Ken Ueno


[ Compositions ] - [ Performance Notes ] - [ Selected Performances: 2002-2003 / 2004-2006 / Vocal ]

a thick band of gray, a line that elides the end of day into the beginning of night (2005)

For singer and Max/MSP (with SPAT and La Kitchen sensors)
When I visited my grandfather as he was dying, bedridden and comatose, I was affected by what I read as signs of communication: motoric animation, irregular breathing, changes of heartbeat. This foreign language of physical gestures transcribes that which we want to interpret as signs of life continuing. In this piece, by using real-time sensors on my body and my voice, I want to investigate that gray line between language/gesture and non-semantic sound/movement. The poetics of the piece extend, through physical action, my poem written upon returning home from seeing my grandfather alive for the last time.

What I see is a thick band of gray
a line that elides the end of day
into the beginning of night
the space
stretched out over many years
perhaps a lifetime,
when we begin
we are already beginning
to end

That gray band
is in the motoric animation
of the lower jaw gnawing
regular pulsations
at the upper lip -
the space
left vacant by absent dentures;
the tight grip -
that obscures the sheet's edge
into the hand;
the irregular breathing -
in which are lost
traces almost words;
the increased heart rate -
seemingly responding
to proximity;
the eyes -
a miracle of human effort opening
in coincidence to
one calling
his name

This foreign language
of physical gestures
recorded, on this day,
a gray band
in what little we can
our hopes
that which
we want to
interpret as
signs of

...a.m... (2002)

For So Percussion Group and digital alarm clock radios
The morphology of sounds through evolutionary stages from digital white noise to acoustic white noise, to membranophones, to woods, to metals.  A morphology that traverses various stages of the activation of sounds - sustaining sounds, to rolls, to beats, to silences, ritualized in theatric space.

A Book of Months (2005)

In three movements
For chamber ensemble
Text by Maurice Sendak (Chicken Soup with Rice)

This piece was written for the Relâche Ensemble. 

When the Relâche Ensemble approached me to compose a piece incorporating the work of Maurice Sendak, I thought of my favorite works of his: Alligators All Around, One was Johnny, and Chicken Soup with Rice.  There is something about the serial [1] structures [2] of these books, which have always captivated me. The elegant and compact layout was impressive.  Each ordered element (a letter, a number, a month) is portrayed with text and illustration that fits on one or two pages [3]. As I was reading and rereading the three books, I started reading them nonlinearly - opening a page of one, then reading a random page in another, skipping from one section to another backwards and forwards.  A remarkable feature of these serial structures is that no matter where one cuts into the narrative, one knows exactly where one is in the structure.  For example, in Chicken Soup with Rice [4], if one knows that the structure is the cycle of months, then opening the book to “May,” we know that we are at the beginning of second quarter of the overall form.  It is a kind of structure in which we can psychologically “fill-in” the narrative when sections are skipped, or jumped over.  In my piece, I wanted to create a musical structure that can be perceived linearly as well as non-linearly (like the footnotes on this page).  Additionally, I wanted to represent the resonance of the poetic effect of the months before the literal reading of the Sendak setting.  What I mean is something of the effect of memory and recall when you feel like there is a cyclic experience, but somehow it feels different each time.  My solution was to compose a song based on Chicken Soup with Rice, which is only wholly presented [5] in the last [6] movement.  In the first two movements are musical materials derived from the materials in the last movement [7].

  1. Serial, as sequentially ordered structures, not dodecaphonic
  2. Alligators All Around is based on the alphabet, One was Johnny is a counting book and Chicken Soup with Rice is a book of months.
  3. In the case of Alligators All Around, based on the alphabet, each ordered element is set to one page, whereas in One was Johnny and Chicken Soup with Rice each ordered element is set on two pages (facing pages).  This is why these two books begin on an “even” page.
  4. After considerable debated, I settled on using only Chicken Soup with Rice.
  5. “Whole” is a misnomer, for I purposely leave out certain months. 
  6. The third movement.
  7. The piano toccata in the first movement is the piano is related to the piano accompaniment of the original song (which is never wholly wholly presented).  The microtonal harmonies in the second movement are derived from formant analysis of a female voice (alto) singing the names of the months.

all moments stop here and together we become every memory that has ever been (2003)

For 14 instruments and 15 hand-cranked music boxes
This piece was written for the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose, conductor.
The title was borrowed from an artwork by Ugo Rondinone.

The spaces between sounds are dramatic for me (“all moments stop here”).  But these silences energize me, as a listener, to participate in each forthcoming sound.  After the moment of greatest density, we arrive at a ghost of that sound world, as embodied by the delicate complexity of the music boxes en mass.

If you crank a music box very slowly, so that you isolate each note of a melody, the identity of the melody is obscured.  This happens even if the melody is one that is universally known (e.g. “Twinkle, twinkle little star,” “Row, row, row your boat,” “Happy Birthday”).  It is then possible to experience each note as a sound in itself, rather than as melody.  One may also begin to “fill in,” mentally, fleeting references to familiar tunes.  Additionally, if we experience a large collection of music boxes playing simultaneously, the melodic identity of each music box is consumed into an aggregate sound.  Within this aggregate sound, one can almost “pick out” fragments of melodies, while never completely grasping them.  In this piece, I wanted to investigate these perceptual boundaries. 

In our daily struggle to maintain our identity in a post-industrial  digital world, we are all music boxes, analog songs seeking a space in which to be heard.

Animal Sendai (2001)

Commissioned by Albany Symphony's Dog's of Desire Ensemble

A condition of the commission for this piece by the Dog's of Desire Ensemble was that the composition was to relate somehow to the New York State Museum's exhibit on the history of the motorcycle. When I received the commission in January 2001, I was still recovering from injuries I had suffered in a head-on collision car accident in November 2000. When I learned that the concert was going to be in conjunction with an exhibit on the motorcycle...I wanted to find a way to translate the visceral experience of the motorcycle into music - the noise/rumble is what I find beautiful and is what makes the motorcycle sexy - it shakes your whole body. It was then, that I knew I wanted to approach the harmony through an element of noise and contrast it with pitch-based sounds. The electronic sounds that open and close the piece are based on the most elemental component of mammalian life: the heartbeat. The sounds were modeled after the EKG taken of my heartbeat by doctors after my accident.

Apmonia (2004)

Commissioned by the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra
This piece was made possible by a grant from the Fromm Music Foundation and is dedicated to Bernard Rands at 70.

The title of this piece is a word devised by Samuel Beckett for a map of the heart.  Beckett derived “apmonia” from a Pythagorean term in acoustics theory; his purposeful misreading of the Greek letter rho as the Roman ‘p’ transforms “armonia” (harmony, octave) to “apmonia.”  The reference appears in Beckett’s first published novel, Murphy.

The large-scale structure of Apmonia is influenced by a work of the German filmmaker Wim Wenders. 

As a Japanese-American artist, I have struggled with feeling colonized by the tradition of Western Classical music.  Wim Wenders, in interviews, has talked about a similar struggle with his medium being dominated by Americans.  Artistically, he acknowledges that cinema is essentially American, and, not being American, he asked himself if it was possible for him to participate in cinematic art-making.  He found his solution when he discovered the works of Yasujiro Ozu.  Ozu’s individual style, voice, and accomplishment in cinema inspired Wenders that he, too, might be able to create great cinematic works, albeit not being American.

Wenders’ filmic essay, Tokyo-Ga, pays homage to Ozu.  The opening credits of Tokyo-Ga start with the opening credits to Ozu’s masterpiece, Tokyo Story, after which is presented Wenders’ own opening credits.  During the end credits, Wenders’ credits are followed by the end credits to Tokyo Story.  In this way, Ozu’s Tokyo Story literally parenthesizes Wenders’ Tokyo-Ga.

I have borrowed something of Wenders’ structural strategy for Apmonia.  The opening timpani solo and the orchestration of the ending are allusions to the beginning and endings of important works by my mentor Bernard Rands.  The opening timpani solo references Rands’ ...body and shadow.... The ending references Rands’ Wildtrack 1.  As are many of Rands’ titles, ...body and shadow... is a Beckettian reference.

No one has guided me more in developing my own relationship to the literary world of Beckett than Bernard Rands, especially in terms of the varied manifestations of the influence of Beckett on my music.  For this and for revealing to all of us the true essence of music in such masterworks as Apókryphos, I dedicate Apmonia to Bernard Rands at 70. 

