James Tenney | The Canadian Encyclopedia


James Tenney

Tenney, James (Carl). Composer, teacher, pianist, conductor, b Silver City, N Mex, 10 Aug 1934, d Valencia, Cal 24 Aug 2006; BA (Bennington College) 1958, M MUS (Illinois) 1961. Tenney studied piano as a child, and 1952-3 took engineering at the University of Denver.

Tenney, James

Tenney, James (Carl). Composer, teacher, pianist, conductor, b Silver City, N Mex, 10 Aug 1934, d Valencia, Cal 24 Aug 2006; BA (Bennington College) 1958, M MUS (Illinois) 1961. Tenney studied piano as a child, and 1952-3 took engineering at the University of Denver. He then moved to New York to the Juilliard School of Music, where he studied piano with Eduard Steuermann, transferring again to Bennington College in Vermont to study with Lionel Nowak. Privately, Tenney also was a student of Chou Wen-Chung (composition 1955-6), Carl Ruggles (composition 1956-8), Edgard Varèse (composition 1961-5), and Dorothy Taubman (piano 1968-70). At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he studied with Kenneth Gaburo (composition), and was a student and assistant of Harry Partch and Lejaren Hiller, developing computer programs to model composition. During 1961-4 he was involved in innovative electroacoustic research at Bell Telephone Laboratories, where he worked with Max Mathews developing programs for computer sound-generation and composition.

Tenney was introduced to new music through John Cage's Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano at age 16. Pursuing an interest in music of the avant-garde, he was a founding member, conductor, and pianist of the Tone Roads Chamber Ensemble (New York, 1963-70), and founder and musical director of Tone Roads West in Los Angeles (1973-5). He was also involved in the ensembles of Harry Partch (Gate 5 Ensemble, 1959-60), Steve Reich (New York, 1967-70), and Philip Glass (New York, 1969-70), and has performed and/or conducted music by Charles Ives, John Cage, Morton Feldman, Erik Satie, Arnold Schoenberg, and others.

His Works

Tenney's work reflects a continuing curiosity concerning the properties of sound and how it is perceived by the listener. For Ann (Rising) (1969, recorded on Absolut CD-3), one of his better-known electronic works, sets rising glissandi in tandem at a distance of about a minor sixth, which produces a striking aural illusion of continuous rising. Through repetition the anticipation of future events is effectively reduced and the listener is left to create a personal experience based on shifting subjective processes and the minute variations within the glissandi.

A simple idea or initial question often underlies the general flow of a composition. His ten Postal Pieces (1965-71) are postcard-size scores, many using graphic notation. In Quiet Fan for Erik Satie (1970, rev 1971) for 13 instruments, a 'fan' of intervals is slowly spread out, around a minor second (B to C, above middle C), moving a major tenth in either direction and back again. The successive lengths of each opening and closing of this fan become shorter as the piece progresses, combined with the overall dynamic shape of soft-loud-soft, create fan shapes on at least two other levels.

The series of pieces with the title Harmonium (No. 1 for large orchestra, 1976; No. 2 for variable ensemble, 1976; No. 3 for three harps, 1980; No. 4 for ten instruments and tape delay, 1978; and No. 5 for string trio, 1978) explores the slow build-up and break-down of a chord based on the prime number partials of the harmonic series. Harmonium No. 5 has been recorded by ARRAYMUSIC (Artifact 002). These pieces continue to avoid musical drama, and display an increased interest in canonic and harmonic relationships. Other notable works from this period include Spectral Canon for Conlon Nancarrow (1974) for 'harmonic player-piano' (recorded in 1976 on Cold Blue L-10), Three Pieces for Drum Quartet (1974-5), and Three Indigenous Songs (1979) for winds and percussion.

Bridge (1984), for two pianos (eight hands), explores similarities between different types of musical organization, and attempts to synthesize some of the harmonic implications left unfulfilled in the 20th century. It consists of two large parts, each about 21 minutes in length, the first dividing into two smaller sections of 8 and l3 minutes. Bridge uses a microtonal tuning system that approximates a 7-limit just set of 22 pitches per octave, a pitch network or harmonic space that also includes aspects of traditional tonality.

Rune (1988), for percussion ensemble, expresses Tenney's idea of harmonic space using non-pitched instruments. The percussionists are organized in five timbral categories distinguished by instrumental type, arranged from low to high, based on relative pitch. The score is graphically represented, allowing for freedom and interaction between the performers while providing a controlled framework for the two musical streams.

Although Tenney's first period concentrated on electronic music, in later decades he devoted himself to live instrumental works.

