Concerto for
Two-bow Cello

Notes by
Robert Kirzinger


Commissioned by
the Harvard Musical
Association and
composed at
Civitella Rainieri.

January 17, 2014.
Frances-Marie Uitti,
Two-bow Cello, and
the Boston Modern
Orchestra Project.
Jordan Hall,
Boston, MA.

Commissioned by the Harvard Musical Association and dedicated to the cellist Frances-Marie Uitti, Ken Ueno’s Hapax Legomenon is one of a series of works exploring the unique abilities and personalities of highly individual performers. Several of these pieces have been performed and recorded by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project: On a Sufficient Condition for the Existence of Most Specific Hypothesis, for voice and orchestra; Talus for viola and strings, and Kaze-no-Oka for biwa, shakuhachi, and orchestra. The first of these featured the composer himself as vocal soloist and incorporated throat-singing as well as other extended techniques. Further, it was based on a recording of himself vocalizing that Ueno had made as a child, and is thus a double-self-portrait fundamentally unperformable by any other musician. Talus was composed for violist Wendy Richman, and—to oversimplify an intricate origin—was developed from acoustic properties of her scream as well as from the structure of x-rays of her shattered ankle. In Frances-Marie Uitti, Ueno has written for a performer whose career has been founded on the untransferability of her technique, particularly as she developed her artistry in collaboration with the composer Giancinto Scelsi.

Among Ueno’s most significant influences is the electric guitarist Jimi Hendrix, whose inimitable and seemingly boundless technical and sonic invention served a similarly limitless musical passion. After being derailed from a very different career track by an injury (paralleling Hendrix’s own life), Ueno became obsessed with the electric guitar and ultimately enrolled in Boston’s Berklee College of Music. Encounters with Bartók led him to more contemporary works, and he went on to study music composition at Boston University, Yale, and Harvard, where he earned his doctorate. He was awarded both the Rome and Berlin prizes and has been commissioned by the Fromm Foundation, Meet the Composer, the Jebediah Foundation, Meet the Composer, the American Composers Forum, Kim Kashkashian, the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, and many others. He has taught at the Berklee College of Music, the Boston Conservatory, and UMass Dartmouth, and since 2008 has been on the faculty of the University of California–Berkeley, where he is an associate professor of music. He wrote Hapax Legomenon primarily while in residence in Italy on a fellowship from the Civitella Ranieri Foundation.

Ueno has long examined questions of identity and defining properties of self: being Japanese in the United States, an artist in society, a musician among artists, an avant-garde composer among the broader community of musicians. Points of confluence and divergence in the contact between the individual and society are translated into relationships in sound and form. Ueno’s aesthetic and intellectual interests range widely; philosophy, anthropology, and other artistic media and often provide specific sources for his work. Kaze-no-Oka, for example, derives part of its structure and soul (and, for that matter, its name) from contemplation of funereal architecture designed by Fumihiko Maki. Samuel Beckett and the filmmaker Wim Wenders have also provided models. Hapax Legomenon, as the composer relates below, takes its title from a seven-part film by the American experimentalist Hollis Frampton (1936-1984). Frampton’s early work was known for its focus on process and structure obviated by a limited use of materials, suggesting a connection with American minimalism (in fact the painter Frank Stella was a close friend). Frampton’s later films, no less formalist in technique, acknowledges the inevitable presence of human relationships and complexities, positive and negative. There is a balance of discomfort, delight, mystery, and poetry in this work. Regardless of the degree of technical or metaphorical correspondence between Frampton’s Hapax films and Ueno’s piece of the same name, the artistic concerns are sympathetic.

Many of these ideas, of course, have been part of the “concerto” discussion from its inception, asking us to contemplate the relationship between the individual (or minority ensemble) and the larger group. Along with other elements, Ueno suggests continuity with this tradition in his quotation of a hymn melody in his piece, recalling, perhaps, Berg’s quotation of Bach in his Violin Concerto.

Ueno’s Hapax Legomenon requires not only that Frances-Marie Uitti be Frances-Marie Uitti but in many cases that every individual in the orchestra perform beyond the ensemble concept—the string players are hyper-divisi, each with their own part. Much of the time the orchestral texture is designed as the end result of individual action—the effect is that of an aggregate of the “personal” reactions, at times, of each individual to the action of the soloist. Elsewhere, particularly as the piece goes on, blended complexes of instruments as a kind of harmonic/rhythmic blossoming of the cello’s presence.

The composer’s comments on the piece appear below.

Hapax Legomena are words that occur only once in a given context. Most of my pieces are written person-specifically – they are meant to be, initially, only be performed by one person. Therefore, in the title, I found a poetic analog to my musical praxis of person-specificity. This piece is also person-specific. It is written for the great cello virtuoso, Frances-Marie Uitti. Frances-Marie is well known for having invented a technique for playing with two-bows, allowing her to play all four strings of the cello at once. The featuring of this technique considers a non-traditional view of virtuosity, a virtuosity that is of vertical harmony, rather than horizontal speed. Much of the piece is created from harmonies that mix temperaments (equal tempered notes are mixed with natural overtones as well as quarter tones).

The end of the piece quotes a hymn called, Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, the end of the first line of which says, ”tune my heart to sing thy Grace,” which I thought appropriate to a piece dedicated to exotic harmonies. The end of the piece is also dedicated to the liminal space between melody and sound, noise and harmony, and between imagined sound and silence. The virtuosity is in that fragile delicacy.

People are unique and are hapax legomena. The title is borrowed from a series of experimental films by Hollis Frampton, and as such, honors my friendship with P. Adams Sitney, the greatest scholar of American Experimental films. —KU


© 2020 KEN UENO



© 2020 KEN UENO