May 2004
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 musicians—music of real soul.

Ken Ueno’s new work, a BMOP commission, receives its world premiere this evening.


© 2020 KEN UENO



© 2020 KEN UENO