Ken Ueno is a man comfortable with a gear shift—a composer of music that thrills with its interior complexity in one case and probes the ear deeply with a simple overtone vocal line in the next. He is also as likely to pick up the inspiration for his work inside a candy store and a childhood memory as in the text of Calvino, Beckett, or Joyce. “I think about the influence of the internet and cable television and globalization,” says Ueno, a Brooklyn-born Japanese-American. “I am a multiplicity of identities, maybe unresolved. And maybe one possible contemporary proposition is that it doesn’t have to be a resolved linearity. I think that’s part of the liberation of being a musicmaker today; we can engage with all of these things.”
Ueno was a bit delayed to that engagement. As a West Point cadet he was headed towards a career in civil service and politics before an injury redirected his course. An guitarist by avocation, he opened a window on a professional music career at Berklee College of Music, and topped that off with further study at Boston University, Yale, and Harvard. A year at the American Academy in Rome followed, and this fall he leaves an assistant professor position at University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, to teach at the University of California, Berkeley. A scan down his resume paints a picture of a man deeply engaged with the theory and the production of music in addition to one with an impressively weighty library of scores—one which encompasses everything from work for his own solo voice to full orchestra pieces.
That’s not to overlook the scuba diving license in his wallet and the Mohawk that accents his head (though it would be hard to miss it).
As you might expect with a CV that loaded, Ueno comes to the table with a few ideas about music, but he has a tendency to speak in a way that builds up the dinner-table conversation without dominating the room. And maybe it’s fitting, then, that no matter the number of players on the stage or the amps flowing through the gear, Ueno is focused on the real over the reproduction: The alchemy of performers and audiences in a room.
“Usually you think of technology and recordings as something that enhances the means of art in reproduction, but I’ve been interested in ways that that can be kind of subverted,” explains Ueno. “If you privilege the live experience, then you privilege the fact that it’s ephemeral.”
In his own life, the most important listening experiences—the ones that have stuck with him and transformed his thinking—have been those dynamic live concert experiences, and those are the kind of experience he wants to create for his own audiences. “The audience knows there’s a certain part of it that is not reproducible through mechanical means; that having gone to see it, they know that they’ve shared in this communal thing that happened and then at that moment realize that if they were to experience a CD or DVD representation of what had happened, they know that they would have definitely lost something.”
It’s also a focus he applies to composition. Though his music can convey expansive plains, it often also carries an intimacy that feels expertly fitted to the performer on stage and that’s no accident. “It’s one of the things I have to think a lot about. Who am I writing for? What would make them feel comfortable and in what ways can I engage with what they’re good at doing so that together we can create something that’s meaningful for all?”
Ueno equates his role in this process with that of an expert tailor. “I get a look at the guy [and ask], ‘So are you going to wear this on your wedding day or is it everyday you’re going to wear this?’ and I take the measurements. Then hopefully it’s comfortable and the person wears it and everybody thinks ‘Hey, you look good, man. Where’d you get that suit?’”