...blood blossoms...(2002)

For amplified sextet
This piece was written for the Bang on a Can All-Stars.
spectral rock + avant-jazz meets + modernist structure

“The old junky found a vein...blood blossoms in the dropper like a Chinese flower..” pg. 84, Naked Lunch, William F. Burroughs

The Burroughs text made me think that beauty can be found in a medium full of potential power and destruction.  In writing for an amplified ensemble, I sought to create delicate textures that played against the insipient power of amplification and distortion.

Contemplation on Little Big Muff (2000)

...can you tell me about the title?  i was thinking about the quality of sound of the amplified cello.  distorted.  distorted through a Russian guitar pedal (it’s called a “Big Muff”).  what’s cool is that amplification works to make more apparent the inherent qualities in the physicality of sound which, without amplification, we are less aware:  it brings out the internal beatings (and therefore the tempos) within certain intervals; it allows for the possibility of bringing out different overtones from changing only the bowing position; it brings out the artifacts of production noise.  these qualities I find beautiful and in contrast to the hierarchical dominance of pitch/harmony in western Classical music.  and there is a temporality necessary to make these elements cognitively focused, therefore the “contemplation.”

This pieces was written for the ‘cello + percussion duo, Odd Appetite (Ha-Yang Kim + Nathan Davis).

Disabitato (2007)

Piano solo
Written for and premiered by Andrew Russo.

Disabitato was the last piece I wrote during my yearlong residency in Rome as a fellow of the American Academy in Rome in 2007. During that magical year, I was enthralled to have learned so much from my historian and landscape architect colleagues. One of the topics I remember my colleagues discussing quite a bit was the disabitato.

The disabitato, or uninhabited place, is the historical name in Rome to the zone between the urbanized center and the ancient boundary of the Aurelian wall in the 18th century. It is a large area marked by ruins and open space, emblematic of the stark atrophy of human, “lived-in,” space since the expansive grandeur of Rome’s classical period. One of the elements I have concentrated on developing in my music is to try to democratize the resonance of a sound, to privilege it as much as the beginning of a sound, or the attack. On the piano, this has the quality of bringing out some microtones. Towards the end of my residence in Rome, already thinking ahead to coming back to the US, I was filled with a sense of impending nostalgia. Somehow, I felt the resonance of the piano to be analogous to the sense of memory of presence that I wanted to leave behind, much as the disabitato is a representation of absence, a reminder to us of what was lost.

One other influence on this piece was my trip to the Umbrian town of Gubbio, where I heard the city bells that I seemed to evoke a sense of ancientness. An interesting note about those bells is that ringers actually ride the bells and use their feet to swing them to ring them.

Disjecta (2004)

Trio for violin, horn, and piano
Commissioned by the Radius Ensemble
Funded in part by a grant from the New England Foundation for the Arts and Meet the Composer, Inc., with additional support from ASCAP, the Virgil Thomson Fund, and with additional support from the six New England state arts agencies and the National Endowment for the Arts.

The title of this piece is borrowed from a collection of critical essays and a dramatic fragment by Samuel Beckett.  Unpublished or published obscurely, these works, which span Beckett’s career, were made available to the general public in this collected edition towards the end of his life.  Most important to me, Beckett’s Disjecta contains his early essay/analysis of Finnegans Wake, Dante...Bruno.Vico..Joyce..  This essay has influenced me more than almost any critical work I have ever read.  It has directly impacted my approach to form in music. 

In writing Disjecta, I sought to reinvestigate diverse elements of my personal compositional vocabulary – in a way, reassess my “unpublished” ideas.  Some of these elements are: dense echoes of industry, transparent stillness, natural overtones, hyper-chromaticism, and simple melodic contours.  The poetic goal of my work has been to create music (quoting Beckett’s aforementioned essay on Joyce) that is “not about something; it is that something itself.”

Fanfares for the Apocalypse (2015)

Concerto for trumpet and chamber ensemble, or solo trumpet
For Philippe Brunet
Commissioned by the Henry Mancini Institute at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music

During the summer of 2013, I met Philippe Brunet at the Atlantic Music Festival, where I was composition faculty and he was an instrumental fellow. He led a remarkable group of brass players in a performance of my brass quintet, which greatly impressed me. I also heard him play Berio’s Sequenza X and he showed me that he could throat sing (this was of special interest to me, since I lead a double life as a throat singing vocalist). The core of my compositional praxis is person-specific music, music that is (at least initially) composed in such a way to highlight the extraordinary sonic potential of remarkable musicians. Often, my person-specific music integrates techniques that are, as of yet, unique to a specific performer. When I heard Philippe and got to know his repertoire and the range of sounds he could make, as well as his fierce artistic integrity, it seemed to me that we were meant to collaborate together.

We planned on collaborating together ever since that summer of 2013, and the logistical realization came in the form of a commission from the Henry Mancini Institute, which graciously helped support the project in the fall of 2015. The spring before the premiere, Philippe came to visit San Francisco to play a recital at the Center for New Music. During that trip, I was able to further pick his brain about techniques and hear him demo them for me. For example, the combination of low, double pedal tones with throat singing. It worked astonishingly well. It is also exactly the kind of sound that exemplifies what I mean by person-specific - I don’t yet know of any other person in the world who can deliver these sounds.

Compositionally, however, the combination of throat singing and double pedals delivers to me a sound that gives me a visceral, and emotional, feeling that no other sound communicates. The expressive end of person-specific means is this: the expansion of expressive potential mediated through new musical techniques. Around the time I was composing this piece, I was reading the facsimile of The Getty Apocalypse Manuscript, Medieval illuminations of the Book of Revelations. I was inspired by the portrayals of angels heralding the end of times with trumpet fanfares. I feel something eschatological in the zeitgeist today, and this piece ruminates on that sense of danger and consequence. The piece, if I may be so bold, is also a kind of “apocalypse” for the trumpet, one that hopefully heralds a new world of possibilities. One final tidbit.  The end of the piece features several minutes of microtonal inflections on a circular-breathed note. Physio-valence, that is, the empathic revivification of a physical feat, observed in the body of the performer and recreated in the body of the listener, curates local fluctuations of tension and release, that is meant to balance the hyper-physicality of earlier sections (alas, a denouement), as well as create a space for mindfulness. That virtuosic exhalation is my hope for exorcising the tensions in the world that read in the current zeitgeist (as the Medieval world must have at times) as eschatological.

Future Lilacs (2016) - note by Robert Kirzinger

For Saxophone Quartet and Partch Instruments
For the Prism Saxophone Quartet and the Partch Ensemble

Ken Ueno’s work derives from the intersection of many strands of thought and experience, distilled to the dynamic interplay of the mental/aesthetic and the physical (if these can be said to be at all separate). His music achieves much of its particular energy and heat from the interpretation by thoughtful, creative musicians of his sometimes highly abstract, sometimes strikingly earthbound source ideas. His body of work ranges from intricately scored opera and symphonic works to completely improvised pieces for his own voice; from pieces growing out of an intense exploration of acoustic phenomena to multimedia, location-specific pieces with dimensions of narrative action and choreography. The ideal, apparently, brings various approaches into juxtaposition to maximize resonances among disparate, seemingly far-flung currents in ways that draw on careful craft but also, crucially, on freedom, serendipity, and risk.

Ueno composed his new work Future Lilacs for the Prism Quartet and the Partch Ensemble, the latter performing on instruments developed for his own works by the American iconoclast composer Harry Partch. These instruments are unique in in their sound, tuning (varying from the standard chromatic scale approximately by 1/4, 1/6, and 1/8 tones), and performance techniques, characteristics that appeal strongly to Ueno. As a vocal performer employing multiphonic throat-singing and other extended techniques both self-developed and learned from other cultures, Ueno is experienced in exploring nuances of technique. A very hands-on composer, he has a history of creating new instruments to anchor or enhance the sound-worlds of his pieces. His chamber ensemble work Zetsu, for example, employs a purpose-built metallaphone—a series of metal tubes whose specific microtonal tunings are an important harmonic foundation for the piece.

