Wednesday, August 30, 2006


James Tenney was not really one of my composition teachers, but he did help me out a lot with one issue, and that was scale. At some point in my journeyman years, I realized that I was not going to be a composer who made a lot of very big pieces, long in duration or demanding of resources. At the time, I worried that this would be a signal of a lack of ambition or seriousness as a composer. When I told Tenney about my concern, he simply said: "Relax. As long as the scale fits the idea, you're never wrong." He was absolutely right, of course, and his own catalog has been a model for this.


The term "scale", when not refering to a collection of tones ordered by frequency, seems to enter music theory in Ann Arbor, Michican, with the composers of the ONCE group. Gordon Mumma used the term as part of the title of some pieces mentioned previously. But the definitive use of "scale" comes in Robert Ashley's Public Opinion Descends Upon the Demonstrators (1961), a piece realizeable in several scales, from the initimate (a handful of people in a living room) to the mass (from a large concert hall to a filled stadium to the entire population of a large urban area), with the duration and character of the score adjusted appropriately (the imitimate event last a couple of hours and the sounds are quiet and intimate, the large urban even has a short duration and is extremely loud, perhaps thermonuclear).

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