Every profession, if it's lucky, has its James Tenney: A rough-hewn innovator who is a legend to the field's most sophisticated devotees but generally unknown outside that inner circle.
Composer and conductor Tenney--who will make a rare appearance tonight, in the Green Umbrella series at the Japan America Theatre--falls squarely within the tradition of American musical pioneers. He follows in the footsteps of Charles Ives, Harry Partch and John Cage, and he looks the part perfectly. He's from the Southwest--born in Silver City, N.M.--and appears as grizzled as the Marlboro Man.
Actually Tenney, 61, has been on one cutting edge or another for years. Although he has a perfectly respectable Juilliard education, he was a musical beatnik and Fluxus anarchist in the late '50s and early '60s. He was in on minimalism at the beginning, participating in the earliest ensembles of Philip Glass and Steve Reich. In the '60s, he was also a director of an avant-garde New York music ensemble, Tone Roads, which took its name from a work of Ives. He was a trailblazer of computer music at Bell Labs, and after that he helped set the experimental tone at CalArts, teaching there from 1970 to 1975 and beginning a Tone Roads West. Now based in Toronto, where he is on the faculty of York University, he has lately been reinventing harmony.
As Tenney sees it, harmony is the great uninvestigated area in modern music. "A lot of other things have been very, very deeply explored already by 20th century composers," Tenney said in a phone interview from CalArts, where he has been in residence for the past two weeks. Traditional tonal harmony, he said, reached a sort of dead end around 1910, and the most imaginative composers went on to other things, such as abstractly working with pitch or investigating rhythm and timbre. "And now it seems to me a natural tendency to look for something that has not been worked out."
What Tenney means when he talks about harmony is both simple and complex, and hard to talk about this side of a doctoral thesis. The simple part is too simple: Harmony, he explains, "is that aspect of music that involves harmonic relations between pitches."
At the other end of the spectrum, the complex part is really complex, concerning theoretical models of pitch dimensions. What Tenney has found is that for harmony to evolve, we need to tune instruments in new ways, taking advantage of micro-intervals, intervals that would fall within the cracks of the piano keyboard.
Tenney is hardly the first composer to use new tunings. Nor does he claim to be as rigorous in his use of such systems as others have been. But he has, nonetheless, come up with theoretical processes that create astonishing musical results.
For instance, Tenney says that his latest work, "Spectrum V," which will receive its first performance tonight, has "gone further than ever before in my work in terms of demands on the players--or to put it in a nicer way, requests of the players--to give me unusual pitches. Pitches that they in most cases have not had much experience working with."
The notation, Tenney confesses, is pretty forbidding, specifying pitches with numbers representing hundredths of a semitone. "So it looks extremely, oh, you might say picky. But once the players learn to interpret these numbers, they begin to get a sense of how big a change it is from the pitches they're used to playing.
"With a certain amount of coaching and working with the piano, which is also retuned, they learn it. And one of the wonderful things has been the experience of being around these players, who first react rather skeptically to the whole enterprise, then discover that they can do it and that it makes a difference in sound."
For many listeners, the most striking aspect of Tenney's work is that it is very hard to comprehend exactly what it is that makes it sound different. Using standard instruments, Tenney creates many of the effects of electronic music and specially built instruments, so that the results sound both familiar and impossible at the same time.
An example of that will be found in another work on tonight's program, "Harmonium No. 3," for three harps. "The three harps are treated like one super-harp with that many more pitches," Tenney explains.
This also reveals another interesting side to the composer. Important innovator though he once was in computer music, Tenney is anything but a techie. "I'm not a knob turner," as he puts it. "In fact, I'm not great with machines. For me, it is the process of sitting at my desk and thinking and writing stuff on paper that is important."
But it is when Tenney's thinking and writing get translated into the world of real instruments and real players that, for the rest of us, it gets interesting. The process is not unlike special effects in the movies, where the impossible seems to happen--here making music sound like something you've never heard before. And the fact that the man making this happen is no techie nerd--but rather as close to a hard-bitten Clint Eastwood type as modern music gets, only enhances the Tenney legend.
* James Tenney's work is part of a larger Green Umbrella program presented tonight by the CalArts New Century Players, Japan America Theatre, 244 S. San Pedro St., 8 p.m. Tickets: $10, $15. (213) 680-3700.