"Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got 'till it's gone?" queries Joni Mitchell in a well-known song.
With the passing of "unpopular" (by his own estimate) composer James Tenney in August 2006, a large segment of the music world wasn't aware what it had lost as the vast majority of his music had never been made available on recordings. Tenney was a known quality mostly to other composers who had either studied with him or read his incisive, pioneering texts on new musical resources. With Mode's James Tenney: Melody, Ergodicity and Indeterminacy, featuring members of the Barton Workshop both alternating and interacting with historic tape tracks of Tenney's computer music, the enigmatic, soft-spoken composer finally begins to come into focus in a general way.This program mixes up works from three major areas where Tenney was especially productive; pieces for solo instruments and one piano duo, electronic works created on computers, and chamber pieces that incorporate a few instruments along with a computer track. Clarinetist John Anderson performs Tenney's early Monody (1959), which consists of a jagged solo line that contains some measure of jazzy gestures, and contrasts it with Seegersong No. 1 (1999), a more demure and restrained work that explores Charles Seeger's underutilized concept of "dissonant counterpoint" which predates the First World War. Likewise, flutist Jos Zwaanenburg matches Poem (1955), with its gestures reminiscent of Edgard Varèse's Density 21.5, with Seegersong No. 2 (1999). Although the Seegersongs are less outwardly complex then their brethren of the 1950s, these pieces originate in an obviously deeper, more mature and less reactive wellspring of Tenney's creativity.With the pieces grouped under the Ergodos heading, we witness another aspect of Tenney's thinking beyond determinate scores. Tenney's Ergodic music consists of material of which the final presentation is left up to the performers; there is no beginning, middle, or end of the pieces. In the majority of John Cage's "indeterminate" pieces, Cage has performed the I Ching tosses and executed the score beforehand with copious instructions -- the performer is left with the task of figuring out what he means and performing something based on such conclusions. In Tenney's Ergodic music, the performer is a collaborator interacting with parts prepared by Tenney; the result is an improvisation that is in part derived from the material derived.
The Ergodic tape tracks can be started at any point and played in both directions, and the score of Ergodos III (1994) consists of 11 pages for two pianos -- the pianists agree beforehand which pages to play, and how to coordinate the performance.All of the ensemble playing by the Barton Workshop's is very crisp in such loosely defined music; at one point in the Ergodos III Frank Denyer and Nora Mulder veer into a completely tonal passage out of more scattered material that proceeds it, and the effect is natural and feels like it belongs. This is just one of many surprises that listeners will encounter in the course of experiencing Mode's James Tenney: Melody, Ergodicity and Indeterminacy. Though much of Tenney's works bear dates that are "historical," the music remains fresh, upbeat, and contemporary; listeners who enjoy music that pushes the envelope and provides new challenges should be ready now to welcome James Tenney into their libraries.
|Poem, for flute||James Tenney||2:12|
|Ergodos I for John Cage||James Tenney||3:30|
|Monody, for clarinet||James Tenney||3:09|
|Ergodos II with Instrumental Responses||James Tenney||4:01|
|Seegersong No. 1, for clarinet||James Tenney||12:35|
|Ergodos II with Instrumental Responses|
|String Complement, computer music with violin, viola, cello, bass||James Tenney||10:27|
|Seegersong No. 2, for flute||James Tenney||12:31|
|Ergodos I for John Cage|
|Instrumental Responses, computer music with flute, bass clarinet, trombone, bassoon, violin, viola,||James Tenney||8:48|
|Ergodos III, for 2 pianos||James Tenney||13:49|
|Ergodos I for John Cage|
|Percussion Response, computer music with percussion||James Tenney||8:42|