September 2013


Offensive. Incredibly offensive. Just about everything about Anna Nicole’s life as portrayed by Mark-Anthony Turnage and Richard Thomas is offensive. From how her father failed her as a child, to how the father of her child failed both mother and child, to how an opportunistic octogenarian preyed on her fear of once again toeing the poverty line and exploited her desire to be something more than a small-town waitress.

Anna Nicole’s story is offensive, and Turnage and Thomas pay extravagant homage to this. The tragic tale is told primarily by the media: a group of reporters, who expound and comment on the unfolding story, Greek chorus style. A pithy choice, as it is indeed because of the media, that, for better or worse, we know about Anna Nicole’s existence at all.

Something that I found particularly disturbing is how Thomas’ libretto, as we were told Anna Nicole’s back story, had the audience howling at the dirt poor “hicks” of Mexia, Texas, at how excited Anna Nicole was to go to Houston, even at the giant Wal-Mart sign that descended towards the end of Scene 3. But, as she and her fellow coworkers subsequently began to trudge across the stage singing of the woes of low wages, the audience laughter began to die down–being poor and out of options wasn’t funny anymore.

Turnage’s score is all about pure texture cleverly clothed in the intended affect for a given scene. Clusters and non-tonal lines ride around familiar contours (e.g., as the energy rises, so do the notes), and the orchestration communicates a few different genres; Sondheim-esque musical theater, dramatic opera aria, some sort of jazz/rock hybrid.

Sarah Joy Miller shone in the role of Anna Nicole, not only singing the part extremely well, but offering top notch acting. The opera rests on the singer’s ability to acquire your sympathy, and Miller’s performance truly drew you in. I so desperately wanted to stop her from getting that boob job, which, because it led to a pain-killer addiction, effectively ended her life.

Anna Nicole’s life is of course perfect opera fodder, the tragic story of a doomed woman buffeted about and manipulated by an unfeeling and greedy world. It’s as if, like Rigoletto’s Gilda, Anna Nicole was cursed from the start.

Many, many thanks to my friend Elizabeth Keenan-Penagos for the tickets. This review is of the 25 September 2013 performance.

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Below is my 2011 interview with awesome composer Ken Ueno for the Ear to Mind newspaper:

Ken Ueno occupies a peculiar space within the world of contemporary music: An actively performed composer and Associate Professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Ueno is a skilled throat singer and fluent in visual programming software such as Open Music and Max/MSP. As a composer, Ueno draws deeply from within his own experience, as in one of his latest compositions, “On a Sufficient Condition for the Existence of Most Specific Hypothesis,” which features Ueno performing in counterpoint with himself via the use of a recording he made at the tender age of 6 years old.

MW: You’ve spoken before about a sound embodying a feeling. Can you talk a little bit about the feelings that different sounds embody for you?

KU: Yes, for me, some sounds have an expressive power in and of themselves. These sounds give me a feeling that I can’t quite put into words or express in any other way.  I believe that is why, despite all the sophisticated developments of communicative modes in diverse cultures, we still have and need music. But since you asked, I will try to give some sense of what I mean. Some of Coltrane’s multiphonics and Hendrix’s feedback are like tidal waves of empathy. They scream something primal and reach in to the core of my body. It’s at once like a deep-tissue Shiatsu, it bruises my body, but heals my soul, for it seems to say something that I’ve known all along, but the rest of the world ignores. I will say what Stravinsky said of Webern: those sounds are like an eternal Pentecost for all who believe in music. See? When I try to say in words what I mean, it takes too long (though not enough!), and it comes out all cheesy. Multiphonics and noise help me express those things without having to apologize for what I feel. The discourse of words demands a different tenor. I want to give space for non-semantic expression. Looking back, I think it’s something I’ve felt my whole life. I have memories from before I could speak. I remember understanding language, but not having the dexterity to speak intelligibly. I remember adults not understanding me. But, when I made non-semantic sounds, they seemed to understand. Later, when I was a toddler, I used to record sounds on my cassette recorder. Just for fun. I also recorded multiphonics and noise-like vocalise I sang too. All of this, I have a hunch, is somehow related.

MW: Similarly, you’ve spoken about the ability of sound to transform one’s body. How do you feel your body reacts to certain sounds?

KU: Learning music, practicing our instruments, we transform our bodies. Here’s text I wrote for a theatre piece for Kim Kashkashian to recite:

On my neck, I have a scar

where my instrument has transformed my body,

carving out a space,

hard work of past loves,

which re-sculpted my body,

earthquakes shifting the landscape.

I think that composing changes the chemistry of my brain. It’s probably transformed how I perceive the world. For me, music mainly exists in memory space. And memory is related to the physiognomy of the brain.

MW: Where do you see yourself within the world of contemporary music? Do you ever think about your music contextually, as it relates to past and present composers?

KU: I think that the contemporary sense of identity is becoming increasingly manifold. I am a Japanese-American. Which actually means that I am both Japanese and American AND neither at the same time. When I think about historical artists, the narrative of their lives are often neatly teleologically linearized by historians. Beethoven and his three periods. How Pollock became Pollock. But when I think about contemporary artists, like Gerhard Richter or Damien Hirst, their works transcend any one stream of style or medium. Their works, and therefore their artistic identity, float much more like internet channels. I feel I fit into that kind of contrapuntal manifold as well: a composer of written works for classical ensembles, a throat-singing vocalist, an electronic musician, and a professor.

As far as how my music fits into the world with other composers, what I try to do is figure out how to just make music that is honest to me. At the same time, I recognize that classical music is a neo-colonizing agent and I have to contend with to what degree I am comfortable being colonized by it (not belonging to the dominant cultures). There is no way to compete or wrestle with Beethoven. He’ll always win that game. But, you know, there’s not many multiphonic-singing composers who know how to use Open Music and Max/MSP to analyze what they are doing vocally to orchestrate those frequencies for orchestra.

Yes, that little patch of sand on that deserted island surrounded by the sea of history and everyone else. That little patch of sand is mine!

MW: As a professor, do you feel there is a separation between the academic and non-academic contemporary music communities?

KU: No. I say no, because I don’t know what “academic” means any more.  It’s so overused by everybody that it doesn’t mean anything anymore. I think in the vernacular sense, people like to invoke that word for something they think is intellectually snooty, i.e. something that makes them feel intellectually inadequate. How about we say here what it really should mean? Henceforth let “academic” mean any music that was created by anyone who was ever trained at any conservatory or department of music at the college level. One reason for that word being used so much is probably because academic composers have fetishized the hipness and wide appeal of rock musicians for a while now. But, you know what Babbitt and Radiohead have in common? Esse quam videri. They both are, rather than seeming to be.