James Tenney

Musical maverick
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The Independent Online

James Carl Tenney, composer: born Silver City, New Mexico 10 August 1934; Professor, York University, Toronto 1976-94, Distinguished Research Professor 1994-2000; Roy E. Disney Family Professor in Musical Composition, California Institute of the Arts 2000-06; married (two sons, two daughters); died Los Angeles 24 August 2006.

Composer, theorist, pianist, musicologist, innovator in electronic music, psycho-acoustician, teacher, conductor and self-styled "amateur cosmologist": the American maverick musician James Tenney was many things, and yet so far from being a dilettante that he became a guru figure for several generations of American composers. At different periods, he held teaching positions on US and Canadian campuses, including the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles, where he held the Roy E. Disney Family Chair in Musical Composition at the time of his death.

Never well-known outside North America, he was nevertheless so much appreciated there that when in 1989 John Cage was asked with whom he would study if he were a young composer today, he unhesitatingly proposed Tenney. Even some among those of us living in Britain who became inspired in the early 1970s by the American experimental tradition had the same aspiration, though I'm not aware that in the end Tenney ever had any British pupils.

James Tenney was born in 1934 in Silver City, New Mexico. As a pianist, he had a conventional training, including studies with Eduard Steuermann at New York's Juilliard School of Music. Composing from the age of 17, he had lessons with Lionel Nowak at Bennington College, Vermont, as part of his undergraduate programme there, and subsequently did graduate work at the University of Illinois with the composer Kenneth Gaburo and the computer-music specialist Lejaren Hiller.

Tenney's admission into the ranks of the American musical mavericks, as he liked to refer to the experimental tradition stemming from Charles Ives and Henry Cowell, was sealed with a brief period of work in California with the composer and instrument-maker Harry Partch.

Moving to New York, Tenney was, for most of the 1960s, right at the centre of the musical avant-garde there at a time of teeming, definition-defying innovation. He co-founded and directed the Tone Roads Ensemble, named after some pieces by Ives, in the renaissance of whose output the group played a significant role, including the issue of several important recordings.

He played keyboards in seminal early performances of works by Philip Glass and Steve Reich, and worked with everyone from Edgard Varèse, Cage and Morton Feldman to a host of figures his own age. He was also instrumental in establishing an international reputation for the American composer Conlon Nancarrow, for the integral recording of whose player-piano studies Tenney wrote extensive notes.

Between 1961 and 1964, he undertook pioneering work at Bell Telephone Laboratories, paving the way for innovations in digital synthesis that were crucial in the then still early stages of electronic music. His hands-on involvement with electronics, also involving research in acoustics, psycho-acoustics and musical cognition, allowed him to compose some important electro-acoustic works in the 1960s: for example, Collage no 1 "Blue Suede" (1961), an example of sampling avant-la-lettre based on Elvis Presley's "Blue Suede Shoes"; the innovative computer piece Phases (1963); and For Ann (rising) (1969). Work in the electronic music studio additionally informed his approach to instrumental composition and, indeed, to everything he did.

For Tenney's approach to the interface between composition and theoretical investigation was, in fact, to regard both as two sides of same coin. A voracious reader of the theoretical literature in music (an outcome of this is his 1988 book, A History of "Consonance" and "Dissonance"), he was exasperated by how little earlier music theories had to offer towards an understanding of 20th- century music. Theoretical endeavour was thus, for him, a search for a more relevant framework within which music and the way it is perceived these days could be examined: as he put it, "just another way of trying to approach the music that I'm interested in, both my own and music by other composers".

His most important contribution to musical thought probably still remains his forbiddingly-titled META + HODOS: a Phenomenology of 20th-Century Musical Materials and an Approach to the Study of Form, an investigation of formal structures in music conducted in the light of current research into how musical information is actually perceived, drawing on gestalt theory and cognitive science.

Tenney's theoretical preoccupations were doubtless the reason why he became the only composer of experimental music to have more than 150 pages of an issue of the august academic journal Perspectives of New Music devoted to him. While acclaimed by fellow composers, he refused to "play the game" in terms of wider professional recognition, and as a consequence remained largely unknown to the more general musical public.

Yet Tenney's best works - for instance, Spectral CANON for CONLON Nancarrow for player piano (1974) and Critical Band for ensemble and tape delay (1988) - reveal a hard-core conceptualist capable of great musical sensitivity as well as abstract thinking.

Keith Potter