Earlier And Later Tenney

JAMES TENNEY – Spectrum Pieces

For James Tenney, who left us untimely in 2006, “spectrum” was a term containing numerous suggestions, at least as many as the acoustic traits shown by the eight namesake compositions – scored for diverse instrumental groupings – comprised by this double CD. It firstly had to do with his interest in the intrinsic implications of the harmonic series, initiators of an abundance of soft incidents sounding “strange” or “difficult” to ears trained to the brain-shrinking reassuring predictability of Western harmony. This represented a source of inspiration for the composer, who exploited these mathematical particularities to enhance what’s absolutely natural in terms of physics. “Spectrum” is also referred to the perceptual aspect related to certain recurrences of musical parameters inside the very pieces, their dynamics shaped around this and other predetermined factors. The complexity of these issues seems to have given no trouble to the musicians of The Barton Workshop, an Amsterdam-based ensemble co-directed by James Fulkerson and Frank Denyer, who totally immersed themselves in this universe of unusual pitches and tunings that should be strictly kept in check, as per given instructions, with an electronic device.
The “coldness” that could potentially affect such a type of music is, on the contrary, utterly omitted. It won’t take long for a specialist to realize that the combinations of partials generated by the uneven temperament of each agglomeration form the basis of a particular kind of resonant phenomenon at large, the response to which is essentially what Tenney was interested in beyond any romantic or dramatic attachment. A central example in that sense is the orchestral rendition of “Spectrum 3”, whose timbral wealth is inversely proportional to the diaphanousness of the shades introduced by its gradual progress. As fleeting hints to uncertain (actually nonexistent) “tonalities” succeed to pervasive dispersions of notes and rapid variations of the percussive percentage, we feel like reliving the history of the last century and a half while attempting to adjust ourselves to consequences that explain much of our own tendencies and fears of the unknown. When one learns to decode the inherent mechanisms of grace in a contradictory arrangement, a decisive step forward has been made for the understanding – and creative utilization – of different disparities, the ones that usually induce the average human specimen to circumvent a problem rather than solving it, or camouflage that incapacity under bushes of cryptic immutabilities and so-called karmic laws that are nothing but outgrowths of failure. Tenney’s music’s richness lies in the intrigue of those (apparently) unsolved problems; the tape delay system repeating and amassing the puzzling suspensions of “Spectrum 7” symbolically affirms ambiguity as an element of certitude. (New World)

JAMES TENNEY – Music For Violin & Piano

Those willing to pay attention to Tenney’s visions within smaller structures will surely enjoy this gorgeous CD – released in 1999 – featuring works whose temporal range stretches from 1964 to 1997. Masterfully performed by Marc Sabat and Stephen Clarke, the six episodes offer a wide gamut of interpretations of a rationality – the composer’s, naturally – that quite frequently seems to represent a prelude to proper transcendence (face it, once and for all: this is something that can exclusively be achieved by entirely discarding the divine / idealistic / esoteric approach and just keep eyes, ears and minds open, for reality hits back really hard if one’s not prepared). Let me immediately proclaim that the record should be in any case called a must, for it contains 1971’s “Koan”: music that has “no use for memory”, meaning that the performer is required to completely exclude elements of external reference or hints to whatever preceded it. A comprehensive purity translating as one of the most intense – and beautiful – minimalist pieces ever conceived, based on the morphing closeness of the intervals between two gradually entwining pitches that, over the course of 20 minutes, depict a slow curve containing everything from aching regret to temporary enlightenment. The unfeasibility of describing a stirring event through silly prose is, in this circumstance, particularly frustrating. On the opposite side, “Ergodos II With Instrumental Responses” – a piece as old as this reviewer – still sounds current in its juxtaposition of taped electronic irregularity and virtuosic intuition. The score consisted in boxes filled with geometric shapes and performance indications; the rest is left to the sensitive ability of the players. “Diaphonic Trio” is a magnificent cross of unusual intonation and involuntary poignancy, while three shorties – the enigmatic “3 Pages In The Shape Of A Pear”, the tense “Diaphonic Toccata” and the nearly classic “Chorale” – give a precise idea of how Tenney’s will of mixing a distinct design with the improvisational parameters unthinkingly elaborated by the performers defines him as a precursor of several of today’s EAI canons. Only, he was concerned by the evolution of the sonic objects, exactly as scientists are eager to know the outcome of their experiments. And I’ve never heard of any of them being fulfilled when nothing happened. (Hat[Now]ART)

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