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James Tenney

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Title: James Tenney  
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Subject: Stephen Whittington, List of music students by teacher: G to J, Carolee Schneemann, Noise music, Just intonation
Collection: 1934 Births, 2006 Deaths, 20Th-Century American Musicians, 20Th-Century Classical Composers, American Classical Composers, American Male Classical Composers, American Music Theorists, Bennington College Alumni, Cancer Deaths in California, Deaths from Lung Cancer, Microtonal Composers, Musicians from Denver, Colorado, Musicians from New Mexico, People from Grant County, New Mexico, Polytechnic Institute of New York University Faculty, Pupils of Carl Ruggles, Pupils of Chou Wen-Chung, Pupils of Edgard Varèse, Pupils of Eduard Steuermann, Pupils of Harry Partch, Pupils of Henry Brant, Pupils of John Cage, Pupils of Kenneth Gaburo
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James Tenney

James Tenney (August 10, 1934 – August 24, 2006) was an American composer and influential music theorist.


  • Biography 1
  • Influence 2
  • Interviews 3
  • References 4
  • Further reading 5
  • External links 6
    • Listening 6.1


Tenney was born in Silver City, New Mexico, and grew up in Arizona and Colorado. He attended the University of Denver, the Juilliard School of Music, Bennington College (B.A., 1958) and the University of Illinois (M.A., 1961). He studied piano with Eduard Steuermann and composition with Chou Wen-chung, Lionel Nowak, Paul Boepple, Henry Brant, Carl Ruggles, Kenneth Gaburo, Lejaren Hiller, John Cage, Harry Partch, and Edgard Varèse. He also studied information theory under Lejaren Hiller, and composed stochastic early computer music before turning almost completely to writing for instruments with the occasional tape delay, often using just intonation and alternative tunings. Tenney's notable students include John Luther Adams, John Bischoff, Peter Garland, Larry Polansky, Charlemagne Palestine, and Marc Sabat. He performed with John Cage, as well as with the ensembles of Harry Partch (in a production of Partch's The Bewitched in 1959), Steve Reich, and Philip Glass (the latter two in the late 1960s).

He lived in New York during much of the 60s, where a large part of his contribution to the music scene was funnelled through "Tone Roads", a group founded with Malcolm Goldstein and Philip Corner, and for which his partner Carolee Schneemann designed beautiful flyers and programs. He was exceptionally dedicated to his great New England forebear Charles Ives, many of whose compositions he conducted (including the first performance of "in re, con moto"); his interpretation of the "Concord" Sonata for piano was much praised.

Tenney's work deals with perception (For Ann (rising), see Shepard tone), just intonation (Clang, see gestalt), stochastic elements (Music for Player Piano), information theory (Ergodos, see ergodic theory), and with what he called 'swell' (Koan: Having Never Written A Note For Percussion for John Bergamo), which is basically arch form.

His earliest works show the influence of Webern, Ruggles and Varèse, whereas his music from 1961-64 was largely computer music, one of the earliest significant body of such work in existence.[1] In 1961, Tenney composed Analogue #1: Noise Study (for tape) using computer synthesized noise[2] and Collage No.1 (Blue Suede) (for tape) by sampling and manipulating a famous Elvis Presley recording.[3]

In 1967 he gave an influential FORTRAN workshop for a group of composers and Fluxus artist that included Steve Reich, Nam June Paik, Dick Higgins, Jackson Mac Low, Phil Corner, Alison Knowles and Max Neuhaus.[4]

A gradual assimilation of the ideas of John Cage considerably influenced the development of his music in the later 1960s. To this was added an interest in tuning and in the harmonic series, as first evident in the orchestral work Clang of 1972, an interest that continued to develop for the rest of his life.

The majority of Tenney's mature works (post-1964) are instrumental pieces, often for unconventional instrumental combinations (e.g. Glissade for viola, cello, double bass and tape delay system (1982), Bridge for two pianos eight hands in a microtonal tuning system (1982–84), Changes for six harps tuned a sixth of a semitone apart, 1985) or for variable instrumentation (Critical Band, 1988, In a Large Open Space, 1994). His pieces are most often tributes to other composers or colleagues and subtitled as such. As his friend Philip Corner says, For Ann (rising), "must be optimistic! (Imagine the depressing effectiveness of it — he could never be so cruel — downward)..."

Tenney wrote the seminal Meta (+) Hodos (one of, if not the, earliest applications of gestalt theory and cognitive science to music), the later Hierarchical temporal gestalt perception in music : a metric space model with Larry Polansky, John Cage and the Theory of Harmony (1983, the fullest exposition of his theories of harmonic space), and other works. Nearly a quarter of a 657-page volume of the academic journal Perspectives of New Music was devoted to Tenney's music (Polansky and Rosenboom 1987), and in 2008 the UK journal Contemporary Music Review devoted a whole issue to his work (vol. 27 part 1).

Tenney was one of the four performers of the Steve Reich piece Pendulum Music on May 27, 1969 at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The other three were: Michael Snow, Richard Serra and Bruce Nauman. Tenney also performed on Terry Riley's album In C.

