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Seeker of Radical Sounds

Composer John Tenney knows his music isn't easy. Still, he returns to CalArts intent on teaching students how to listen differently.

September 24, 2000|JOHN HENKEN | John Henken is a regular contributor to Calendar

How would you describe a composer who has pioneered computer-aided music at the source-code level, who is an heir to the American experimental tradition of John Cage, a former Bell Labs engineer and a revered master teacher and theorist who delves deeply into acoustical arcana with papers like "The Discriminability of Differences in the Rise-Time of a Tone"?

"I just tell people I write unpopular music," says James Tenney. He laughs--no rancor, no cynicism. "I always have the sense that they understand immediately what I mean."

Of course, this is also a man who has arranged the Beatles for jazz pianist Aki Takahashi and traditional rags for mandolinist Larry Polansky. His characteristically subversive composition "Having Never Written a Note for Percussion" found its way onto the sublimely gritty "Goodbye 20th Century" album of conceptualist-minimalist classics by the alternative art band Sonic Youth last year.

Other takes on Tenney? "It is my considered opinion that James Tenney is the most talented musician I've ever known, and that statement covers a period of 50 years," American master composer Carl Ruggles said in 1959.

"Gorgeously flowing yet devoid of foreground, vaguely minimalist but harmonically intricate," is how a recording of his 1990 "Tableaux Vivants" was described in a Village Voice review. "The piece offers a particularly clear example of his complex structural conceptualization beneath a lucid surface."

"The visceral aspect of music is every bit as important to me as the intellectual," Tenney says. "Early on, I decided it was OK to be totally eclectic. Charles Ives said, 'It is every composer's duty to be eclectic, as a farmer has to sort potatoes to prepare next year's crop.' In a letter to Cage, I once wrote, 'What is needed now is a radical eclecticism.'

"So in effect, I've given myself permission to go any direction I feel like, at any time."

Long ensconced as distinguished research professor at York University in Toronto, Tenney, 66, has just moved into the Roy E. Disney Family Chair in Musical Composition at CalArts--a second coming of sorts, as Tenney also taught at the Valencia school in its infancy in the early 1970s.

"When you talk about senior composers who are also effective teachers, well, the pool is not large. Jim Tenney is one of the few," says David Rosenboom, dean of the music department at CalArts. "He is stellar, a master teacher.

"I think he is also someone capable of reacting to music of any kind, whatever style our students may be interested in. He is intimately familiar with the American experimental tradition, and his own work blends a very interesting mix of directions, including research into perception and form. He is also a good performer, a pianist and conductor."


Tenney may go in any direction he feels like now, but that was not how he started. He began piano lessons when he was 8 years old for the usual reason: His mother told him to. When he was 14 or 15, however, growing up in New Mexico, he became very interested in it, enough to be seriously conflicted when he entered the University of Denver on an engineering scholarship.

"It was very clear to me that I was not going to be happy going in that direction," he recalls. "So I went to the dean of the engineering department and asked if I could major in music on this scholarship. He said yes, so I shifted.

"Then the next year I went to Juilliard as a student of Edward Steuermann [an illustrious Polish American pianist and early disciple of Arnold Schoenberg]. In the course of that year, there was kind of a cross-fade situation for me. Composing--which I had been doing a little bit of--became more and more compelling for me and I became less interested in becoming a concert pianist."

And then Tenney's student career got really complicated. He dropped out of Juilliard after

one year to study composition privately with Chou Wen-Chung, a student of Edgard Varese. He supported himself as a typist and then a music copyist. Through a summer composer's conference, he connected with Lionel Nowak at Bennington College, then still a women's college, where he finally got his bachelor's degree. He was the only man in his graduating class.

Graduate study took him to the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, where scientist-composer Lejaren Hiller was recruiting students for one of the nation's first electronic music studios.

"I read a little notice in the New York Times that, for the first time ever, there was a class in electronic music. I said to my wife, 'Let's go,' and we just drove out. We checked it out and we ended up staying there--this was my first wife, the painter Carolee Schneemann."

At Illinois, Tenney did study with Hiller, a kindred spirit who had left a career as a research chemist for full-time composition. Hiller was a founding father of electronic and computer-aided music.

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