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James Tenney (August 10, 1934 - August 24, 2006) was an Americanmarker composer and influential music theorist.


Tenney was born in Silver Citymarker, New Mexicomarker, and grew up in Arizona and Colorado. He attended the University of Denvermarker, the Juilliard School of Musicmarker, Bennington College (B.A., 1958) and the University of Illinoismarker (M.A., 1961). He studied piano with Eduard Steuermann and composition with Chou Wen-chung, Lionel Nowak, Paul Boepple, Henry Brant, Carl Ruggles, Kenneth Gaburo, Lejaren Hiller, John Cage, Harry Partch, and Edgard Varèse. He also studied information theory under Lejaren Hiller, and composed stochastic early computer music before turning almost completely to writing for instruments with the occasional tape delay, often using just intonation and alternative tunings. Tenney's notable students include John Luther Adams, Peter Garland, Larry Polansky, Charlemagne Palestine, and Marc Sabat. He performed with John Cage, as well as with the ensembles of Harry Partch (in a production of Partch's The Bewitched in 1959), Steve Reich, and Philip Glass (the latter two in the late 1960s).

He lived in New York during much of the 60s, where a large part of his contribution to the music scene was funnelled through "Tone Roads", a group founded with Malcolm Goldstein and Philip Corner, and for which his partner Carolee Schneemann designed beautiful flyers and programs. He was exceptionally dedicated to his great New England forebear Charles Ives, many of whose compositions he conducted (including the first performance of "in re, con moto"); his interpretation of the "Concord" Sonata for piano was much praised.

Tenney's work deals with perception (For Ann , see Shepard tone), just intonation (Clang, see gestalt), stochastic elements (Music for Player Piano), information theory (Ergodos, see Ergodic theory), and with what he called 'swell' (Koan: Having Never Written A Note For Percussion for John Bergamo), which is basically arch form. His earliest works show the influence of Webern, Ruggles and Varèse, whereas his music from 1961-64 was largely computer music, arguably the earliest significant body of such work in existence. A gradual assimilation of the ideas of John Cage considerably influenced the development of his music in the later 1960s. To this was added an interest in tuning and in the harmonic series, as first evident in the orchestral work Clang of 1972, an interest that continued to develop for the rest of his life.

The majority of Tenney's mature works (post-1964) are instrumental pieces, often for unconventional instrumental combinations (e.g. Glissade for viola, cello, double bass and tape delay system (1982), Bridge for two pianos eight hands in a microtonal tuning system (1982-84), Changes for six harps tuned a sixth of a tone apart, 1985) or for variable instrumentation (Critical Band, 1988, In a Large Open Space, 1994). His pieces are most often tributes to other composers or colleagues and subtitled as such. As his friend Philip Corner says, For Ann (rising), "must be optimistic! (Imagine the depressing effectiveness of it — he could never be so cruel — downward)..."{ (Soundings 13, cf.further reading )| .

Tenney wrote the seminal Meta (+) Hodos (one of, if not the, earliest applications of gestalt theory and cognitive science to music ), the later Hierarchical temporal gestalt perception in music : a metric space model with Larry Polansky, John Cage and the Theory of Harmony (1983, the fullest exposition of his theories of harmonic space), and other works. Nearly a quarter of a 657-page volume of the academic journal Perspectives of New Music was devoted to Tenney's music (Polansky and Rosenboom 1987), and in 2008 the UK journal Contemporary Music Review devoted a whole issue to his work (vol. 27 part 1).

Tenney was one of the four performers of the Steve Reich piece Pendulum Music on May 27, 1969 at the Whitney Museum of American Artmarker. The other three were: Michael Snow, Richard Serra and Bruce Nauman.

Tenney also wrote the in-depth liner notes to Wergo's edition of Conlon Nancarrow's Studies for Player Piano. (Nancarrow, as a favor, punched the roll for Tenney's Spectral Canon for Conlon Nancarrow). Tenney also starred nude in a 1965 silent film of collaged and painted sequences of lovemaking between him and his then partner, the kinetic-theater artist Carolee Schneemann, called Fuses; he did much other music for her, and participated in her events. (Haug 2007, 20 & 25–26).

He taught at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklynmarker, the California Institute of the Artsmarker, the University of California, and York Universitymarker in Torontomarker.

He died on 24 August 2006 of lung cancer in Valencia, California.



Further reading

  • Garland, Peter (ed.). 1984. Soundings Vol. 13: The Music of James Tenney. Santa Fe, New Mexico: Soundings Press.
  • Tenney, James. 1986. META+HODOS: A Phenomenology of 20th Century Musical Materials and an Approach to the Study of Form, and META Meta+Hodos. Edited by Larry Polansky. Oakland, Calif.: Frog Peak Music. ISBN 0-945996-00-4.
  • Tenney, James. 1988. A History of 'Consonance and Dissonance'. New York: Excelsior Music Publishing Co. ISBN 0-935016-99-6.

External links

Groups who often perform Tenney's worksQuatuor Bozzini*{}The Barton Workshop *{}Motion Ensemble*[37491]



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