James Tenney: Postcards from the Edge

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.

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine, NewMusicBox.org, since its founding in 1999.

Perception, Tolerance, Listening

[Ed. Note: John Cage’s detractors have argued that his post 1950 musical output defies analysis and is a theoretical dead-end. But James Tenney’s music and the theory behind his music are proof positive that there is more after Cage. By following Cage’s listener-centric paradigm, Tenney has reconceived musical structure in ways that incorporate elements of serialism, minimalism and indeterminacy, and offers a provocative alternative approach to microtonality. What might seem like a very complex set of theoretical constructs, however, comes across as plain common sense. After talking with him about his various musical theories, I thought it would be revealing to find out about his own listening habits. – FJO]

Frank J. Oteri: Your music is very formal but it’s always something that you want to make sure the listener can hear.

James Tenney: I think that it probably has been a thread going through my music from almost the very beginning. It’s a conception of form as an object of perception, which is actually very different [than] other people’s definitions of form. Most earlier definitions of form have been as a means to some end. Sonata form [is] based on a discipline of rhetoric. That’s a strategy of persuasion. It’s to try to make sure that the listener understands the relationships of themes and modulations and so forth. So it’s a means to an end, another end. Schoenberg defined form as a means to ensure comprehensibility. Again, a means to an end, not a thing in itself. But I like to think of it literally as just something at a large hierarchical level that’s equivalent to things that at a lower level constitute what we think of as content or timbre or just the nature of the sound.

FJO: I hear just two very basic forms, even though you do very complex things within them. One goes somewhere then comes back in the opposite direction, like a palindrome. Everything from Having never written a note for percussion, which is the most basic manifestation of it, to something like the Chromatic Canon, where you introduce more pitches and then take them away. Saxony does that too. But other pieces like For Ann, Rising or Critical Band begin in one place and move up in a line to somewhere else.

JT: I call that a ramp. It’s Bolero.

FJO: It’s also like the alap in North Indian classical music. I was hearing alap structure in Saxony but then you turned it back on itself into a palindrome.

JT: Usually it’s kind of a skewed palindrome. The peak is not necessarily in the middle. In fact, even though the score for Having never written a note for percussion is perfectly symmetrical in time, performances never are. Or almost never are. There’s something in our musical sensibilities that almost invariably leads to the return being shorter than the approach.

FJO: After the concert at the Project Room, even though the performance was really great, it seemed like the percussionist decrescendo-ed too quickly.

JT: Well, I timed it. It was 3:1. It took 75 percent of the time to get up there and the 25 percent to get back down. He asked me how long should this be, and I said 10 to 20 minutes. So he had in mind a maximum 20 minutes. It took him 15 minutes to get up to the peak. So he’s thinking, I’ve got to get down in 5. [laughs] It was not a simple experiment in musical perception; it was complicated.

FJO: There’s no instrumentation specified for that piece, yet it’s invariably almost always done with a tam-tam.

JT: That’s one of the most effective ways of doing it simply because of its tremendous resonance and the richness of the sound. But it’s been done with suspended cymbals, it’s been done on snare drum, and Sonic Youth recorded it on electric guitars, so it can be done other ways. The tam-tam turned out to be the most effective.

FJO: That piece is probably my favorite of your so-called Postal Pieces, but the entire collection has a fascinating compositional conceit which I guess is somewhat lost on most people from my generation or younger; thanks to email, we don’t send that much mail to each other.

JT: I was never very good at writing letters, and it did occur to me at some point that this might be a way to solve that social problem for myself. But, it also coincided with a period in which I was thinking of pieces that could be described in very compact terms. As it turned out, all of these will fit on a postcard-sized piece of paper. But the character of the music that leads to that is some kind of singular focus. It turned out that it was possible to do ten or twelve of these. Once I was over, I’ve never done any more postcard pieces.

FJO: How were the Forms put together?

