Modern music: Tenney

Unlike Feldman or especially Cage, whose music I knew to a degree — largely identical to the degree to which it'd made it to recording at that time — I was basically unfamiliar with Tenney circa 1990. It's very possible that I'd heard a piece in an anthology, but if so, it didn't make an impression. And it's actually likely that I heard about some of Tenney's work at a distance, but an actual musical acquaintance would end up waiting until very recently. In part, that's because Tenney was less recorded at the time (as e.g. none of the recordings I'll specifically note below had been made yet), but also probably because I got some sort of "engineering" vibe from a distance: That could be somewhat triggering for me at the time, given my career arc from a youth in manual labor, such that I had a tendency to want to distance myself from a more overtly practical mindset. However, another factor that kept me from diving into computer music is exactly the situation that faced Tenney et al., namely that prior constraints on musical composition were largely removed — in that one could program any combination of pitches at any moment — albeit replaced with other difficulties. For one thing, creating music without systems in place (& in this sense, a physical instrument presents a "system") can be incredibly cumbersome, i.e. building sounds point by point (so to speak & with whatever underlying segmentation such a notion implies), but also calls out for other imposed constraints or concepts (something!) in order to limit the sonic or musical horizons of any particular piece. In that sense, Tenney had to become a classicist (or perhaps even a minimalist, a concept still under evolution at the time), i.e. in order to balance complexity with constraint. In his case though, such classicism also involved abandoning the equal tempered chromatic scale for an emphasis on pure overtone relationships, and for Tenney, that came to involve a very practical orientation: Much of his string music (especially) is not written in the abstract hope that someone can perform it, but with specific (& clever) tuning instructions to use in order to render the acoustic effects involved audible for all. And just as such issues of tuning, i.e. of pure intervals in relation to previous pure intervals etc., suggest a broad "infrachromaticism" (actually high partials of often inaudible fundamentals), they also suggest a correspondingly rich set of pitch choices for horizontal-melodic motion. Tenney then brought extensive psychoacoustic research experience to questions of melody & gestalt (i.e. of how sounds group perceptually into entities) articulation & perception.

So Tenney is often concerned with notions such as "consonance," & despite what "extra notes" might imply for some, his music can be (or seem) quite straightforward to hear. Some, especially earlier, music can also be very direct & gestural: Tenney wanted to bring various acoustic (perceptual) concepts clearly to presence, i.e. to demonstrate them as practical musical material for the audience, and some of his e.g. short Postal Pieces (1965-71) can make a powerful impression. As practical discussions of tuning also suggest, after some early computer music, Tenney also turned almost exclusively to using human performers, while often requiring high degrees of synchronization between them, making his very much human-social or collective music. (Per the Feldman discussion, I've also not heard Tenney's music live, at least not that I remember. I've attended Cage concerts though....) His ideas on bringing features of sound to presence, moreover, differed markedly from earlier notions of music as extension of poetry or dance, and soon came also to reflect Cage's concerns with chance operations — particularly as regards the specific sequence of material. (Tenney's later music thus comes to deal with sets of similar sounds or elements that are to be articulated stochastically at the level of details, even as broad dynamic arcs are imposed.) Tenney's use of upper partials from particular harmonic series also marks him as one of the early developers of spectral music: In Tenney's case, though, not only are harmonics not approximated (e.g. by quarter tones, as for most European spectralists), but there's little sense of natural impressionism. (One might say that Tenney's material is often quite blunt, rather than prettified via plays of light....) In this, Tenney might also be compared to Scelsi, especially in that the latter's major works predated both, i.e. anticipated actual formalization as spectral music, but remained relatively unknown until Tenney had begun interrogating some similar concerns (i.e. using only the overtones of a single note). Their music yields a similar affective response at times too, as will be noted again below. Moving back to North American examples, then, the sophistication of Tenney's tuning investigations in the 1980s also parallels e.g. Ben Johnston (1926-2019), with the latter extending a specifically Western (traditional, rhetorical) idiom & both drawing upon e.g. the undertone work of Harry Partch (1901-1974)....