Tenney also wrote the in-depth liner notes to Wergo's edition of Conlon Nancarrow's Studies for Player Piano. (Nancarrow, as a favor, punched the roll for Tenney's Spectral Canon for Conlon Nancarrow). Tenney also starred nude in a 1965 silent film of collaged and painted sequences of lovemaking between him and his then partner, the kinetic-theater artist Carolee Schneemann, called Fuses; he did much other music for her, and participated in her events. (Haug 2007, 20 & 25–26).

He taught at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, the California Institute of the Arts, the University of California, and York University in Toronto.

He died on 24 August 2006 of lung cancer in Valencia, California.


In 2015, techno artist Rrose released Rrose Plays James Tenney - Having Never Written a Note for Percussion on Further Records (FUR099). The release consists of both a studio and live version of Rrose performing Tenney's piece, and includes a facsimile insert of Tenney's original hand-written post card score. The studio version was performed and recorded at Brookland Artspace Studios, Washington D.C., on September 20, 2012. The live version was performed and recorded in the Dupont Underground Train Tunnels Beneath Washington D.C. on September 22, 2012.


  • NewMusicBox: "Postcards from the Edge" (June 1, 2005). James Tenney in conversation with Frank J. Oteri on May 8–11, 2005. (includes video)
  • Hermits of Re-Tuning (Show 115) James Tenney interviewed on Kalvos & Damian New Music Bazaar, August 2, 1997 (click to listen)
  • Artist House:Video interviews with James Tenney
  • James Tenney interviewed by American Mavericks (click to listen)
  • James Tenney and Lucky Mosko interviewed by Border Patrol (click to listen)
  • Interview with Douglas Kahn on years at Bell Labs [1]
  • "James Tenney on Intention, Harmony and Phenomenology — A Different View of the Larger Picture", Ciarán Maher, MusicWorks Issue 77


  1. ^ Douglas Kahn, "James Tenney at Bell Labs" in Hannah Higgins, & Douglas Kahn (Eds.), Mainframe experimentalism: Early digital computing in the experimental arts, University of California Press, 2012, p. 132
  2. ^ Douglas Kahn, "James Tenney at Bell Labs" in Hannah Higgins, & Douglas Kahn (Eds.), Mainframe experimentalism: Early digital computing in the experimental arts, University of California Press, 2012, pp. 131-146
  3. ^ Paul Doornbusch, A Chronology / History of Electronic and Computer Music and Related Events 1906–2011 [2]
  4. ^ Douglas Kahn, "James Tenney at Bell Labs" in Hannah Higgins, & Douglas Kahn (Eds.), Mainframe experimentalism: Early digital computing in the experimental arts, University of California Press, 2012, p. 133
  • Hasegawa, Robert (ed.). 2008. "The Music of James Tenney". 27, no. 1 (February)Contemporary Music Review. Routledge (subscription access).
  • Haug, Kate. 1998. "An Interview with Carolee Schneemann". Wide Angle 20, no. 1:20–49. (Accessed 3 February 2007)
  • Polansky, Larry, and David Rosenboom (eds.). 1987. "A Tribute to James Tenney". Perspectives of New Music 25, nos. 1 & 2 (Fall-Winter & Spring-Summer): 434–591.
  • Gilmore, Bob "SPECTRUM PIECES". Liner notes. New World Records.
  • Douglas Kahn, "James Tenney at Bell Labs" in Hannah Higgins, & Douglas Kahn (Eds.), Mainframe experimentalism: Early digital computing in the experimental arts, University of California Press, 2012, pp. 131–146

Further reading

  • Garland, Peter (ed.). 1984. Soundings Vol. 13: The Music of James Tenney. Santa Fe, New Mexico: Soundings Press.
  • Hasegawa, Robert (ed.). 2008. "The Music of James Tenney". 27, no. 1 (February)Contemporary Music Review. Routledge (subscription access).
  • Tenney, James. 1986. META+HODOS: A Phenomenology of 20th Century Musical Materials and an Approach to the Study of Form, and META Meta+Hodos. Edited by Larry Polansky. Oakland, Calif.: Frog Peak Music. ISBN 0-945996-00-4.
  • Tenney, James. 1988. A History of 'Consonance and Dissonance'. New York: Excelsior Music Publishing Co. ISBN 0-935016-99-6.

External links

  • James Tenney at including a complete list of works and a selection of Tenney's writings.
  • The Living Composers Project: James Tenney
  • James Tenney biography from Smith Archives at the University of Akron
  • CDeMUSIC: James Tenney
  • Artifact: James Tenney: Selected Works
  • The University of Akron Bierce Library: Smith Archives: Composer Profile: James Tenney
  • The Early Works of James Tenney (book)
  • North American Spectralism: The Music of James Tenney (article)
  • CalArts: James Tenney
  • James Tenney reminiscence by Kyle Gann
  • Spectral Variations 1 to 3 test realisations and notes by Ciarán Maher
  • UbuWeb Sound page for James Tenney
  • Just intonation version of Tenney's Chromatic Canon for Two Pianos, using the tuning system provided by Tenney

Groups who often perform Tenney's works:

  • Quatuor Bozzini
  • The Barton Workshop
  • Motion Ensemble


  • John Cage works performed by James Tenney Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano and 4'33" at the SASSAS sound. concert archive and at SASSAS @ YouTube - excerpt one on YouTube and excerpt two on YouTube
  • Spectral Variation No 1 recording of premiere at DNK amsterdam by Ciarán Maher
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