Among recent works, Zetsu and his chamber opera Gallo (setting his own libretto) exemplify Ueno’s aesthetic stances. Both works developed originally through an intimate awareness of the capabilities of their first performers and the circumstances of their premieres (although both are flexible enough to be able to benefit from alternate visions). Gallo’s absurdist quasi-narrative features characters based on bizarre, kitschy archetypes. A giant chicken, or man in a chicken suit (he seems not to be fully sure which), is played by a virtuoso countertenor modeled on a famous Italian castrato singer. The soprano lead is the quintessential “shopper,” concerned with appearances and acquisition, as well as a 50s housewife (the frisson of the debunked stereotype is part of the texture). Together, though, they limn a stratified historic landscape that links the 1753 destruction of Lisbon via earthquake, fire, and flood to the recent Fukishima tsunami and nuclear disaster in a musically kaleidoscopic armature both poignant and often starkly hilarious. Zetsu (composed for the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players) takes its title from a collection of ceramic sculptures by the Japanese artist Nishida Jun, who utilized sometimes-dangerous experiment techniques to arrive at work that combines both highly formalized and strikingly dynamic, unpredictable elements. It’s this balance between the rigorous and the (potentially dangerous) unstable that Ueno admires, and seeks to emulate. Zetsu is the first piece to employ Ueno’s “hookah sax,” a modified saxophone also used in Future Lilacs.

In keeping with the proliferation of references and signifying tendrils of Ueno’s art, several layers of meaning are embedded in title Future Lilacs. Most immediate is the 2007 poem “Futures in Lilacs,” by Ueno’s Berkeley colleague, former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass. Hass’s title is itself a reference to “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” Walt Whitman’s paean to the assassinated Lincoln. Within the poem are links in a chain of references: someone (unnamed) known to the poet, possibly quoting Ginsberg possibly paraphrasing Whitman—an intersection of pathways that mirrors and further amplifies the myriad connections found throughout Ueno’s work.

These connections in turn have their indirect musical counterparts in Future Lilacs, which makes much of the ways the saxophone quartet can mimic, or completely contrasts with, the Partch ensemble, and vice versa. On both a sonic and what we might call a sociological level, the quartet’s hookah sax is a specific counter to the modified viola and guitar of the Partch group—instruments that have a foot in both the traditional and the maverick worlds. (That being said, a saxophone quartet hardly attains, or aspires to, the venerable position of, say, a string quartet; the sax quartet has its own inherent maverickness.)

At the same time, it’s important to remain aware (and this, in hearing the piece, will be the most obvious element) that the dichotomies and convergences essential to Future Lilacs lie in the nature of the sounds produced by these instruments. The piece begins with an atmosphere created by the Partch instruments, at first highlighting the adapted electric guitar playing quasi-periodic patterns whose asymmetry creates productive friction with the implicit pulse. Similarly, its harmonic implications (with a tonal center on G) hint at the fundamental harmonic basis of the Parch instruments, the pitches of most of which are fixed, unlike those of the sax quartet. The introductory passage establishes an expansive sense of time that superimposes rapid, mercurial change on a small scale, via shifting rhythmic patterns and short-term harmonic ambiguity, with slow transformation over a much longer span, achieved through additive phrasing and harmonic stability.

The emergence of the saxophone quartet brings a new soundworld, coalescing into a rhythmic, harmonic and sometimes melodic texture distinct from but ultimately complementary to that of the Partch group. Melodic arcs have an almost vocal quality, colored by organic use of dynamics and expressively capricious flights. Gradually the quartet also assumes group rhythmic profiles that link it to the pattern-based vectors of the Partch group. Interleaving of individual parts (in both groups) creates hockets that break up the surface of the music (aided by metrical sleights-of-hand) while serving simultaneously to bring the two ensembles into a new, aggregate ensemble, the sum of its parts. The increasing prevalence, toward the end of the piece, of sustained tones (along with the introduction of the hookah sax) brings a sort of suspended, anticipatory calm, enlivened by solo excursions and the friction of Partchean harmonic intonation. The final result is the coming-together of a vibrant ensemble identity via the exploration of contrast and similarly among the individual instrumental voices: a collective celebration of self.

Gallo (2014)

A fable in music in one act
Notes by Robert Kirzinger

On the morning of All Saints’ Day, 1755, the people of Lisbon, many of whom were attending Mass, felt the shock of a massive earthquake; fires broke out around the city, and thousands took to boats on the Tagus estuary to escape. Then the sea rose thrice and swallowed them, along with one of the great cities of Europe. The receding water left behind more fires, ultimately tens of thousands dead, and a city virtually leveled. On March 11, 2011, an earthquake with an epicenter less than 75 kilometers off the coast of Japan’s Tohoku region launched a tsunami that devastated cities for hundreds of miles and killed more than 15,000 people. In addition to displacement due to tsunami and earthquake damage, hundreds of thousands of residents near Fukushima were evacuated following three reactor core meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. Municipalities within twenty kilometers of the plant remain virtual ghost towns more than three years after the disaster.

In his opera Gallo (“Rooster”), Ken Ueno uses the Lisbon event as a resonator to clarify and examine the Tohoku event, emphasizing the amplification of catastrophe that technology—man’s attempt to extend his power (with that word’s many connotations)—brought to the more recent event. “Voltaire and Lisbon always are present always,” sings the countertenor in the prologue, referring to Candide’s fictional presence. This cross-referencing of disparate but ontologically (or kumatologically, as the composer might have it—kumatology is the study of waves) related events is a characteristic of Ueno’s approach not only in Gallo but in his work and life as a whole. The interplay of layers of activity and meaning, accumulations of potential via the interaction of different histories (both “objective” history and personal) are the very stuff of Ueno’s art. Gallo is by far the most explicit examination of these ideas to date.

Ontology, the metaphysical study of the state of being (the “thingness” of a thing; its identity as a thing) has as its useful folk-philosophy illustration the conundrum of the chicken and the egg. That koan-like paradox is also a part of Gallo, and one of the sources of its title. In Gallo’s Scene 2, “Landscape of Memory,” we learn: “The artificial hill called Monte Testaccio in Rome is made up of discarded amphorae dating back to the first century. It was ostensibly a rubbish dump, but it tells us about the whole structure of the economy of the Roman Empire.” The quotidian trash of a hundred centuries has become a treasure-trove for historians. This is one of a string of metaphors for Gallo itself, which is shot through with references and ideas from far-flung sources in cultural space and time.

It was inevitable that Ken Ueno would write an opera. Ideas for theater works have bubbled near, and sometimes broken, the surface of his work for several years now, many of them related in detailed and specific ways to his practice as a performer using extended vocal techniques. His vocal concerto On a Sufficient Condition for the Existence of Most Specific Hypothesis (2008) integrates a purely sonic narrative with one of personal identity, developing the character of “Ken Ueno” from childhood to adulthood. In his many “person specific” works, of which the vocal concerto is one and his recent Hapax Legomenon, Concerto for two-bow cello (composed for Frances-Marie Uitti and premiered this past January by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project) is another, the personalities, biographical events, and musical tendencies of his performers are wholly integrated into the content of the music. They are virtually theatrical narratives-in-waiting. Ueno’s engagement in other art forms, such as film, other visual arts, and architecture is another source of his work’s porousness and its ability to suggest, and to take on, multiple meanings.

In Gallo, Ueno brings his person-specific approach to bear in the specific and ongoing repertory situation of Guerrilla Opera, with its characteristic but flexible four-piece musical ensemble in which percussion, saxophone, and cello are (virtually) constants. In Gallo the fourth player is a clarinetist, Amy Advocat, who happens to be a specialist on the unusual Bohlen-Pierce clarinet. The instrument is custom-built for the Bohlen-Pierce scale, a non-standard scale based on equal- or just-tempered divisions of a perfect twelfth (and octave plus a fifth, unlike the octave-based scale we’re used to). Gallo includes a passage for this rare bird. A custom-built, custom-tuned metallophone, used prominently during the opera’s final lullaby, is another unique sonic source, as is the invented “language” of Chickenese. Chickenese exemplifies absurdist aspects of the opera (another is its cereal landscape) that relate the composer’s longstanding love for the work of Samuel Beckett. Ueno’s libretto draws on other artifacts gleaned from a hundred Mount Testaccios in the composer’s personal history, with varying degrees of observational objectivity. Much of its language is fragmentary, in a state of becoming or of deconstruction.

Gallo’s musical strata are both literal and metaphorical. The Scene 1 prologue, for example, uses as its main musical material the Baroque form of the passacaglia, a movement with a repeating harmonic pattern over which is played increasingly complex figures melodic. The repeating harmonic idea echoes the idea of ocean waves; the increasing complexity of the music it accompanies suggests the building intensity of the tsunami. Its division into interludes and episodes make it a true number opera come Verdi. Aria, traditional opera’s most identifiable and glorious trait, is a significant part of Gallo’s musical soul. And in spite of their far flung differences, each aria, each interlude informs and exemplifies the whole.

