Interview with Sound Artist Ken Ueno: "The Building is Part of the Instrument" |
Interview with Sound Artist Ken Ueno: “The Building is Part of the Instrument”

Interview with Sound Artist Ken Ueno: “The Building is Part of the Instrument”

Experimental new music through exploration of sound

Isobel McKenzie
Written by –
Isobel McKenzie
on July 16th 2019
Originally from London, Isobel is enthralled by the curves and lines that make up a city. It's fascinating to see how modern skyscrapers and historic landmarks muddle together. Her Instagram feed @Isobel_McKenzie is usually full of spiral staircases and tall buildings. Can also be found on Twitter.. sometimes.

Composer and sound artist Ken Ueno is a pioneer in the world of new music, seeking to break the paradigms and explore the beauty of sound in experimental ways. Whether that’s through exploring the multiphonics of Tuvan throat singing, distortion, or seeing just what a megaphone can (or cannot!) do.

Before returning to his post as Professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Ueno is wrapping up his year in Hong Kong teaching as a Visiting Professor at CityU, and enthusiastically nourishing the burgeoning new music scene in Asia.

home decor | interior design | inspiration | architecture
image by Peter Gannushkin As a visiting professor in Hong Kong, what differences do you see between the local experimental music scene and others around Asia, or around the world?

Ken Ueno: The scene in Asia, in general, is growing – which is nice to see. And Hong Kong has one of the more vibrant scenes in Asia.

As a Japanese-American artist, and a frequent traveler, do you feel more at the confluence of Western and Eastern traditions or is there a sense of detachment from them?

We are all, actually, manifolds. Being Japanese-American, I am both Japanese and American and neither at the same time. As an artist, identity is a central consideration. There are many ways in which my art is informed by my experiences in both cultures. Waiting, silence, noise, Wabi Sabi, might be Japanese art aspects to which I have strong proclivities. The electric guitar, viscerality, and an embodied-ness are stereotypical, but relevant-to-me, American aspects.


I am not a typical Japanese-American. I was born in NYC, but when I was eight months old, my family moved to Sendai, Japan. We still speak Japanese at home. When I was four, we moved to Geneva, Switzerland, where I learned to English, but from British teachers. When we moved to California, when I was seven, I had a British accent. Since then, I’ve lived the largest chunk of my life on the East Coast. And then, shorter bits in Brussels, Paris, Rome, and Berlin. I have been in exile my whole life. I have also learned that a place is not a place, but the confluence of people you with whom are lucky to have experienced that moment in that place. And what I see more and more, in many places (but especially in Hong Kong), is that a cosmopolitan nomadism, like mine is become more the norm. I have great hope, that in the near future, the locus of identity will collapse into the node of the individual, rather than historical qualifiers like nationality, ethnicity, and religious affiliation.


I have great hope, that in the near future, the locus of identity will collapse into the node of the individual, rather than historical qualifiers like nationality, ethnicity, and religious affiliation. — Ken Ueno

Your opera project Aeolus features the aria “There is No One Like You”, performed with a large undulating canopy. How does spatial design impact sound art, and what considerations do you make when designing the set for a show?

In earlier pieces like this Solo vocal performance at BAM, I started incorporating the natural echo of the space in my rhythms.


For Aeolus, we decided to use a large warehouse-space for the video. To articulate the acoustics of the space better, I decided to walk around with a megaphone, directing my voice in different directions and materials (the quality of resonance differs based on how reflective or absorbent building materials are). I used a 360-degree GoPro rig to perform in the stairwell too.


Since then, I have installed my voice in installations as prosthetic extensions of my voice. In the installation, Jericho Mouth, my sub-tone singing is played back by a computer algorithmically. It is low and loud enough that you can feel the building vibrate. In this way, it is palpable that the building is part of the instrument.


