For Rob Amory and
Ken Ueno’s music sets up systems of multivalent resonance, combining sympathetic sources of expressive energy to catalyze new artistic possibilities, some predictable (by the composer), some serendipitous. These systems, or situations, or amalgams, begin with sound itself: Ueno pushes instruments beyond traditional performance methods to achieve sonic realities of visceral and evocative power. As a performer himself, a one-time rock guitarist and now a vocalist using extended throat-singing techniques, he anchors the musical gestures of his music in an awareness of the intense physical and emotional demands of performance. Ueno’s extraordinarily broad cultural interests, which include architecture, film, and other visual arts, literature, sociology and philosophy, and cuisine (the latter suggesting a concern for “applied” art), enrich the already lively musical details of his work. He continually seeks out, and is sought himself by, performers and collaborators who share his sense of challenge and exploration.
Ueno’s chamber concerto for violin and small ensemble Zetsu, composed for his longtime colleague Gabriela Diaz and for the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players (with which the composer has worked closely in recent years), continues his interest in what he calls “person-specific” works. These draw on the performance characteristics of particular performers, resulting in music rooted inextricably in personal relationships. As a vocalist, for example, he is his own most extreme case. His vocal concerto On a Sufficient Condition for Existence of Most Specific Hypothesis not only features the composer as soloist: the entire harmonic world of the orchestra is derived from the timbral qualities of the vocal part. His cello concerto Hapax Legomenon emerged organically from the possibilities of the two-bow cello technique of Frances-Marie Uitti. To date the most ambitious and contextually broad of these works is Ueno’s 2014 opera Gallo, composed for Boston’s Guerrilla Opera, in which his own libretto connects the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, Roman archaeology, 21st-century consumer culture, and the devastating 2011 Fukushima earthquake and tsunami. The bewilderingly diverse range of its music, tailored to the company and touching on Baroque pastiche, sultry torch-song, virtuosic modernism and the clash of equal-tempered and Bohlen-Pierce scales, miraculously coalesces into a coherently poignant whole.
Music of this kind is not without risk; in fact it cultivates and channels the energy of risk. Virtuosity, the necessity of close communication among players in an unusual musical environment, learning and artistically performing perhaps never-before-encountered techniques (and even pitches) creates a sense of living on the edge that positively energizes the players to strive beyond complacency. This energy is in turn transmitted, again positively, to the listener, who reaches a new level of understanding of the work’s joy and challenge. Zetsu takes its title from a 2003 art ceramic by the Japanese sculptor Nishida Jun (1977-2005), now in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. TenFourteen Project commissioner Rob Amory alerted Ueno to this piece, in which Nishida Jun createad a work of protean form, combining careful structure the chaotically amorphous results of experimental material and kiln techniques. The beautiful, enigmatic resulting pieces analogize processes of the formation of the earth itself. Nishida Jun’s willingness to push traditional ceramics beyond what could be considered failure was not only artistically but physically dangerous. At age twenty-eight, two years after the creation of Zetsu No. 8, he was killed in a kiln explosion while working with traditional potters on Bali.
In addition to a solo violin part that celebrates Diaz’s relationship to the violin—her extensive experience as a performer of new music as well as of standard repertoire—Zetsu generalizes the situation-specific idea with the creation of new instruments: percussion idiophones using microtonal tunings unique to the harmonic spectra of the piece, and the “hookah sax,” played via a tube inserted in its bell. Knowing his performers, Ueno taps into their senses of humor as well as of adventure. Formally, Zetsu pushes and pulls gestures and textures to extremes: the slowly evolving shimmer in the solo violin of the opening gives way to discrete, rhythmically clarified polyphony for the ensemble. The soloist returns with an intricate part ranging widely in articulation and tessitura, microtonal contours lending an organic, improvised, very human intensity.