Ga–uah Chon Ch’Cha (Song of Rapture) (2006)

For amplified chamber orchestra and voice
For the De Ereprijs Orchestra

This piece was written as a competition piece for the Young Composers Festival competition in Apeldoorn, Netherlands. The piece was performed by the De Ereprijs Orchestra and received the second prize award, which was a commission for a chamber orchestra piece for the Netherlands Youth Orchestra premiered in the summer of 2007.

Since the competition requirements limited the length of the piece to 3 minutes, I set about writing a short piece, which evoked a larger structure, a Borgesian gambit. My solution was to imagine a ritual piece, a dance of rapture, for a fictional Micronesian lost tribe. They evolved from survivors of a non-evacuated atoll during the atom bomb testings in the 20th century. Consequently, the creation myth and destruction myth (the song of rapture) are, for this tribe, the same. As they are a primitive tribe of the future, they play microtonally tuned, electric guitars. I developed the text from actual words in Trukese (an Austronesian language spoken on the island of Truk).

The matrix of Ga-uahian Words (a derivative of Trukese) used in the work are below. The grammatical structure of Ga-uahian is simple and complex (think a game of checkers — or late Beckett).

“Ga-uah-chon-ch’cha — our land, destroyed (created), also a kind of bird (the Ga-uahian creation myth is the same as one of their Rapture).”

        mesek — to fear

        chcha — blood

        ninni — to kill

        na-ang — sky

        kuchu — cloud

        wu-ut — rain

        a-af — fire

        chon — black

        nap — big

        uah — man

        Ga — land

Hapax Legomenon (2013)- note by Robert Kirzinger

Concerto for two-bow cello
For Frances-Maire UittiCommissioned by the Harvard Musical Association and composed at Civitella Rainieri

Premiered on January 17, 2014 by Frances-Marie Uitti and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project at 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 broken 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.

[composer note format]
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
[end composer note]

I pulse,when you breathe (2008)

for amplified soprano and alto flute
Dedicated to the Prana Duo
text by Ken Ueno

Text:                      Translation:

Kono kaze            This breeze

uta no hibiki          sang the resonance

utate kureta          of her song for me

This piece is a song in search of the main melody, a setting of the short text. Throughout much of the piece, the sounds of the text are gradually discovered, through divergences, parries, continuations, and, finally, a short glimpse, which turns out to be a sort of arrival. While the singer traverses horizontally through a forest of sounds in search of the main melody, the alto flute's journey is a vertical one, one that amplifies, develops, and contrasts, the sounds of the soprano.

In considering the relationship between the two performers, I developed a poetic image. I imagined a woman singing in a bamboo forest. As it is an ancient forest, the trees have many fissures, and, when the breezes passes, the air blowing into and through the fissures, resonates the hollow trees. The trees' resonance is the song the woman sings.

One technical feature developed for this piece is something I call "Beatings Modulation," where precise microtonal differences create beatings, the tempo of these pulsations, become the tempo for the ensuing section.

July 23, from sunrise to sunset, the summer of the S.E.P.S.A.bus rides destra e sinistra around Ischiajust to get tomorrow's scatolame (2004)

For the Prism Quartet
This piece was written in commemoration of the PRISM Quartet’s 20th anniversary.  The short (one minute) piece contains references to two older pieces for saxophone by the composer (WATT and whatWALL?).  These pieces have been performed by two of the members of the PRISM Quartet, and the references evoke fond memories of those collaborations.  The title of the work refers to the time and place in which the work was composed.  With the length of the title, I mean to relate that it is possible for a short piece to imply a larger structure.  The island of Ischia is circumnavigated by two bus routes, one clockwise, and the other counterclockwise; this made me question the concept of directionality, since going forward on one route would be the same as going backward on the other.  Such is the case of an anniversary, an occasion to reflect back, the celebration of which gives hope to go forward.

Kage-Uta (2004)

For Overtone Singer and Max/Msp
The title of this piece translates from the Japanese as “Shadow Song”.  This piece features the interaction between my live singing (overtones and multiphonics) and an instrument I built with a computer-programming environment for real-time interactivity called Max/Msp.  The structure of the piece is a large-scale cross-fade between the live voice and the electronics.  As the piece progresses, my vocal signal is feed into a buffer, which is spatialized quadraphonically, and manipulated with controllers which transform parameters such as the buffer size, the rate of reading through the buffer, rate of randomness reading within the buffer, etc.  My aim in building the Max instrument was twofold: to create sounds which clearly evolve out of my vocal performance and to create sounds electronically which I could then mimic myself – a discourse in which, if the sounds were likened to shadows, it is unclear which are the shadows and which are the shadows of shadows.

Kaze-no-Oka (2005)

Commissioned by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project.
This piece was made possible by a grant from the Fromm Music Foundation and is dedicated to Toru Takemitsu in memoriam.

In writing this piece, I faced several challenges. The first challenge was to write a “concert opener” for a commission on the occasion of what would have been Toru Takemitsu’s 75th birthday – he passed away when he was only 65.  Since one often thinks of a “concert opener” as being fast and upbeat and a memorial piece as being slow and somber, I was faced with a crisis of opposing metabolic inclinations.  In my struggle to find a solution, I thought of Hiroshige and how, especially in his sketchbooks, he could imply a subject without really presenting it.  For example, in The Third Princess’s Cat, he gives the viewer only the border of the princess’s robe under a bamboo curtain.   Inspired by this non-sachlichkeit approach, my piece begins with two bars of fast, loud music, music that never returns or relates in any structuralist way to the rest of the piece.  It merely functions to introduce potential energy.   In this way, I freed myself to be able to concentrate on the “memorial” character in the rest of the piece. 

When I was commissioned to write this concerto for two traditional Japanese instruments, the biwa and shakuhachi, I was informed that, besides the orchestral concert, there would be a chamber music recital featuring the biwa and shakuhachi players, and was encouraged to have a piece that these performers could play on that occasion.  So, here was my second compositional challenge: to write a duo concerto with orchestra and a chamber piece.  My solution was to create a modular form with an extractable cadenza.   In the orchestral context, the biwa and shakuhachi only play in the cadenza, which can also be a stand-alone chamber piece.  In thinking of this solution, I was inspired by an architectural work by Fumihiko Maki, one of Japan’s leading architects.   Kaze-no-Oka (‘Hill of the Winds’), his structure from which my piece borrows its name, is a crematorium consisting of three separate buildings, the grounds of which incorporate recently unearthed ancient burial mounds.  I liked the separate-but-incorporated-ness of the ancient mounds with the modern buildings, and this became the structural impetus for my piece: the extractable cadenza for the biwa and shakuhachi are poetically related to the ancient mounds.  I also liked the image of the wind over the hills, two systems interacting together, but still remaining separate.  The fact that Maki’s building complex is a crematorium fit perfectly with the memorial character of my piece.

In designing the main section of my piece, I sought to concentrate on transcribing the Japanese concept of sawari for the western orchestra.  Sawari roughly translates to “beautiful noise” or “touch” and speaks of the prioritization of sound in Japanese traditional music in contrast to the emphasis on harmony and the elimination of noise in Western music.  Artifacts of sound production are foregrounded in my music.  Microtonal harmonies are employed to create specific beatings to enrich this sonic landscape, as well as to acoustically resynthesize specific multiphonics in the contrabass clarinet and in the bass saxophone.  Multiphonics function like ideograms – they represent complex signifiers that are not reducible to simpler components. The effect I wanted to create was one of reversed memory of the music in the cadenza.  

Love requited but unfulfilled, under the stars, Sukkeien Garden, Hiroshima, Sunday, August 4, 1945, 12 hours before the bomb

For amplified voice, violin and percussion (Onda)
Text by Fujiwara no Mane.
Premiered Nov. 6, 2005. Pickman Hall, Longy School of Music, Cambridge, MA. Composers in Red Sneakers concert.

This is an aria for an opera that does not exist in which the main character, Sunao Tsuboi, now eighty, recounts the happiest moment of his life: That night when he and his love, Reiko, lay together on the grass at Sukkeien Garden gazing at the stars. For the first time, they touch hands. It was the only time they ever touched. Mr. Tsuboi's story is real and documented in Stephen Walker's book, Shockwave.

The text and some musical materials are taken from the apocryphal Noh play, Kajiikaze, by Totonobu. In the play, much of the text was borrowed from works by the waza-uta-style poet and shaman Fujiwara no Mane, now considered by contemporary scholars of the history of eschatology as the "Nostradamus" of pre-medieval Japan. Pertinent excerpts of Fujiwara's masterwork, Jigoku (Hell), eschatologists now read as prophecy of the atomic bomb attacks on Japan during WWII.

