April 7, 2010
by Julieanne Klein

Originally published
in NewMusicBox

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
the space
stretched out over many years
perhaps a lifetime,
when we begin
we are already beginning
to end

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.”


© 2020 KEN UENO



© 2020 KEN UENO