James Tenney (1934-2006) was an American composer who studied with Chou Wen-Chung, Edgard Varèse, Carl Ruggles, and Harry Partch. He spent much of his life promoting the music of other composers, including Steve Reich. Tenney was a pioneer in digital synthesis, working at Bell Telephone Laboratories from 1961-64. He was constantly exploring new avenues of music analysis and composition. A respected teacher in both Canada and the United States, Tenney was distinguished professor at York University in Toronto and held the Roy E. Disney Family Chair at the California Institute of the Arts.
Koan, a violin solo which Tenney later expanded into a quartet, uses microintervals – increments of sound so small that most people cannot hear them, and has the violin tuned much lower than usual. Anna Lim, guest violinist from Princeton, had a calm approach to the kōan, a Zen spiritual exercise for answering the impossible question, such as “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”. Here, the question is “what note am I hearing?”, as Ms. Lim calmly and slowly slides a finger on the fret board, keeping one note steady and alternating the other. The effect is ghostly and strangely calming.
Harmonium #5 is an example of Tenney’s musical exploration of harmony. After working with digital synthesis, he decided that harmony was the next frontier. He retuned stringed instruments and constructed this piece for violin, viola, and cello to have them imitate each other in a circle of fifths. At times, the piece sounded like a Bach cello suite, as the players bowed from one string to the next, creating endless arpeggios.
Cellogram for solo cello, was another experiment in tuning down the instrument and having the player start with notes in unison and slide the fingers to vary the sound in small increments. Another solo piece, Beast, for double bass, exploited the heaviness of the bass strings, tuning them down, allowing Evan Runyon to produce a rumble not unlike the sound of a small motorboat.
In Arbor Vitae, Thomas Kraines, cellist, started on such a high harmonic it was hardly audible, then the violins and viola followed and as they adjusted their pitches, it seemed like they were tuning a radio. Anna Lim and Myanna Harvey, violins and Emma Hey, viola had their instruments tuned very low– creating a real buzz as if a hive of bees had just made their appearance.
The last piece on the program, Glissade, was composed in 1982, but it seemed more experimental than the 2006 Arbor Vitae, because it employed delay (recording and replaying while the live instruments carry on with the piece). Tenney did this with tape, but for this concert audio technician Peter Price simulated the effect electronically. The five movements were quite distinct in character: I. Shimmer started with pitch variations but ended in soft chords. II. Array (a’rising) employed an illusion of a constant rising note. The instruments seemed to climb in pitch, but never reached any truly high notes. This is called a Shepard tone, named for Roger Shepard, another scientist who worked at Bell Laboratories in the 1960s. III. Bessel functions of the first kind (a reference to the Bessel differential equation) resembled airplane sounds in an old war movie. IV. Trias Harmonica (the name of a Bach Canon, BWV 1072) did not sound like Bach at all, with sliding pitches and delay. V. Stochastic Variations started with tremolos and glissandi, but had the instruments strike the strings with the wood of the bow and ended in a jazzy pizzicato building up to ghostly bowed notes.
This taste of James Tenney’s compositions for stringed instruments is just the tip of the iceberg of the work of this relatively unknown composer, researcher, and scientist who worked with and was inspired by so many modern American composers. Bravo to Arcana New Music Ensemble and Bowerbird for presenting James Tenney string works to a Philadelphia audience as his importance in American music deserves to be recognized.
[June 8, 2018 at 8:00 p.m. at Fleisher Art Memorial, 719 Catherine Street, Philadelphia.]