JT: There are four pieces involving the same sort of performance process [and] notation. Each is in memoriam to some composer who was important to me. The first is in memory of Varèse, the second Cage, the third Stefan Wolpe, and the fourth Morton Feldman. They don’t in any deep way allude to the styles of those composers or anything like that. The one dedicated to Varèse is loud and dissonant; the one for Feldman is very soft. But that’s a very superficial kind of connection. They all involve a process that I call an available pitch process where the players are all reading from score, or transposed versions of the score, and they’re looking at what look like bars, measures, but they’re really time segments of twenty to thirty seconds within which there are a set of pitches that I call available pitches that they may choose to play. And they can play one after the other, creating a continuous texture of sound, but one that’s changing internally.

FJO: You’ve composed a lot of microtonal music, but you’ve written about microtonality in a way that struck me as unusual coming from a microtonalist. Microtonalists are usually so busy thinking about what happens when you divide an octave into 31 parts, or what prime number will be the cut off point for just intonation ratios: 11-limit, 13-limit, etc. Most of this can be very abstract and often has little to do with how most listeners perceive intervals. But you discuss equivalencies of intervals based on listener tolerance. The listener seems to be so rarely part of the equation with most theoretical systems.

JT: I think this has to do with the Cage influence. It seems to me that ultimately the most important meaning of the Cage revolution is contained in a wonderful answer that he gave once to someone who asked him what his definition of music was. He said, “Sounds heard.” The really interesting thing about that is there’s no composer involved. So, if we stopped and listened to the sounds here in this park, we could be making music out of that. It depends on what we’re doing in our minds and our way of approaching it. So what that means is that the focus of the musical enterprise is shifted from where it was before, which was on the composer, to the listener. What it’s all about is the listening experience.

When it comes to microtonality, well, any kind of music, I don’t see how we can avoid considering how people hear. With respect to tuning, I think one of my contributions to the field is the concept of tolerance. I call it tolerance, just like an industrial laboratory would talk about tolerances in the diameters of bolts or something. It’s unrealistic to think that we do not have to take that into account. It’s unrealistic to believe that we can be absolutely in tune. You can be more and more in tune but it’s an asymptote. You’re never there; you’re just getting closer and closer to it. But it’s more than just a recognition of human frailty; it’s a recognition that within a certain tolerance range, we are going to interpret an interval. My hypothesis is that our auditory systems (and this is not a conscious thing) interpret an interval as meaning harmonically the simplest ratio interval within the tolerance range of what’s actually being sounded. So if you’re within 5 cents of a 5:4, you’re going to hear 5:4. That’s what the meaning is going to be.

FJO: But, for better or worse, to the general public, an equal tempered major third, which is the third root of two, sounds indistinguishable from 5:4, no matter what we say. Only when you call people’s attention to their difference by playing the two intervals back to back against each other will most people notice a difference. It’s a challenge because we’ve been trained to hear that awfully out of tune equal-tempered major third as being in tune and consonant.

JT: The tolerance range implied is very large. It’s a quarter of a semi-tone. Think dominant seventh chords; imagine that the tempered minor seventh is being understood as a 7:4 in relation to the root. Our tolerance range is a third of a semitone.

FJO: I’m not sure we hear them as equivalent. Functional tonality trains us to hear a dominant seventh wanting to resolve down a fifth to a tonic, whereas a 7:4 is a consonance that just sits there and doesn’t want to go anywhere.

JT: Well, I know. There’s disagreement about that. Rameau said it’s a dissonance. I disagree. If you listen to a barbershop quartet, they’re not singing a dissonance there. They’re singing a nice consonance followed by another nice consonance, and the reason one follows the other so easily is because of the voice leading. It’s not because one is dissonant and it’s followed by a consonance. I don’t believe that.

FJO: This gets into causality. One of the things that is absent from your music and in your theoretical thinking is the old Western notion of development: something happens and then there’s a dramatic tension and the something else happens and then there’s a release. Instead, you continue the arc.

JT: I’ve never been very much interested in thematic work. The idea of a theme, which maintains itself right through today in serial music, has never interested me at all because what it seems to introduce is rhetoric, as though this is the meaningful statement and now I’m going to show you how I can play with that and do other things with it. That’s the drama of the music. It just doesn’t interest me. [laughs] I’m interested in sound and textures and forms. I’ve got this thing to explain to you, this thing I’m going to tell you, and then I’m going to tell you in a dozen different ways something related to it. I do that in speech, of course, we all do, but I don’t want to do that in music.

