KEN UENO: Water, the First Body (2021)
for flute, viola, 2 cellos, 2 double bass, 4 percussion and 8-channel tape
Commissioned by the Hong Kong New Music Ensemble
Ken Ueno (composer, extended voice, megaphone)
Arnont Nongyao (video)
Amy Chan (light artist)
Hong Kong New Music Ensemble
Angus Lee (flute & megaphone)
William Lane (viola & megaphone)
Pun Chak-yin (cello & megaphone)
Eric Yip (cello & megaphone)
Simon Hui (double bass & megaphone)
Kelvin Ng (double bass & megaphone)
Vicky Shin (rehearsal conductor)
The Up:Strike Project
Matthew Lau (percussion)
Karen Yu (percussion)
Vonald Chow (percussion)
Samuel Chan (percussion)
Jason Chow & Natalie Cheung (lighting assistants)
Lai Ching Kong & Kelvin Au (sound)
Tim Chan (video assistant)
Kenneth Tsang (stage assistant)
Osage technical team
NOTES FROM COMPOSER:
This is an hour-long piece for the Hong Kong New Music Ensemble. The middle section of the piece will feature prominently HKNME’s leader, William Lane, on viola, and Angus Lee on flute (with glissando headjoint (my third piece to feature a glissando headjoint, the rare and special adaptation to the flute invented by the virtuoso, Robert Dick). Towards the end of the piece, a cadenza will feature myself (extended voice with a megaphone) and Arnont Nongyao (a filmmaker who performs with a projector the way DJs manipulate turntables).
The piece starts with the ensemble orchestrated around an 8-channel audio track based on sounds I recorded three years ago during Typhoon Mangkhut, when I lived in Hong Kong. Those sounds I had previously incorporated into installations at the Telfair Museum and EMPAC, and in pieces for the New York New Music Ensemble, and sfSound. I am, so to speak, bringing those sounds home to Hong Kong in this piece. In a recent article, I had proposed that the ice skating rink at a Bougie mall in Hong Kong is a transposition of a foreign climate condition into the local domain, functioning as a similar expression of hyper-capitalist aspiration as the other wares sold at the Bougie mall. As a kind of converse relation, my previous pieces incorporating the sounds from Typhoon Mangkhut played with the idea of empathically resonating the physical trauma of one location into another – in Charleston (the Telfair Museum), the sounds were installed in a spaces that stored cotton (some claim that slaves were quartered there too); at EMPAC, the piece was about the trauma of my own body (apnea, lack of sleep, instrumentalizing a CPAP); in the piece with NYNME, we performed in the spaces where the painter, Milton Resnick, worked – I was inspired by this autograph inscription on the wall, “and the seven angels rejoiced,” a passage from the Book of Revelations. The Mangkhut sounds, I thought, would resonate with the image of the apocalypse. Last year, I used those sounds for a piece for sfSound, Ghosts of Ancient Hurricanes, wherein I revisited the possibility that destruction myths and creations myths could be the same, a theme that had been an obsession of mine over many years, poignantly reflecting on these themes again on the occasion of turning 50 (the premiere was a day after my birthday). It feels appropriate, now, after the last year, our collective last year of the pandemic, that the Mangkhut sounds, alas, return home – I am investing in the notion that sounds, too, accrue experience and meaning over time, having traveled with me, having been in other pieces.
I often say that one of the things that composition does is curate energy – the broadcasting of the viscerality of the performers. The design of this piece had been playing out over two years. HKNME and I had planned initially for a premiere in 2020, a desire that had to be changed when the pandemic hit us. What I had been planning for two years was this: a sound installation and a video installation, accompanied/inhabited by the ensemble, would eventually telescope into a cadenza performed by me and Arnont – representing an embodied ur form of sound and moving image. Me as sound and Arnont as moving image. This gesture is important to me symbolically in reversing the hyper-digitation of our lives, with its contingent tendency to decouple art experience from our bodies, with the consequence that our physical trace of having lived is compromised. Working to reclaim the trace of having lived of Asian bodies, such as ours, also stands as a decolonizing gesture in music. One of the further unfortunate consequences of the pandemic is, as a casualty of the ongoing complexities of travel restrictions, Arnont will not be able to join us in Hong Kong for the premiere. He will contribute a video to stand as his proxy, a shadow of the physical presence I had hoped to curate.
During the past year, I came to know Natalie Diaz’s poems. In her poem, “The First Water Is the Body,” she says that for the Mohave, their name, Aha Makav,” means the river runs through the middle of our body, the same way it runs through the middle of our land.” It is an example of what Foucault calls the “subjugated knowledges” of marginalized communities. Natalie’s mission to preserve Mohave culture, while weaving new, creative expressions heralding the affordances of Mohave culture is powerfully inspiring to me. The title of my piece alludes to her poem. A typhoon is water too.