Márquez (2002)

Márquez for Pierrot ensemble plus percussion and seven boomboxes commissioned by the Hopkins Center, Dartmouth College for Non Sequitur.

My inspiration for this piece began with the first lines of Gabriel García Márquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” With this sentence, Márquez encodes in the reader an element of memory, which creates an expectation of things to come.  When the event happens – the facing of the firing squad – the character and the reader share an experience of recollection:  the character recalls an event from his youth, while the reader remembers the first passage of the novel.  My musical work begins with a short pre-movement played by a boombox (another repository of memory) that forecasts a sound world to be presented later in the piece.  Towards the end of the piece, the timbral expectations presented in the pre-movement are fulfilled. 

(Márquez is also the name of the elementary school that I attended.)

NoHowOn (1998)

The title, NoHowOn, alludes to Samuel Beckett’s work of the same name.  A classically framed Beckettian paradox, the activator, “How,” is framed by  “No” and its reflection “On.”  It is this “How” that acts as a switch transforming the words that surround it into each other.  Beckett’s syntax is pared down to the bare essence of language.  In this music, there are activators that act analogously in terms of behaving as switches turning music on and off.  These activators are either sustained notes or trills - the pared-down bare roots of musical gesture.  A discourse of switches turning on and off ensues...only, in the end it becomes unclear if a switch is being turned on or off...The final note is a contemplation on my notion that how long one perceives phenomena influences what one sees.  Like observing a stream.  Initially we understand what we see as code related to codes identifying the larger classification, stream.  The longer we look at it, we realize that there is current flowing, forming ever changing eddies – we see more difference in the present than the initial static identification of a singular whole.  In this same way, in hearing the final note, it is hoped that one goes through a series of gestalt understandings of that phenomenon – initially, we might expect another fast section, a resolution of the note, then we realize that the pitch does not change, but timbre and dynamics are constantly in flux.

On a Sufficient Condition for the Existence of Most Specific Hypothesis (2008)

Commissioned by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project.

This piece was made possible by a grant from the JebehiahFoundation: New Music Commissions.
It is dedicated to Rob Amory

The composing of On a Sufficient Condition for the Existence of Most Specific Hypothesis represents my first attempt to reconcile the multiplicity of my being a "classical" composer and "experimental" improviser. It is one of the most personal pieces I have composed to date.

In a manner akin to the way some contemporary visual artists make site-specific works, many of my works derive their structural aspects from considerations of the special instrumental skills of the performers with whom I have collaborated, in a manner I term "person-specific.' First, I imagine the sounds and then worked them out with collaborating performers to realize these sounds on their instruments. Then, I analyze the sounds using software in order to derive parametric data that will inform the structure of the music. (I am also inspired by the way contemporary architects use modern materials and computer-aided strategies to create structures that are more organic than what was previously possible).

On a Sufficient Condition for the Existence of Most Specific Hypothesis is person-specific to myself.  As a vocalist, I specialize in such techniques as: throat singing, overtone singing, singing multi-band multiphonics, circular breathing, sub-tones and extremely high registers.  During the composition of this piece, I subjected my singing to the aforementioned process of analysis, deriving harmonies (e.g. acoustic resynthesis of my vocal multiphonics) and orchestrational strategies from the analysis of my singing.

To further engage with my personal history in this piece, I employed two other strategies. First, the title of this piece comes from an article on computer science written by another Ken Ueno (I found it doing a "vanity" search in Google). In usurping the title of a work by my doppelganger, I thought of Borges' story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius in which an encyclopedic reference to a fictional universe begins to infiltrate reality. Second, the piece begins with a boombox playing a recording of my voice from when I was six. When I was six, my favorite object was a tape recorder. 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). By incorporating these recordings in the beginning of the piece makes it a kind of recapitulation of performances from my childhood over thirty years ago. My plan is to make another version of this piece thirty years from today by incorporating vocal sounds I can make today mixed with those from my childhood. My greatest hope would be able to make two more iterations of this process during my lifetime.

Peradam (2011)

Commissioned by Other Minds for the Del Sol String Quartet

At one formal dinner function at the American Academy in Berlin, where I was a fellow for the 2010-2011 academic year, I was seated next to the filmmaker, Tacita Dean. Getting to know her films through my own research after that initial contact, I was struck by her work, The Green Ray. The title refers to an optical phenomenon of the highest frequency light appearing as the last rays of a sunset. I found it beautiful that in Tacita’s work the green ray is visible in the film, but cannot be isolated on any single frame: It champions faith and belief in what you see. Her commitment, over years of effort, to go to extraordinary means to capture this light resonated with what I have been striving to achieve in my work as a composer.

I believe that a sound, in and of itself, can have communicative power that one cannot translate into anything else. My favorite sounds deliver a similar feeling of the transcendental power of natural phenomena that Tacita Dean’s film delivers to me visually.

In a quest to discover sounds that speak to me on that level, I often conduct tests on instruments for which I am composing. These independent tests are augmented by what I learn through intense collaborations with performers for whom I am composing. Many of my works derive their structural aspects from considerations of the special instrumental skills of the performers with whom I collaborate, in a manner I term “person-specific.” Peradam is person-specific for the Del Sol String Quartet. Having heard them play a number of times, I was particularly inspired by the fact that all the members can sing and play beautifully, as well as the fact that they are whole-heartedly invested in the performance of microtones (which is important to me since my harmonic world mixes equal tempered notes, quarter-tones, justly intoned notes, and microtonal harmonies derived from formant analysis of sung vowels). These aspects are prominently featured throughout my piece.

The most person-specific aspect of this piece is dedicated to what the violist, Charlton, can do. He can throat sing. As a composer who lives a double life as a vocalist specializing in extended techniques including throat singing, I was blown away when Charlton showed me he could throat sing. It was at that moment that I knew I had to write a piece for him and the Del Sols!

The title of my piece, Peradam, refers to a rare mythical diamond-like stone that is the invention of René Daumal and appears in his novel, Mount Analogue. The novel is an allegorical spiritual quest in the guise of an alpine ascent. In Daumal’s novel, peradam is found on the slopes of Mount Analogue and appears to whomever “seeks it with sincere desire…it reveals itself by its sudden sparkle, like that of dewdrops.” Peradam is a metaphor for a rare, beautiful, natural phenomenon, an object that stands for discoveries we can attain over a lifetime of searching for them, much like Tacita Dean’s Green Ray. Spending my life looking for musical peradams, I feel blessed whenever I meet and have the opportunity to collaborate with musicians like Charlton and the Del Sols, where together we journey toward the summits of our Mount Analogues. Musicians such as these help expand my imagination for what might be possible, and make it real in performance.

One additional feature that makes the premiere of this piece special is having the opportunity to collaborate again with the video artist, Johnny Dekam. Years ago, he created an interactive video for the premiere of my saxophone and electronics piece, whatWALL?, at the Duderstadt Center at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. It’s inspiring to me that he not only has the talent and taste to create stunning visual works, but he also has the skill to create custom software which interacts with parameters controlled by live musical input. The software helps make each performance unique: It privileges the live experience, a quality that resonates fully with my aesthetic.

Pharmakon (2001)

For eighth blackbird
I.               XOX
II.           XXO
III.      OXX
IV.       Main Movement

Pharmakon is a work in  four movements, but three are “pre-movements” which present exact windows  into sections of the main movement.  The “pre-movements” are designed to be played in any order (including before or after the main movement – it is preferred that OXX is played sometime before the main movement) and are labeled "XOX, XXO, OXX," which reflects the rotational mobility of the ordering in performance. All four movements together create a multiple-movement form that is actually part of one movement, cut-up.  This structure is influenced by the phenomenological experience of interacting with the internet and cable television – a structure of non-linear modularity which disrupts the larger, linear narrative.  The pre-movements are dramatically short in duration (2min., 58 secs., and 28 secs. long), which makes them more memorable, a gambit on which levels of referentiality in the main movement relies.  Clear profiling of texture is another agent of referentiality.  There are three basic textures which each of the pre-movements present - XOX is fast music, XXO is slow-sustaining music, and OXX is about syncopation.  OXX is also presented on a boombox, reversing the role of mechanical representation of memory, in that a recording is heard before a live representation of the same music in the main movement.

