Wednesday, September 6

James Tenney, 1934–2006

Last week the Los Angeles Times published an obituary for the experimental composer James Tenney, who died August 24 in Valencia, California. The author writes:
Tenney was as close to experimental music royalty as a modern composer could get, having studied or worked with a host of famed American mavericks, including Harry Partch, Edgard Varese, Carl Ruggles and John Cage. He was in on the seminal musical developments of the 1960s: the founding of computer music and Minimalism, the revivals of Charles Ives’ music and of ragtime. He participated in the Cage-inspired art movement Fluxus.
Here’s some interesting points that I think resonate with much mid-twentieth-century art, both expressionist and minimal:
As a composer, Tenney rejected the rhetorical quality of 19th century music, finding no point in musics attempting to convey meaning. “I don’t have something to say unless I’m working with text, where I do have something to say, but that’s in words,” he once explained in an interview. Instead, his concern was exclusively with the quality of sound and how it is perceived. Even after making extensive studies of the perception of music, he never claimed to understand exactly why music fascinates us. But he felt that if he got rid of everything emotionally extraneous in a composition’s musical content, emotion would inevitably be supplied by the attentive listener.
Admittedly, I only heard Tenney’s music once, when a WPRK DJ played for me (and anyone else listening) a single extended piece of a electronically produced medium-high tone oscillating between the left and right speakers repeatedly, not unlike Steve Reich’s tape piece “It’s Gonna Rain.” Perhaps now, after his passing, Tenney’s work will be rediscovered, his importance more clearly considered. I will have to give it a listen. The entire obituary is worth a read.

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