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Ueno’s Providential Sound Art


Ken-uenoI want to inscribe the sounds from my body in communion with the flesh of the audience, that we might extend each other’s lives. The temporality of engagement continues as long as there is a bodily trace, a memory.

Ken Ueno was a local new-music presence for nearly a dozen years before taking a faculty position at UC-Berkeley. Which is not to say that he became a stranger. Little over a year ago, he was in town [review here] for the world premiere of his Hapax Legomenon. The composer’s Talus was reviewed here in 2008 and Gallo [here] played Boston in last June.

Ueno is preparing for another return, this time at the RISD Museum in Providence on March 29th, with Four Contemplations. Sound art installations come in all shapes and sizes. John Kochevar thought BMInt readers might be interested in a current composer’s inspirations and experiences, with reflections on how Boston compares with other active new-music centers.

JK: Talk about the Providence concert.

KU: I was commissioned to create a site-specific piece for the RISD Museum’s Dainichi Buddha (c. 1150). An unusual idea for a composition, the work, titled Four Contemplations, will unfold in three iterations. First, March 26th, I’ll be performing with 11 members of the Community MusicWorks Players, led by Sebastian Ruth (a 2010 MacArthur Fellow), in the Asian art gallery spaces of the museum, including the room with the Buddha, in four 30-minute chunks throughout the evening. On Sunday, March 29th, we will perform an hourlong concert piece in the RISD Museum concert hall. During these live events, the music will be recorded, and at a later date will be accessible on the museum guide in the Asian art galleries. Four Contemplations was inspired by the Buddha and also the four fundamental meditations in Buddhist practice. It was influenced as well by my recent attempts to compose music specific to architectural spaces and people moving through them. More on the event is here.

You were on sabbatical for more than a year starting in 2013 composing, performing, and creating installations. Tell us about life on the road.

I started my sabbatical with a residency at Civitella Ranieri, a magical castle in Umbria, in May 2013, where I worked on Hapax Legomenon. Several weeks into my residency, my Berkeley landlord informed me she was selling the house. I never managed to return to Berkeley long enough to find a new place. I was homeless for a full year.

Besides the cello concerto and my chamber opera, Gallo, my sabbatical works were mainly installations. From Italy I flew to Merida Mexico to teach and perform at the Suigéneris Lab, a workshop for emerging composers, and to check out the space at the Museo Universario Arte Contemporáneo (MUAC) in Mexico City, where I was commissioned to create a sound art installation opening later that summer. After seeing the space, I created Liquid Lucretius.

The main idea for Liquid Lucretius was inspired by my time living in Cambridge. Running along the Charles, I remember encountering geese feeding on the grass. The complex, delicate sound of their bills taking tiny little bites made a strong impression. Roland Barthes talks in his Grain of the voice about “pheno-song” and “geno-song.” The former is features of language being sung, the latter nonlinguistic, nonsignifying aspects of song. The geese feeding on grass is, for me, a kind of eco-geno-song, also a kind of eco-granular synthesis. Their grain of voice made me think of Lucretius, the first philosopher credited with imagining the world consisting of atoms, tiny, invisible. Following this train of thought, from the statistical, delicate sounds of the geese and Lucretius, I determined to base my installation on granular synthesis, created from atomistic, micro-sound components. Granular synthesized sounds, I thought, would also help articulate the space, with 24 discrete channels of sound. I recorded my voice breathing while changing formants, as well as some samples of granular synthesized sounds. Then I created a Max patch that convolves these two sounds [convolution is a technique in which the spectral and envelope aspects of two sounds are combined]. My patch then has a machine in which the granular sounds, my breath/formants, and the convolved sounds are continuously mixed in different proportions. That output is then sent to the 24 speakers via Ambisonics. An algorithm in the Ambisonics controller continuously charts a different path (and speed) in the 24-channel space.

Additionally, I have two other machines in the patch that perform two different “Easter Eggs” at different frequencies of occurrence. Every once in a while, my voice, breathing in, comes out of a different speaker. Every, every, every once in a while, from a different speaker comes my voice quietly saying “stars like sibilants speak.” At first you might not realize you heard it. Or you might think, What was that? But if you wait long enough, it’ll reappear.

From Mexico I flew to Hong Kong to work with my collaborator, the architect Thomas Tsang, on an installation for a Beijing museum. An Asiana Airlines flight crashed in San Francisco; it took me days to get there. Jet lag can be debilitating, but after a while it becomes a kind of beautiful disease. The body retains a memory of the last place you were; memory, emotions and landscape become physical symptoms.

Tell more about the Beijing installation.

"I sang the subtones live."
“I sang the subtones live.”

For Jericho Mouth, the installation for the Inside-Out Museum in Beijing, a Max patch sonically activates a stairwell as a resonant chamber, which leads to a sonic aperture with an opening outside the building, effectively turning the building into a large wind instrument. The sounds I recorded for the installation are vocal subtones, which I calibrated to shake the building. Since it’s extremely loud, it has to be experienced with the audience outside. During the opening event, I sang the subtones live, while standing on top of the building, while my voice was projected through the amplifiers installed within the building. The building became an extension of my body.

You make references to food. Do your avant-garde food experiences influence your music?

