ListN Up: Ken Ueno (August 13, 2021)

ListN Up is a weekly series of artist-curated playlists that offer an intimate sonic portrait of contemporary artists by showcasing the diverse and stylistically varied music that influences their creative practice. 

Ken Ueno is a composer, vocalist, and sound artist. His works develop the interstice between these three output modes. He creates unique spaces for audiences and ensembles to inhabit with the added focus of himself as a vocalist utilizing bespoke techniques (often with a megaphone). Ueno is currently a Professor in Music at UC Berkeley.

Hi, I’m Ken Ueno. I am speaking to you from my quarantine hotel in Hong Kong, where I will be confined in my room for fourteen days. It’s been an arduous journey to get here, navigating complex health and travel protocols. I’ve travelled about half the world away from home, but, presently, my world has collapsed into this roughly 10 x 12 square foot room. Perhaps, this is a definitive condition of these Covid times. I am thankful that I have music with me, and I am honored to be asked by I CARE IF YOU LISTEN to present this listening list. Reflecting on the music for this list this week, in quarantine, has helped me not only pass the time, but, reminded of the music that has meant so much to me – it has been a morale boost. Thank you! 

“Wild Thing” by Jimi Hendrix

Jimi Hendrix’s music saved my life! I had a whole other life plan not involving music when I was young. It was an injury that transformed my life from a West Point cadet into a musician (read about it here). Hendrix invented a new kind of electric guitar-ism, in which the main discourse is not the fretted fundamental, but the frequency space that he unleashed. As someone who has been an outsider his whole life, this radical music “felt” like it understood me.

Deep Blue by Sainkho Namtchylak

Bukowski says he’d forgotten which track of classical music initiated his lifelong engagement with it in his poem, “Classical Music and Me.” Similarly, I’ve forgotten which piece introduced me to throat singing in my early twenties, which set me on my path as a vocalist. Later, I was introduced to Sainkho’s singing. Hailing from Tuva where women are discouraged from throat singing, she discovered/invented her own way to sing. This track features her superhuman low range. She’s one of my heroes.

“Dear Prudence” by The Beatles

This year, in preparing for a new class, I thought about this piece. I’d been a fan of The Beatles for over 30 years before I heard an unfamiliar detail. “…Dear Prudence…ding…” A lone tambourine hit. That ding dramatizes the margin bell on a typewriter. Lennon is writing a letter to invite Prudence to “come out to play.” That ding refreshed my relationship to the song, like a long-held secret that was finally revealed to me as a devout fan after many years.

Solo for Wounded CD by Yasunao Tone

I used to prepare CDs to purposely have them misread with sound glitches and bleeps. The artifacts of different CD players sound differently. From this, I learned that it is when a machine fails, that we hear its intrinsic voice. In the U.S. today, we are bearing witness to the intrinsic voice of the broken system. When I discovered Yasunao Tone’s piece, it felt familiar. It remains an inspiration as to the affordances of “failure,” and how we can learn from it. You can listen to Solo for Wounded CD here and get a taste of Yasunao Tone in the clip below. In this piece, applying a similar strategy to Solo for Wounded CD, Tone disrupts mp3 files. Tone was an original member of Fluxus, but his rebellious creative energies continued to remain critically contemporary throughout his life.

Adnos I, II, and III by Éliane Radigue

Éliane Radigue’s Adnos I, II, and III is glorious. Rather than being told a story, we are transformed by being in the same space as the piece. There’s a point where the scale of the piece overpowers one’s ability to contain an image of it abstractly in our mind, and the experience begins to merge with life itself. Radigue is an absolute master of time. The music changes without any edges. Like watching a sunset, we gradually realize it is evening.

“Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday

There are many versions, but this three-minute version is a tour de force. A mini opera, some lines are delivered staccato and dry, like a recitative. Billie Holiday slides into blues notes and breathes vibrato into the second half of words like “strange” (a micro text-setting distortion), saving the largest fully-voiced interval for the last note. Here is everything I want to continue to unpack and learn for the rest of my life as a composer, vocalist, and social activist.

‘TARD by Ken Ueno, performed by Ken Ueno, Du Yun, Matt Evans, and Amy Garapic

Finally, a piece of mine. I’ve been thinking of this piece from 2018, after George Floyd and more recently, during the uptick in violence against Asian Americans.

I hold my breath in a bowl of water for 2 minutes, as an analog to the suspension of my breath and the muting of my voice as a person of color. Risking my life to protest the underlying premise of being of Asian American, invisibility, I am asking, “What do I need to do for you to hear/see me?”


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