In Jepson Satellite, I surround myself with a circle of snare drums which buzz when I direct my voice towards them. Again, I am mobile with a megaphone in order that I can make my way through the space, up the stairs, directing my voice in different directions, that the resonance of the space can be felt as part of the musical structure.

home decor | interior design | inspiration | architecture
image by Nanamu Hamamoto
home decor | interior design | inspiration | architecture
image by Nanamu Hamamoto

Ken, what’s going on in these images?

I am performing at the Fei Gallery in Guangzhou. The gallery space is a unique wall of windows. Besides installing a stand-alone sound installation of a collection of ceramic pillows installed with small speakers, I performed in the window-wall. Ritually installing speakers near different windows, opening and closing the windows so the volume and directional projection of sounds would be altered. At a certain point, I climbed a ladder to access some higher windows. I also vocalized throughout the piece.

home decor | interior design | inspiration | architecture
image by Nanamu Hamamoto

What does art mean to you?

Art is an opportunity to continually confront what you have come to take for granted as the known world, to overturn it. It is a way of life that challenges you to seek out beauty even in a problematic world, with the hope that you might be inspired to help move it towards a more peaceable reality.

We live in a latency. There is no such thing as now. Art-making is a hopeful act in which we might overcome that latency. We can shape the future by the doing, and feeling it received by others, we are enticed by our hope reflected back to us, and for a moment, we are not existentially alone.

What is it about Tuvan throat singing that drew you to learning it?

There are several cultures in the world who throat sing: the Tuvans, Inuits, and the Xhosa. The human vocal mechanism is capable of many more sounds than are necessary for language. But, through learning fluency, in speaking our native languages and through musical training, we filter out the capacity to make sounds that our superfluous to our languages and musics. Part of my musical mission is to undo that filtering. To reclaim the open field of possibilities. When I was in my 20s, just starting music school (yes, THIS is Plan B), I heard throat singing and was blown away by it. I wanted to do it, thought I could. So, I started taking longer showers (the shower had the best acoustic in the small apartments in Boston in which I was living at the time) and after a while, I started doing it. And I started inventing other techniques too and started performing. I lived a double life as a composer of music for classical musicians and as an improvising vocalist. After some time, I received a great opportunity to compose a concerto for myself. It was when I was composing that piece, when I rediscovered cassette tapes I made when I was six. I was making non-linear musique concrète. And I was singing multiphonics! Now, I think, when I heard throat singing in my twenties, I was maybe subconsciously predisposed to it. It is a sound that shakes my whole body. It is very visceral and delivers a feeling of being alive. It reminds me of being alive. It’s kind of wild and comforting at the same time. It reminds me of hearing Jimi Hendrix’s explosive feedback barrages and being comforted by it. It was a kind of eccentric sound that somehow felt like it understood how alienated (in exile) I felt. It saved my life – it gave me hope that, though music, I might be able to connect with others, and my life have some glimmer of meaning.

What helps you feel at home? Is there an item you take with you when you’re travelling to feel comfortable or at ease?

Quiet and WIFI access makes me feel at home. My laptop is all I really, “need.” And dental floss. And noise-cancelling headphones.

Rome Prize and Berlin Prize winner Ken Ueno is a composer, vocalist and sound artist. Ueno’s collaborators include the Hilliard Ensemble, Kim Kashkashian and Robyn Schulkowsky, Steve Schick and SFCMP, and Frances-Marie Uitti. His music has been performed at venues and festivals around the world. He has performed as soloist in his vocal concerto with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project in New York and Boston, the Warsaw Philharmonic, the Lithuanian National Symphony, the Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra, and with orchestras in Pittsburgh, North Carolina and California. Collaborating with architects Thomas Tsang and Patrick Tighe and artist, Angela Bulloch, his sound installations have been installed at MUAC, the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, Art Basel, and at SCI-Arc. Ueno is currently a Professor in Music at UC Berkeley, where he holds the Jerry and Evelyn Hemmings Chambers Distinguished Professorship in Music. His bio appears in The Grove Dictionary of American Music.

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