Ghosts of

For Ensemble


Notes by
Ken Ueno

Commissioned by
sfSound with support
from InterMusic SF’s
2018 Musical Grant

flute (with glissando
headjoint), oboe,
B-flat clarinet, alto
saxophone, trumpet
(doubling slide
trumpet), trombone,
percussion, extended 
voice, and 8-channel

January 12, 2020.
San Francisco Tape
Music Festival,
Victoria Theater,
San Francisco, CA.

Dear audience for the premiere on January 12, 2020, as you read this, I want let you know something. I turned 50 yesterday.

One morning, when I was composing this piece, I woke up to find on my online news feed an article about how blue holes in the Caribbean are repositories of soil samples from hurricanes from up to 1500 years ago. That a cataclysmic meteoric event can create a space that can be a repository of meteorological traumas that passed above them, embodying layers of histories and scales of time, I found relatable to not only to music and composition, but to my life.

Years ago, on a bright cloud-less day, I went to see the Blue Hole in Belize with my partner at the time. We chartered a private plane to take us there. The big Blue Hole, perfectly round and large, beautiful and strange, like an eye, perhaps the terrestrial punctuation that marked the demise of the dinosaurs, impressed upon us a change weightier than just a postcard-like image in memory. Having born witness to this minor miracle, we were transformed, perhaps in the way that T.S. Eliot describes the Magi were changed after witnessing the birth of the Christ Child and returning to their lands (We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, With an alien people clutching their gods). Sometimes we would regale in the memory of that day, as evidence of hope in the world, that the creativity and beauty of the world is grander, indeed, than what man can imagine. But, she, my former partner, too, was prone to storms. Physical tantrums which carved lithic sculptures into my life and psyche.

One of the thematic obsessions of my compositional career has been the consideration that destruction myths could also be creation myths. In an early work, Ga-uah-Chon-Ch-cha, written for the de Ereprijs competition when I was a student, I fashioned a song of rapture from fragments of Trukese (Truk is a Micronesian lagoon where many Japanese warships lay underwater), imagining the culture of a nearby island where Americans might have tested H-bombs in the 50s, projected into the future, where the history of nuclear testing had transformed into a destruction/creation myth for my fictional tribe of Ga-uahians.

There are more recent manifestations of this theme in my music as well. My opera, Gallo, was a reaction to seeing the landscape of my early childhood, Sendai, damaged by the Fukushima disaster, a cataclysmic natural disaster made worse by the man’s science. In the opera, a soprano emerges from a beach of Cheerios after thirty minutes and, later, a counter tenor is ritually interred after having danced on the beach of Cheerios (thereby “instrumentalizing” the installation as well as allegorically enacting the destruction of the landscape). My oboe concerto, Sawdust on Ararat, ends with two percussionists sawing blocks of wood, at once cutting (destroying) it as well as allegorically building a new ark, warning us of the impending rise in sea level.

Last year, when I was living in Hong Kong for the year as a Visiting Professor at the City University of Hong Kong, on leave from my normal duties at UC Berkeley, I experienced the force of Typhoon Mangkhut, which was one of the most powerful storms to ever hit Hong Kong. I made audio recordings during the storm in my apartment in Wan Chai. These recordings are presented here, tonight, in eight channels, a transposition of the trace of the physical trauma of a nature event as experienced in one architectural space to another.

If one does not consider the voice an instrument, then, the megaphone is my main instrument. Armed with a megaphone, I am mobile and can incorporate the narrative possibility of movement in a space, direct my sound in different directions, at different structural materials, and angles. And articulating the resonant frequencies of different locations in a space, means that architecture, too, can be read as harmonic structure. I have developed an array of vocal techniques specific to the megaphone. For example, a kind of slap tongue whose attack is followed by a multiphonic drone shaped by changing the vowel shapes within my mouth, bespoke vowels that don’t exist in any language. There are other techniques which involve ingressive singing, which, in alternation with exhaled techniques, allows me to circular-breathe.

Tonight, as my piece starts with the sounds of Typhoon Manghut, sfSound will vocalize breath sounds with megaphones as they traverse the theatre on their way to the stage, an “orchestration,” if you will, of the sounds of the typhoon, as well as a transposition of my vocal practice to other bodies. In this way, life and music and composition telescope into this moment.

Much of my music is “person-specific” wherein the intricacies of performance practice are brought into focus in the technical achievements of a specific individual fused, inextricably, with that performer’s aura. In an increasingly digitized world, “person-specificity” takes a stand against the forces that render all of us anonymous. It also runs counter to the neo-colonial tradition of transportability in Western Classical music.

Part of the allure of composing this piece for sfSound was that sfSound afforded me the possibility to take special musical risks, to write “person-specifically” for them. For example, all the wind players can circular breathe (the middle of the piece features the group circular breathing on a high Ab, microtonally inflecting the pitch to various, specific degrees, creating difference tones). The microtonal inflections are orchestrationally facilitated further by the fact that Dianne Grubbe, the flutist, plays with a glissando headjoint, a sliding headjoint invented by the virtuoso, Robert Dick. The trumpet player, Tom Dambly, has a slide trumpet, an instrument akin to a small trombone, which also contributes to the microtonal affordances of the ensemble. I wanted to end the piece with a chorale of sorts on bespoke microtonally-tuned metal pipes, which the percussionist, Kjell Nordeson, was kind enough to make himself. The piece also has a cadenza for myself and Matt Ingalls, the clarinetist, who has been my most frequent partner in improvisations in the Bay Area over the past twelve years.

As I look forward to the second half of my life, I am grateful to have had this opportunity with sfSound to coalesce some of the diverse trajectories of my art practice, to reflect on the historical scars that have sculpted me, as well as new portals of creative imaginings that these scars open into the future (my personal destruction myths qua creation myths). Most importantly, I want to thank you, dear audience, for being here and sharing and supporting this landmark moment with me.

Respectfully yours,

Ken Ueno


© 2020 KEN UENO



© 2020 KEN UENO