James Tenney: Postcards from the Edge


Much has been made over the last few years about the maverick tradition of American composers, a trajectory linking Ives, Ruggles, and Cowell (and even further back to Billings and Heinrich) with Terry Riley, Meredith Monk, Phil Kline and others who have forged their own individual paths to shaping sound. If indeed there is a maverick tradition, James Tenney is an important bridge between the generations.

And like the best of this uniquely American tradition, Tenney’s often rigorous formal processes sometimes leave room for humor. There’s ultimately something funny about mixing minimalism and serialism, two seemingly opposed systems, but such sonic alchemy was already foreshadowed in Tenney’s Blue Suede, a piece of studio electronic music consisting of cut-up fragments of an Elvis Presley recording.

FJO: You’ve been called the missing link between composers we now call mavericks, like Ives and Ruggles (with whom you’ve studied), and later experimentalists: Cage, Pauline Oliveros, La Monte Young and the minimalists.

JT: I tried to make connections. When my friends and I started [the concert series] Tone Roads, the motivation was to connect [and] to bring back together all these disparate individual achievements and show them to be connected in some way. Not directly in the way of influence on each other necessarily, but just maybe only that we, the later generation, could see them as all part of a tradition. I’ve avoided that word in the past, but I’ll use it now because I think it’s ok. Because tradition means carrying, it means traduction, right? Anyway, even though they seem very disparate and even incompatible, I can prove they’re not.

FJO: Your music reconciles so many things that people don’t think belong together, but yet seem completely natural when you combine them, like the combination of minimalism and serialism in Chromatic Canon.

JT: That is something that keeps coming up in my work and I told the person who wrote that Times article that I think it goes back to my childhood and my experience with my parents who were always at loggerheads and I was always trying to get them together. I like that idea of seeing that some of these things that we think of as [being] in diametric opposition, are not really. They just may be two ends of what can be conceived as a continuous spectrum, and I can prove that. I do it through pieces by demonstrating that you can start one place and end up some place else that everyone thought was in opposition to where you started, but I went continuously from the first place to the last. Listen to Bridge very carefully. Listen to the first minute of it, and then go listen to the last minute of it, and see how completely different they are. And then listen to the whole thing and notice that like the minute hand on a clock you can’t hear it changing at any point. It’s absolutely continuous.

FJO: Kind of the way Critical Band is. You’re hearing a unison and then all of the sudden you’re hearing a cluster.

JT: I really like the idea that we say, ok, here’s a stylistic point or area here. Here’s another one. Look how different they are. But I can make one continuous transition from one place to the other. Anybody can, it’s not just me. I’m not bragging about some special thing that I can do, but it’s a viewpoint that not everybody has.

FJO: Well, it’s very different from thematic development, which is more akin to drama. You said the emotion of the creator sometimes gets in the way of the work.

JT: I’ve been deeply influenced by Cage’s attitude about that. The focus should be on the sound itself and not on the ideas and emotions of the composer. What this guy or that other person thinks or feels is not that interesting. Cage said it’s no more important than if we go out to dinner whether you’re going to have chicken or beef. You know, big deal.

FJO: Yet the emotional content of music is what most people relate to, especially in popular music.

JT: And that’s fine. That’s one of the things that music can be and will continue to be. There will always be music [where] that’s really what it’s about. I think what Cage showed is not that that’s obsolete now and we’re moving into a new thing, but that that’s not the only possibility. That there are other things that music can do, other functions that it may have. And that’s all I’m trying to say. I’m talking about the kind of music that I’m involved with and I’m not saying that it is going to replace anything else, it’s just here in addition.

FJO: But, at the same time, you’ve composed ragtime.

JT: Sure. I was having fun. [laughs] And I think people that hear the rags have fun with them. But it’s not like there is a specific timeline, emotionally. Here you’re going to feel this and in the next section I’m going to switch it and make it do that. It’s not manipulative in the same way.

That came about through friends—Sam Charters and Ann Charters. They got me interested in Joplin, and I began playing it, and I thought it was very beautiful. At some point after playing it for a few years, I said, gee, maybe I could write a rag. And so, kind of as a lark, I started working on one, and there it was. And then I started working on another one, and there it was. And I finally did a third one, and that was it. That sort of completed my little exploration of that genre. I still enjoy it, but I don’t do that any more.

FJO: But even though those rags totally work as ragtime, they’re filled with some very un-rag-like things.

