Berklee Today
Winter 2010
by Mark Small

Originally published
in Berkelee Today

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 B.M. ‘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.”


© 2020 KEN UENO



© 2020 KEN UENO