James Tenney (1934-2006)



  1. Collage #1 (Blue Suede) (April 1961)

    As suggested by the title, Collage #1 ("Blue Suede") is assembled largely from preexisting sounds that are subjected to various transformations and alterations. The piece takes as its "source material" Elvis Presley's recording of "Blue Suede Shoes." Initially, however, Presley's crooning is hardly recognizable. Tiny snippets of the tune are rearranged, stretched, and modulated, creating busy sonic juxtapositions of indecipherably slowed vocal samples, blasts of broadband whistles, and high-speed squeaks and chatters. As the piece progresses, the spliced pieces gradually become more coherent. Key phrases from the song briefly come into focus before being obscured and submerged by heavy reverberation and subsequent splices; in a manner somewhat foreshadowing the later work of Paul Lansky (in, for example, the Idle Chatter series), the voice samples avoid manifesting themselves clearly enough to reveal syntax, drawing attention instead to their sheer sonic contours.
    - "Blue" Gene Tyranny


  2. Analog #1: Noise Study (December 1961)

    Noise Study, Tenney's first piece at Bell Labs, was inspired by the daily journey between New Jersey and Manhattan, through the Holland Tunnel and heavy New York traffic. Technical note: Noise Study was originally released on Decca DL9103, Music from Mathematics. This version is digitally reconstructed and remastered from the original analog tapes.


  3. Dialogue (April 1963)

    Dialogue grew out of programs Tenney wrote for a set of pieces called Five Stochastic Studies, which, along with some studies in timbre, occupied his time at Bell Labs from 1961-1963. Dialogue uses stochastic control over timbral, durational and pitch parameters. It was the first piece by Tenney which made use of the computer in determining hierarchical features, and in making stochastic decisions regarding the given statistics of musical parameters for various sections. In other words, the software is responsible for larger-level formal decisions as well as small-level event values, specifying the mean and range of musical parameters over long sections. The piece is a dialogue between noise and tones. By stochastically specifying the statistical trajectories of these two types of sounds, Tenney creates a constant shifting of emphasis between them. Technical note: The version on this CD was digitally remixed and remastered from the original analog tapes.


  4. Phases (for Edgard Varèse) (December 1963)

    Between the completion of Dialogue and Phases, Tenney realized another piece, Ergodos I (1963; the later Ergodos II is included on this CD), in which he experimented with the use of statistical formal processes to create an ergodic, or static musical form, one in which the statistics and probabilities of given parameters were fixed for long periods of time. With Phases, Tenney returned to the use of trajectories for means and ranges of parametric values, including note duration, amplitude, amplitude modulation rate and filter bandwidth, and the upper limit of frequency spectra. The shape of change for each parameter is sinusoidal, but the sinusoids are of different frequencies and phases, so that a kind of formal counterpoint is heard between the salient musical parameters of the work. Phases also incorporates some significant timbral and formal extensions to Tenney's own compositional software. By using a more continuous range of modulation values, the distinction between noise and pitch (used so effectively in Dialogue) is blurred. In Phases, the computer makes statistical decisions at three levels: the clang level (groups of lowest level events), the sequence level (groups of clangs), and the segment level (groups of sequences). In this work, Tenney is using the computer to help create a highly complex structure. In The Early Works of James Tenney, I said that Phases is the most beautiful and interesting of the works of this period. It is impossible to describe the ungainly, almost other-worldly effect that it has, but it often seems as if it were not composed by either man or machine, but by some goblin-hybrid of the two. It remains, as well, one of the strangest and least accessible of Tenney's compositions, as it seems to exist for its own purposes entirely. It now seems to me that much of Tenney's extraordinary recent instrumental music (Bridge, Changes, Rune, and other works) has a great deal in common, aesthetically and formally, with this important early work, especially in the uncompromising sonorities and almost mystical adherence to simple formal principles that generate complex and surprising musics. Technical note: Phases was first released on Musicworks cassette #27. This version was digitally remastered from the original analog tapes.


  5. Music for Player Piano (1963-1964)

    Tenney was one of the first composers to actively champion the player-piano music of Conlon Nancarrow, and indeed, wrote the first extended critical study of Nancarrow s work. However, Music for Player Piano preceded any real knowledge of Nancarrow's music. In this piece, which is actually one short piece realized in four orientations, Tenney made use of the same types of computer-generated stochastic decision-making processes that were used in pieces like Dialogue, Phases, and so on. In the Music for Player Piano, the computer only specifies values for pitch, duration, and event density. The result of the computer's compositional process was then punched onto a piano roll, to be played in four orientations: forward, backward (retrograde), upside-down (inversion), and upside-down and backward (retrograde inversion). The order on this recording is: original, retrograde inversion, inversion, retrograde, so that the piece is a palindrome, or mirror image of itself. Technical note: This recording was made by John Oswald and Marvin Green in the early 1980s, in Toronto, using PCM digital recording technology.

