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The sound and the fury

How two great musicians drove a man to the music inside him.

india Updated: Jun 24, 2011 22:18 IST

A few years ago, when I was composing a concerto for myself as vocalist, I rediscovered some tapes I had made when I was six. Back then one of my favorite things was a portable Aiwa cassette recorder and I used it to make non-linear musique concrète — that is a fancy way of saying I recorded weird sounds around the house, rubbing my toy cars against the microphone, alternately growling and counting off numbers in Japanese like some spastic MC.

I am a composer and a vocalist, but not in the classical sense. As a vocalist, I have learned how to make sounds inspired by different vocal traditions from around the world — sub-tone singing and screaming from heavy metal, throat singing from Tuva and Tibet — and have also invented techniques like singing multi-band multiphonics inspired by jazz saxophonists.

When I was 16, I was abandoned in a mountain cabin. I went there on a skiing trip with my brother and his friends, but when I awoke that morning, they were gone. They had ditched me to go fishing. Stranded there all day, and not finding a television to keep me entertained, I snooped around the house. Eventually, I came across a turntable and a box of LPs. I started going through the records, one by one. Crosby, Stills, and Nash; Led Zeppelin; Cream. After about a half-day survey of classic rock, I put on a record with the most earth-shattering, alien sounds I had ever heard. I was converted. For the rest of the day I kept replaying it — Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced? I immediately knew I had to learn to play the guitar.

Hendrix’s electric guitar is visceral. It is somatic in Whitman’s sense — the song of itself — and emphatically American. Hendrix’s guitar is immediately recognisable in the way speaking voices of loved ones are immediately familiar. It taught me that a sound, in and of itself, can embody a feeling and that there is a meaning that can only be expressed with that sound, that voice, that guitar playing in that unique way.

But at 16, I had already determined my life plan: go to West Point, become a general, serve my country, return to California, become a senator. Bound up in that plan was a search for identity. In my formative years, my family lived in Japan and Switzerland, and I was always insecure of my identity as an American. As a naïve 16-year-old, I thought that if I put on a uniform and was willing to fight for my country, then others would have to accept me as one of their own. Two years later, everything was on schedule. But then I suffered an injury during an exercise in gymnastics class, and had to leave. My life plan had to be revised.

During the period of my convalescence, all I did was go to physical therapy and play guitar for eight or more hours a day. I started writing songs and playing in bands, and, eventually, I had enough courage to consider completing my college education in music instead. I found a school, Berklee College of Music in Boston, which accepted the electric guitar as a legitimate instrument in which to major. There, I was introduced to the music of Bartók and Stravinsky. I experienced a second musical epiphany, and began studying to become a composer.

When I first heard Bartók’s Fourth String Quartet at Berklee, I felt like my body understood it. It was visceral. It spoke to me on a plane similar to the Metallica and Black Sabbath I was playing with my friends. But in another sense, I felt there was an entirely separate cabalistic code embedded in the written score, one I did not yet understand. It was the desire to understand that code, to hopefully someday be able to compose notated music as beautifully complex as Bartók did that turned me into a composer.

( Ken Ueno, a composer and vocalist, is an associate professor of music composition at the University of California at Berkeley )

The views expressed by the author are personal

Namita Bhandare’s column Another Day will return next fortnight

First Published: Jun 24, 2011 22:16 IST