Saturday, August 26, 2006


Never to be forgotten: staying up, too late, in a snooker club in Scheveningen, in Den Haag, trying to play that (to us) mysterious game on those immense tables with the composers James Tenney, Clarence Barlow, and Tom Johnson. We never really figured out how the game was supposed to have been played, but the beer flowed and play we did, and Tenney in particular was game for the adventure, so long as one principle prevailed: once we had decided upon a rule, it had to be carried out no matter what the consequences.

Sad news has come that James Tenney has died. A composer for whom the concept and sound of a musical work were uniquely inseperable, he was devoted to and became himself a main branch in the American experimental tradition. His experimental approach was a model for me, and our shared interest in intonation was a point of connection. Though I knew of his work and had corresponded with him from the 1970's, I didn't really get to spend any time with him until the 1990's, and, ironically, in Europe: in Darmstadt, in Krems, in Frankfurt, and in Den Haag.

I was twice asked to write about Tenney's music, both times asked explicitly to explain his music and ideas to a non-American audience. Both times I failed. I think that many Americans, and Tenney and Tom Johnson in particular, posed a unique challenge to the European new music establishment, in that they made intellectually rigorous musics, but neither necessarily produced musical endproducts with surfaces that adhered to the cliches of modernism. Moreover, the total identification of the musical idea with the musical content, meant that these composers were willing to jetison any extraeneous traditional musical elements. In a sense, then, this was music that was "more modern" than their own "modern music".

I constantly come back to Tenney's music: the early tape pieces, the postcard pieces, Harmonium 2 for string trio, Bridge for two retuned pianos, four hands, Change for six retuned harps, Critical Band for ensemble, and ever ofter, the Spectral Canon for Conlon Nancarrow. That piece executes one simple process -- 24 tones in a harmonic series, entering initially with the second partial playing once for every two beats of the fundamental, then the third every three beats, and so on, but shifting gradually so that the relationship is inverted by the end of the piece. Couldn't be more strict in construction, but the sounding result, when played from the piano roll Nancarrow punched himself, is an experience akin to hearing thunder for the first time. His mastery was one that found monuments in smaller forms, but always the right forms.

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