Der Tagesspiegel
March 3, 2011
by Christiane Tewinkel

Originally published in
German in Der Tagesspiegel



Ken Ueno spat into a bottle for a month until it was full of saliva. He put the confetti rain from a cut up score from Handel's opera “Giulio Cesare” into the bottle, shook it vigorously and then quickly held it on with the camera.

The long past in the present and in our own: After all, the sentence “You too, Brutus” was the subject of an entropy lesson in high school in California, so the question of how many air molecules that Julius Caesar set in motion while speaking were still over your own breathing air can be obtained. Ken Ueno digitally alienated the photo of the snow globe bottle and incorporated it as a background image on his website www.kenueno.com — another, from afar even ringing sign of how wide the circles are that the American composer draws around him.

Ueno, born in New York in 1970, raised bilingually as the child of Japanese parents, with stages in life in Japan, French-speaking Switzerland and California — from the earliest days “permanently in exile”, as he says — is one of the most original and at the same time most successful composers of his generation. He has been a guest at the American Academy since last fall, in an adjoining building, just like Gustav Mahler once did in his composing house. Score pages on the desk, a computer and next to the kitchenette, for whatever reason, a beer dispenser. On Sunday the festival “MaerzMusik” will introduce Ken Ueno with a concert in the Jewish Museum.

One would like to call his works lively installations, cross-thinking to the quirky, far-reaching total works of art of a new era that he has written for himself or for certain interpreters: “I want my life and my music to be one”. The sound of his compositions often conveys an almost meditative leisurelyness, plus the absolute desire to leave no game, not a single experiment untested. For example “Talus” for viola and string ensemble from 2007, which begins with a terrible scream and for which the X-ray image of a musician friend was important, which Ueno examined for its potential for inspiration for harmonies. The violist Wendy Richman, whose ankle broke when she fell off a stage, will perform it in Berlin.

Or the startling, at least disconcerting rattle and roar of “On a Sufficient Condition for the Existence of Most Specific Hypothesis” with samples of vocal techniques from around the world. Self-taught, he has acquired Sardinian, West African or Tibetan traditions. Or the click and dark splinters of the bass clarinet music “I screamed at the sea until nodes swelled up, then my voice became the resonant noise of the sea” from 2006, a devoted testing of all possible playing techniques, dedicated to Greg Oakes, who will also be on Sunday occurs.

Ueno remembered a plastic instrument that he owned as a child, and at the same time thought of the popular Korean singing tradition of Pansori, according to which women scream at the sound of the sea for the desired timbre of their voice until nodules form on their vocal cords. Ken Ueno's path to art extends across the globe, including every bycatch, almost as he himself had a whole series of career and calling options before he won the American Academy Award in 2006/07 Rome, came to the University of California at Berkeley as Professor of Composition in 2008 and is now living at Wannsee in Berlin for a year of scholarship.

A sporty appearance, incarnation of the relaxed and carefree American way of life, Ueno frankly tells us that he wanted to become a senator when he was 16, and that is why he went to study at the elite West Point military academy. In 1987 he suffered a serious accident there and had to devise a new life plan. Shortly before, Ueno, who until then was only familiar with the recorder and clarinet, had discovered Jimi Hendrix for himself and had begun to take guitar lessons himself. Now he realigned his ambitions: studying film music and composition at Berkley College of Music, there meeting with Bartók's fourth string quartet, "my second musical epiphany after Hendrix, powerful music related to heavy metal". Then Boston University, lessons with Lukas Foss, further years of composition studies at Yale and Harvard, where he graduated with a doctorate in 1999.

Ueno actually strides through times and regions, down to antiquity and baroque times, up from California to Rome, from digital to analog, from the sculpture by the artist Kyoko Kawamura (in “Kizu” for koto and voice) to Gerhard Richter's pictures , from the military to rock music, immediately afterwards to the university subject “music”. And with it again and again to himself: Ueno's art radiates the most benevolent narcissism, appears polyglot and at the same time wonderfully related to itself. It pursues political ambitions only to the extent that it is open to everything that the world has to offer. Ueno only made sporadic contact with the highly ambitious, theoretically often basement-based local new music scene.

Standley Dodds will conduct the Unitedberlin ensemble at the concert on March 27 at 11 a.m. in the Jewish Museum.


© 2020 KEN UENO



© 2020 KEN UENO