Commons Conversations

Towards the Un-Corseting of Non-Western Bodies

Commons Conversations
19 Sep, 2022

Towards the Un-Corseting of Non-Western Bodies

with Ken Ueno
Composer, vocalist, improviser, sound artist, and Professor of Music, UC Berkeley

Co-sponsored by the Department of Ethnic Studies

Register for the Zoom link here!

In his seminal article, “Improvisation After 1950,” George Lewis illuminates how the process of exnomination impacted notions of improvisative musical practices in Western art music in the postwar era. Citing the media critic, John Fiske, Lewis reminds us that, “Exnomination is the means by which whiteness avoids being named and thus keeps itself out of the field of interrogation and therefore off the agenda for change.” Noting how Western European Classical music values are entrenched exnominatively in music pedagogy in the United States, with particular excessiveness in the training of the voice, where the particularities of the performance practice of Western opera continues to be promulgated as the standard, in this paper, drawing from his own performance practice, Ueno proposes moves towards creating a personal practice that seeks to “uncorset” musical practice, and by extension, claim artistic agency for those who do not belong to the dominant culture.

About Ken Ueno

Rome Prize and Berlin Prize winner Ken Ueno, is a composer, vocalist, improviser, and sound artist. His music celebrates artistic possibilities which are liberated through a Whitmanesque consideration of the embodied practice of unique musical personalities. Much of Ueno’s music is “person-specific” wherein the intricacies of performance practice are brought into focus in the technical achievements of a specific individual fused, inextricably, with that performer’s aura. In an increasingly digitized world, “person-specificity” takes a stand against the forces that render all of us anonymous. It also runs counter to the neo-colonial tradition of transportability in Western Classical music. As an outsider, Ueno has been drawn to sounds that have been overlooked or denied. His artistic mission is to push the boundaries of perception and challenge traditional paradigms of beauty.

Leading performers and ensembles around the world have championed his music. Ken’s piece for the Hilliard Ensemble, Shiroi Ishi, was featured in their repertoire for over ten years, with performances at such venues as Queen Elizabeth Hall in England, the Vienna Konzerthaus, and was aired on Italian national radio, RAI 3. Another work, Pharmakon, was performed dozens of times nationally by Eighth Blackbird during their 2001-2003 seasons. A portrait concert of Ken’s was featured on MaerzMusik in Berlin in 2011.

As a vocalist, Ueno is known for inventing extended techniques and has performed as soloist in his vocal concerto with orchestras in Boston, New York, Warsaw, Vilnius, Bangkok, Sacramento, Stony Brook, Pittsburgh, and North Carolina.

As a sound artist, his installations have been commissioned and exhibited by museums and galleries in Beijing, Guangzhou, Taipei, Mexico City, Art Basel, Los Angeles, and Hong Kong. Last fall, he created evening-long installation performances for the Osage Gallery, Tai Kwun, and at the FreeSpace. One of his largest projects, Daedalus Drones, an installation (a fence-labyrinth housing a swarm of flying drones choreographed for performance) installed at the Asia Society of Hong Kong was featured on the New Vision Arts Festival.

Ueno currently serves as a Professor at the University of California, Berkeley. He has been invited to present lectures on his music at over a hundred peer institutions, including Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Columbia, Peabody, Stanford, Northwestern, USC, UCLA, Seoul National University, Beijing Central Conservatory, the University of Hong Kong, the Geneva Conservatory, and the Paris Conservatory. As an author, Ueno’s writings have been published by the Oxford Handbook, the New York Times, Palgrave Macmillan, and Wiley & Sons. He holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University and an M.M.A. from the Yale School of Music, and his bio appears in The Grove Dictionary of American Music.


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