The Engine Institute
April 8, 2015
by Seth Cluett

Originally published
in The Engine Institute,
curated by China Blue


Composer Ken Ueno, Professor of Music at UC Berkeley, recently received a commission to compose “Four Contemplations,” a piece for eleven string players and an extended vocalist, in commemoration of RISD Museum’s restored Dainichi Buddha.

In light of this new work his colleague, Professor Seth Cluett thought that this would be a good time to discuss with Professor Ken Ueno the details of his new piece and the range of his work. Below is the discussion between two composers that leads to fascinating insights into contemporary composing.

Your public profile identifies you quite squarely in the realm of performance and composition, with substantial commissions from a wide array of performers as well as major ensembles and orchestras. At the same time though improvisation and installation clearly represent quite substantial threads running more quietly through your activities and output. Where do you see these more extreme modes of not-very-fixed (improvisation) and much-more-fixed (installation) fitting in your interests as a creative practitioner?


I had a complicated childhood, traversing several languages and cultures. Alas, I have always thought of myself as a manifold – being both Japanese and American, as well as being neither at the same time. Consequently, it feels quite natural for me to inhabit multiple subcultures of art that my output engages (I have written concert works, improvisation, and sound installations). It is true that, at present, I have a more established career as a composer of written works for classically trained musicians. But I wonder if part of that might be because that that trajectory fits more comfortably into an established cultural economy with contingent support systems already in place – for which I feel very fortunate, but it has its limitations as well (everything is a pharmakon – an ancient Greek word meaning both a poison and a remedy). On the other hand, being a latecomer into music (I was twenty-five when I started to compose), I had been interested in the visual arts and architecture, even back into my formative years, but I hadn’t had much opportunity to engage with those mediums in a meaningful way, until years later.

I do want to say, though, that I get a sense that what others think of what I am and what I do is perspectival, meaning if they are a museum curator, they might only know my installation work and if they are a conductor, they might only know my orchestral work. I have an inkling that some museum curators only think of me as a sound artist and don’t know my orchestral work, for example. For a number of years, I led a double life as a legit composer and an improvising vocalist. The vocal concerto was the first opportunity I had to bring those two streams together. The next thing is to bring installations into the fold. I am developing projects in which all three trajectories will coalesce: opera installations in which I will perform. On the other hand, I don’t feel the pressure to synthesize everything.

I am comfortable living a manifold life. The common denominator is that all three practices are not fixed and are temporal. Architecture only feels more fixed since the materials decay at a slower rate than our bodies. Most of my installations were only shown for a limited amount of time. Some of my compositions have been in performers’ repertoires for a decade or longer.  In those cases, they are more fixed. In my vocal concerto, the improvised cadenza is meant to be a running thread in my life that keeps going. And the structure of the piece is planned to change as my body changes.

The supposedly fixed score of a Western orchestral piece is thusly problematized. This fixation with fixity in the West…it’s because people are afraid of death. I am not afraid. But I do wish I could live long enough to fulfill the second iteration of the structure of my vocal concerto. What I have planned is that every 30 years I will remake the opening tape part. I will be mixing sounds I can make now with the sounds and I made when I was six and sing on top of it live. My greatest musical ambition is to be able to do this at least two times.


Your installation Four Contemplations opened at the end of March at the RISD Museum in Providence. This piece seems to embody much of the cultural depth upbringing as well as engaging multiple modes of practice. As I understand, your work for this space has both performance and exhibition components. Could you talk a bit about this piece and how you arrived at the final form of the work?

I was commissioned to create a site-specific piece for the RISD Museum’s Dainichi Buddha (c. 1150). This is an unusual idea for a composition. The work, titled Four Contemplations, will have three aspects. The first aspect/event will happen on March 26th. Eleven string players, members of the Community MusicWorks Players, and I will perform while installed in various rooms of the Asian art galleries in the RISD Museum. The evening will unfold in four 30-minute ticketed chunks (this was suggested by the museum to control audience flow). On March 29th, we will perform the piece as an hour-long concert piece in the concert hall of the RISD Museum. On that occasion, I will also incorporate recordings I will make during the March 26th event, documenting the sounds of the audience – so the second aspect will embody a memory of the earlier event, the audience will be part of the instrumentation, if you will. A few months after these live events, recordings of the two live events will be mixed and made available on the museum guide. This will be the third aspect.

Regarding the form of the piece, the different constraints suggested to me by the ensemble and the museum were challenging – the multiple aspects, that musicians will be in different rooms performing at the same time, that the flow of the first and second events would be different, etc. When I was in a quandary composing, I thought of the old parable of the blind men describing an elephant, which has often been used to describe Buddhism itself. Alas, the three aspects are like the different parts of the elephant. The sound world of the piece and the pacing were inspired by the four fundamental meditations in Buddhist practice.

