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Ken Ueno premieres new composition

| 04 November 2009

Composer Ken Ueno, a University of California, Berkeley, assistant professor of music, says the audience at the San Francisco premiere of his new musical composition, "Archaeologies of the Future," heard sounds they likely never heard before.

Ken UenoKen Ueno (Photo by Ken Ueno)

Ueno's renewed connection to music led him to musical training at the Berklee College of Music, Boston University, the Yale School of Music, and Harvard University, where he received his Ph.D. He also received the 2006-2007 Rome Prize in music.

Sample from a 2008 concerto, "On a Sufficient Condition for the Existence of Most Specific Hypothesis."

The piece performed on Monday (Nov. 2) by the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players was composed for an amplified sextet of bass flute, prepared piano, percussion, viola, cello and vocalizations performed by Ueno himself.

As a vocalist, Ueno specializes in techniques like a straight bi-tonal style known as overtone singing, throat singing (a style with laryngeal straining), multiphonics, circular breathing, sub-tones and extreme high registers. He used computer technology to intricately analyze the sounds of his own unique singing techniques to derive frequency data, which helped him design the piece, much the way contemporary architects use computer-aided design (CAD) to create modern structural possibilities.

In these ways, Ueno said, the composition reflects his desire to extend the reach of music and to use modern technology, the human voice, global music and constant experimentation to "update" a too-often constrained classical music vocabulary.

As a teenager in Southern California, Ueno discovered Jimi Hendrix and tinkered with the electric guitar. After an accident laid him up for months, and brought him home from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, which he was attending, he said the electric guitar became a central part of his therapy, and "it felt like somehow it was kind of healing me."

Ueno's renewed connection to music led him to musical training at the Berklee College of Music, Boston University, the Yale School of Music, and Harvard University, where he received his Ph.D. He won the 2006-2007 Rome Prize in music.

Among his most treasured listening experiences, Ueno lists Hendrix, John Coltrane, Igor Stravinsky, and Béla Bartók. Then, about 15 years ago, he heard a recording of Tuvan throat-singers and initiated his journey as a vocalist specializing in extended technique by imitating the Tuvan sounds while driving in his car, in the shower, and everywhere.

Then, while composing a vocal concerto in 2008, Ueno came across a recording he made when he was age 6 that surprisingly reveals that he was precociously making some of those same extended vocal sounds, like multiphonics.

"When I was six, my favorite object was a tape recorder," said Ueno. "I used to walk around documenting my mom yelling at my brother, as well as sounds I made vocally – some evocative of sounds I still like to make today. Incorporating these recordings in the beginning of the concerto piece makes it a kind of recapitulation of performances from my childhood over 30 years ago."

He plans to make another, updated version of this piece in 30 years. "My greatest hope would be to make two more iterations of this process during my lifetime," Ueno said.

"Archaeologies of the Future" will be performed along with the other pieces commissioned by the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players on Nov. 15 at the MANCA (Musiques Actuelles Nice Côte-d'Azur) Festival of new music in Nice, France. Classical guitarist David Tanenbaum will perform Ronald Bruce Smith's 2007 piece, "Five Pieces for Guitar and Electronics," which was partly written for him with software technology developed at UC Berkeley's Center for New Music and Audio Technology.