Rapt Afterness (2016)

Concerto for Bb Clarinet and Wind Ensemble                                   
For Gregory Oakes
Commissioned by the Iowa State University Bands

Musical resonance is complex and beautiful to me. I hear the aggregate resultant of the sound emanating from the love and labor of each musician on stage, the hours of practice, and, in the case of listening to a premier of my own music, the energy of a future event contemplated alone in my studio, realized and resonating in an acoustic space that is shaped not only the architecture of the performance hall, but also the physical body and the psychic empathy of the audience. It might sound strange, but I often “hear” empathy – maybe I will it so, since I believe one of the main functions of art is to curate empathy. But it takes risk and hard work. And trust.  

I am lucky that for most of my professional musical life I have had a collaborator and friend I could trust.  His name is Greg Oakes.  Greg is one of the world’s great clarinet virtuosos and we have collaborated now for close to twenty years. This piece pays tribute to some of our past collaborations by revisiting some of the techniques that I had incorporated into past pieces I had written for him (e.g. the copious microtonal alternate fingerings on G – “resonance” is also a presence of history in the now). The intricacies of rhythm and the extreme endurance that the solo part requires are further aspects of trust – yes, I know it’s damn hard, but I know Greg is a badass and can do it, so I let my musical imagination run unshackled and there it is, raw and unfiltered. That trust also allowed me to develop newer aspects in my music too – the cadenza featuring multiphonic clarinet trills accompanied only by pitched metallophones is an example. Tonight, my trust and indebtedness also extends to my newest collaborators: Michael Golemo, the director of the Iowa State University Wind Ensemble, and each intrepid and brave member of the ensemble. Thank you! I know this is a difficult piece. But because of your hard work, we, together, can and will go to a resonant space yet unheard in the world, a rapt afterness.

“We live in a dim inkling or a rapt afterness,
But something was here...” – Racoon Time by Rodney Jones

Redbreast (2001)

For an amplified ensemble of soprano + Eb, Bb, and bass clarinets + harp + electronics.
On text by Emily Dickinson
Dem Rands, Davidovsky, Nichols, Stallmann, Fineberg gewidmet.

This piece was an assignment written in partial fulfillment of the General Exams in composition. The faculty specified the text and instrumentation and the composer was given 4 days to finish the composition along with an analytical paper on Berg's Piano Sonata. Alas, Redbreast, was conceived, composed, notated, copied, bound and delivered within a 36-hour period the exam was submitted on September 10, 2001, and the composer was notified of the results on September 11, 2001 at 3pm. The original bound scores submitted to the faculty committee included a special, limited edition, color photo cover that depicts the title.

I shall keep singing!
Birds will pass me
On their way to Yellower Climes
Each - with a Robin's expectation
I - with my Redbreast
And my Rhymes
Late - when I take my place in summer
But - I shall bring a fuller tune
Vespers - are sweeter than Matins " Signor "
Morning " only the seed of Noon "

The irregularity of the meter and rhyme scheme combined with the unusual punctuation give this poem a modern sensibility, which inspired me to set the text using modern technology: amplification and electronics.

Sabinium (2006)

for two-channel electronic sounds, with video animation by Harvey Goldman .

The inspiration for this piece is the fantasy that cultural memory may reside in even in the most quotidian of everyday phenomena, such as soap bubbles, where mythological battles and scenes are replayed constantly. Somewhere in the statistical noise of soap bubbles, is the din of battle. In creating this piece, I started by recording long takes of myself "performing" gestures with soap bubbles, as well as a blowing into a cup with a straw. I then selected some of the more complex gestures, which I hoped would help create richness in terms of levels of referentially to the original sound sources as recognizable phenomena in order that there would be a range between the sound sources presented as raw materials as being recognizable to their original states, to the sound sources presented untreated but sound more abstract, more electronic-like. Next, these sounds were spectrally convolved with sounds of warfare (working with samples of bubbles ensured a rich harmonic spectrum, which is conducive to convolution), then, these sounds were granulated and spectrally filtered and ambisonically spatialized. The granulation and spectral filtering were done with original Max/MSP patches, which were made to help facilitate the gradual change of parameters over time.

Saturation and Purge (1999)

Saturation and Purge is a two-movement structure played attacca.  The first movement’s long arching melody leaves traces behind which create a harmonic fabric.   The inspiraton for this strategy was the idea of a Veronica (the cloth imprinted with the image of Christ after St. Veronica wiped the sweat off of his face with it) - with each melodic step on the road to Calvary, the orchestra leaves harmonic imprints like the imprint on the cloth.  After reaching a climactic maximum density at the end of the first movement, the second movement deconstructs the various layers of sound in several structural blocks.  The two movements together from a relationship much like a paradigm and an analysis. 

This piece was performed in a reading with the American Composers Orchestra on June 4, 1999, with Paul Dunkel conducting.

Sawdust on Ararat (2016) - note by Robert Kirzinger

Ken Ueno spends a lot of time thinking about the route from notes on a page to performance to audience: given the complexity and distinctiveness of his sonic aspirations, what is the quickest, cleanest route from concept to sound? But let’s back up a little further: Ueno spends a lot of time contemplating big swaths of culture—film, architecture, sociology, food, and so forth—and relating these human endeavors to the language of music, with varying degrees of translation and abstraction. Ueno’s unique harmonic language and meticulous notation are in the service of creating music suggesting natural, organic inception and growth: perceptible as such to the listener in spite of the sometimes-otherworldly, rarified nature of his sonic worlds.

Ueno actively sought performers willing to risk as much in their playing as he does in composing, finding performers eager invest their own personalities in a new piece. He has created a body of “person-specific” compositions inspired by the musical and life experiences of particular performers, the purest case in point being himself-as-soloist in his On a Sufficient Condition for the Existence of Most Specific Hypothesis. This vocal concerto examines the nature of identity as a mutable phenomenon, featuring a solo role for extended-techniques vocal artist, its requirements so particular to the composer’s own voice as to defy any possibility of performance by another vocalist. Plus, the soloist is in dialog with an archival pre-recorded, child version of himself: the piece is hypothetically foundational for musical excursions involving older/future versions of Ueno’s performing and composing self. In this and other person- and situation-specific pieces, Ueno makes a virtue out of inhabiting a new-music landscape where the rarity of a new work entering a common repertoire is vanishingly small.

Ueno’s San Francisco Contemporary Music Players-premiered Zetsu, premiered in 2015, drew on his longtime familiarity with the playing of the Boston-based violinist Gabriela Diaz as well as the specific capabilities of the SFCMP performers; the title of the work comes from the primordially dynamic forms of the Japanese ceramicist Nishida Jun, whose use of physically dangerous techniques to achieve unpredictable results resonated strongly with Ueno’s aspirations. In another recent work, the composer’s chamber opera Gallo, written for the uniquely configured Guerilla Opera company, is set to Ueno’s own libretto touching on the Fukishima disaster, modern narcissistic consumerism, the virtuosity of Baroque castrati singers, and the 1755 earthquake and tidal wave that nearly destroyed Lisbon. Earlier this year saw the premiere of yet another distinctively orchestrated and conceived piece, his Future Lilacs, written for the combined forces of the Prism saxophone quartet and the Partch Ensemble, which employs instruments invented and developed by Harry Partch. Ueno himself has delved into instrument making and modification and has, in collaboration with expert performers, found new capabilities for standard instruments as well.

Ken Ueno wrote Sawdust on Ararat on a commission from Alia Musica Pittsburgh, which premiered the piece during their Pittsburgh Festival of New Music on May 26, 2016. Sawdust is a pocket oboe concerto cast in a single movement. The piece opens extremely subtly with almost inaudible—but clearly visual—actions in the ensemble instruments, which actions gradually become more concrete and perceptible as sound. The pitch B emerges as the tonal focal point, from which stability increasingly complex harmonies grow, enriched by the non-pitched, noise-based sounds: breath sounds in clarinet and flute, lateral bowing and pitchless pizzicato in the cellos, unpitched percussion. Articulated rhythms also clarify the texture. The pitched instruments—the solo oboe and its ensemble counterpoint—engage in intricate virtuosic passages that flit away from, then return to moments of relative repose. Percussion are an almost ritualistic presence, with an absurdist element in the presence of a squeaky bird toy. Ueno later complicates the already rich solo oboe part via a snare drum resonating in sympathy (perhaps antipathy) to its utterances, using the snare as a kind of live distortion processing analogous to electronic modification, a version of a technique he calls “hacking.” The composer writes, “A hacked instrument at once retains the history of the instrument as well as the distorted potential of a new, undiscovered territory. Destruction myths are also creation myths. In this piece, the oboe augmented by a snare drum as a resonator is the featured “hacked” instrument. Towards the end of the piece, the percussionists saw planks of wood, poetically and literally conveying the manifoldness of destruction and creation.” As for the title, Ueno both illuminates and obscures its meaning, writing, “When we were done laughing at our own follies, and the last ones came, bearing plastic birds in each hand, it snowed sawdust on Mt. Ararat.”