Published Works; Recordings

Many of Tenney's works were published by Sonic Arts Editions (Smith Publications) including Stochastic String Quartet (1963, published 1988 and recorded on Voice of the Computer, Decca DL-710180) and 'Hey When I Sing These 4 Songs Hey Look What Happens' (1971, published 1986 and recorded on the cassette Aurora Borealis: The Chorus at Bennington, Bennington SC5-003). Others have been published by Kerby, including Three Rags for Pianoforte (1969, published 1982) and Three Pieces for Drum Quartet (1975, published 1982). Several appeared in Soundings, Musicworks, and in collections edited by Byron, Cage, and Johnson (see Bibliography). Recordings of Tenney's compositions also appeared in Musicworks (no. 27 and 34) and Tellus (no. 14, 1986). His Saxony (1978) for one or more saxophone players and tape delay, written for Don MacMillan, was recorded by David Mott (1984, CRI SD-528). Tenney was the pianist on, and wrote the liner notes for, 31 Songs by Charles Ives (1966, Folk FM-3344-45).

Performances; Commissions; Awards; Teaching

An entire program of his work was performed in New York 4 May 1991, and in 1992 New Music Across America devoted a retrospective concert to his music, in Toronto. Tenney's Transcriptions for Orchestra (Conlon Nancarrow) was premiered by the CBC Vancouver Orchestra in 2000. He received support for his work from various US foundations and organizations, and wrote numerous works on commissions from the Vancouver New Music Society, Nexus Percussion Ensemble, Sound Pressure (with the Canada Council), and the Ontario Arts Council. Other commissions included Three Indigenous Songs for New Music Concerts (1979), Glissade for ARRAYMUSIC (1982), and Voice(s) for the New Music Co-operative (1982-3). Many of his works have been performed in Europe. The composer won an outstanding technical achievement award for Bridge, from the International New Music Composers' Competition 1989-90; and a Jean A. Chalmers Award in 1993, for Critical Band.

Tenney contributed to theory in the areas of musical form, acoustics, and perception, writing articles for Electronic Music Reports, Gravesaner Blätter, Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, Journal of Experimental Aesthetics, and Journal of Music Theory.

He taught at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn (1965-70), California Institute for the Arts (1970-5) and the University of California (1975-6). From 1976 to 2000 Tenney taught composition, theory, and 20th-century music history at York University (where he was named distinguished research professor in 1994); and in 2000 returned to the California Institute of the Arts, where he held the Roy E. Disney Family Chair, and continued to perform on the piano. One of his students was Jon Siddall.

See also Minimalism; Microtonalism.

Selected List of Works

Monody. 1959. Solo clarinet

Ergodos I and II. 1963-4. Computer music

For Ann (Rising). 1969. Electronic tape

Three Rags for Pianoforte. 1969. Piano

Having Never Written a Note for Percussion (from Postal Pieces). 1971. Solo percussionist

Hey When I Sing These 4 Songs, Hey Look What Happens. 1971. SATB chorus

Koan (from Postal Pieces). 1971. Solo violin. Non Sequitur

Quiet Fan for Erik Satie. 1971. 13 players

Quintext: Five Textures for String Quartet and Bass. 1972. String quartet and bass

Clang. 1972. Orchestra

Spectral Canon for Conlon Nancarrow. 1974. Player piano. Cold Blue

Harmonium No. 1. 1976. Large orchestra

Saxony. 1978. Saxophone(s) and tape-delay system

Three Indigenous Songs. 1978. Texts by Walt Whitman, Jaybird Colemen, Iroquois chant. Chamber ensemble

Glissade. 1982. Amplified viola, cello, double bass

Chromatic Canon (for Steve Reich). 1983. 2 pianos (premiered by US pianists Nurit Tilles and Edmund Niemann New York 1991)

Bridge. 1984. 2 pianos, 8 hands

Koan. 1984. String quartet

Changes. 1985. 6 harps

Rune. 1988. Percussion ensemble

Tableaux Vivants. 1990. Instrumental ensemble

Critical Band. 1991. Mode

Pika-Don. 1992. Percussion ensemble

Cognate Canons. 1993. String quartet, percussion

Flocking. 1993. 2 pianos

Forms 1-4. 1993. Instrumental ensemble

Spectrum 4-5. 1995. Instrumental ensemble

Diapason. 1996. Chamber orchestra


Meta + Hodos: A Phenomenology of 20th Century Music and an Approach to the Study of Form (New Orleans 1964; Berkeley 1986; rev edn Hanover, NH 1992)

'Edgard Varèse,' East Side Review, Jan 1966; repr in Ives, Ruggles, Varèse, ed Peter Garland (Santa Fe 1974)

'The chronological development of Carl Ruggles' melodic style,' Perspectives of New Music, vol 16, Fall-Winter 1977

'Conlon Nancarrow's Studies for Player Piano,' Conlon Nancarrow: Selected Studies for Player Piano, ed Peter Garland (Berkeley 1977)

'John Cage and the theory of harmony,' Soundings, 13, 1984 and Musicworks, 27, Spring 1984

'About Changes: Sixty-four Studies for Six Harps,' Perspectives of New Music, 25, Winter and Summer 1987

A History of Consonance and Dissonance (New York 1988)

"John Cage and the Theory of Harmony," Writings about John Cage (Ann Arbor 1993)

Also articles for the Dictionary of Contemporary Music and the McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science and Technology

Further Reading