Liquid Lucretius, Multi-channel sound installation

Article by
Marco Morales Villalobos 

Liquid Lucretius, 

Ken Ueno, Liquid Lucretius
Multi-channel sound installation

Marcos Morales

            The music of Ken Ueno (U.S.A., 1970) contributes to the history of two avant-gardes with shared interests, which took technology as an important tool that, toward the second half of the twentieth century, allowed for the inclusion of almost any sound.  The first of these is the path that inaugurated the possibility of editing tape recordings of the sounds of objects found in the sphere of the everyday until a composition had been obtained, or their later inclusion in arrangements with acoustic musical instruments.  This path in the creation of sounds would have a less flexible facet, also developed in Europe, which rejected using any sound caused by real objects as its raw material and instead opted to use only electronically created sounds.  The second was the U.S. avant-garde, and especially John Cage, who contributed significantly to the incorporation of any sound into music, even those that emanated from silence.

            This broadening of the audible universe created new forms of musical composition, of listening and of sensibility, and made possible, in sum, the existence of new music.  Ueno ambitiously pursued this genre; his work is not the continuation of a tradition, but rather a contribution to it.  His preoccupation with the singular, with detail, with the contributions of each and every element that warps that weave of a sound, complex or simple, manifests itself in his work on different levels.  As composer Robert Kirzinger affirms, he obliges both listeners and performers alike to go beyond their complacency into new spaces of expression.  He demands that we listen to even the simplest of sounds as if they were a symphony of individual tones, even though they may be emitted by a single sound source. Thus, the artist considers the individual capacities of the units.  It is no small matter than much of his music is composed, as Ueno himself affirms, "person-specifically," meaning that it has been written for specific performers and thus brings out the best of their abilities.

An amplitude of aims

            His preoccupation with "elementary particles," that is, with the minimal elements of expression of a more complex expression is also telling of his conception of the world, beyond sound art and other artistic disciplines.  The inclusion of the name of Lucretius (ca. 99-55 B.C.E.) in the title of this show is proof of this, as is the immediate reference of the latter's book, De rerum natura [Of the nature of things].

            Ken Ueno's Liquid Lucretius (2013), presented at the museum, makes reference to the conception of the universe expressed by Lucretius in De rerum natura, where it is represented as a set of atoms floating in space. This image is complemented by the word liquid, which evokes the whirlpools caused by oceanic currents. The conjuncture is eloquent when we consider the principles that orient Ueno's aesthetic reflections.

            The installation has an existential origin.  It refers to two moments of sound that share a single stage.  The first of these is plainly identifiable. In the words of the composer, "When I was a student at Harvard, I always used to run along the Charles River. At certain times of year, during my route, I realized that there was a gaggle of geese feeding on the lawn next to the river.  That sound has stayed with me.  It was a powerful reminder of the fact that a great group of individuals with sonic capabilities can produce a beautiful, complex and delicate sound.  For me, this was natural granular synthesis."  And indeed, it is possible to recognize the similarity, since, as in the event described, granular synthesis is a process of generating complex sounds out of other, simpler ones, called quanta or grains of sound: extremely brief events lasting only milliseconds.  This threshold between both forms – that is, the temporal space between the natural and the synthetic – is precisely one of the composer's objects of investigation in this piece.

            The composer's second reference on the same stage are other sounds that, although they are not clearly identified, are sufficiently dense and complex for Ueno not to be able to determine whether it is his imagination filtering discrete sounds within the sonic texture, or if they really are present in it.  The composer maintains that, "Sometimes when I listen to a babbling brook or the roar of traffic, it's like I hear a lot of people murmuring.  Maybe I'm just imagining that murmur, but the sonic texture is dense enough to know that it's not just my imagination."  Thus, the other threshold he investigates in the installation is that between complex sound phenomena in nature and vocal phonemes; in other words, the temporal space that separates the two.  The voice contributes in an important way to his work as a composer, but also as an instrumentalist, concentrating on polyphonic techniques like throat singing.

            Inspired by these natural experiences, the installation investigates the liminal space between natural phenomena and granular synthesis, and between complex natural sound phenomena and the human voice.  The artist made some modifications and specific arrangements to the program Max/MSP so that the sound installation would develop continuously over the duration of the exhibition.  The more time a visitor spends with the installation, the more he or she will be able to recognize the elements that give it its structure and its variations, which give an idea of the composer's reflection on the space between the phenomenon and the synthetic through the recreation of the fluctuating shape of a flock of birds in flight.  The distribution of sound in the Espacio de Experimentación Sonora (EES, or Sound Experimentation Space) is carried out with these same modifications, which include operations and routines that send points of sound through each speaker and through groups of speakers, with the aim of recreating the movement of the sound caused by flocks in flight.


