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MUSIC REVIEW

Sound that is really physical

A CalArts festival of James Tenney's music underscores how in its simplicity is an extraordinary complexity.

December 12, 2006|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

In 1952, Stan Brakhage made his first film at 19. The music for "Interim" was by his friend from high school in Denver, James Tenney, a year younger. A boy and girl meet under a city viaduct. It rains. They kiss passionately in a deserted shack. They part. The mood is pretentiously portentous. But a simple, pastoral, Satie-esque piano soundtrack give it a special glow, as if the piano alone could light the film from behind.

Brakhage, who went on to become a pioneering experimental filmmaker, and Tenney to be one of America's most intriguing experimental composers, quickly grew out of their sophomoric neorealism. The trajectory of Brakhage's career -- he died in 2003 -- is an essential part of film history. Tenney, who died at 72 in August, is, on the other hand, easily the most neglected great composer of our era.

That will change. And last weekend's festival of his music -- the first ever -- at CalArts, where Tenney spent his last six years teaching, was the beginning of the change.

Had he so desired, Tenney could have been a great entertainer. A student string quartet, long forgotten and found in a drawer in 1994, was taken out and dusted off Saturday afternoon. It showed a young composer able to freshen up Bartok's style with American harmonies. A career could have been built upon that alone.

In the 1960s, Tenney, after a decade of radical avant-garde antics and emersion in electronic music, got interested in ragtime. A virtuoso pianist, he wrote three rags, startling for their originality and their reaching for ecstasy. Also in the '60s, he was in on the Ives revival and the founding of Minimalism. He played around with pop music, electronically deconstructing Elvis.

Those sides of Tenney were only hinted at in three days of concerts. Tenney was, at heart, an experimenter. He was a brilliant music theorist. He was always trying out something new. He reveled in abstraction and concepts. But, although he gave up the neorealism of his teens in no time, "Interim" wasn't a fluke, wasn't even an interim.

The weekend's discovery was not of his incredible diversity. Even the pitifully small Wikipedia entry can tell you that. His astounding realism was the revelation. All of it, whatever the style, is based on the principle that sound, in its physicality, has incredible strength and energy. The festival incorporated much of CalArts -- its students, faculty and Valencia campus. Large ensemble pieces were played in the Main Gallery, often competing with ambient noise. Chamber music took place in the intimate Roy O. Disney Concert Hall.

On Friday night, in an event that I think will be long remembered, Tenney's "Postal Pieces" were played in various venues, on staircases and in hidden corners, around campus. These are works that were written very quickly in 1971, when Tenney was also at CalArts, on postcards to various performers, some of whom were on hand to play them.

"Having Never Written a Note for Percussion" is merely a long tremolo swell, ideally on gong. A simple idea turns into complex sound, awesome sound. He wrote a few lines about night ("very soft

Many Tenney pieces are ingeniously simple concepts that require virtuosity to realize. Others, though, are not simple on any level. A true experimentalist, Tenney could never guarantee that a piece would work. I didn't think "Last Spring in Toronto," a large ensemble piece for standard instruments and Indonesian gamelan, written in 2000 but only given its first performance Saturday night, did. But perhaps the subtleties of exploring microtones in diverse instruments was lost in the noisy Main Gallery.

Yet a work like "Critical Band," in which instruments microtonally move away from the standard A, on which an orchestra tunes, the out-of-tuneness creates an acoustical beating effect, from which comes an explosion of overtones, the thrilling likes of which I don't think anyone ever heard before.

Tenney liked the metaphor of seeds in music. He threw forth musical ideas that could ripen. He also ripened other's seeds, taking ideas from the many composers he knew and admired, including Carl Ruggles, Edgar Varese and John Cage. In a two-piano piece, "Chromatic Canon," played Saturday afternoon, he adapted Steve Reich's Minimalist technique of moving through gradual rhythmic processes to 12-tone harmony, and something new was born.

His last score, "Arbor Vitae," a string quartet composed this year as he lay dying of lung cancer, was a final flowering. It was written for the Montreal-based Quatour Bozzini, which closed the festival with the premiere. The score is a 20-minute slowly falling and rising series of microtonal chords. It begins with vastly complex harmonics that are half heard, half felt, a sound from the beyond.

As the quartet moves down the scale, the music feels as though it almost touches ground before evaporating into the aural ether, more aura than substance.

Tenney's time will come. It is coming. He's been a bit recorded, and more recordings are on the way. This summer his music will reach the Salzburg Festival. CalArts' festival was an important, moving, meaningful occasion. It was underpromoted and underfunded, but many performances were exceptional. A seed was planted, and I suspect there is, now, no stopping it.

*

mark.swed@latimes.com

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