History of


Notes by
Ken Ueno

solo extended voicE
with electronics
(18 portable speakers,
CPAP, feedback bowl,
megaphone and

September 20, 2019.
Ken Ueno.

I will enter the space bearing small speakers.

But, I never sleep.

For most of my life, I have suffered from apnea. After a sleep study, I learned that I stop breathing in my sleep sometimes for over a minute.

What should be most natural as a human being, is foreign to me. To sleep. To dream. I was outfitted with a CPAP as a cure — a breathing device that pumps a continuous flow of air to keep my airways from blocking. The mask and the tube of the CPAP reminds me of gear WWII Spitfire pilots wore. The contraption is so cumbersome and unnatural that I imagine myself as an astronaut attempting to visit the planet of sleep “to breathe the air from another planet” (Ich fühle luft von anderem planeten), but the air pressure needed to keep my palate from enclosing my airway is too strong - it, too, wakes me up. I have since given up on the CPAP.

Breath is at the ontological center of my art practice as a vocalist, and it does feel strange to me that I can’t breathe properly (I purposely chose not to use the word “normal” here) during sleep. This aspect of my body contributes to my feeling of estrangement, as I realize that my experience is only shared by about 6% of Americans (Asian-Americans account for only 5.9% of the population, by the way).

Tonight, I will use the CPAP as an instrument, and foreground, in front of an audience, what apnea sufferers are normally shy to share. The ugly machine. A mask that distorts our face. I will breathe and vocalize with and against the mechanical flow of air. It will be my revenge, before I throw the expensive thing away.

The CPAP points to an aspect of my performance practice which considers ways in which machines can function as prosthetic extensions of my voice. All technology is, however, a Pharmakon (an ancient Greek word embodying opposites — “medicine” and “poison” — theorized by Plato and Derrida), and the CPAP is certainly such one. Pharmakons facilitate certain performance opportunities, at the same time as prohibiting others. In my history of engagement with technology in performance, I have become sensitive to the fact that, with the presence of technology, the audience hears differently. When I first started performing some twenty years ago, I vocalized with my laptop on stage with me, using Max/MSP. Post-concert audience questions often turned to what my Max/MSP patch was doing (it was often only spatializing the sounds), not realizing that I, my body, was doing the heavy-lifting, singing multiphonics. I am interested in machines which can demonstrate a palpable mapping between physical performance gestures and sonic output.

The DIY feedback circuit bowl (e.g. link to video︎︎︎) I have been incorporating into my performances recently is an instrument that is sensitive to the slightest physical gestures. A signal from a small microphone is outputted to a sound transducer. The transducer resonates a plastic fish bowl — it is a feedback machine. The instrument is sensitive to the distance between the microphone and the bowl, as well as the angle, and my hand pressure on the bowl (pressing hard against the bowl I can control the bandwidth of the feedback multiphonics). I have also learned to use my voice in coordination with the delicate interaction with the instrument to create multiphonics and difference tones. Tonight, I will play with the DIY feedback circuit bowl, after the CPAP.

And, then, I will vocalize with my megaphone.

If one does not consider the voice an instrument, then, the megaphone is my main instrument. I started using the megaphone, when I started performing in large spaces, with complex architectural features, which afforded the possibility of a counterpoint of resonances. Armed with a megaphone, I was mobile and could incorporate the narrative possibility of movement in a space, direct my sound in different directions, at different structural materials, and angles. I could play with various lengths of echoes. And articulating the resonant frequencies of different locations in a space, means that architecture, too, could 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, but the shapes are vowels that don’t exist in any language. I have also learned to control the aperture of the multiphonic (or bandwidth) with the shape of my mouth, and I can also sing in counterpoint or in augmentation with the shaped feedback multiphonic by humming into my nasal cavity. There are other techniques which involve ingressive singing, which, in alternation with exhaled techniques, allows me to circular-breathe.

If the CPAP points to a “normal” human condition to which I do not belong, the megaphone exemplifies my investment in the hope that radicality creates agency. The node of contemporary culture and identity is telescoping into the grain of the individual. We should all feel freer to create our own unique practices — in whatever we do. But it’s still scary. It might seem that we are alone. Sometimes for many years. But if we earnestly apply ourselves in whatever we find beautiful and necessary, it might happen, that what we do could also resonate with others. I have found that even if we all might not sleep, we all, at least, breathe.


© 2020 KEN UENO



© 2020 KEN UENO