            Pierre Schaeffer completed his Étude aux chemins de fer (Railroad Study) in 1948.  In it, he spliced together fragments of tape recordings he had made of six locomotives.  This first collage was the result of his investigation with pre-recorded sounds, which would be extended to every kind of sound object, including those of music, the voice, and nature.  At the end of the decade, collaborating with the composer Pierre Henry, he used the same technique to complete a work they called Symphonie pour un homme seul(Symphony for One Man Alone); he called this musique concrète.

            What Schaeffer would achieve with musique concrète is not limited to calling attention to the sonorousness of the objects that form the constant, overly complex flow in which hearing finds itself immersed, and from which it cannot be abstracted.  The possibility of pointing out this multiplicity and richness, of making it omniscient, broadened the aural universe and allowed for an opening of sensibility, while at the same time extending the techniques of composition and the resources available for musical expression, preparing the paths of the North American and European avant-gardes.  This contribution to electronic music and the subsequent emergence of electro-acoustic music imposed a powerful scientific and technological component on musical creation, which would be incorporated as technology became more accessible, moving out of laboratories, lowering in cost and in the training it required of users, who then came closer to composers, who in turn possessed ever greater technical knowledge.  Pierre Schaeffer was both: engineer and artist.

            It is undeniable that Schaeffer, by concerning himself with technology, was continuing the path that others had laid down, and, by responding to the questions and interests of other composers, contributing to a quest to broaden, change, and even put an end to some forms of music and its creation. This is the context of his meeting with John Cage, prompted by the composer Pierre Boulez.  Not long after his return to the U.S., Cage finished a piece that he called Williams Mix, part of a series for magnetic tape.  The American composer, who came to include all kinds of objects in his compositions and concerts, not only the sounds of magnetic tape, debuted 4'33"on August 29, 1952 at the Maverick Concert Hall, an open hall located in a natural setting that was difficult to access. The four minutes and thirty-three seconds of the piece forced the audience to listen to all the sounds in the hall and in the natural setting in which they were located, among other things. Critic A. Ross cites: "Wherever we might be – writes John Cage in his book, Silence – what we hear is fundamentally noise.  When we're unaware of it, it bothers us.  When we listen to it, it becomes fascinating."

            These interests would germinate in important initiatives of a profile adequate to the artists' quests, making manifest aesthetic proposals and their differences, as in the case of musique concrète in France and elektronische Musik in Germany, and the respective founding of the Groupe de Recherche de Musique Concrète and the Nordwestdeutscher Rundfunk.  The difference between these two institutions brought the historical rivalry between the two countries to the musical arena. They counterpoised two distinct visions of the creation of new music: on one hand, composition on the basis of editing and the abstraction of preexisting sounds, including those that were electronically generated, and, on the other, the exclusive use of the latter. The Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in New York would be the place, in North America, where tape and electronic music would be explored.

            The existence of these centers would furnish composers with the technology necessary to continue their research with spontaneity and creative freedom.  They would also be the meeting place for personalities from diverse backgrounds who shared related interests.  This combination allowed for the creation of iconic pieces; Poème électronique by the composed Edgar Varèse was one of them.  Varèse was commissioned to create a work that would be reproduced in the Philips pavilion, designed by Le Corbusier for the 1958 World's Fair in Brussels.  The composition, which included noises made by machines and the sounds of bells, piano, and electronics, used more than 400 speakers, as well as screens for the projection of images, achieving a 360º sound experience.  The sensation was one of complete immersion thanks to the spatial distribution of sound, through the speakers located in the pavilion. Varèse's piece prefigured Acusmonio, designed in 1974 by François Bayle to reproduce sound through 80 speakers, originally located in the main buildings of Radio France.

            The Espacio de Experimentación Sonora (EES) is designed to share electronically realized sound works with the public.  That is, all the works presented therein must have been materialized on computers in order to be reproduced, regardless of the source of the diverse sounds used by the artists, who, through different processes and techniques, modify them to create the pieces presented there.  The technical and architectural characteristics, and the specific placement of the speakers allow three-dimensional or surround sound experiences to be recreated; that is, hearing within the hall has the sensation of being in the middle of a circumference surrounded by sound that fills its 360 degrees.  It recreates the sensation of the imperturbable flow of sounds originating from multiple points in our everyday surroundings.


© 2020 KEN UENO



© 2020 KEN UENO