CD Review:

James Tenney:  Selected Works 1961-1969.
CD 1007 Artifact Recordings.

This newly released CD is a collection of early computer works by James Tenney from the 1960's. Most of the work was realized at Bell Telephone Laboratories where Tenney was one of the first composers to work directly with Max Mathews' digital synthesis program, which eventuallybecame MUSIC IV. 

Tenney was a young composer at the time, but he already had developed a body of works influenced by Webern and Varèse, and a theoretical paper, Meta-Hodos, in which he had drawn on the field of gestalt psychology for a new and abstract way to talk about music composition and perception. Like Webern's other followers Boulez and Stockhausen, Tenney saw the possibility of a totally parameterized sound music, in which any of the various aspects of the sounding body of the music could become structurally important if the composer chose to organize them. His work Meta-Hodos  was an attempt to find a new order in the overwhelming freedom total parameterization made available by basing compositional choices on supposed psychological principles. 

The clothing of his insights in the language of psychological theory may have been somewhat bogus ? many artists are mesmerized by science's authority ? but the insights themselves definitely were not. By seeking the natural groupings imposed by the mind in perceiving music, he was able to apply his own powerful musical knowledge and intuition to defining an effective new theory of composition, appropriate to the new musical universe.

All this of course was a perfect fit to the new world of computer music, where the technical situation demands a rethinking of music to its bases. (In fact, a currently popular compositional language, HMSL, is largely based on Tenney's theoretical writings.) In Tenney's way of working the split between algorithmic composition and computer sound synthesis technique was non-existent: he planned procedures, sometimes deterministic and sometimes statistical, which controlled every relevant aspect of the piece, from overall form to microstructure and timbre. And curiously, he produced all these pieces in an eight year period and has since then done no computer-synthesized works at all.

Many of the pieces on this CD have a highly formal nature, and a tendency towards self-similar structures across different time scales. Phases (for Edgard Varèse) organizes note durations and timbre parameters using sinusoids of different phases and frequencies, over frequency ranges such that all levels of the 12 minute piece, from mirostructure to overall form are organized by the same device. Two pieces, Fabric for Ché and Music for Player Piano are palindromes; For Ann(Rising) is a formal working out of variations of the Shepard Tone, which constantly rises without end.

The dryness of Tenney's theoretical writings and methods reveal nothing however of the great energy, humor and tactile quality of his work. Blue Suede, a reworking of Elvis's version of  Blue Suede Shoes is a music concrète masterpiece: I've never heard a piece that gets so much out of working the edge of intelligibility of transformed samples. It's very noisy, raucous and alive, with an almost cartoon-like quality when the King's swooning voice pops out of the stew. Another wonderful piece with a similar sort of dæmonic energy is Fabric for Ché, a wild, dense melange of glissandi, noise bursts and babbling tones which opens abruptly, goes nowhere, and cuts off ten minutes later, seeming to give the listener a sudden immersion in a complex yet static world.  The strangeness and power of these works, as with the Phases  (for Edgard Varèse) piece, are born of a characteristic blend of opposites in Tenney:  a sense of all hell breaking loose in some strangely and beautifully ordered way.

The CD is well produced. Most of the pieces have been artfully de-noised and re-processed from original master tapes from the sixties; others, such as For Ann (Rising), were re-realized with modern equipment according to Tenney's specifications. The disk is accompanied by knowledgeable liner notes from Larry Polansky, our leading Tenney scholar.