For the past week we’ve been having a silly discussion in the editorial room of NewMusicBox about who is the more important historical figure in the history of American music: Kurt Cobain or James Tenney. But maybe it’s not so silly…
I’ve taken the minority position that Tenney is more important, even though on the popularity scale presumably almost everyone knows Cobain (even the classical music-only types) while Tenney is someone still largely unknown even in our own new music ghetto. In fact, I’ve owned a copy of Nevermind for years, long before I ever had any Tenney recordings (but that’s only because his music is only just now starting to get commercially released).
I also know that Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” made the top 10 of Rolling Stone‘s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time,” a bizarre list that implies all time began in 1948 (but I’ll save that for a future argument).
So, yes, I don’t deny that Cobain, as a member of the band Nirvana, made an impact. And the synthesis of metal and punk that is the core of grunge—a style that Nirvana codified though arguably did not initiate—defined the sound of ’90s alternative rock to the point that “alternative” was no longer a moniker for a group that challenged the hegemony of commercial rock but rather an epithet for groups that sounded like Nirvana.
That said, I was impressed by “Smells Like Teen Spirit” the first time I heard it and I still am impressed by it (particularly the way the vocal line persistently hovers a major second away from the tonic for no apparent reason). And I really admire the seeming randomness to the chord changes in many of the other songs on Nevermind as well. But, that’s precisely why I think Tenney is even more important. The synthesis his music represents goes well beyond the merger that Nirvana achieved, and the simultaneous logic yet complete unpredictability of Tenney’s compositional trajectory has much greater implications than anything Cobain was able to achieve in his extremely short life.
Yes, Cobain became an icon to a generation, but I’d argue that the demographic of that generation is far from universal, since in a rare moment of agreement with Terry Teachout, I too believe that we’ve replaced our cultural mainstream with a “balkanized group of subcultures whose members pursue their separate, unshared interests in an unprecedented variety of ways.” And, even if Cobain were universally lionized like the pop icons of prior generations such as Sinatra or Elvis (whose music touched even James Tenney), I would argue that Cobain’s lionization had more to do with his persona (the slacker pose, the scrapes with NARCs, the suicide, etc.) than with his music, even though I find his music interesting. Interest in Tenney, on the other hand, can only be about the music. He himself insists that there is no other narrative.
As if to prove my point, I was walking through the supermarket in my neighborhood yesterday afternoon and was greeted by a fellow shopper.
“Weren’t you involved in that Tenney concert a few weeks ago at the Issue Project Room? That was really incredible. I can’t stop thinking about it.” (Those were not her exact words, but they were pretty close. Unfortunately, we’ve yet to be able to add a camcorder-at-will feature to PDAs…) “I’m not a musician, but I read about it in The New York Times and decided to go. I heard your conversation with him before the concert and didn’t really believe what he said about his music not referring to anything else except itself. But then I heard the music. It made me listen in a completely different way, especially that piece for the gong [Having Never Written a Note for Percussion]. It was like a womb of sound.” (That last sentence is her exact words.)
Tenney’s post-Cagean compositional framework—which creates a space in which minimalism, serialism, microtonality, indeterminacy, conceptualism, neo-tonality and even ragtime can sit on the same shelf—defines the musical landscape of the early 21st century. It is in fact a womb of sound that will give birth to the music of the future. It’s hard to think of anything that’s more important than that.