So as usual for me in this space, this discussion does come to include recording suggestions. As noted above, these are all recent choices, although I'll need to cite anthologies for some specific pieces: And as will soon become clear, while some of Tenney's music is packaged in big sets that suggest release by itself, some of his most impressive later works are basically one-off pieces. So they don't tend to fill albums or go along with each other in terms of musical forces. (I'll also note some additional discographic material in some of the individual recording files.) Of course, as I've started asking myself more often, why stick with this orientation on recommended recordings? In Tenney's case, as noted above, the practical aspects are significant.... In fact, though, for most of the works below, there's only a single recording anyway (most having been made since the composer's death in 2006), so perhaps the relevance of listing specific CDs has truly passed.... Another factor is that it gets to be a lot easier to hear a digital copy, and so I'm not always able to read liner notes anymore. (Sometimes they say something very worth noting, but more often not. I did end up reading all material accompanying the specific items cited below, though....) So perhaps there are already other discussions out there of some of the issues I'll raise? I didn't read much of Tenney's own theoretical writing either, I must admit, as I quickly decided that I'd prefer to listen to his ideas being articulated in music, rather than reading them in numbers & charts. His procedures do often stand out rather clearly in sound, though. In any case, providing a list of CD albums ended up seeming very feasible, so that's (still) what I did....

As it happens, then, my specific interest in Tenney actually started in 2018 with the heralded release of the double album Changes (1985), rendering Tenney's most massive (& until more recently, not fully notated) score into sound. Changes is scored for six harps, tuned 1/6 of a semitone apart, i.e. yielding 72 notes per octave. (Note that Cage's microtonal material is also generally articulated by 1/6 semitones. That particular tuning idea was in the air at the time....) The title Changes also refers to Cage's use of I Ching diagrams, and so as noted above, various chance operations are used in order to "fill in" the details of the various sound units on Changes, itself divided into 64 studies that invoke different (stochastic) parameter combinations & directions. In this, also as noted above, Tenney projects a real melodic sense, albeit via perceptual constraints programmed into the stochastic operations — within what is ultimately a top down method of composing. The resulting production is not only a technical tour-de-force, then, but makes for surprisingly affective mood music, all within the horizon of its own unfamiliar (yet basically diatonic) scales:

Tenney: Changes
64 Studies for 6 Harps
Bjorkedal, Choate, Huston, Litaker, Shulman, Terada - Nicholas Deyoe
New World Records 80810 [CDx2]

Particularly with the coordination between players, Changes can sound almost like a piano, albeit with extra tones/keys. So perhaps the clearest precedent in Tenney's oeuvre is actually Bridge (1982-84) for four pianists on two pianos in different tunings, with Flocking (1993, for "only" two pianos/pianists) suggesting something of a followup. In practice, though, neither has quite the same impact. Changes was also Tenney's first piece using computer software since the 1960s, and so marked something of a return, especially as more of his major works would continue using computer generated stochastic processes to generate musical details, often similarly engaging "all combinations of parametric states," albeit at smaller scales or within smaller domains. (This notion of top-down division does continue to trouble me as far as a perspective on organic life, though....)

And if there's a piece in Tenney's output that might have a reputation close to that of Changes, it's probably Critical Band (1988) for an unspecified set of "sustaining instruments." The title concept emerges from psychoacoustics, and basically addresses how sounds come to be perceived together or separately, but the piece also orients on a portion of the overtone series that appears quite ambiguous to the listener, such that a concept of tonal center is both ubiquitous & seemingly unstable. Indeed, such an interrogation of "musical emergence" in the Scelsian sense is one of the most striking aspects of Tenney's work for me, i.e. demystifying the dramatic Scelsian narrative of mythic activity — rendering it a dispassionate sound engineering presentation with no particular direction.... In Tenney's case, the result tends to come & go in waves, becoming almost monolithic (into a late sunrise). I particularly enjoy the colors & power of this rendition (released along with other works by Tenney), although it's still relatively less intricate music:

Tenney: Old School
Zeitkratzer - Reinhold Friedl
Zeitkratzer Productions 0010

The "sustain" concept is something of a standard for Tenney, although not one that I'll continue to feature much in this space. (Wobbling held tones, often projecting a sense of dissonance or infrachromaticism, became a standard sound for Cage in this period as well....) Still, this notion of a "critical band" (in both senses noted above) will often reappear to interrogate notions of stasis or emergence in Tenney's later music, here generating something of a twisted sense of space (on what is surely the easiest Tenney album cited here, as far as listener effort, as well as the most aggressive). And the reframing of one of Scelsi's most basic sound world concepts (which Tenney is unlikely to have experienced yet for himself at the time) is also fascinating.

