James Tenney: Postcards from the Edge
Whether combining serialism and minimalism, reconceptualizing microtonality or ragtime, or re-assembling an Elvis recording, James Tenney’s music continues to push limits while bridging opposition.
For about a week last month, it suddenly seemed like New York City was the host of a major James Tenney retrospective even though his music was only featured in two events at venues that are somewhat off the beaten concert track: Sunday, May 8th at the Issue Project Room, in what was to be one of their final events in their original Alphabet City digs prior to moving to Brooklyn, and Wednesday, May 11th at the Whitney Altria across the street from Grand Central Station. Hardly Carnegie’s Zankel Hall or even the Miller Theatre, but not for lack of trying on the part of intrepid pianist Jenny Lin who organized all of the festivities. Seems none of the regular new music gatekeepers in town knew enough about the man who has been described as the missing link between the original American mavericks and today’s downtown experimentalists to consider a concert of his music worthwhile. But their lack of interest was hardly a problem. The Project Room was standing room only and there was a line around the block at the Altria. Even The New York Times decided that Tenney’s story was news that was fit to print.
The first piece of music by James Tenney I ever heard was the Chromatic Canon for two pianos, a work that manages to fuse minimalism and serialism. It blew my mind and became something of an aesthetic blueprint for me both creatively and as a listener. As I sought out more of his music, hoping for more of the same, I was surprised to find that no two pieces of Tenney’s are ever the same. The concerts in New York were only able to present a small portion of his work—his musique concrète classic Blue Suede (based on snippets of an Elvis Presley recording), a few of the Postal Pieces, the four Forms, the three piano rags, the first public performance of his early Piano Inventions, and the world premiere of his brand new For piano and…, which if there was any justice in the world would be shortlisted for next year’s Pulitzer—but there wasn’t a single moment of filler.
I had the honor of talking with Tenney in a pre-concert talk at the Project Room as well as a mid-concert talk at the Altria. In addition, we spoke at greater length in Bryant Park before being chased away by the police for videotaping without a permit in what we all assumed was a public space. Luckily it took a while before the authorities figured out we were there. Tenney’s liberating music and musical philosophy, after all, are extremely dangerous!