Yes, in important ways. I remember having a spoonful of shaved frozen foie gras at Momofuku Ko. Initially the sensation of frozen foie gras melting in my mouth was like nothing I ever had, but it was also the ultimate comfort food. I realized that something alien and new need not be mutually exclusive with comfort. This is what I was thinking when I composed the final scene, the lullaby in my chamber opera Gallo. The soprano, Aliana de la Guardia, sings a lullaby to the dead rooster, but she is accompanied by percussion on metal pipes tuned with a microtonal scale—so the lullaby, musical comfort food, was sung in a temperament that was also alien and weird, like frozen foie gras.

I want to mention a meal at Noma, in Copenhagen, the Michelin-three-star Nordic cuisine restaurant. The menu brought together local foraging and molecular gastronomy. That’s what I want to try with music: to look for new sounds the way Chef Redzepi forages for new tastes in the woods. I want to make music that has as visceral an impact as his food does.

And Breath Cloud?

Breath Cloud is a sound installation that was commissioned by the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, installed there in 2014 as part of their Cloud of Unknowing show. It created a morphological liminal space between human breath and atmospheric, cloudlike, airiness. Using 90 mp3 players suspended from the ceiling, it dispersed an aggregate cloud of sound, which is also individually, uniquely, articulate. Installed in the gateway into the Cloud of Unknowing section of the group show, Breath Cloud also served as a sonic gateway.

To create the sonic aggregate of the breathlike cloud, I recorded sounds of my voice, as I performed breathlike effects, exhaling and inhaling, changing vowels at different rates. In order to articulate the space, to create a kind of statistical counterpoint, I sang plosives and sharp, short accents. I then made 90 individual soundfiles, unique to each of the 90 speakers and their location, making sure that each file has a different density of articulate (plosives) activity, as well as duration. This ensures that the aggregate will express a consistent gestalt, while at each moment the overlaps of the 90 speakers with varying accents and durations will never replicate—it creates an ever-changing whole.

Other highlights during the year?

Mid-January, I flew to Boston for the premiere of my two-bow cello concerto, Hapax Legomenon, with Frances-Marie Uitti and BMOP.* The highlight of the year, though, was returning to Boston in the middle of May for the six-night run of my chamber opera, Gallo [reviewed here]. Gallo was amazing. The Guerilla Opera team is taking opera to the next level. Geniuses! There’s hope for new music in the States after all.

You have performed and listened to new music all over the world. How does Boston compare?

Boston’s right up there. BMOP, Guerilla Opera, and Sound Icon are among the most progressive and worldly ensembles in the United States. Last year, Boston University hosted Salvatore Sciarrino [here] and Boston Conservatory hosted Louis Andriessen [here]. Local visionaries were responsible: Josh Fineberg and Jeffery Means at BU and Sound Icon, and Eric Hewitt at Boston Conservatory. But any place in the States still has a lot of work to do before it can compare with Berlin and other capitals of new music in Europe. There’s new music there every weekend. People go to concerts like we go to the movies.

It was interesting to see all the activity in Asia and in South America. In the States and Europe, all we hear about is budgets being cut, but in the developing economies, things are growing. This is a great trend. New music is becoming both global and democratic.

What happens next with sound installations?

I hope they increase the audience for new music. I remember reading an Alex Ross article in the Guardian a few years ago about how museums are drawing larger numbers of young people but new-music concerts don’t. In his analysis, people with limited musical experience don’t want to risk being stuck in a seat listening to alien, unpleasant sounds. In a museum, if they come across unpleasant art, they can simply move on.

Dainich Nyorai Buddah at RISD
Dainich Nyorai Buddha at RISD

I am trying to program my installation music for specific spaces and with a temporality that will engage audiences in more-varied ways. The temporality of engagement is the window of opportunity to have an impact on the audience. If the impact is deep enough, then the temporality of engagement can continue beyond the window of time the artwork is perceived. Subtones and multiphonics and breath, the aspects of my vocal practice, defy orientation toward a conventional musical language. Together with volume, the physicality of my sonic output is aimed towards a geno-song. In considering what I cherish as the ultimate impact of my work, I have in recent years been considering the discourse of somaesthetics, a field recently developed by the philosopher Richard Shusterman. Somaesthetics foregrounds the role of the body in aesthetic appreciation. Jericho Mouth and my vocal practice seek to reveal the boundary between self and world to be porous. I want to inscribe the sounds from my body in communion with the flesh of the audience, that we might extend each other’s lives. The temporality of engagement continues as long as there is a bodily trace, a memory. Four Contemplations at the RISD museum will be my most recent attempt to realize these ideas.

John Kochevar had been part of Boston’s musical scene for many years, as board member of contemporary groups and avid listener. He has numbered Ken Ueno among his friends for over 10 years.

* Ed. Note: The punctuated germination and redirected birth of serious and amusing composer Ken Ueno’s Hapax Legomenon constitute a droll tale. When Harvard Musical Association approached Ueno for a new work, he proposed something of an encounter/happening with violist Kim Kashkashian sitting on the floor surrounded by HMA devotees. The concept proved disagreeable, and so the composer offered to redirect his inspiration as a vehicle for deaf Scottish percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie with chamber ensemble. This too loomed as likely infeasible for the space and audience, and in the event the performance fees went beyond budget. Ueno turned again to rewrite and ended up expanding the HMA commission into the Hapax Legomenon concerto for two-bow cello and orchestra, as described. Thus did a commission for solo violin become a large-scale orchestral piece for BMOP.

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