Shiroi Haru no Hana

Text & Music by Ken Ueno

Shiroi Haru no Hana
Tatta ichi-in-chi saitemo (Ichin-chi dake saitemo)
Ishyo no kaori

White flower of spring
only blooming for a single day
perfumes the rest of life

This piece and text was originally planned for a concert that was to have been in honor of a recently departed friend.  I am glad we have the opportunity to premiere it tonight. 

Onda is a Cambridge-based trio of voice, violin, and percussion, who collaborate to extend the sonic and technical possibilities of their instruments.  Tonight, they will be realizing the piece.  In observance of the meaning of the text, I designed the piece to be playable only once.    The piece is part of a context-specific performance practice in which  the iconography of sounds created by the group  develops throughout a lifetime.  In other words, tonight's piece can be seen as a snapshot of a moment of that lifelong process.  It is at once ephemeral and permanent.

Shiroi Ishi (2001)

Text and music by Ken Ueno
Composed for the Hilliard Ensemble

TEXT:                                                 TRANSLATION:
SHIro i   iSHI                                        White stone          

Tsukiyo  no  umi   ni  SHIzumu             Sinks into a moon-lit ocean

Sono toki hamon wa                             That moment, the ripples are

Nagare boSHI  no  kage                       shadows trailing a shooting star.

The first syllable "SHI" of the word "shiro" (white) has multiple meanings:
1): Four - for the number of performers.
2): Death.
3): Poetry.

This syllable acts as a link between the worlds of pitch and noise/timbre,

as well as word and sound.  Structurally, each successive occurrence of this syllableopens a window of evocation to previous occurrences - the white stone passing into another existence synchronistically being related to another transient moment, that of a shooting star. 

The relationship of the stone and the ripples (and the shooting star and its shadows) is akin to the relationship between consonants and vowels in the Japanese language.  The whole language is built upon five basic vowels (a, i, u, e, o) which are arranged with different consonants in front of the vowels (ex.: ka, ki, ku, ke, ko, ga, gi, gu, ge, go, etc.).  This means that the same five formants create meaning according to what noise elements (consonants) are affixed to the attack of the sound (every sound has three components: an attack, a middle, and a decay).  There is a modular quality to Japanese language since the phonological aspects are so limited.   In changing the rhythm of words and phrases, in stretching phrases, it is possible to derive or hear different meanings from one phrase.  Even without understanding the Japanese, it is hoped that one can follow the statistical prevalence of certain consonants as a way to following the text (as opposed to following melodic phrases).  It is some kind of common ground between Eastern incantation and modern electroacoustic sounds that I am seeking presently as a discourse in setting my text.

Skyline Abstractions (1999)

Skyline Abstractions is an homage to Eric Dolphy set in a retro-modernist setting.  There is a multiphonic that occurs in each movement.  As in many of my compositions, the multi-movement structure is actually a one-movement structure, cut-up.  The first movement introduces kinetic energy, and is dramatically short in duration.  The second movement defers the kinetic energy, and dramatically denies the bass clarinet.  The third movement starts as if the kinetic energy of the first movement will finally have its due.  But this is only a gambit.

Song for Sendai (2011)

Text and Music by Ken Ueno
Song for Sendai (2011) was composed for Wendy Richman. This song is a personal response to the mythic scale of the devastation of Sendai in the spring of 2011. Sendai was where my family and I lived for three years during my childhood. In contemplating the devastation, I thought of Voltaire's writings on the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, when the devastation shifted not only the geographic landscape, but also the philosophical: the earthquake transformed man's understanding of himself in regards to nature, God, and the universe. Traumatic events also have the effect of altering our sense of time. The first part of this song is a Voltairean contemplation set to a baroque form, a passacaglia, an ostinato that represents a kind of psychological stasis. As my contemplation of Sendai returns me to my memories of when I was three, such that what I am unpacking psychologically is much more emotional, than intellectual, I felt the most therapeutic thing to do was to compose by singing what I felt. The second part of this song is just what came out of that exercise. The destruction of Sendai altered my sense of place in the world. Although, I had yet to return there since childhood, it is now a place in time to which I can never go back.


I have dreamed and have seen the future
the landscape of my youth mythic'ly wiped out
by water
and fire
the loop of technology only amplifies the wrath
the wrath
a loop like a passacaglia
which keeps me stuck in the present
Voltaire and Lisbon always are present always
you said

only thoughts I carry in my head
some call them memories like something nice you said
but now I'd rather have a sled
something to hold and remind me of where I've been
another wave I'd be lost
and though I've never gone back
it's nice to know that a home is still a fact
my favorite genius still alive
you said
so like Hachiko waiting by a Matsu no ki
I will stay here staring at the sea
until the tide
brings you back
to me

Talus (2007)

a concerto for viola and string orchestra
for Wendy Richman

In the spring of 2006, my friend Wendy Richman fell off the stage at MassMOCA during rehearsals for a David Lang opera, Anatomy Theater, and broke her ankle (the talus, tibia and fibula bones).  When she sent around a jpg of her x-ray, the horizontal lines of the bolts in her ankle immediately suggested harmonic possibilities to me; some of the harmonies in this piece are, in fact, generated from analysis of the x-ray.  Seeing her courage as she worked to recover from the injury reminded me of my mother’s courage during her recovery after tearing three ligaments in her knee from a skiing accident (I deferred a semester of college to take care of her during that time).  My mother was determined go back and ski down the same hill in Park City where she was injured and accomplished this feat in two years’ time. 

Spectrogram analysis of Wendy’s x-ray:


I, too, know something of physical trauma and its life-changing possibilities.  It was an injury I suffered as a West Point Cadet that led to my leaving that life path and eventually becoming a composer. 

Theatre in Music (2001)

For solo marimba
Mvt. Titles:

I. Inner-Outer Pairs.
II. Typing.
III. Rates of Change.
IV. Counting the Spaces.
V. Chasing Hands.
VI. Two Hands, Four Mallets.
VII. One Hand, One Mallet.
VIII. Quietude.

In Theatre in Music, I wanted to isolate and make more apparent the intrinsic theatrical elements in the performance of a musical piece.  After experiencing the more overt renditions of these theatrical aspects, it is hoped that one sees and is able to extract other theatrical elements from within the more ‘regular’ musical phenomena.

Toxis Chromaticus (1999)

In Toxis Chromaticus, I wanted to mirror the phenomenological experience of contemporary life.  More specifically, I was interested in the experience of the hyperreality created by our relationship to the internet and cable television: multiple-narratives that exist at the same time and cross-cutting between them. Take for example the experience of watching an hour-long t.v. show, a temporal phenomemon with a generic dramatic flow.  There is a beginning at the hour, a false climax at the half-hour, real closing/climax the fifty minutes past, and a ten-minute denouement, all intercut with commercials at fixed intervals and (depending on the patience of the viewer) forays into other channels.  In my music, the four-movements are independent in themselves, but, together, create a larger, linear, narrative flow (the main show), which is interrupted at strategic points by non-diegetic material (the commercials and forays into other channels).  I wanted to use this kind of form to contrast music that is goal oriented (the main narrative) with music that has a static quality (the commercials), as well as music that had other kinds speeds/levels of goal orientation (the forays into other channels).  The connection we make between all the disparate narratives is at the level of the pure signifier, the simplest of musical devices - the repeated note, the accented note, the trill, etc.  Therefore, deconstruction serves as proxy for classical musical “development” in the dialectic of this music - a musical object is presented and then it is reduced to its simplest constituent elements (the aforementioned musical devices such as the repeated note being some of these elements).

Two believers, on opposite sides of the same ocean, transcribing the same sky, at the same time, one at sunset, the other at sunrise (2003)

For for sho and Bb clarinet
Composed for Duo X, Laura Carmichael, clarinet, Naomi Sato, sho 

In this piece, I wanted to investigate new harmonic possibilities that could result from blending the tempered chords of the sho with multiphonics played by the clarinet. Delicate, often unstable, resonances resulted, featuring beautiful (to me) beatings. The aggregate chords transform over time. They are entities that have a life span: they blossom and decay.

