James Tenney Returns January 1, 1979

James Tenney has become more of a legend than a reality around New York, because he has not lived here since 1970, and his works are seldom presented in local concerts. But he is a very vital legend. When a full evening of his works was presented at the Paula Cooper Gallery on December 17, the whole avant-garde music world seemed to turn out, from John Cage on down. Many remembered Tenney and his work from the ’60s, when he appeared at annual Avant-Garde Festivals, helped organize the important Tone Roads series, participated in Fluxus events, and was generally active in experimental music. Some remembered him as the outstanding pianist who, according to the legend, has presented unmatched performances of the ‘Concord Sonata,’ and from memory. Some had known him or studied with him at the California Institute of the Arts, or at York University in Toronto where he currently teaches. Many were familiar with the provocative Tenney scores that have appeared in issues of Soundings. All seemed to have a genuine admiration for the man, his intellect, his adventurousness, his music, or at least his legend, and this program of eight pieces, organized under the aegis of the Reich Music Foundation, justified the expectations.

Tenney’s ‘Three Pieces for Drum Quartet’ (1974-75) are particularly strong works. The ‘Wake for Charles Ives’ is for four tenor drums, the ‘Hocket for Henry Cowell’ is for four bass drums, the ‘Crystal Canon for Edgar Varese’ is for four snare drums, and the basic concern throughout is with the old-fashioned device of canon. Tenney’s approach to counterpoint is very new, however. The rhythmic themes begin sparsely, but as the other parts enter, the activity gradually becomes extremely dense. In the case of the bass drums, the material is sustained rolls, which rumble dramatically around the corners of the room. In all cases, the logical organizing processes are crystal clear, and the music is quite sensual at the same time. The best of both worlds.

The earliest work on the program was the pointillistic ‘Monody’ for solo clarinet (1959). The influence of Schoenberg and Webern is quite clear here, but Tenney’s atonal lines frequently fall into loops that repeat themselves several times before curling off into new regions. Thus the piece has a clarity that is extremely rare in the post-Webern repertoire. Virgil Blackwell deserves special mention for his wonderfully controlled performance of this difficult piece, full of high Cs, although the performance levels throughout the evening were respectable.

‘Blue Suede’ is a tape collage that makes use of Elvis Presley’s voice, along with a vocabulary of electronic sounds that are quite sophisticated for a work composed in 1961. ‘For Ann (rising)’ (1969), composed with the help of a computer, also involves electronics, but here the sole object is to obtain the effect of a tone that slides up and up and up, endlessly. The piece is basically just a feat of technological sleight of hand, but Tenney did the trick better than others who have tried, and the result can generate a variety of sensations and implications.

‘Tangled Rag’ is a Scott Joplin imitation, but it is worth noting that the piece was written in 1969, long before Joplin’s current vogue. In fact, according to some reports it was Tenney who first interested Joshua Rifkin in rags, and who indirectly stimulated the whole rag revival. But that’s just another part of the legend. ‘Tangled Rag,’ performed in Tenney’s string quartet arrangement, has a nice, mellow. laid-back feeling. There are a few odd twists in the harmony, but basically it’s a real rag, and a lovely one.

The most recent works on the program were ‘Harmonium’ No.4, ‘Harmonium’ No.5, and ‘Saxony’ No.2, each composed in 1978. All are strong minimalist statements that hover around one basic sound and follow more or less predictable variations. In ‘Harmonium’ No.4, five strings, four winds, and a vibraphone play sustained tones, with individual musicians gradually swelling and fading in dynamics, while a tape-delay system plays back everything they do some 15 seconds later. The piece progresses through chord changes in hyper-slow motion, again producing a rewarding combination of clarity and sensuality. The same basic procedure is followed in ‘Saxony’ No.2, but this piece is for three saxophones and tape-delay, which means thinner chords and brighter colors.

Nothing on the concert was much like anything I had heard before, except for the Drum Quartet, which I had heard before. But ‘Harmonium’ No.5, for violin, viola, and cello, strikes me as particularly unprecedented. In fact, it seems to point the way to a whole new genre. Like ‘Harmonium’ No.4 and ‘Saxony’ No.2, the piece is basically just a series of chord progressions. But here there is no tape-delay, and instead of simply sustaining tones, the musicians play carefully calculated arpeggio figures. As a result, the tones of the chords constantly pass from one instrument to another, and the harmonies flicker in a most ingenious and beautiful way. It’s the kind of music that will probably never be done completely smoothly unless some group decides to spend six months working on it. But even without an ideal performance, the work is quite effective.

With such a large body of distinctive music to his credit, one might expect Tenney, at age 44, to be better known, and I’m not too sure why he isn’t. Basically, I suspect that he is just not particularly interested in fame. He tends to write concise pieces that take little time, involve few players, and support a minimum of frills, rather than big impressive showpieces. He follows his curiosity into a variety of stylistic areas rather than honing out a consistent and easily recognizable style. And when he finds it necessary to write odd chord changes, use a complex tuning system, or insert a Varese quotation, he doesn’t bother to simplify for the sake of the untrained listener. I suppose he’s essentially a musician’s musician, but his work offers plenty for everyone else too, and it unearths enough fresh ideas to keep dozens of composers busy for years.


His ideas kept me busy, in any case. In fact, looking back, I can see that ‘Harmonium’ No.4, like Charlie Morrow’s ‘The Number Six,’ was to have an important influence on my own composing. Tenney has influenced many composers, and he is clearly a key figure in the evolution of minimal music. Because of his pro-American biases, however, he has never particularly sought European exposure, and Europe has never particularly sought him, and his work remains little known outside the U.S. and Canada.