls "allergies" to unconventional sonic values can be overcome. In 1996 and 1997, Ueno was a volunteer music instructor at the Robert J. Watson House in Cambridge, a residential facility for young male offenders. During one weekly session, after tracks by Dr. Dre and Marvin Gaye, Ueno played his class the cello-and-piano movement from Messiaen's "Quartet for the End of Time," which was composed and premiered in a German internment camp in 1941.
"It was the only time I ever saw those kids quiet. And it couldn't have been further away from them culturally I mean, these were gangsta kids, and here I was playing them the music of this midcentury Frenchman, this colorblind ornithologist in a beret," he says. "But something about it just got their attention. You can feel when people are listening. Maybe the fact that it was written in a prison, in captivity. . . . But it just proved to me that if the music is good enough, and the context is set up well enough, you can get through."
By Keith Powers
What do a West Point cadet, an electric guitar player, a DJ with a TV show, a classical music composer and a Harvard doctoral candidate have in common?
They're all the same person. Ken Ueno, whose commission ``Apmonia'' will be given its world premiere tomorrow by the Pro Arte Cham-ber Orchestra at Sanders Theatre in Cambridge, has been all of these things. And it all makes perfect sense to him.
``I evangelize for new music in as many ways as I can. I don't think composing is enough,'' the 34-year-old Ueno said over coffee in Harvard Square. ``I didn't have a classical background. I just picked up a guitar and started playing. I was 16, and I had a totally different life then. I went off to West Point - it was my way of searching for an identity. I was going to become a general, serve my country, then go home to California and become a senator.''
But life took a different turn. Ueno injured his neck and had to leave West Point; he returned home and spent a year recovering. ``All I did for a year was play the guitar and rehab,'' he said. ``Gradually, it dawned on me that music might be what I wanted to do. Then I heard the fourth Bartok string quartet, and it was immediately apparent to me.
``I had the same response to Bartok as I did to Hendrix or Black Sabbath or Coltrane. It might have been more complicated structurally and harmonically, but for me it achieved the same result. It was visceral. It goes beyond technical means or academic explanations.''
So Ueno studied first at Berklee College of Music, and later achieved degrees from Boston University and Yale before coming to Harvard. He will complete his dissertation, a large four-movement orchestral work, sometime next year.
Ueno's music often blends traditional instruments with amplified ones and ``found'' instruments such as soda cans. ``It's not that I listen to this genre or that genre and put them together,'' he said. ``And I don't always amplify things. But amplification allows me a way to make sounds that have been denied by classical tradition. I sometimes work acoustically with the benefits of the research I've done in electronics.
``Things thought of as noise in classical music are more in the foreground in other traditions. Like Hendrix with feedback. The guitar is amplified enough so that you hear his fingers sliding on the strings, and that's part of the musical expression.
``Tradition is difficult for me,'' Ueno said. ``I have to acknowledge it but find my own way. How does a Japanese-American make it in western classical music? I actually think real tradition is progress. When Beethoven used a trumpet for the first time, he altered the symphony form. Or when Stravinsky used non-linear, cinematic effects in `Rite of Spring.' Hendrix and Coltrane also redefined their media. In that respect, I'm traditional. You preserve the tradition by expanding it.''
His Pro Arte commission, ``Apmonia,'' does just that. In his program notes, Ueno likens his struggle as a Japanese-American seeking an artistic identity to German filmmaker Wim Wenders, who struggled to find his identity in an art form largely foreign to his native culture.
Wenders found similarities in Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, and framed his own film ``Tokyo-Ga'' with the actual beginning and ending credits from Ozu's ``Tokyo Story,'' placing his film in a sort of Ozu parenthesis. Similarly, Ueno begins and ends ``Apmonia'' with musical quotes from Harvard professor and composer Bernard Rands, to whom the work is dedicated.
Ueno cites Rands' insights into the works of Samuel Beckett, who coined the term ``Apmonia,'' meaning the irrational heart, in his first novel, ``Murphy.''
``The whole piece is kind of like one big breath: one inhalation, one exhalation. There's something meditative about it, something poetic. We are being taken hostage by events beyond our control, threatened every day. Maybe looking at the reality is a way of achieving understanding,'' Ueno said.
