September 14, 2015
by Doriana S. Molla

Originally published
in hocTok.com


I pulse, when you breathe (2008), is a piece of music written by Ken Ueno for amplified soprano and alto flute.

The composer elaborates, “This piece is a song in search of the main melody, a setting of the short text. Throughout much of the piece, the sounds of the text are gradually discovered, through divergences, parries, continuations, and, finally, a short glimpse, which turns out to be a sort of arrival.”

All of it sounds like a dream sequence and a metaphor for life at the same time. Poetry. What flickering light did Ken Ueno follow to jot down the notes and words for this work?


I started with a poem I wrote in Japanese – “this wind, the resonance of song through the trees.”

I like that Japanese consists of mainly pure vowels and that there are fewer words than in English. Endemically, then, there are opportunities for sounds to evoke other potential meanings, or stand isolated as pure sounds. To frame the transition between semantic and non-semantic signification of vocal sounds, I orchestrated the breath and timbre around the phonemes of the poem.  

In terms of light and the sense of wonder and the presences of the present moment that light makes evident, I have been inspired by what I call “secret meridians.” (Here’s a short video: Link︎︎︎). I like Turrell and T.S. Eliot too (“visible reminder of invisible light,” e.g.).


whatWALL? (2003) for alto saxophone and quadraphonic tape. There is so much to experience/learn from this amazing piece. At the very end of the program notes for it, we read, “‘whatWALL?’ is also a personal call to arms, that an artist should always strive to go beyond whatever boundaries stand before him.”

What are the harshest boundaries you have surpassed to achieve the level of confidence and level of superb artistry?

The biggest boundary for an artist is the best that he/she has already achieved. Most of the time, we are living in the past. Even what we normally consider as the present is a latency. Creative endeavor, as acts of faith, are especially potent as mechanisms that give us agency to change the future.

Composing a 20-min work takes months and requires planning and coordination with a team of people (administrators, vendors, the ensemble, the audience).

Each time we take that leap of faith into the future, whatever our realm of creative endeavor might be, taking contingent risks, even if the project itself fails, we are emboldened for having taken that risk, and our aura expands. It is in that space of growth that I might mark my own progress in having lived. It also becomes the wall, a new marker that drives me to go further.

Art is an attitude, at once a way of seeing (and in my case hearing) the world and imaging what one might see (hear) that fills us daily and challenges us to the end of our days.

Listening to your music, reading the program notes, listening/reading about your opinions compares to a thrilling mental speedrace: all the places, the names, timelines, zones, landscapes. You’re not even bragging. You invite/dare anyone to join you on your joy ride or find one’s own. Who inspired you to be so generous with your own knowledge?

I have so many heroes. Jimi Hendrix and John Coltrane. James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Italo Calvino, Garcia Marquez, are other heroes. James Turrell, Agnes Martin, Gerhard Richter.

One of the first things art does is curate empathy. In my own work, I am trying to deliver in some measure what I have received from my favorite art. Art first has to be good and earnest. Then, it can reach almost anybody. I think that many programmers are afraid that their audiences can’t get challenging art. What that means is that they don’t believe in the art and that they don’t trust their audiences. One of my biggest inspirations in terms of that earnestness and generosity is Robert F. Kennedy’s speech on the death of Martin Luther King. When he was campaigning for the presidency in 1968, just months before his own assassination, he landed in Indianapolis to address a largely African-American audience. Shortly before he arrived, he received word that MLK had been assassinated and it was up to him to inform the crowd. After he broke the news, he reminded them that he had also lost someone important to him and that he, too, was killed by a white man. Then, he did the most startling thing; he shared with the audience a favorite piece of poetry that had comforted through such hard times. It was a selection from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon. Isn’t that kind of extraordinary? A Harvard-educated, rich, white man addressing an African-American working-class crowd quoting Aeschylus? The poem is, indeed, quite moving, but what I think really worked was that Robert Kennedy did not second-guess his audience’s capacity to get it; he shared what was earnest to him. That honesty itself translates. The efficacy of that moment is one of reasons why in the following weeks after that day, Indianapolis did not go up in flames with riots, as did much of the rest of the country. So, that’s what I try to do.

I seek out art that has the power to sooth my soul and try to deliver that to my audience. I trust that whatever might move me, might also move others.

All moments stop here and together we become every memory that has ever been (2003).

