James Tenney Festival
James Tenney (1934-2006) had a long history at California Institute of the Arts, known to many simply as CalArts. He taught there before he moved to Toronto in 1976, and he was invited to return in 2000 to take the Roy E Disney Family Chair in Musical Composition. His landmark series of ten Postal Pieces was composed there between 1964 and 1971, though most were written during two-weeks in 1971. These sometimes-long pieces, each scored on one side of a post card, bring attention to aspects of form, acoustics, and performance gesture. On the first night of the festival, nine Postal Pieces were played simultaneously in stairwells, corners of hallways, practice rooms, and other locations throughout the CalArts building, while listeners moved freely from one piece to another. At each site, one could hear no interference from the other performances, but while wandering in search of locations one often heard echoes of distant music, which filled the building with the resonance of Tenney’s music. The building came alive with sound as the many musicians and listeners circulated through it. Harold Budd, for whom (night) was written, played this intimate work for solo piano in a darkened room, while James Fulkerson, who produced the New World Records CD of Postal Pieces, played For Percussion, Perhaps Or… (night) on solo trombone with live electronics.
Events throughout the festival combined a sense of warmth and affection with the highest standards of musical performance. All events were free to the public, and all performers and organizers donated their time. The festival carried an entire community into dynamic connection with Tenney’s music and with one another. We heard the world premieres of two Tenney pieces, Arbor Vitae for string quartet, and Last Spring in Toronto for gamelan and small orchestra. Arbor Vitae is Tenney’s last composition, commissioned by Montréal’s Quatuor Bozzini, who played it with intense musicality and immense sensitivity. It was completed shortly before Tenney died, with assistance from composer Michael Winter, who studied with Tenney at CalArts a few years ago. The composition brings Tenney’s concept of harmonic space to new heights, incorporating pitches based on such complex numerical ratios that the players have to rely on frequency counters while performing. The piece successfully combines timbre and harmony for the listener, and demonstrates the validity of Tenney’s theory of harmonic space in what seems, paradoxically, to be a pitch-free context. The piece begins with high overtones playing unidentifiable harmonies, in a wash of sound that presents an acoustic unity that would be impossible if random pitches were used. As the piece progresses, lower pitches emerge, but the overall sensation that we are listening to sound, in the physical sense, and scintillatingly beautiful sound, renders irrelevant any concern with the usual musical identifiers. Tenney’s last piece is thus conceptually similar to his Postal Pieces. Arbor Vitae is notated in careful detail, yet the emphasis remains on sound as experience, as simple form, as something a listener can become immersed within—something that frees the aural imagination.
Last Spring in Toronto brought the CalArts gamelan into the foreground, with a small orchestra behind it, in a pointillistic exploration of register change and the impact of changing pitch ranges on the combined timbres of the instruments. The piece has much in common with Tenney’s early computer music pieces, composed at Bell Labs, which present sounds organized into large-scale formal shapes using computer-controlled operations that take place at progressively smaller scales. A listener is free to focus on the musical events taking place at any of these levels and to shift attention from one to another. This is a rather permissive way of listening, and Tenney structured the piece in such a way that he avoided telling us what to listen for, or what to pay attention to, again freeing the aural imagination from preconceptions.
The three days of the festival were filled with amazing performances of wonderful music. All the films that Tenney did music for were presented. Critical Band, a piece that clearly defines Tenney’s concept of harmonic space, was played by an ensemble of almost forty musicians. The performance of In a Large Open Space again brought the building into a state of resonance, played with such quiet focus that it drew attention to the impending silence of Tenney’s absence.