;``Classical music needs to be more inclusive, with other types of audience. Amplification and electronics are new ways of participating. I couldn't evercompete with Beethoven's Ninth. It was that time period, it had to happen, and he did it. Like Shakespeare, or Mozart's operas. But electronics is still developing, and I might be able to participate from the beginning with something new.''
( The Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra premieres Ken Ueno's ``Apmonia'' tomorrow at Sanders Theatre, Cambridge. For tickets and information, call 617-661-7067. )
By Robert Kirzinger
Boston-based composer Ken Ueno (b. 1970) was born in New York to Japanese parents. His father was an executive for a Japanese airline, and the family moved several times during Ueno’s childhood, to Japan, to Switzerland, and finally to California, where he attended high school. His first formal music training came in the form of clarinet and recorder lessons and at sixteen he took up the guitar, but he had little notion at that time of entering into a career in music. Instead, intent on coming to grips with his role as an American, Ueno participated in debate and speech activities in high school and ran track, and after graduation entered the officer training program at West Point, with an ultimate goal of entering into politics.
At the end of his first year at that school, Ueno suffered an accident during training that kept him in physical therapy for more than a year. While recuperating he took up the guitar again, playing every day for hours on end, and also began to rethink his chosen career path. He began playing guitar in bands and writing songs, eventually deciding to restart his higher education by attending Berklee College of Music. It was his first exposure to Bartók’s Fourth String Quartet that steered him toward new music composition, and following Berklee he attended Boston University, Yale, and Harvard. His teachers have included John Bavicchi, Bernard Rands, and Mario Davidovsky, among several others. An important aspect of his activity is that of “evangelist” for new music, and in that capacity he has taught at a halfway house for court-involved teens as well as produced and hosted a cable access television program, “The Modern Music Show w/DJ Moderne,” where his guests have included Davidovsky, John Harbison, Beth Wiemann, and many others. Ueno himself recently joined the faculty of the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, where he is an assistant professor and director of the school’s electronic music studios.
Ueno’s work has been performed by numerous ensembles around the world, including BMOP, the Hilliard Ensemble, Eighth Blackbird, the Prism Quartet, and the American Composers Orchestra, to name just a few. He has received numerous grants, awards, and recognitions, including recent commissions from the Fromm Foundation for the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra and the Radius Ensemble, and Harvard’s John Green Composition Prize, which included a summer residency at Fondazione William Walton in Italy last year.
Ken Ueno is an insatiable intellectual polymath whose deep interest in modern critical systems (including the work of Derrida and the post-structuralists), literature (particularly Samuel Beckett), and film has influenced his work on many levels from the abstract to the particular. His ongoing development of a compositional language has led him to a method of “phonetic” or “alphabetic” details juxtaposed with more complex musical “ideograms”a metaphorical construct taken from observation of Western, alphabetic languages versus the pictorial Japanese, which coexist in Ueno’s own experience. This is one basis, as well, for the establishment of musical gestures operating on different, often seemingly independent, levels. In recent works, Ueno has concerned himself with the organic extension of apparently chaotic, or locally unpredictable, gestures into large-scale forms of satisfying, even seemingly inevitable cohesion. One way of achieving this kind of unity, for example, involves the employment of discrete pitch arrays that, through various transformations, remain the (mostly) audible foundation of a particular work (almost, but not quite, analogous to a “key”). This array may be based on an analysis of a key instrumental component of the ensemble. Microtonal inflection is often present as explication of a specific overtone.
But at first experience, the listener to Ueno’s works isn’t struck by their compositional rigor so much as by their tactile, physical nature, a quality that recalls the composer’s early experience with music as a disciple of Jimi Hendrix and a purveyor of virtuosic heavy metal. The impact of Ueno’s work is still positively palpable and sensuous, driven even when apparently static, with, at its core, that essentially human quality of played music, music that grows directly from the bodies and hands and hearts and minds of expressive musiciansmusic of real soul.
Ken Ueno’s new work, a BMOP commission, receives its world premiere this evening.
What are the major achievements of your career?
As a composer, I have been actively involved in a wide range of activities in order to evangelize for modern music. As DJ Moderne, I host and produce a weekly live half-hour public access television show devoted to introducing new music and new music composers and performers to the public at large.
I have had the good fortune to have had performances by some great ensembles including: The Hilliard Ensemble, Albany Symphony's Dogs of Desire Ensemble, the American Composers Orchestra, the New York New Music Ensemble, the AUROS Group for New Music, yesaroun, and Odd Appetite. Among those who have conducted my music are David Allan Miller, Paul Dunkel, Lawrence Leighton Smith and Harvey Sollberger.