As noted, then (e.g. of many Postal Pieces), many of Tenney's works have direct & appealing (or at least affective) sounds that can also become repetitive, and in fact are often rather unidirectional. (Much of his early work introduces overtones in order, for instance, which does make them easier for the listener to follow....) Some capture e.g. psychoacoustic effects, i.e. seeming to be constantly rising in pitch while also seeming totally static. And in some cases, they rely on novelty for their effect, and so while interesting, tend to bring diminishing returns with experience. (I've found all of this material to be interesting, but much like an improvisation, that doesn't mean that I want to hear it over & over. Actually, many of Tenney's smaller works seem perfect for concert recitals drawing upon a number of sources, since they'll be instantly distinctive....) Basically, they demonstrate particular innovations or ideas, or explore particular phenomena, sometimes in very direct ways. Bringing a more rhetorical-aesthetic quality to these pieces, along with some broad dynamism, then apparently became an issue for Tenney, as e.g. the quasi-static waves of Critical Band come to yield the almost capricious pitch ordering of the Spectrum Pieces (1995/2001) via e.g. the more static (even monolithic, or studious) Form Pieces....

The Spectrum Pieces are clearly my favorite set of compositions from Tenney, though. E.g. instead of having harmonics appear in order, he varies them more capriciously, perhaps disguising the fundamental for a while (much as a classical composer might start out with ambivalence as to key), and yielding pieces that are much more satisfying to hear over a longer term. I've enjoyed Changes repeatedly too, but in some ways that's more of a technical demonstration (akin to e.g. Bach's WTC, or so Tenney had hoped). The Spectrum Pieces also vary their individual forces, apparently as a result of different commissions, and aren't really a cycle per se. (Still, I usually end up listening to more than one in a session....) The recorded set also seems like quite an accomplishment, while still being easy to enjoy:

Tenney: Spectrum Pieces
The Barton Workshop - James Fulkerson & Frank Denyer
New World Records 80692 [CDx2]

This is just a great series of music, and confirmed my interest in exploring the remainder of Tenney's output. There's still stochastic generation of particular pitch combinations, and so a sense in which the pieces simply end without any particular "development," but the more "mysterious" or capricious sense of pitch entry also gives them more of a classical vibe. (There's thus also more of a sense of polyphony, rather than the consistent pulse that sometimes plagues Tenney's music....) The writing for winds is also Tenney's most advanced, with all pitches noted precisely, not only relative to string tuning techniques. In this sense, they seem to mark greater expectations from performers for Tenney, but The Barton Workshop rewards that faith spectacularly. (It helps that the precise pitches aren't "arbitrary" in any sense, but rather correspond to ratios of other pitches sounding in the piece.) The music is also written in a time-space notation with each physical section corresponding to a fixed interval of time (i.e. not so different conceptually from Cage's late time brackets). This is also probably a time to critique myself: What does it say that I favor a more rhetorical development, rather than sequential presentation of material? Isn't such coyness actually linked to imperial rhetoric? I guess all that I can say is that (at least the same) bluntness wears on me over time....

What also makes the Spectrum Pieces more appealing on an ongoing basis is then not only their rhetorical deployment or advanced horn tunings & techniques, but their developing sense of melody or line: As noted above, open circumstances prompted Tenney to explore what makes (for) a musical line, basically combinations of sounds & especially sequences of pitches that present that way psychoacoustically. And that exploration came to involve the "dissonant counterpoint" of the American Ultra-Moderns & Charles Seeger, which for Tenney ended up being a means for melodic construction.... Basically, not particularly unlike dodecaphony, Seeger's method required the composer to prioritize pitches that had appeared less often to that point, which Tenney generalized to an open-ended pitch set, specifically around (stochastic) tension between larger & smaller integer interval jumps. (Although I've come to enjoy this music, including similar ideas from e.g. Ruth Crawford Seeger, I should also note that such a notion of the unselected becoming more likely is basically a probabilistic fallacy! There are perceptual consequences to this....) Tenney consequently wrote a series of pieces around these "Diaphonic" notions in 1997, i.e. after the first five Spectrum Pieces, Diaphonic Study, Diaphonic Toccata & Diaphonic Trio: The middle item is short & specifically dedicated to Crawford Seeger, but the others explore these ideas over different canvasses, all involving contrast between string(s) & piano: Diaphonic Study for string quartet & piano involves the most strings, and so the most opportunity for Tenney's characteristic overtone tunings, coming off almost relentlessly in the way the strings attempt to "spread out" melodically into harmonic space.... It tends to be more aggressive & dissonant than Diaphonic Trio, for violin & piano (the two hands of which are presumably the other two parts of the trio), which comes off as that much more linear-melodic, with relatively extended lines, perhaps even becoming languid & romantic at times. (Unusually for this discussion, the latter was actually recorded & released by Hat Art during Tenney's lifetime, indeed only months after it was written....) I'd like to say that this work can be heard informing the last three Spectrum Pieces, but although two of them involve some different ensemble formats, their technical conceptions seem to remain basically the same as the first five....