  6. Ergodos II (for John Cage) (March 1964)

    Ergodos II was Tenney's last work at Bell Labs, and it is a fitting, zen-like conclusion to the nature of his formal and aesthetic investigations (from Polansky, The Early Works ...). The piece is indeterminate in form. It consists of one tape, 18 minutes long, that may be played in either direction (that is, all the sounds could be heard in their reverse directions). Or, the tape might be subdivided into two or more segments of approximately equal length, and these segments played simultaneously (over one to N pair of loudspeakers, for the N segments) (from Tenney, Computer Music Experiences...). This was the first piece Tenney did at Bell Labs that employed the stereo capability Mathews had just added to Music IV. The instruments [that is, the computer-designed software instruments] and algorithms are almost identical to Phases, and Ergodos II has the same rich and beautiful quality, but there is finally complete ergodicity. There is, in any way that we might reasonably define it, no form. (from Polansky, The Early Works...) The arrangement on this recording is the 18 minute form. Listeners are encouraged to make their own performance versions. Technical note: The version on this CD was digitally remastered from the original analog master.


  7. Fabric for Ché (1967)

    Fabric for Ch was realized at the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, using taped sequences originally generated at Bell Labs. It was, to a great extent, influenced by the political and social upheaval of the time, and I have often heard the piece as an angry, beautiful shout. Tenney has said it was an attempt to create a continuous sonic event with no beginning and no end. Like much of his other music, he describes the whole piece conceived as consisting of but a single sound, more or less complexly modulated (from The Early Works...). It is surprising to hear it today, with its many-faceted sonic relationships: to the music of Xenakis, to works of composers using techniques like granular synthesis, and even more appropriate perhaps, to industrial noise music of the 1970s and 1980s. The piece is, like Music for Player Piano, a palindrome (like some of the music of Carl Ruggles, which has been so influential for Tenney): the second half is simply the reverse of the first. Technical note: This recording was digitally remastered and reconstructed from the original analog master.


  8. For Ann (Rising) (December 1969)

    For Ann (rising) was the last electronic work Tenney wrote before leaving New York City for California, and subsequently Toronto (where he now lives). In fact, to this date, it is his last electronic piece (with the exception of some works involving live performers and delay system, and a very recent text piece, edited and created with the help of a computer music-editing workstation). Many people associate Tenney most closely with this work, for it seems to embody the most essential aspects of his aesthetic: clear, predictable formal procedures; a lack of any kind of narrative structure; a deep interest in acoustical phenomena and their musical and formal manifestations; a sense of humor. For Ann (rising) is based on a set of continuously rising tones, similar to the acoustic illusion sometimes called a Shepard-tone (named after the pioneering experimental psychologist Roger Shepard, a colleague of Tenney's at Bell Labs). The process is simple: each glissando, separated by some fixed time interval, fades in from it's lowest note, and fades out as it nears the top of it's audible range. It is nearly impossible to follow, aurally, the path of any given glissando, so the effect is that the individual tones never reach their highest pitch. For Ann (rising) has at various times been called a classic of American minimalism, process music, or conceptual music. Whatever it is, it clearly represents a landmark in Tenney's own compositional output, which like the piece, has continued to develop (rise), seemingly without any conceptual end in sight. Technical note: The original analog recording of For Ann (rising) was first released on Musicworks cassette #27. It was later remastered by Tom Erbe, and appeared on Ear Magazine's Absolut Music CD #3. The version on this recording was regenerated by Tom Erbe using Barry Vercoe's CSound composition and synthesis language, according to Tenney's specifications.


  9. Spectral Canon for Conlon Nancarrow (1974)

    James Tenney was among the first, and arguably the most authoritative, champions of the player piano studies composed by Conlon Nancarrow, and Tenney's own Spectral Canon for Conlon Nancarrow, composed in 1974, reflects both his admiration for Nancarrow's work as well as the fascination with audible numeric processes that both composers share. Having more or less abandoned electronically produced sounds a few years before (the last electronic work being For Ann, Rising, in 1969), Tenney continued to utilize computer algorithms as compositional devices for creating works for acoustical instruments. The Spectral Canon seems to navigate the space between these two realms, drawing on computer-based methods for its compositional materials but being realized through a unique amalgam of human and mechanical forces: meant for "performance" by a mechanical instrument, the piece was punched painstakingly onto the roll (by Nancarrow, in fact, as a favor to Tenney) according to a pattern that Tenney developed with the aid of a computer.

