Everything Rises

An evening-long multimedia staged musical work

2022For violin, bass-baritone, and electronicsEverything Rises is produced and commissioned by ARCO Collaborative with co-commissioner UCSB Arts and Lectures, and the generous support of The Alphadyne Foundation, Elizabeth and Justus Schlichting, and the UCLA Department of History. Additional support from NancyBell Coe and Bill Burke, Annette and Dr. Richard Caleel, Fariba Ghaffari, Barbara and Chet Peckett, Nina and Michael Zilkha. Special thanks to CAP-UCLA for residency workshop support in the development of Everything Rises.

Music and libretto
by Ken Ueno

Everything Rises is an evening-long multimedia staged musical work featuring violinist, Jennifer Koh, and bass-baritone, Davóne Tines, that platforms their experiences with racism in classical music. Interviews with Davóne’s grandmother, Alma Lee Gibbs Tines, and Jennifer’s mother, Soonja Lee Koh, help trace their shared history of racialized trauma, the unpacking of which helps create a space of allyship between the Asian American and African American experience. Along the way, a variety of musical settings – solos and duos, instrumentals, songs – showcase Jennifer and Davóne’s virtuosity and the breadth of their musical expressions, as well as take the audience through the complexity of moods and emotions befitting the platformed subject matter.


In juxtaposing references to classical music, avant-garde new music, electronic music, Korean music, ambient electronica, 70s pop songs, and a salve (a song that delivers an emotional affirmation and comfort like a lullaby, without being a lullaby), Everything Rises is a musical platform for code-switching that resists the Western inclination towards synthesis. Code-switching stands for the immigrant experience—we are the ones who are compelled to speak multiple languages, learn to eat other foods, and adapt to dominant codes. Code-switching is anti-modernist fragmentation that shifts our understanding of time and history, our sense of validity from the Hegelian to non-Western frames, and to advocate for the possibility that such diverse perspectives can be possible. In creating new spaces for marginalized bodies to speak our truths (foregrounded by a libretto informed by ethnographic research), we are reclaiming our as-of-yet marginalized voices as self-narrators. 

Ethnography as Composition

Over several months, Ken Ueno (composer and librettist) and Kee-Yoon Nahm (dramaturg) interviewed Jennifer Koh and Davóne Tines, asking how they wanted to express their experiences with racism in classical music, as well as how the racialized traumas of their matriarchal forebears (Gertrude Soonja Lee Koh and Alma Lee Gibbs Tines) shaped their lives. Ueno then wrote the libretto based on the interview transcripts, versifying their stories, while also adding poetic commentary of his own invention. Ueno, Nahm, and Alexander Gedeon (director) also shaped the narrative structure from these interviews, loosely following the trajectory of the piece’s multi-year creative process. Nahm also helped Ueno curate selections from interviews with Koh’s mother and Tines’s grandmother, which are played as voiceovers in several songs. The voice-overs, a film-documentary operation, serves as a kind of recitative in operatic terms, which Ueno had previously experimented with in his earlier theater work, Gallo.

Words as Sounds

As Ueno wrote the libretto, he chose vowels and consonants in the poetry with musical affordances in mind. For example, the elongated “ee” is often displaced from words like “tree” and orchestrationally paired with scratch tones on the violin (over-pressured bow producing a noise-like sound) to evoke parallel histories of racialized violence (bodies hanging from trees is a shared image of violence across the Korean War and the lynching of Black Americans). 

There are several references woven into the libretto which might be helpful to highlight for the audience. The question, “How shall we build on the ashes of a nightmare?” in the song “Parallel Histories” is quoted from eminent historian Robin Kelley’s book Freedom Dreams (a history of revolutionary African American intellectuals and artists in the twentieth century). The title of the final song, “Better Angels,” nods to the concluding lines of Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address:

“The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Symbolic Values in the Music

The aforementioned scratch tone on the violin that represents racialized violence is deployed as a recurring motif. Besides text-setting words that evoke violence in the libretto (e.g. flesh in “Strange Fruit”), this harsh sound permeates the score on its own, as in the solo violin movement “Embers” (which recurs as the intro to “Strange Fruit”).

Symbolic values also factored in the selection of G major as the key for the sequences relating to Koh’s mother—her experiences during the Korean War and the early years of her immigration to the United States. The key was chosen, in part, with consideration for the violin’s lowest open string and the range of Tines’s voice, but also for its relationality to the most common tuning of the most iconic of Korean instruments, the kayageum.

While the symbolic value of referencing the kayageum in this way is more abstract, there are also overt evocations of Korean music in the score. Having collaborated with traditional instrumentalists over the past twenty years, Ueno drew upon his experience to compose music that leans towards Korean traditional music, especially the repertoire of the haegum, a two-string bowed instrument, in the sections that recount Koh’s mother’s experiences during the Korean War in “Soonja’s Song” and “Fluttering Heart.”

Finally, throughout the piece, from the profundobass of “A Story of the Moth” (a cutting soliloquy for Tines) to the concluding angelic falsetto of “Better Angels” (the musical salve), Tines’s voice navigates an ever-rising range and keys from song to song —a symbolic, yet also embodied, narrative of hope for Everything Rises.


© 2020 KEN UENO



© 2020 KEN UENO