A couple of other larger ensemble pieces occupy the gap between the two sequences of Spectrum Pieces as well, though. I wasn't able to find commercial recordings of either 'Scend for Scelsi (1996, for alto saxophone & chamber ensemble) or Diapason (1996, for chamber orchestra), but both do appear online: Of course, 'Scend for Scelsi confirms that Tenney did indeed (eventually) hear & respond to Scelsi's music, but also appears to be a piece that he'd been thinking about anyway, more than something specific about Scelsi. (In particular, the alto sax emerges & comes to dominate the ensemble melodically, which doesn't remind me of Scelsi at all — but was perhaps intended as something of an elegy?) It thus reflects various of Tenney's concerns, e.g. perceptions of dynamism-stasis, a moving band of partials, prioritizing pitches that haven't appeared as much, as well as following a particular harmonic sequence like a wave.... Diapason is actually cited rather often in Tenney's oeuvre, and involves a "sliding" band of overtones, distant harmonics to begin, coming strongly into presence (with lower harmonics), and then receding away. The sense of "presence" forged as the pitch material moves closer to the fundamental is quite striking, as is the sensation of physical distance created by pitch material in "distant" partials, like cinematic zooming in & out. (Diapason also involves elaborate string scordatura instructions, but has the winds simply attempt to mimic nearby strings.) In some sense, Diapason comes to seem like a small, sliding window onto the more generally open interactions characterized by the Spectrum Pieces... or a sort of movement of the Critical Band (within a more traditional orchestral sound).

As usual, then, I tend to be most interested in Tenney's later work, again because he started from such an open-ended project & constructed a personal style over the course of decades. And by the last few years of his life, that style had crystallized to a degree, but not calcified, in that some of his last works are of unique value. In particular, Arbor Vitae (2006) is generally named as Tenney's final work (& like Changes required some final details to be notated for performance), returning to a string quartet idiom that he'd adopted a few times earlier in his career. (Cage also returned to the string quartet format at various points.) Tuning strings to use a variety of overtone positions was obviously one of Tenney's ongoing concerns, but here the sinewy tree-like lines also tend to suggest multiple roots, making for perhaps Tenney's most multifaceted texture, (rhizomatically) fanning out across dimensions in various harmonics & temporal waves.... Once again, there is a single (high quality) recording to recommend:

Tenney: Arbor Vitæ
Quatour Bozzini
Ambiances Magnétique "Collection QB" 0806 [CDx2]

Arbor Vitæ is also one of the more impressive Tenney anthologies in general, not only for the title piece as noted (& which might be said to recall e.g. Diapason & the Ruggles section of Quintext, 1972, within Tenney's oeuvre...), but for both Diaphonic Study (1997, as noted above) & Cognate Canons (1993). The latter, for string quartet & percussion, actually has two commercial recordings, but tends to become rather repetitive & even abrasive once the "canons" are perceived. (Diaphonic Study is relatively harsh as well.) I hear this work as a further attempt to forge a more "aesthetic" idiom, but simply training the ear on what makes for a "cognate" seems like Tenney too. And then Saxony (1978/84) is apparently Tenney's most recorded piece, still featuring tape loops, but in this collection with strings instead....

