James Tenney

This project compiles all the compositions of James Tenney which gravitate around the doublebass. It was all recorded and released for Hat-Hut Records, and the best way to introduce the project is quoting the wonderful review of Evan Johnson on Tempo, the Cambridge issue for new music:


BASS WORKS’: JAMES TENNEY. Dario Calderone (db), William Lane (va), Francesco Dillon (vc). hat [now]ART 197James Tenney was an experimental composer’s composer. He has been overshadowed in the public imagination (by Cage, Xenakis, Lucier, Nancarrow …) in most of the arenas of musical discovery in which he was a pioneer; but he was a beloved and influential teacher, the author of masterful if idiosyncratic theoretical texts (Meta-Hodos and Meta Meta-Hodos should be required reading for all composers of any aesthetic inclination), and a composer of a large catalogue of works exploring just intonation and other alternate tunings, stochastic processes, computer-generated material, information theory, text scores, and on and on. The works gathered here form a useful introduction to several of the worlds that Tenney made his own: the acoustic phenomena, the just intonation, the notational experiments, the canons, the slow glissandi and associated aural illusions. This disc is at least as potent, though, as a showpiece for bassist Dario Calderone, whose technical command and sonic imagination threaten to overshadow all of Tenney’s compositional mastery and conceptual innovation. Calderone’s recording opens with two of the well-known set of ten ‘Postal Pieces’ that Tenney had printed on postcards and dedicated to friends and colleagues. Beast, written for bassist Buell Neidlinger in July 1971, epitomises one prominent strand of Tenney’s experimental work. The piece is an eight-minute series of symmetrical arches with Fibonacci proportions, the score merely a sinusoidal curve-within-curve on gridded paper with a prose explanation beneath. That paragraph instructs that the lowest string of the instrument, tuned down from E to E-flat, execute a series of glissandi specified only by the acoustic result: a constantly changing density of acoustic beats as the sliding pitch is heard against the open A string above. This description of the piece makes it seem like a laboratory demonstration, albeit one with an artistically conceived time structure, of a fairly rudimentary acoustic phenomenon with which anyone who has tuned a string instrument is familiar. But, as Tenney well knew, the insertion of a human and his instrument between the graphed curve and the listening ear is what compels the attention. First, an even halfway accurate performance requires superhuman control and concentration; the sliding finger is never still, its rate of motion is never constant, and the intensity of the pursuit of rigorous symmetry and precise proportional relations is unrelenting. The demonstration, then, if there is one, is less of the phenomenon of first-order difference tones than of the subcutaneously explosive virtuosity of the bassist. Second, that instrument: the choice of the double bass as the conveyor of this material inevitably foregrounds the instrument’s mass and momentum, its inherent graininess and noisiness, and the heaviness and relative clumsiness of the bow. There is no provision in the score for bow changes, for instance, but the regular interruptions of the otherwise continuous ribbon of sound immediately concretise it, so that we are not witnessing a pedagogical exhibition but overhearing a slumbering beast. This little piece is – albeit in a somewhat perverse sense – a masterpiece of orchestration. (night), another of the Postal Pieces, is an altogether different proposition. Presented here in two versions, the score – far from the subtle hyper-specificity of Beast – comprises three phrases, presented unadorned and staggered on a card that is otherwise blank except for the title, dedication (to Harold Budd), Tenney’s name, and the August 1971 date of composition: ‘very soft [/] very long [/] nearly white’. As such gnomic text scores go, this one is remarkably passive. Its intensities simmer substantially further beneath the surface than those of Beast, but they are there. The rest of the work’s title is ‘For Percussion Perhaps, Or …’, and there is a mesmerising and nearly motionless performance, also on hat[now]Art, by the percussionist Matthias Kaul (using a prepared hurdy-gurdy, of all things). The first of Calderone’s two versions for bass is along these lines: a reverentially slow and, yes, whitish exploration of the overtones and subtle noises that emerge from changing bowing locations on the instrument’s very long and very heavy strings. The physicality of the atmosphere here is utterly different from the more assertive, menacing tone of Beast, but Calderone’s control and split-second artistic thoughtfulness are just as evident. His second version is more of a reach, interpretively speaking. A roughly noisy opening, with relatively rapid bow strokes, introduces a world in which ‘very soft’, ‘very long’ and ‘nearly white’ are distant structural goals – endpoints – rather than preconditions: the emergent overtones are more muffled screams than distant bells, the atmosphere more violent than white. The nine-minute decrescendo that follows, ending in a stuttering, pianississimo growl, is Calderone’s response to the score here. It is of course impossible to say that this is not a valid interpretation of Tenney’s piece, and as another, contrasting, exhibition of Calderone’s mastery and the beautiful sound of his instrument it is compelling. At the end, though, the version of this little Postcard to which I return is not either of Calderone’s, but Kaul’s. The rest of the disc is devoted to a later work, Glissade (1982), for viola, cello, bass and tape delay. This is a series of five pieces exploring, as the title suggests, a variety of glissando-based phenomena, mostly in canonic form (with the added participation, in a slightly different way each time, of the electronic delay), often invoking just intonation in their harmonic approach. Shimmer is a fairly straightforward cascade of swooping natural-harmonic glissandi, slowly traversing the four strings of each instrument from bottom to top and back in an orderly fashion; Array (a’rising) is almost an instrumental arrangement of one of Tenney’s few well-known works, the electronic For Ann (rising), with its apparently infinite upward spiral of Shepherd-Risset glissandi that is rather less convincing in the less illusion-prone medium of live string performance; Bessel functions of the first kind does what it says on the tin, tracing a particular mathematical curve (essentially a progressively dampened sine wave) in swaying fff motion slightly staggered in the three instruments; Trias Harmonica presents extremely slow deviations from a central D, creating beats and buzzing difference tones as the two moving instruments gradually arrive at points a fifth above and an octave below the axis after seven minutes of inexorable motion. The last, Stochastic-canonic Variations, is an outlier on this disc as the most recognisably ‘musical’ experience, due largely to the unexpected diversity of articulations: tremolo, col legno battuto, and fierce pizzicati place us in a familiar world of mid-twentieth-century expressionist string writing, even if the underlying mechanisms and harmonies are pure Tenney.  It is the Lucieresque concentration of Trias Harmonica that stands out in this little collection for its purity and its buzzing intensity. The performances are unimpeachable; music like this requires a rare and strange combination of uninhibited athleticism and rigorous precision that is captured expertly by Calderone and his colleagues, violist William Lane and cellist Francesco Dillon. This recording, especially the first two tracks, is a stunning testament to Calderone’s understated mastery, Tenney’s compositional imagination within his own creatively confined strictures, and, not least, the prowess of recording engineer Micha de Kanter. It is let down only by the impression of slapdash amateurishness given by a back cover smattered with several prominent typos (including two different birth years for Tenney and a misspelling of Calderone’s surname). One can only hope that this record will sell as many copies as the performances deserve, and that a second printing will allow a copy editor to rise to the occasion. Evan Johnson


Performance history:

October 2014: Oostade theater, Amsterdam

July 2016: Composit, Teatro Varrone, Rieti

March 2018: DNK, Broedplaats Lely, Amsterdam