And the Seven
Angels Rejoiced


Notes by
Ken Ueno

Commissioned by
the New York
New Music Ensemble.
Dedicated to
Eduardo Leandro.

My work encompasses three output modalities: composition, vocal performance (as a vocalist, I specialize in extended techniques such as throat singing, singing multiphonics, and circular breathing) and sound art installations. Recent works expand upon the liminal space between the three practices through site-specific works or installation performances. For example, a recent piece, only the breaths of favorite poems, herein, created for the Shenzhen Biennial, under one aspect, is a sound installation of twenty speakers installed in a structure of thirty-three door panels. For the premiere, I performed a concert work in which ten musicians and myself, mobile with megaphones, vocalized sounds like the sounds in the installation. As the piece progressed, door panels were gradually opened, effectively increasing the volume of the sounds emitted from the interior of the installation and transforming the resonance of the aggregate space. The concert work, thusly, instrumentalized the installation, skirting the boundary between concert music and installation. My art lives in the interstice between concert music, sound art, architecture, and theatre.

Conducting a site visit of the new Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation last year, I was struck by several architectural/historical details. First, that for a performance, the audience seated in the second-floor gallery space, would be in the proximity of a stairwell at the window-end of the room, a point of potential dramatic entry. That stairwell opening could serve as an ostensible architectural f-hole, acoustically, for louder instruments playing in the first-floor space below. Considering architectural spaces for their acoustic potential is a mark of my recent site-specific works. Examples include: Fortress Brass, in which brass players were stationed in gun casemates on two floors of Fort Gorges in Portland Harbor, the first movement on three boats; The Four Contemplations, in which string players were stationed in different rooms of the Asian Art Galleries of the RISD Museum (the throat-singing composer stationed at the bottom of a resonant stairwell); Ghost Vault Triptych, in which a clarinet player, a sound installation, and the vocalist/composer inhabited three adjacent vaults of the historically charged Cluskey Vaults in Factors Walk in Savannah, GA. The Resnick/Passlof Foundation space is full of acoustic potential, aspects that are highlighted in this composition.

What struck me most, however, during my site visit was seeing the room where Mr. Resnick worked on the third floor. There are beautiful marks, splashes, bearing the trace of his actions on the walls. Those multicolored marks outline two empty spaces where his canvases had been, which renders, as even more auspicious, the penciled quote from the Book of Revelations on the wall on top of the splattered paint. It reads, “THE LAMB OPENED THE SEVENTH SEAL AND SEVEN ANGELS REJOICED,” the inspiration for the title of my piece.

I always say that architectural spaces are also instruments. At the start of my piece, the audience will be led by docents to experience the small studio space, as a kind of theater of archaeology, to feel the historically-charged-ness of the space. The space will be installed with a sound installation, sounds I recorded in my apartment in Hong Kong during Typhoon Manghkut. The installation transposes the sounds of the architectural stress endured by my apartment into Resnick’s studio space as a contemplation on his eschatological quote from the Book of Revelations.

After visiting Resnick’s workroom, the audience is led to the second-floor gallery space to experience the rest of the piece. Starting with another sound installation of seven small speakers spatialized to articulate difference tones. Difference tones are the psychoacoustic resultant of hearing two (or more) high-pitched sounds slightly off from each other in frequency. This results in a third tone (one that you only hear in your head), sounding at a frequency that is the subtractive difference between the two sounds. As the piece progresses, acoustic instruments join in, complicating the texture with multiphonics and microtones that augment the psychoacoustic resultants and help articulate the space (difference tones are highly directional).

The difference tone section ends with the arrival of two homemade instruments (of sorts). The percussionist will play with an mp3 player speaker (one of the same make and model as in the sound installations) placed on a snare. The snare switch is manipulated to increase/decrease the level of the rattle of the snare; hands are placed next to the speaker to cut off resonance; the speaker is moved towards the rim, all around, and even tilted to different degrees – all specifically notated. The other homemade instrument is a feedback circuit board with a plastic fish bowl, which I will play. The distance and angle of the fish bowl to the small speaker on the circuit board creates different feedback pitches. Singing different pitches into the bowl creates multiphonics. The most prominent pitch from this DIY instrument is the pitch on the mp3 player used by the percussionist.

The piano is tuned justly to the C overtone spectrum (tuned to match a comfortable range for my throat singing). It plays first during the difference tone installation, during a period when not all the audience have yet to be seated. But, after 47 minutes, it makes its real entry, gradually building to a cadenza, a kind of false messiah. The real hapax legomena (a term for the unique occurrences of things) are the instruments that come even later – including a custom set of microtonal pipes, also tuned justly to C.

The building of the Resnick/Passlof Foundation bore witness to Resnick’s creative process. His spirit is still there. It’s inspiring to me that the trace of the human is evident in the architecture. Though known as a master of abstraction Resnick’s works are often populated with human-like figures that, in turn, help articulate the larger abstract texture. These aspects align with artistic sensibilities important to my work – my music is founded on sounds that I discover through empirical experiments in my daily life, and my work is increasingly concerned with finding a middle ground between what might stand for abstraction and figuration in music. The more I have gotten to know Mr. Resnick’s works, the more I feel it resonates with our contemporary condition in the arts in the 21st century.


© 2020 KEN UENO



© 2020 KEN UENO