Upcoming performances of my music include: Eighth Blackbird at Alice Tully Hall in New York's Lincoln Center (March 5th), International Electroacoustic Music in Cuba (March), the MATA festival (April 8th), Bang on a Can All-Stars at Harvard (May 25th), the Hilliard Ensemble at Engers, Germany (August 3rd), and a new work for the Hopkins Center at Dartmouth College will be premiered in October. Recent residencies include travels to Alaska (November 2001) and Italy (Modena conservatory and Venice in January 2002).
In addition to composition, I have focused some of my academic energies toward research of Latin-American Electroacoustic music. I have contributed articles to a forthcoming book, Border Crossings: Latin American Music in New Contexts, to be published by University of California Press, and been invited to present a paper on Latin American composers at the Fifth International Congress of the Americas in October 2001.
What made you decide to pursue composing as a career?
It just gradually developed over time. There was no one definitive moment when I decided to become a composer.
What are the skills that you are called upon to use daily in your work?
There are compositional skills and administrative skills. The compositional skills are those that include the technical demands of creating the music - like having command over harmony, counterpoint, and orchestration, and using electronic music and notation software. The administrative skills are those involved in concert production - like preparing a budget for a concert series, calling performers and organizing rehearsals.
What is a normal day like in your line of work (assuming there is such a thing as a normal day)?
I usually spend a large portion of the day taking care of administrative details and I compose late into the night.
What is your favorite thing about your job and/or career?
Hearing a live performance of a composition. It takes a lot of time and an exaggerated amount of effort to get to it. It takes months of preparation on the part of the performers to play some of my music. It always amazes me, and I feel blessed to have in my life some people who devote so much time to learning my music. So when it all comes together, it's a collaboration between the composer, performer and the audience. It's a communal ritual, a celebration of human effort.
What is the most challenging aspect of your job and/or career?
Trying to remain faithful to the music and continuing to have the courage to be as radical as I feel I want to be. Trying to push myself so that I keep learning from and about music.
What are some of the rich rewards that have come with working in this field?
There isn't as much potential for financial rewards as in pop music. But, there is the potential satisfaction that one had lived an uncompromising life of art in having created the music that one wanted to make unencumbered artistically by the demands of consumerist tastes.
What do you think are the requisites for someone entering this field?
Traditionally, the requisites were/are: background in classical music; strong academic pedigree; a list of awards, performances and commissions. But I think more recently, and in the future, one needs only the will to be a composer. I came into music without a classical background. I started playing guitar at sixteen (16), and went off a year later to West Point to become an officer and serve my country. It took some time for music to become the most important thing in my life for me to want to pursue it seriously. But, I think my profile is increasingly sympathetic with the experience of many other American composers - especially the background in rock and jazz before going "classical."
How did your education at Berklee train you for what you are doing today?
It was at Berklee that John Bavicchi introduced me to Bartok's Fourth String Quartet and I heard Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. That was the impetus for everything that followed. Additionally, I think that the classes I took with Herb Pomeroy (Line Writing and the Duke Ellington classes) are still the best writing courses I have ever taken. Although I don't write much jazz anymore, his lessons still probably influence almost every compositional decision I make now - from a detailed consideration for the spacing of chords to a hyper-sensitivity for every interval and orchestrational color variable.
What are the current trends in the field of composing that will most likely shape your future and the future of this industry?
I think the two most important developments will be: 1) the further integration of live, real-time computer processing into compositional performance practice; and 2) the proliferation of non-traditional instrumental groups, including an increased participation of the composer as performer. I would like to see my main instrument, the electric guitar, come into its own as a concert instrument with new pieces that incorporate it in both chamber music and orchestral contexts. Additionally, I hope that in the future New Music will come out of the shadows of being a sub-category of Classical music and become an independent movement.
John Adams (b.
Ken Ueno: Latin American culture has made a resurgence of late. Not only are Latin American artists more visible and active in the United States, but also Latin American culture seems to be influencing our most important non-Latin American artists such as you. I would like to start our discussion by talking about your latest orchestral piece, the Nativity Oratorio El Niño that exemplifies this synergy between multiple cultures. You did your own translations. Do you speak Spanish? How well do you speak it?