    Spectral Canon counts among a number of Tenney's works that are based on the harmonic series (others include Saxony from 1978 and Voices from 1984). These works stray from standard tuning practices (namely, the 12-note equal-tempered system) and utilize instead tunings that mimic the way sounds occur in nature. All the pitches involved in these pieces have special harmonic and numeric relationships with each other, reflecting the mathematical relationships of pitches in the naturally occurring overtone series. In practice, these relationships create acoustical effects that the equal-tempered system suppresses; in concept, such methods hold a special kind of scientific intrigue. Indeed, James Pritchett notes that many of Tenney's pieces have a sense of "fact" about them, while Larry Polansky hears the Spectral Canon in particular "more as a fact of nature than as a composed piece." In the Canon, Tenney realizes the harmonic series by treating the low A on the piano as a fundamental pitch and tuning other keys on the piano to the first 24 overtones of that fundamental. He then maps the frequency relationships between the pitches onto a durational system in such a way that the rate of repetition of each note relates to its placement in the harmonic series; in general, then, the lower notes are repeated more slowly, while the upper pitches are reiterated very quickly. This hierarchy is not given all at once, however. Instead, as indicated by the term "canon" in the title, the pitches enter one at a time, and each one executes a careful contour of acceleration and deceleration. The entrances and rates of acceleration are calculated (with the help of computer algorithms) in such a way that at the climax of the piece, just as the fundamental pitch reaches its peak speed, the 24th pitch enters and completes the rich polyrhythmic web of natural harmony. This startling sonic effect is equally stunning in its visual realization: as an elegant and intricate pattern of holes on the piano roll.
    - "Blue" Gene Tyranny


  10. Septet for Electric Guitars (5:25)
    from Tellus #14 'Just Intonation' (1986)


  11. Composer Jim Tenney (January 12, 1976), Part 1
  12. Composer Jim Tenney (January 12, 1976), Part 2

    Composer James Tenney visits Charles Amirkhanian in the KPFA studio and introduces recorded performances of his unusual and very beautiful compositions. These include pieces of traditional chamber music as well as several electronic and tape works. In addition to his work as a composer, Tenney is also an academic, and was at the time of this recording on the faculty of UC at Santa Cruz. His students include Peter Garland, the composer and editor of Soundings magazine. Tenney was also a good friend of Edgard Varse, to which he has dedicated a number of his compositions, and he describes his informal studies with the French composer in this program.


Much of this work was realized at Bell Telephone Laboratories from 1961 to 1969, where Tenney used Max Mathews groundbreaking digital synthesis program, which eventually became Music IV. This program was the model for many of the common computer music environments of the last thirty years, and the first system of its kind available to composers.

Tenney's pieces from 1961 - 64 probably represent the first significant and developed body of work making use of digital synthesis by an American composer. Prior to Tenney's arrival at Bell Labs, Mathews and John Pierce had each made a few musical studies with the program, and the composer David Lewin had realized some short pieces by sending scores to Mathews to enter into the computer. However, according to Mathews, Tenney was the first composer to come to Bell Labs and work directly with the program on an extended basis.

Tenney was a young composer when he wrote these pieces. He was working with a new medium, a technology which was still being developed, and a new aesthetic as well. It is perhaps easy to overlook the importance of the latter in the light of the tremendous technical and historical importance of these pieces -- but it is characteristic of Tenney that he would not be content to explore simply the sonic and technical capabilities of a new technology. His work from this period remains to this day an important example for composers who work with new technologies: the new world of computer music needed a radically new definition of music itself.

Half of the pieces on this CD were not only synthesized, but composed with the aid of the computer. Tenney was not the first composer to work with computer-assisted composition, although is certainly one of the earliest and most important figures in this area. He pioneered the concepts of hierarchical organization and stochastic generation of various musical parameters in composition, and developed techniques to realize them. Many of his most important musical and theoretical ideas are just now beginning to be understood. His landmark theoretical work, Meta --/ Hodos (Frog Peak Music), was written in 1961 while he was still a graduate student, just prior to his working at Bell Labs. It establishes many of the principles of temporal and hierarchical gestalt formation that Tenney later used so effectively in pieces like Dialogue, Phases, and Ergodos I and II.

Tenney has said that he brought with him to Bell Labs a certain amount of musical and intellectual baggage, including: "numerous instrumental compositions reflecting the influence of Webern and Varese; two tape-pieces employing familiar,concrete sounds [one of those is Blue Suede]; a long paper (Meta --/ Hodos) in which a descriptive terminology and certain structural principles were developed borrowing heavily from gestalt psychology; a dissatisfaction with all the purely synthetic electronic music that I had heard up to that time, particularly with respect to timbre; ideas stemming from my studies in acoustics, electronics, and -- especially -- information theory begun in [Lejaren] Hiller's class at the University of Illinois; and finally, a growing interest in the work and ideas of John Cage." -(from Tenney s 1969 article Computer Music Experiences)

Tenney says he left Bell Labs in 1964 with two important things: "... six tape-compositions of computer-generated sounds, of which all but the first [Noise Study] were also composed by means of the computer ... [and] a curious history of renunciations of one after another of the traditional attitudes about music, due primarily to a gradually more thorough assimilation of the insights of John Cage." (from Computer Music Experiences)

The pieces on this recording have been written about in great detail elsewhere, and the curious listener is encouraged to seek out these publications for a deeper understanding of the pieces. Tenney's own early writings on his computer music include the articles:

Sound generation by means of a digital computer. Journal of Music Theory. 7/1. 1963. Computer Music Experiences: 1961-64. Electronic Music Reports #1. Institute of Sonology, Utrecht. 1969.


RELATED RESOURCES:
James Tenney in UbuWeb Historical



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