Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
November 8, 2015
by Elisabeth Bloom

Originally published
in Pittsburgh Post-Gazette



Swaying back and forth, his right foot in front of his left, Ken Ueno stared off into the distance, nearly catatonic, as if primed for a fight.

But this was no boxing ring, and Mr. Ueno, a composer and vocalist, had no opponent.

Rather, it was a concert of experimental improvisation and chamber music presented by Alia Musica Pittsburgh in July. It marked the first performance of Mr. Ueno’s yearlong residency with the new music organization. Ken Ueno, is a composer,vocalist sound artist whose music draws from several inspirations — from Tuvan throat singing to heavy metal.

Nearly everything about this concert was weird. It took place in a living room in Lawrenceville. Admission was $5. The opening act was an improvised music band whose members included a shirtless man wearing a skull mask. The space, with off-white walls, lacy curtains, modest chandelier and anachronistic artwork, made for an unusual environment in which to experience music. Perhaps that was the point.

Mr. Ueno, 45, was educated at West Point, Harvard, Yale, Boston University and the Berklee College of Music, and is on the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley. Some of the premier new music groups in the country, including eighth blackbird and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, have performed his works, and he has a spot in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. What could someone with this pedigree think of this concert in a Lawrenceville living room?

It became clear that he not only was comfortable with the strange circumstances, he seemed to welcome them. That pre-performance trance showed it.

“I guess, in that case, I was trying to prep the audience,” he said later, during an interview at a Highland Park café. “I feed off the intensity of listening.”

For him to be in the zone, his audience needed to be in the zone, too.

His performance opened with a loud, shocking scream. Over the course of his solo improvisation (he later performed with two musicians playing bass and electronics), he produced an eclectic series of sounds: clicks, like quick water drops in a ceramic bathtub; thumping heartbeats; heavy breaths; television static, jarring and surprising. You could feel it in the ground, and, listening to him, you sympathized with your own vocal cords. (“It doesn’t hurt,” he claimed.)

He also used a megaphone, which allowed him to experiment with physical space and with the prop’s own sonic qualities. With his knees on the floor, he placed it on the ground and drilled muffled vocals through it, or he pulled it away to his side, creating, as he later put it, a counterpoint of sorts between voice and body.

When he finished, a man sitting in the living room gasped, “Wow.”

Mr. Ueno’s music is challenging. It is not for the faint of heart, nor for people who cringe at the thought of hearing contemporary music of any sort in the traditional concert hall. That is something the composer acknowledges. “I know people are going to think it’s weird,” he said.

But watching and hearing him perform in that living room was ear-opening, too. On the one hand, his music toes the fringe of modern musical culture. On the other, his success — as he puts it, “I am lucky enough to be able to live from what I do” — suggests there’s something to it.

The second chapter of Mr. Ueno’s residency takes place Thursday at First Unitarian Church in Pittsburgh, when he joins the Alia Musica orchestra for a performance of his vocal concerto, “On a Sufficient Condition for the Existence of Most Specific Hypothesis.” Mr. Ueno will give a lecture about the work prior to the performance. The program also features a piece by Federico Garcia-De Castro, Alia Musica’s artistic director, who met Mr. Ueno during a composition festival in Thailand.

A self-taught vocalist, Mr. Ueno draws on various extended techniques and inspirations: the sub-tones and screams common in heavy metal, throat singing traditions from around the world, multiphonics (producing multiple notes at once), overtones, circular breathing and the ability to sing at an extremely high register — up to a C-Sharp three octaves above middle C. Much of this music is what we might consider wordless; it traverses “the gray area between language and non-language,” he said.

While he often improvises (including during the cadenza of the vocal concerto), he also uses traditional Western notation and his own notation, supplementing it with video when necessary.

There are throat-singing traditions all over the world — including in Inuit, South African, Tuvan and Sardinian cultures — yet Mr. Ueno’s music is not an anthropological study.

“I know he has done the research about vocal extended techniques from around the world,” Mr. Garcia-De Castro said. “He’s not using them in a pure sense. He’s not doing a tribute to these traditions. He’s just incorporating them as things to work with.”

Mr. Ueno’s other influences are catholic: Bela Bartok, John Coltrane, B.B. King, Metallica and, above all, Jimi Hendrix.“I am a musician because of Jimi Hendrix,” he said. “I was always much more into academics and sports than music, until I started to play electric guitar.”

That happened in earnest after he sustained an injury while in college at West Point. During his recovery, he wrote songs and practiced his instrument eight or nine hours a day. He still needed to finish his bachelor’s degree, so he decided to study at the Berklee College of Music, where he encountered Bartok’s String Quartet No. 4 for the first time.

“I felt like my body understood the music, because it was like heavy metal. It was like a heavy metal string quartet,” he said. But he recognized there were more complex underpinnings to that visceral response. He wanted to figure them out, so he decided to compose.

Mr. Ueno’s Pittsburgh residency is supported by a $35,000 grant from the Pittsburgh Foundation and the Heinz Endowments, which also funds the composition of a new work for Alia Musica. The endeavor illuminates how Alia Musica, which was founded eight years ago, is becoming clearer in its purpose and growing in its impact.

In 2014, the group produced an ambitious festival of new music that included a recital with prominent composer-pianist Frederic Rzewski. Over the past few years, its musicians have performed across the Midwest and East Coast, and in June, it was a resident ensemble at a music festival in Panama.

This project with Mr. Ueno reflects the organization’s efforts to create distinctive experiences around new music — concerts that are relevant to audience members, that they are unlikely to forget.

The composer will visit Pittsburgh several times over the course of the year to become familiar with the area and the musicians who will premiere his work in the spring. This knowledge will inform his composition of the new piece. Over the summer, he was a proper tourist: He visited Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob, went to a Pirates game, attended local concerts and explored restaurants in the city. Next Sunday’s Steelers game is on the itinerary for this visit.

He refers to this process as a “person-specific” approach to composition, the notion that music can be fitted to a place and to its performers much like a custom-made suit.

“I’ve also been using a metaphor of going to a three-star Michelin restaurant,” he said. “You go that place essentially to make a little pilgrimage. There’s something special about that chef, that place.”

Ultimately, it gives added importance to hearing the music in the flesh, something that is vital for Mr. Ueno and Alia Musica. The connection between creator, performer and audience is critical to the experience of listening to some of his favorite artists, and he is aiming to translate that to the classical music world.

“Listening to the Jimi Hendrixes and the Coltranes of the world, I was inspired by the fact that they extended the history of their instruments, and in my own little way, I’m interested in extending my own vocal practice,” he said.

ELIZABETH BLOOM: ebloom@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1750.
Twitter: @BloomPG.


© 2020 KEN UENO



© 2020 KEN UENO