Wallace (2011)

Wallace is a custom-software driven sound installation piece designed to pair with one of Angela Bulloch’s drawing machines. The drawing machine draws in response to amplitude changes. Wallace “performs” two types of samples of my voice.

The first sample type Wallace plays with is a sustained vocal drone. Each time the software plays the drone sample, it selects a different starting point, determines a different duration, creates a different envelope (amplitude contour), and transposes (changes the key) a different amount. It then determines a different amount of silence before playing the drone again. The drone’s ever changing quality, evokes in me something analogous to watching and hearing waves break on a beach. I created Wallace while still in shock about and reflecting on the March 11, 2011, tsunami that devastated Northern Japan. One of the cities most effected by the tsunami was Sendai, where I lived for three years during my youth.

The second type of Wallace sample is culled from my Sendai-dialect response to a YouTube rant by a UCLA student – “fu to te ru ba ka na a me ri ka jin no bu su da be.” Wallace’s parameters for the second type of sample are fewer than for the drone. After determining a duration of silence, Wallace selects and plays one of the above Sendai syllables. The aphasiatic performance of these syllables adds to the subtle commentary on racism in America, as does the title of the piece, which at once refers to the UCLA ranter as well as to one of America’s most famous anti-civil rights leaders from the ‘60s.

The Sendai syllables are on the one hand aphasiatic and on the other like little shocks against the ambient drone.

WATT (2000)

for baritone saxophone, percussion and boombox
for the yesaroun’ Duo

WATT, written in 2000 for the yesaroun' Duo, is scored for baritone saxophone and non-pitched percussion and boombox and takes its title from the work by Samuel Beckett of the same name. John Coltrane's late avant-garde albums like Interstellar Space (1967), in which he was accompanied only by a drummer, was a major inspiration for me. The bulk of the piece is a long development, beginning with sparse hits poking out of the silence, and gradually growing into a funky frenzy of sound. The surrounding music juxtaposes long periods of intense fury and long periods of near motionlessness. These two opposite sound worlds grow from or interrupt each other. At the close of the piece, the long development section is recapitulated, this time played on a boombox and manipulated electronically - the first 1'45" of the opening of the piece is collapsed to sound in 20".

This early piece was important to me as an study in my use of multiphonics. Before this piece, I had tried to “reconcile” multiphonics with my other pitch systems.  Around the time of writing this piece, what helped me was to consider the structure of Japanese language, in which three different alphabets continuously collaborate in a singular, linear, flow. It is a counterpoint of multiple systems (two phonetic alphabets and one ideogrammic alphabet). When I likened the multiphonics to ideograms, I had my break through: I can structure the piece like a manifold –play Scrabble and Mahjong at the same time. As the piece progresses, the “voice-leading” and harmonic tension is guided by the multiphonics, as they accumulate in frequency of occurence, as well as increasing in harmonic density.

whatWALL? (2003)

For alto saxophone and quadraphonic tape
Written for and dedicated to Brian Sacawa. 

The title is a dense complex of references.  It is anhomage to an architectural work by Eric Owen Moss, itself a reference to a 1929 essay by Le Corbusier in which the modern master countered the criticism that his architecture favored formal qualities over the functionalism of the New Objectivity.  It also refers to an earlier work of mine for baritone saxophone and percussion, WATT, which is a reference to a work by Samuel Beckett.  Histories, both personal and extra-personalintermesh. 

I have drawn much inspiration from the writings of Eric Owen Moss – his non-demagogic  ideology, his non-“movement” stance, his reappraisal of simple elements, his diverse knowledge, and holistic thinking.  Here is an excerpt of his notes to his “What Wall?”:

“What Wall? questions whether one can finally provide the simplest definition for a simple subject: what is a wall?  The entry wall is not so much the proposing of a solution as the furthering of the question to address the apparently contradictory relationship between an idea of architectural freedom and the control needed to realize it.

The wall, in a conceptual sense, is freedom itself - limitless.  A more tangible analogue would be a cloud of smoke: ethereal, almost formless.  But the kind of representational control required to build such "freedom" is astonishing.  For instance, the wall has three steel "windows" in it that bend and twist in response to the shape.  There are fifty-two working drawing sheets for the windows alone.  The eight hundred eight-inch by eight-inch specially cut concrete blocks - thirty-two sheets.  The computer generated interlocking grided plywood formwork to support the blocks - seven sheets.

The subject becomes as much the drawn representation and technical control required to build a design conception that is about the opposite, as it was the opposite. 

Is conceptual freedom architectural freedom?  Or do the demands for the drawn representation of architecture negate the freedom concept?”

The title is also descriptive of the structure of the piece.  One aspect of the structure is a gradual accumulation of multiphonics (verticalities) played by the saxophonist.  This coincides with a gradual build-up of electronic sounds (initially sounding like resonance but later transforming into a more independent layer of sound) which eventually surrounds the audience in quadraphonic space (a sonic “wall” around the audience). 

whatWALL?” is also a personal call to arms, that an artist should always strive to go beyond whatever boundaries stand before him. 

Yellow 632 (1998)

Yellow 632 was written for the theatrical percussion trio, Rrrr....  It is scored for six mechanical toys amplified through loudspeakers placed around the audience.  The basis for musical development is the speech pattern of the toys.  In the course of the performance, the musicians begin embodying the mechanical features of the toys and ultimately liberate the voice mechanisms from their toy bodies.

Vertical Features Remake I (2001)

for amplified mandolin and four amplified soda cans
Commissioned by CrossSound
This piece was commissioned by the CrossSound Festival for a series of three concerts in southern Alaska in 2001. In writing this piece, I faced two dilemmas: how to write for an Alaskan folk  mandolinist who did not read music and to write for variable list of percussion instruments (the list of available instruments from Ketchikan, Sitka, and Juneau did not make for any consistent combinations for which I wanted to write). I solved the first problem, by writing two pieces. One was a set of 19 chords that was meant as an etude for the player to learn my harmonic vocabulary. In the etude, the player realizes the chords, in order, using several modes of articulations. This piece is called Vertical Lists. The specific realization (orchestrated with rhythm) of this list  of chords, or verticalities is Vertical Features Remake 1, the second piece. The other problem was solved by writing for a set of percussion instruments, which I knew, would be available anywhere in Alaska  soda cans. The title is borrowed from a film by Peter Greenaway, a faux documentary in which an apocryphal film (footage of vertical features) is reconstituted several times using different propositions of pacing.

Zansetsu (2002)

Quadraphonic work for amplified voice and violin (ossia) with electronic sounds and Pop Rocks.
Since this piece is only performable by the composer, there is no score.

The title for this piece comes from the Japanese word for “remaining snow.”  The discourse for the musical narrative follows statistical morphologies between white noise and pitch.  The singer is required to use various extended vocal techniques including overtone singing.  

All of the electronic sounds are derived from samples of extended vocal techniques performed by the composer.   The first section of the piece involves a gradual, statistically increasing, presentation of noise artifacts superimposed over micro-tonally fluctuating sustained tones.  These artifacts were created in this way: 1) vocal samples were time-expanded to reveal microtonal fluctuations. 2) various excerpts were burned on to a CDR.  3) these CDR were “prepared” with scotch tape purposely so that a CD player would misread and create “skips” and distortions in pitch and rhthm.   4) “prepared” CDRs were rerecorded to be included into the final quadraphonic mix. These preparations were statistically controlled by the number and location of preparations on each disk (there were typically seven CDRs of the same sample per section of music in the final mix).  The increasing number of artifacts present in the mix leads to the second section of the piece featuring pure white noise.  There are several other sections before the final solo – some featuring only the electronics, while others are solo sections without electronics for the live performers.   The vocalist, with a mouthful of Pop Rocks, performs the final solo.  The solo is a concentration on formant change and envelope filtration within the mouth.  During the three minutes of this solo, the vocalist must hold his breath in order that his breathing does not disrupt the flow of sound. 

At all times, the live performers are in counterpoint with pre-recorded/processed versions of their past actions.  Here is a folktale-like analogy to the sonic interaction/counterpoint between different layers of memory, past and present:

Imagine a stream, a fast moving stream.  The stream is turbulent and loud.  A hiker happens by the stream and decides to enter the stream for a swim.  As he is swimming in the stream, it not possible to distinguish the sounds his movements contribute to the overall sound of the stream from those of the natural flow of the turbulent stream.  Now imagine that the totality of the present movement of the water and its consequent sounds were actually an accumulated memory of all the past swimmings in the same stream by the same hiker.

Zetsu (2015)- note by Robert Kirzinger

For Rob Amory and Steven Schick

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.