In our daily struggle to maintain our identity in a post-industrial digital world, we are all music boxes, analog songs seeking a space in which to be heard. Are there any magic key words guiding us to finding that space, all us ‘analog songs’ seek?

In my music, I am seeking to privilege the live experience. Years ago, I remember going to the Guggenheim Bilbao where I saw a room full of black paintings. I stayed there for about an hour. After a while, it occurred to me that these paintings defy mechanical representation – these paintings are not the ones that are on calendars and t-shirts in the gift shop.

Further, over the course of the time I spent there, I noticed that horizontal bands that marked the Franz Klines were subtly different shades of black. The Robert Motherwells were articulated by complex brushstrokes. These paintings said to me that I had to stand in front of them. That I had to make the pilgrimage to experience them live, that that live experience could not be substituted. By extension, it was saying that my individual life mattered.

Person-specific music demands that it be experienced by specific people performing it. In the face of the ever-increasing digitization of our lives, I am questioning the transportability of classical music. “Analog songs” is a metaphor for the uniqueness in all of us that makes us human. I want to help people realize their “analog songs” and have the courage to actualize themselves.

Very assertive definition of self is of utmost importance especially for artists/composers who share their thoughts and feelings with the rest of the world open to all kinds of critiques by professionals and amateurs alike. You’ve said, “I am a multiplicity of identities, maybe unresolved. And maybe one possible contemporary proposition is that it doesn’t have to be a resolved linearity.” Did you always have this clarity about your own definition of self? What helped you reach this conclusion and is it finalized?

It took me years to think of myself as a manifold and be comfortable with it. My formative years were complex – I was born in New York, but my family moved a number of times internationally. By the time we settled in Los Angeles, when I was seven, I spoke English with a British accent and didn’t feel American. In fact, I’ve always felt like an outsider – still do.

As a sensitive youth, I remember feeling the pressure to conform. This troubled me enough that it was a major factor in my decision to go to West Point. I thought that if I served my country, then I could prove that I am American. That turned out to be naive and misplaced.

One of the benefits of a life in art has been that I have come to terms with my weirdness. The truth is, we are all many things. Contemporary identity is more like Internet channels – we are meta-beings. Hegelian summation is a 19th century, nationalist, non-cosmopolitan construct and outdated.

A composer, performer, sound artist, professor, and overall explorer of all things dealing with the inner workings of mind and soul. What are the constants in your life encouraging and moving you to keep up with your own set pace?

Art is an attitude. Art takes courage every day, as life does too. Calvino says that the world is inferno, so, “seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”

Everyday, I keep with me the most beautiful things I have experienced [e.g. attending a mass at the Pantheon during the Pentecost, when rose petals are made to rain through the oculus; flying over the Blue Hole in Belize; eating at Noma; being in Boston during the ’04 baseball post-season; living for six weeks in a castle in Umbria (Civitella Rainieri), my grandmother’s 102nd birthday party], and at the same time, I document things I see everyday (I put them on Tumblr, Vine, and Snapchat). There is infinite beauty in the world, and art, as an attitude, needs to be flexed to claim some measure of it every day. It’s always on. It is no longer a choice.

...blood blossoms... (2002)

You write that reading “Naked Lunch” by William F. Burroughs, made you think that beauty can be found in a medium full of potential power and destruction. Power and Destruction, both in one or is there an essential element that draws the line awakening the desire/attraction in choosing one over the other?

My predilection is to defy simple dichotomies – again, letting a manifold be a manifold, rather than seeking to resolve it. I see beauty and birth in distortion, a singular gestalt that is always changing. When I heard Hendrix and Coltrane, the turbulence that they embrace as their sound, it changed my life. Those sounds are not fixed; they are alive, visceral and somatically healing. It saved my life, literally.

Song for Sendai (2011)

“Traumatic events also have the effect of altering our sense of time.” Measurable as well as unquantifiable amount of loss and confusion – are these determining factors in figuring out a map of our quests for meaning or absence thereof or more reasons to create and explore the labyrinths within?

We come to terms with understanding in different ways. Rational, irrational. Intellectual, emotional.

Often, our intellectual understanding of something and our emotional understanding of something arrive at different temporalities. Understanding something and believing something, therefore, is not the same. Much of the strife in the world is due to this tension.

In the NY Times piece, Finding the Score Within, you explain, “my music ventures into the realm where the limitations of traditional notation are tested. A reader has to know what the sounds are before a syllabary can be useful. This is where technology has proven handy.” How did you come to the realization that testing the limits of traditional notations was your calling?  As you say, “technology has proven handy” to communicate your intentions/ideas but do you ever see it as an impediment to some extent?