You mentioned your vocal concerto, and you’ve used your voice in previous installation works. Obviously not all of your work incorporates you as an active sound producer, but this thread is strong through your practice and I think it produces a productive complication for your role as the author as well as the subject of your work. How does being a part of your own work fold into your identity as a composer and artist?

A strong biographical underpinning informs James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Not my favorite work by Joyce, but one that made a strong impact early on (the epigraph to Portrait is tattooed on my body). I was similarly impacted by the works of Marina Abramovic and Sophie Calle. Their works blur the line between life and art, sometimes uncomfortably so. But it’s really the musicians I admire most, the Hendrixes, the Coltraines, the Minguses, and Stevie Ray Vaughns, whose sound was really an extension of their bodies, and, by extension, their identities, that inspired that aspect of my practice. Much of my composed works are person-specific, not only to me, but for the instrumentalists for whom I am designing the piece. An instrument is not just an instrument. It only has a soul if played by a person. And a remarkable instrumentalist can project his/her aura to the empathic audience member. At that moment when a strange thing is not only accepted but also empathically received, there is a space that opens wherein the participants (the artist and the audience) feel less alone in the world. Calvino says, “seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.” In the face of the ever increasing digitization of our lives (and therefore the prospect of all of us being rendered anonymous), works that use my voice as subject and object, my person-specific works, and the ephemerality of it all, are moves to try to champion the corporeal, the human, the physical, and somehow stake a claim for the authentic, when it feels everyday that the trace of having lived is increasingly in danger of etiolating.

You speak passionately and with clarity about the role of the body in the creation and experience of the work. A large segment of your output, however, involves some form of computer intervention. How do you reconcile these two seemingly opposed interests? What role does technology play in your work and how visible/audible should that role be to your viewer/audience?

I use the computer to help me analyze sounds to help facilitate the structuring of harmonies and sounds that are more organic to the physical world, in the same way that contemporary architects are using software such as AutoCAD and CATIA to design spaces that are more fluid and organic. If software can help me analyze my vocal multiphonics and facilitate the designing of orchestral harmonies modeled on that sound, then, the software is helping me extend my body.

The other way I use technology is to automate an ever-changing activation of sounds through space in an installation. In this case of live performance, you are right – I usually don’t use a computer when I am performing. The presence of technology on stage does affect the way people hear. As a vocalist, I am sensitive to the audience thinking that a computer is doing the heavy lifting in my performances.

All technology is a pharmakon. I think if we approach our creative endeavors mindful of the negative aspects of our relationship to technology, then there are possibilities of engagement that could possibly aid in helping us create our aesthetic worlds. It is not a zero sum game.

ABOUT KEN UENO A Rome Prize and Berlin Prize winner, Ken Ueno, is a composer/vocalist/sound artist. As a vocalist, he specializes in extended techniques, such as multiphonics, circular breathing, and throat singing. Musicians who have collaborated with Ken include Kim Kashkashian, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Joey Baron, Ikue Mori, Joan Jeanrenaud, eighth blackbird, Alarm Will Sound, BMOP, SFCMP, and Frances-Marie Uitti. The Hilliard Ensemble featured Ken’s Shiroi Ishi in their repertoire for over a decade. Ken’s sound installations have been commissioned by galleries and museums in Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Taiwan, Mexico, and China. Currently an Associate Professor at the University of California, Berkeley, he holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University

COMMUNITY MUSICWORKS OF RI received a prestigious MAP Fund grant to commission Ken Ueno, Professor of Music at UC Berkeley, to compose “Four Contemplations,” a piece for String Orchestra and Throat Singer, in commemoration of RISD Museum’s restored Dainichi Buddha.

Community MusicWorks was founded in 1997, Community MusicWorks is a nationally recognized community-based organization that uses music education and performance as a vehicle to build lasting and meaningful relationships between children, families, and professional musicians in urban neighborhoods of Providence, RI.  CMW has been featured in The New Yorker as a “revolutionary organization in which the distinction between performing and teaching disappears.”  Founder and Artistic Director Sebastian Ruth won a MacArthur Fellowship Award in 2010, and the organization was awarded the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award from the Obama Administration that same year.

THE RISD MUSEUM acquires, preserves, exhibits, and interprets works of art and design representing diverse cultures from ancient times to the present. Distinguished by its relationship to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), the Museum educates and inspires artists, designers, students, scholars, and the general public through exhibitions, programs, and publications.


© 2020 KEN UENO



© 2020 KEN UENO