John Adams: I'm not entirely fluent, but I have a comfortable reading knowledge and my spoken Spanish is improving by the day. It is easier to learn Spanish here in
Ueno: Were there intrinsic qualities of language that made working with Spanish appealing? How did you adapt the rhythms and qualities of the language to fit your musical style, or vice-versa?
Ueno: How did you go about transcribing the natural flow of the rhythms inherent in the Spanish language when you are not a native speaker?
Ueno: In composing a work in Spanish for an international audience, were you concerned that Americans in particular might associate the title El Niño with a meteorological phenomenon rather than the Nativity?
Ueno: The more violent aspects are certainly evident in the largest single section of the piece, which recounts the Slaughter of the Innocents. The text use you here is the Castellano in which she memorializes the slaughter of students during the 1968 revolt in
Ueno: How did you decide on the texts for El Niño
Ueno: When Peter Sellars suggested some of these Spanish texts to you, did he already have ideas about the piece?
Ueno: Composers from around the world are increasingly turning to ethnographic resources and popular music, not necessarily in their own culture. What are your thoughts on this so-called “globalization of culture”? To what degree do you feel you are dealing with aspects of culture, especially now having recently completed a major work which draws upon elements from Latin American culture?
Ueno: Do you think that Golijov’s use of Latin American rhythms and vernacular forms is culturally equivalent to your use of rock and roll references?
Ueno: You have conducted a lot of Ives, often programming pieces that showcase his interest in the vernacular. Another composer you have often conducted is Zappa, who in some ways is a more contemporary Ives.
Ueno: The composers who have a high profile in the
Ueno: Your method (or process) of composition depends upon computer technology in that you use sequencer software like Performer while composing. How dependent are you on that technology?
Ueno: Is it the empirical laboratory aspect that is helpful to you?
Ueno: Are there times when you are surprised when you hear the result with the live orchestra?
It would be interesting to study how working in a software environment has influenced the way one thinks creatively. Broadway composers would cut and paste, as did film composers (and I suppose Bruckner cut, if he didn’t paste), but that kind of procedure, which is so basic to this software world, was less commonplace when cut and paste meant an enormous physical effort. And here I can create structures by moving material around and I can also create kinds of harmonic relationships and contrapuntal relationships that one simply wouldn’t think of by walking in the woods or improvising at a piano.
Ueno: The pieces you were writing around 1992 and 1993 like the Violin Concerto and the Chamber Symphony represented a departure from your earlier work harmonically. This new progressive harmonic language seemed to point towards a completely new direction for your music, but in your compositions immediately following those pieces, like Gnarly Buttons, you reverted to the harmonic style of your earlier music. At that time, when I asked you about this return to a more familiar style, you said that you did not believe that a contemporary composer needed to be restrained by a linear, singular strand of artistic development, that there were many strands of styles and procedures from which one should be able to choose, as necessary, from composition to composition. More time has passed since Gnarly Buttons and you still have not investigated further the potential of the harmonic language in the Violin Concerto and the Chamber Symphony. Will you ever go back to that harmonic style?
Ueno: Did that level of dissonance did not feel natural to you?
Ueno: Your recent music, like Naive and Sentimental Music, has a dynamic orchestrational drama that is Mahlerian. In order to create a successful expanded time structure you depend more on extravagant contrasts in instrumental forces rather than on harmony. For example, juxtaposing the whole orchestra with passages for solo guitar.
Ueno: What do you mean by post-stylist?
Ueno: But there are composers working today with strong stylistic personalities. Your music has originality and a style that are definable.
Ueno: I wonder whether an underlying trend is that people are becoming less demagogic about their stylistic agenda or identity.
Ueno: Your music has always made references to vernacular styles, yet you have no qualms about being labeled a “classical” composer. Does that mean that you are addressing a more specialized audience for your music than the more general demographic that only listen to the vernacular styles?
Ueno: That is surprising to hear you say that, since you’re probably the highest profile American orchestral composer today.
Ueno: Does it bother you that classical music is not as much part of our life as pop culture?
Ueno: Why do successful and cultured people find complexity in music difficult to accept, whereas they are more likely to accept complexity when they experience other art forms?
Ueno: A lot of rap and heavy metal is more dissonant than most contemporary American classical music. Why is dissonance more problematic for classical music audiences than pop audiences?