Several important influences helped shape my relationship to Western classical music and notation. First as I was becoming self-conscious of being colonized by Western classical music, I started becoming familiar with the work of the director, Wim Wenders. He said in interviews, growing up in Germany after the war, he felt colonized by American culture – wearing jeans and listening to rock ‘n roll. As he was beginning to develop as a filmmaker, he questioned whether he could participate fully, when he did not belong to the dominant culture of cinema (Hollywood). Then, at a crucial time for him, he discovered the Japanese director, Yasujiro Ozu. Ozu served as an example of a master working successfully outside the dominant culture. Around the same time as I was getting to know Wenders’ work, I was reading the French philosopher, Roland Barthes.

Barthes says that when we write, we are rewriting as much as we are writing.  That is to say, that when we write, we are re-invoking letters and words that already have a well-worn provenance. As I was thinking of my relationship to Western classical music, I too (like Wim Wenders) don’t belong to the dominant culture, because... I’m American. This realization in coordination with my love for certain unusual sounds made me think that my hope (and I’m only talking about myself) in participation is to fuck things up. Fucking things up means – to discover more personal sounds by inventing new techniques, hacking instruments, and/or inventing new instruments.

And if the sounds are new, then, a new syllabary needs to be invented to graphically represent them. The new syllabary creates the opportunity for latent writing, a space that is more mine and less invoking rewriting – like cooking from scratch. In order to facilitate the mapping of the new syllabary to sounds, I make videos of me (or my collaborators) performing the sounds, which I then upload onto the Internet. When I send my scores, I send links to those videos, so that whoever is practicing my music can have a reference to what the music should sound like. (Here’s an example of the hookah sax, a hacked saxophone [Link︎︎︎].)

All technology is a pharmakon. A pharmakon is an ancient Greek word that embodies two opposites: it at once means medicine and poison. Derrida and Plato refer to it, when they talk about the invention of writing. The cautionary tale is that writing can be an aid to memory, but once it exists and people start depending on it, it can cause the deterioration of internal, human mechanisms for memory. I find videos useful in helping to explain my notational syllabary. And I sometimes use megaphones in vocal performance. But I don’t use laptops in vocal performance anymore (I used to early on). I began to feel sensitive to the fact that if the laptop is on stage, people started to expect that the weird sounds they were hearing were all processed sounds facilitated by software. This ran contrary to how hard I was working to make those sounds, so I stopped using laptops in vocal performances.

You state, “When I compose, I create a context in which our little village can make music together.” You write Person specific music. Sometimes to be performed in one specific space. By default, you belong to so many villages of your own creations and choices, but do you intend to build up or are you mostly interested in the singularity aspect of each shared experience?

Music saved my life.

When I heard Hendrix, it was just so cool transcendentally, that I just had to start playing guitar.

All true loves are irrational. I am trying to give back, trying to offer some measure of that singular, life-transforming experience to the audience. Those are the stakes in being alive. And we can do it together, in our little village.

With regards to your role as a professor at UC Berkeley, you state, “I push my students to test the limits of their comfort zones to broaden their creative capacities.” What are some of the most striking works you’ve experienced as a result?

Joyce Kwon wrote a piece about famine in North Korea. Before performing it for us, she fasted for a week. That commitment was somehow palpable. It was stunning and after eight years of teaching at UC Berkeley, it still stands out.

Nathan Chamberlain, our valedictorian last year, produced a sold-out concert off-campus featuring two radical pieces of his as well as several of his colleagues. His standout piece was a piece for microtonal electric guitar (which he himself performed) and a dancer with a wireless sensor, which sent data that affected the sound of the guitar.

Nathaniel Ben-Horin wrote a piece for two umbrellas as instruments. You might think such resources would be very limiting, but he made it into a surprisingly compelling work. All notated and he performed it too.

Matthew Goodheart, a recent Ph.D. graduate, came to us already a mature artist. During his time in our program, he developed an electronic instrument (custom software) with which he could activate specific frequencies on specific cymbals (which he had pre-analyzed), excited by transducer pick-ups attached on those cymbals. These instruments could be played as instruments, in both written and improvised contexts, or perform on their own as an installation in a space. That hybridity problematized what we normally think of as an instrument. And they make really beautiful sounds too.


© 2020 KEN UENO



© 2020 KEN UENO