James Tenney: Postcards from the Edge


According to Kyle Gann’s American Music in the Twentieth Century, John Cage said in 1989 that if he were a young composer looking for a teacher today he would study with James Tenney. Certainly teaching has formed an important component of Tenney’s career. James Tenney taught at CalArts at the institution’s very beginnings in the 1970s and recently returned there. In between, he taught at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, the University of California at Santa Cruz, and York University in Toronto, where he was based for 24 years. Tenney’s ideas about music have left an indelible print on his numerous students over the years, among whom are John Luther Adams, Allison Cameron, John Gzowski, and Larry Polansky.

FJO: You’ve spent many years teaching composition. What do you impart to students?

JT: Well, I’m not sure. [laughs] My conscious idea about what my job is, is to try to figure out what the student wants to do and then help him or her do it. To the extent that I succeed, it means that I’ve got to have some kind of intuitive grasp of what they intend, even when the first evidence that they show me of it may not be actually realizing it very effectively. And often students can’t articulate very clearly what it is they want. So if I’ve been effective, it must mean that I do have an ability to sense what they’re after and then find some way to help them get there. I developed this idea about teaching from a teacher that I had at Bennington College, Lionel Nowak. He somehow sensed what I wanted even when I couldn’t tell him and managed to find a way to help me achieve it.

FJO: How has the teaching affected you as a composer?

JT: I think it helps keep an edge on me, keeps me from sort of getting into some overly self-involved point of view. I’ve been reading this book called Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, about this physicist. At one point he talks about [being] offered a position at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study where they don’t have to teach; they just sit in their office and think. And he said, “I wouldn’t be comfortable doing that. I’m sure I wouldn’t get any new ideas and then I would feel guilty.” You have to be ready to teach. If you’re teaching a course in something you have to prepare, you have to do research, you have to keep sharpening your own mind. You always have to know more than you’re actually going to present to the students and that means research. You’ve got to keep reading, you’ve got to keep finding out what’s going on.

FJO: To get back to that word tradition that you’re now willing to use. How important is it for someone studying composition to be aware of “the tradition”? And what is “the tradition” at this point?

JT: Well, I think it’s very important for anyone in any field to know the history, not only of their field. We’re human beings. We need to know our histories. The word tradition is very tricky because to a lot of people it means a certain very bounded set of things. For some people—I had teachers like this—it meant Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, period. For others it was the French school, period. I don’t want to encourage a slavish attachment to tradition in that sense, but what’s happened in history is important, and next we have to go by what is exciting to us, what we love. That’s what becomes the tradition that you adopt and carry on.

FJO: All the names we’ve bandied about have been Americans. Is there a distinctly American tradition? You’ve spent years away from the United States in Canada, so you’re able to look at us from the outside. I think it’s hard for someone here to look at things from the outside. We think we’re the center.

JT: Although I have been most concerned with American composers, I was also very profoundly influenced by Schoenberg and Webern, and to a slightly lesser extent Satie. So it is mostly American and then, not German but Viennese, and then French. Ultimately I like to see a situation where we don’t concern ourselves that much with nationality, with what culture this work came out of. This year I’ve been teaching a course on the American mavericks, and I keep thinking how I can design a course that just deals with all the music that I think is important. I don’t care where it came from.

FJO: Other countries have also produced “mavericks.”

JT: Absolutely. It’s kind of a cowboy movie mentality; we have to go beyond that.

FJO: But now, of course, as a society, we’re in the middle of that.

JT: I’ve been forced to make a very sharp distinction between American culture and American politics. American politics has been bad for just about as long as this has been a country. On the other hand, I still am very devoted to the music and the art that has come out of this country. My twenty-four years in Canada was a great education. I learned that the Canadian political structure is, in my view, better than ours. In the parliamentary system, they know the leader of a party but they’re not voting for that personality, not primarily, they’re voting for a party and its platform. After the election, the loser becomes the leader of the opposition, not just a forgotten has-been like we’ve got here.

FJO: Well, you know, it’s interesting to connect this back to culture… Voting for the party rather than the personality is like focusing on the structure of a piece rather than responding to an individual composer’s emotional manipulations.

JT: It [also] connects to the whole Hollywood star system and all the rest of it.

FJO: One of the ways you seem to avoid the “cult of personality” is to constantly change what you do. Earlier you talked about writing a group of pieces that follow a similar trajectory, like the Postal Pieces. But then, you do something else. Same with ragtime. You wrote three rags, but that was enough. It seems that once you’ve worked out an idea, you move on to the next thing. It’s sort of a slash and burn approach to musical composition.

JT: Once you’ve fully explored an area, then the only reason to go back to it is just to take advantage of the expertise that you’ve gained or the reputation that you’ve gained, and that’s not really very deeply satisfying. What you want to do is find out what it is that you don’t know how to do, and proceed in that direction. To me, that’s the fundamental meaning of Cage’s term experimental music, which I define as doing something [where] you’re not sure what the result’s going to be because you haven’t done it before. Nobody’s done it before, right?

FJO: But we keep hearing all the time that everything has been done.

JT: That’s not true. I had a student the other day say that to me, and I haven’t had that chance to tell him this yet, but I got a thought about it a little bit later. I was looking up at the clouds in the sky and I thought, that cloud has never been seen before, ever, in the history of the earth. Has that exact form ever been seen? It’s not all been done. That would be impossible because the creative spirit is just too unpredictable for that to ever be true.

FJO: So why do you think people say that all the time now?

JT: It’s our frustration, some sense that you don’t know what to do next, and I understand that. But I would just counsel people who are feeling that, just be patient. It will come. Something will happen. It’s not all been done, and you might do it.

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