A Composer Plays with Space, Time, and Culture


Ken Ueno: Majel Connery (vocalist), Flux Quartet, Opera Cabal. National Sawdust, Brooklyn. 7.4.2017. (DS)

Ken Ueno – Aeolus (NY Premiere)

It was hard to tell where the sound was coming from or even what it was – dark, hollow, perhaps recorded, perhaps electronic. Turning to look behind the seated audience at National Sawdust in Brooklyn, I saw that it was coming directly from composer Ken Ueno, decked out in a black medieval-inspired robe-meets-spacesuit cloak, and holding a white megaphone to his mouth. As he walked around, he was filling the space with one of his signature sonic skills – this time, sonar clicking – that spread a wooden quality of reverb throughout the whole room. The Flux Quartet sat on stage in front of a video screen, meditatively waiting, between two unmanned standing microphones.

This was the beginning of Ueno’s new opera Aeolus, taking its name from the Greek mythological keeper of the winds. Vocalist Majel Connery of Chicago-based Opera Cabal would soon come to stand at one of the microphones – the other would always stand unused, abandoned. In a deep alto pop-oriented drone, that seemed to connect directly from her jaw to her ribs, she sang, “Siren Song,” becoming the futuristic chanteuse of this time-warping mythical opera.

Odysseus is a force, a character throughout this 90-minute journey, but he is never outright mentioned. Instead, his angst flows in a first-person narrative, through Connery’s vocals or Ueno’s voiceover poetic verse: “The winds that keep me from Ithaca are my own,” he proclaims. His journey might symbolize that which lives in all of us – yearning to connect yet only finding ourselves to blame for the isolation that abounds. As one pre-recorded phrase so poignantly delivers, with its mantel of self-reflective contemporary black humor, “I have no way of navigating between the silence of your texts.”

In his adept handling of all media, Ueno mixes every component of this work with finesse. Aeolus offers a balance between mesmerizing images of seascapes and dunes set to voice-over with quartet accompaniment. When electronically derived club-culture bass enters the soundscape, it’s as pointed as the textured string tones that intertwine with vocals. Midway, Ueno comes out in front of the stage to speak (not sing) rhythmically in a surreal mixture of lecture and pseudo-comedy routine, using his iPhone to command the beginning and end of pre-recorded percussion samples. It resembled an alien imitating a human stand-up routine with misfired drumming joke punctuations. Perhaps a take on the challenges of modern-day overcommunication – that leads to miscommunication.

As a composer, Ueno plays with the boundaries of space, time, and culture. These components create a unique three-dimensional effect that he laces together with musical techniques. While he calls Aeolus an opera, it could very well be a living sculpture or a poetic collage. Within this eclectic space of exploration (which includes throat singing) he produces songs like There is No One Like You sung by Connery, that you want to add to your soundtrack to reshuffle an evening after work. It is not only testament to his accessibility but also his wide range of musicality that he can touch the tastes of all his listeners.

Daniele Sahr

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