Wired for sound
Composer Ken Ueno gets a chargeout of connecting classical to electronica
CAMBRIDGE -- ''If it wasn't for Jimi Hendrix," says Ken Ueno, ''I wouldn't be a composer." Ueno, a Cambridge resident whose piece ''Kaze-no-Oka" (''Hill of the Winds") gets its world premiere tonight at Jordan Hall and whose music -- let it be stated at the outset -- sounds absolutely nothing like Hendrix's, nonetheless had his artistic Big Bang as a guitar-noodling 16-year-old, during a lonely afternoon in a California ski cabin, with a copy of ''Are You Experienced?"
''It was like being hit by a bolt of lightning," Ueno, 35, recalls over coffee at Harvard Square's Cafe Algiers. ''The complexity of the sound, and the rawness! I later found out that this is a very common phenomenon for guitar players when they first hear Hendrix, but at the time I thought I had some sort of special communion."
Ueno (pronounced, he says, ''like the Spanish word 'bueno' but without the b") writes ''new music," or modern classical: drones, forebodings, weird scribbles of strings, and sudden percussive jabs. His work has been called a fusion of Japanese underground electronic music with European modernism, and he's composed -- using pen, paper, and computer -- for everything from the baritone saxophone to the hand-cranked music box. His work has been performed in places from Lincoln Center to the Norfolk Music Festival, and he's written for ensembles from Philadelphia to Holland.
The composer himself cuts an engagingly paradoxical figure: He's a theoretician committed to ''visceral energy," an avant-gardist with a taste for the basics. He will discourse with subdued intensity on the patterns made by cigarette butts on the paving stones of European cities, or on the concept in Japanese traditional music known as ''sawari," whereby the rattle or buzz of an instrument is given the same value as the notes being played.
But he can also talk heavy metal. ''I think the attempts to politicize the differences between types or classes of music are less relevant for my generation than they ever were," he says. ''There's a level of commonality between Metallica and Bartok -- some grammatical differences, sure, but at the visceral level they're the same. I mean, when I play Xenakis [Iannis Xenakis, a legendarily ''difficult" Greek modernist composer] to my friends in LA who are in heavy metal bands -- they get it. It's just gritty, fantastic music."
Ueno's ''Kaze-no-Oka" is part of a tribute to the 20th-century Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu, presented by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and featuring internationally acclaimed soloists Kifu Mitsuhashi on the bamboo flute and Yukio Tanaka on the short-necked lute. The two soloists will also be performing some of Takemitsu's more famous pieces. ''When I thought of commissioning a piece for a tribute to Takemitsu," says BMOP's founder and artistic director Gil Rose, ''I immediately thought of Ken. I thought he could take us into that sound-world, that meld of the ancient and the modern, of East and West"
Takemitsu, for Ueno, is the ''Akira Kurosawa of Japanese classical music, the first and greatest example of an Asian composer who's been able to garner international respect, and he's such an inspiration to those composers who are not part of the dominant culture."
Ueno's own attempt, as a Japanese-American, to participate in the dominant culture ended when he was 18. Born in Bronxville, N.Y., he was guaranteed a peripatetic childhood by his father's job with Japan Airlines, and he lived in Japan and Switzerland before settling in California. Ueno's grand plan, as an adolescent, was to go into politics and become a senator, and at the age of 17 he entered the US Military Academy at West Point.
''I was a sensitive young man," he says, ''and I suppose this was a dramatic way of proving that I was American." One year later, a neck injury ended his time as a cadet, and for 18 months he did nothing but play his guitar and endure physical therapy. ''My life plan had been shattered," he says, ''so I had to reinvent myself."
By the end of that period, Ken Ueno the musician had been born. At Berklee College of Music he was exposed to Stravinsky and Bartok; there was no going back. Now getting his doctorate in music composition at Harvard, he is an assistant professor and the director of the Electronic Music Studios at the University of Massachussetts at Dartmouth. Under the name DJ Moderne, he also hosts a show on Cambridge public-access television that has featured such prize-winning local composers as John Harbison and Bernard Rands.
A conversation with Ueno is a split-level affair. Above, hovering over the table as it were, is the cold and radiant world of theory, from which words like ''hierarchicize," ''intentionality," and ''psychoacoustic" come blowing down. Below, darkening his brow and agitating his hands, is the more human restlessness of a young composer trying to get his work heard.
''I just want to offer people, for this 15 to 20 minutes of their time, which is not going to come again, an experience -- some sort of life-changing excitement," he says. ''My favorite music has done that for me."
One of the tasks of a composer of new music, he says, is to ''try to think up new mechanisms of interaction," ways in which what he calls ''allergies" to unconventional sonic values can be overcome. In 1996 and 1997, Ueno was a volunteer music instructor at the Robert J. Watson House in Cambridge, a residential facility for young male offenders. During one weekly session, after tracks by Dr. Dre and Marvin Gaye, Ueno played his class the cello-and-piano movement from Messiaen's ''Quartet for the End of Time," which was composed and premiered in a German internment camp in 1941.
''It was the only time I ever saw those kids quiet. And it couldn't have been further away from them culturally -- I mean, these were gangsta kids, and here I was playing them the music of this midcentury Frenchman, this colorblind ornithologist in a beret," he says. ''But something about it just got their attention. You can feel when people are listening. Maybe the fact that it was written in a prison, in captivity. . . . But it just proved to me that if the music is good enough, and the context is set up well enough, you can get through."