In the after-discussion of Changes above, I did already mention a couple of Tenney's two-piano pieces, but didn't come to Ergodos III (1994), which appears to mark the climax of this genre for Tenney: In some sense it follows Bridge etc., but is also named in his Ergodos series, which had otherwise been tape pieces (i.e. musique concrète) — with all three being dedicated to Cage. Ergodos III is then less about any particular tuning exploration, and more of a refiguration of European high modernism (think of e.g. the Boulez or Barraqué piano sonatas...) around a chance "American" aesthetic. In its shifting chords, it does have some similarities to the massive Changes, but is also ultimately less melodic (per the terms above), and of course can't rely on such flexible tuning. The result yields an incredible sense of chordal spacing, sounding very different from Cage, and even of multiple dimensions (perhaps partially anticipating Arbor Vitae) — but then that's also a function of the incredibly coordinated two-person interpretation on:

Tenney: Melody, Ergodicity and Indeterminacy
The Barton Workshop - James Fulkerson
Mode Records 185

The result even reminds me a bit of some of Xenakis' piano music, and really requires one to move outside of Tenney's own later work for other comparisons. (The score is not completely determinate, but The Barton Workshop elected to perform it with maximum precision. The album from Mode Records also contains a variety of other material, including much of Tenney's solo wind music, illustrating his idiosyncratic sense of melody from a young age.) To further mix references, one might even consider ergodicity via concepts of plateau....

And piano music hasn't been an emphasis for me of late, primarily for its lack of pitch flexibility, but Tenney (as indeed had been Cage) was not only among the composers who superseded the piano by writing microtonal music that exposed its limitations, or part of the generation that modified the piano itself, but one of the last (surely a premature adjective?!) major composers to write idiomatic "straight" piano music: Tenney himself was an accomplished pianist, and although the pieces mentioned above require coordinating pianos & hands to allow for using more notes to an octave, he returned to more in the way of straight solo piano music later in life: Prelude and Toccata (2001) involves two contrasting sections, the first emerging from overstruck attacks & pedal manipulations (not so unlike Scelsi's Aïtsi, 1974), while the latter moves on to fast staccato (in a format Tenney obviously enjoyed, e.g. following Nancarrow's staccato player piano pieces). Essay (after a sonata) (2003) comments on the Ives Concord Sonata, and is the shortest of these, while To Weave (a meditation) (2003) returns to both the subtle melodic concerns of the diaphonic pieces as well as the perception of independence (of line) interrogated (in a very preliminary sense) in Critical Band. This last presents as something of a simple piece, but ends up being subtly compelling in its exploration of quasi-fugal texture:

Eve Egoyan
Earwitness Records 0106

That album is an anthology beyond Tenney's piece, but is from the pianist who commissioned To Weave.... And there's probably no better way to demonstrate that Tenney didn't need to rely on novelty in his music. In some ways, though, To Weave... continues the exploration of line (as embedded in a harmonic field) already undertaken e.g. in Changes.... And it ends up being more compelling than Diaphonic Trio, despite the (welcome) timbral contrast that the latter does employ.

As noted, then, I've enjoyed listening to Tenney's music, and have generally favored that over reading his discussions, although I've ultimately read what was online.... That he moved away from computer music into music that (at least sometimes) originated entirely from live human activity is also notable, particularly as that prior, open (& even wild) context seems to have conditioned many of his musical concerns. To such a broader context, though, Tenney brought a sense of precision more than wildness, a different sort of exactness to what he wanted to hear... even when that involved the stochastic ordering of (pre-selected) sets of material. And as noted, eschewing notions of personal expression allowed a stance from which to critique Western dualism — even as Tenney would sometimes seem to reaffirm that context. I also feel a sense in which he wanted to negate Aristotelian hylomorphism, but his response wasn't to render everything into content but rather everything into form (i.e. as lurching into Platonism). Yet he's also challenging traditional perceptual hierarchy via phenomenology, itself suggesting something of a yearning beyond Western (i.e. imperial) philosophy (e.g. as also reflected in such titles as Koan...). So there's still much to sort through in Tenney's musical approach, including some differences (& perhaps productive contradictions) within his own output (as already noted). Indeed, a specifically decolonizing perspective seems to be an appropriate analytic for further inquiry, and I'd be curious to learn more about what Tenney considered being a North American composer to be....

Especially considering that recording suggestions continue to be something of a backbone for the above, I'm going to include a further section to this page, (late) works by Tenney that I haven't heard — or perhaps haven't heard properly. These will also be specific works that caught my eye (or ear?) for some reason, and that means later works, since as noted, I'm most curious about how Tenney elaborated his style as he continued to develop it over time:

I expect to modify this last section as needed. Whether the discussion above will be rewritten at some point, though, I can't say. Let's see what accumulates here....

Back to modern music page.

Todd M. McComb
20 August 2020