FJO: You mentioned Schoenberg’s conception of serial music being about comprehensibility. But it isn’t when you take most listeners into account. So many people hear twelve-tone music and can’t perceive it as such. They can’t hear the permutations of the order.

JT: I think it is extremely difficult to hear what serial composers assume we’re going to hear. That’s not easy to do. To train yourself to hear a retrograde of a series, you’ve got to study it and listen to it and write it out and get used to it.

FJO: To learn something usually requires repeating it, yet many twelve-tone theorists decry repetition. But you tinkered with serialism in the Chromatic Canon by using repetition to introduce a twelve-tone row.

JT: It was just fun. You know the structure of that row is the same as the Webern row for the Concerto for Nine Instruments, except his four tri-chords are very chromatic. Mine are all triads, but the internal relationships within the row are all the same. It was a comment not only on minimal music but on serial music. It was meant to be saying something about both of those things.

FJO: Well, what’s interesting is that because it’s repeated again and again you can actually hear the introduction of each pitch and clearly hear that it’s a twelve tone row. But in most twelve-tone music, it’s very difficult for most listeners to hear it that way.

JT: That’s true. But maybe that doesn’t matter that much. With a technique like that, you’re going to get a certain result. From other points of view you will have a different result or different texture, a different kind of harmonic character. It could be that that’s the most important point of even serial music. Most of those serial composers would probably disagree with me. I still maintain that in the music of Schoenberg and Webern and Berg that I love, the serial relationships are not the most important thing. It’s all those things that the system didn’t determine, that their musicality ended up determining.

FJO: That comment makes me want to know more about your own experiences of listening to music.

JT: I often feel kind of claustrophobic in a concert hall. I’ll deliberately sit on the aisle, way back, so I can flee the concert hall if I feel the necessity. And I have a chronic cough, which is very useful. I can haul that out when I need it. I listen to music mostly at home [and] often with a specific teaching task in mind, [so] this might kind of skew the picture. I have to listen to the music that I’m going to present to a class. This ends up causing me to listen to a lot of music that I might not otherwise just for my listening pleasure, as they say. It’s like other professions where they do what they do because that’s their work.

FJO: So, do you listen to old music, new music, pop music?

JT: I don’t go turn on pop music. It’s constantly on. My kids are having it going on all the time, so I figure I get enough of that that way. I listen to classical music sometimes. I listen to the car radio. I think there’s a particular state of mind that we’re in when we’re driving a car that is very conducive to having an unusually intense musical experience. You have to be focused in a certain sense, but it’s a different part of the brain and it releases this other part of the brain to really hear that music in some unusual way. So I think I should write more music that’s meant to be played on car radios.

FJO: But I know hearing a piece like Having never written a note for percussion live is such a different experience from hearing it on a recording.

JT: It can’t be recorded. Recording media just can’t get it all. You’d need to have maybe six microphones in front of the tam-tam and then play it on six loudspeakers. That might begin to approach the effect of it. The live performance of that has never been reproduced on recording.

FJO: But you mostly listen to recordings…

JT: Yeah, well I go to concerts, too. I go to a lot of concerts at CalArts. By the middle of the year there’s a concert every night, and it’s a lot of new music, a lot of music that the students or faculty have actually been stimulated to program because of my courses. A lot of the American mavericks are being performed there this semester. So I do hear a lot of live music and I know it’s much better.

FJO: Do you spend time listening to your own music? How do you feel about the performances? How does it feel to be detached from your music as a listener?

JT: It varies from one situation to another. Sometimes it’s nerve wracking. Sometimes it’s a very tense situation because I may be afraid that something is going to go wrong and I’m in that kind of state of mind. Yesterday in the rehearsal though, I sat there and I thought, I’m really enjoying these pieces of mine [laughs] because they were going beautifully. I don’t very often get a chance to hear my own music. I’ve got it on recording at home, but I don’t make a point of listening unless I have some reason to be listening to it.