JT: Well, they’re quite a bit more chromatic than Joplin, but they’re no less tonal. They’re always clearly in a key and make the same modulations that classic ragtime makes. I just add a few biting dissonances here and there and do some chromatic passing tones.

FJO: Given your lack of interest in themes, ragtime seems an ideal genre for you because most rags present one theme, then another, then another, without development or recapitulation.

JT: Well, in the rags, I did something different. I actually played more with thematic relationships than Joplin does. Especially in “Tangled Rag.” I was very involved in some subtle thematic relations there. But you know my answers to questions are usually contextual and so I was assuming that you were talking about my unpopular music.

FJO: So would you say your rags are popular music?

JT: They could be. Yeah, they could be if they were out there recorded and distributed, I can’t imagine anybody not liking them. Can you?

FJO: They’re lots of fun. But you know those elements sometimes come into play even in other works of yours, like Blue Suede.

JT: Right. But it’s not so clear that everyone would respond to that because some people would just find it noisy and incomprehensible. A lot of people who might not like some other things could enjoy it in spite of that just because of the recognition that comes a ways in. But it’s not the same as the rags.

FJO: Blue Suede is classic tape manipulation made in an electronic music studio, something most people associate with academia, really cerebral science, etc., but what you’re manipulating is the voice of Elvis Presley.

JT: Well, that was a great answer to academia. When Presley’s first recordings came out I was very excited by the kind of sexual energy of this music after decades of a kind of anemic sort of popular music. (I won’t name names but you can guess who I mean.) This was suddenly really earthy and strong. My first reaction to it was very positive. It wasn’t for another five or six years that I actually had the idea to incorporate it into a tape piece.

FJO: Now we all know Ives quoted things, but to actually use a commercial recording the way you did here precipitates the whole sample-based aesthetic of hip-hop and work based on appropriation. It’s controversial because it’s something that copyright holders really feel threatened by.

JT: I think I’m not infringing on anybody’s copyright because all the excerpts are so short that I think it’s under the line. I certainly don’t want to undercut anybody’s copyrights. John Oswald once called me up and said, “I’d like to refer to Blue Suede as the first plunderphonics work.” I said, “I don’t like that term.” [laughs] But it’s become so widely accepted that I’ve even accepted it. So I guess it was.

FJO: I would imagine anything associated with Elvis is highly protected. But, as far as I know, no one’s ever come after you.

JT: No, and I hope it never happens, but it’s so short. There’s nothing longer than about a half-second.

FJO: But it’s very obvious that it’s Elvis.

JT: Yes, because we have an extraordinary timbral recognition ability. We recognize people’s voices.

FJO: A psychoanalyst named Gilbert Rose claims it takes about three seconds for someone to comprehend something, a tone, a phrase, etc. He calls it a parcel of experience. Things moving faster than that are harder to identify. If you’re constantly getting information without pauses, there’s no way to parse that out.

JT: Well, the experience of Blue Suede seems to contradict that. Now it could be that it’s only because you hear several fragments of that voice in a row and that they somehow add up to one longer durational parcel, but I swear there’s nothing longer than a half a second. [laughs] In fact, when I made the piece, it involved cutting up tape into little pieces, throwing them into a basket, shaking it up, pulling them out and splicing them back together not knowing which direction they were going or what. And then when I got enough to run on a tape recorder I would listen to it and edit it. And as I remember, the only thing I ever had to change was when the fragments were too long.

I didn’t want it to be like quotations. I wanted it to be sort of an exciting celebratory texture that would have some of the timbral characteristics of the original. And in fact the voice is recognizable even with those short fragments. So I would cut them up. And because of that I don’t think there’s anything longer than a quarter of a second in fact.

FJO: What was the reaction of the people at the time to what you did?

JT: Everybody loved it. [chuckles] That’s been one of my most, not popular, but I’ve gotten great popular responses from that. I have a little problem with that word “popular”, especially because of the last few years when people, on the plane or the bus or something, say, “Oh, you’re a composer. What kind of music do you write?” I used to struggle with that trying to figure out how to answer it in a way that would be meaningful to them. I finally figured out how to answer it. I said I write unpopular music, and they immediately understood what I meant.

FJO: That’s the term that I think we’re all coming to accept for this stuff, but we’ve come to accept it with a sort of melancholy at the same time.

JT: Well, I’m not worried about that because in fact I mean it in the sense of a genre, not in a descriptive sense, because I would maintain that some of my unpopular music has had nothing but positive responses from its few listeners.

FJO: But it’s not on the Billboard charts, yet?

JT: No, but I never expected it to be. If I had, I would be in a different business.

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