Boston Herald
May 15, 2004
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 Chamber 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.)


© 2020 KEN UENO



© 2020 KEN UENO