Thursday, July 25, 2019

James Tenney: the Remaining Appendices

The collection of articles by music theorist and composer James Tenney published by the University of Illinois Press under the title From Scratch: Writings in Music Theory includes three appendices. The third of these has already been discussed in an account of the five-year period during which Tenney tried to develop a more “contemporary” theory of harmony. This article will examine the other two appendices and thus conclude the ongoing effort to account for the entire collection.

The first appendix was written in 1959; and, when this book was being planned, it was given the title “Pre—Meta + Hodos.” It amounts to a collection of initial thoughts that would eventually be refined into Tenney’s Master’s thesis, “Meta + Hodos: A Phenomenology of Twentieth-Century Musical Materials and an Approach to the Study of Form.” That means that the “big picture” of “Meta + Hodos” includes these initial preceding thoughts and well as the succeeding thoughts that were eventually published as “META Meta + Hodos.”

(I have to say that I am no stranger to this “evolutionary” approach to writing. Shortly after I began work in Santa Barbara in 1978, I was invited to a party where I got to meet several former graduate students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that arrived after I had received my doctoral degree in 1971. One of them came up to me; and, as soon as I introduced myself, he said, “I have been trying to rewrite your thesis for the last several years!” I replied calmly, “I wish you had gotten in touch. I’ve done that many times already.” In retrospect I realize that I now regret that I did not keep the notebook in which I first set down those thoughts that would eventually become my thesis. Tenney was clearly more conscious about such things that I was!)

“Pre—Meta + Hodos” never mentions phenomenology. Indeed, I hope that Tenney’s spirit would not be disturbed if I described this document as a study in terminology. This effort at “coming to terms” (a phrase I have unabashedly appropriated from the title of a book by the late narrative theorist Seymour Chatman) was motivated by Tenney’s recognition that the vocabulary of music theory was, at the time he was writing this essay, still very much locked into semantics based on “common practice” traditions. Tenney appreciated that those semantics needed to evolve to keep up with how practices of making and listening to music had changed since 1900.

While I admire the project he set for himself, I have found myself wrestling with an alternative point of view that clearly had not yet entered Tenney mindset in 1959. This has to do with the extent to which the common practice lexicon is almost entirely rooted in nouns and noun phrases, thus holding off at considerable distance the extent to which both making and listening to music are actions (probably a combination of physical and mental activities). In other words, if we are to do justice to the “practice” side of “common practice,” we need to explore verb-based approaches to description, perhaps to the extent that we accept the breadth of verb grammar with constructs such as tense and mood.

Then, as a corollary, we must recognize that any verb-based strategy must be based on time-consciousness. I see this as the strategic shift that both Tenney and myself pursued to mine the resources of phenomenology in general and Edmund Husserl’s lectures on time-consciousness in particular. However, awareness of phenomenology is only part of the foundation. We also need to recognize that when we actually set about to write about either making or listening music, we draw upon the “text type” (a term I acquired through reading Chatman) of description.

The problem is that writing descriptions tends to be much more difficult than writing other text types, such as the logic of argumentation, narrative, or even general exposition. Writing a description in which time-consciousness is involved is even more difficult. During one of my past efforts to grasp the nature of verb-based thinking, I wrote the following:
The challenge of providing a textual account of “what is” is already, as has been previously discussed, formidable enough.  Where the performance of music is concerned, however, “what is” is secondary to “what is happening;”  but “what is happening” is already “in the moment.”  We cannot begin to describe it (and mind cannot try to deal with it in terms of categories and instances) until it has elapsed;  and then we have to worry about a “new moment!”  The act of description is not only formidable, it may also be theoretically impossible.  The best we can do is engage in an ongoing process of coming up with approximations;  and the beauty of the performance of music is that there will always be room for yet another approximation, which may or may not be a refinement of a previous one!
I think it would be fair to say that Tenney never really rose to this challenge. The two appendices that precede the one written as part of his theoretical approaches to harmony are solidly noun-based. “Pre—Meta + Hodos” is basically an effort to lay a terminological foundation; and, in that foundation, even time itself is treated as a noun. The second essay then explores “musical parameters,” which amounts to laying out the adjectives that can be summoned to modify the nouns. Both of these essays cover significant distances and can be valued for that; but they do not help us to approach the verb-based side of music. A systematic approach to coming up with useful descriptions of “what is happening” when we make or experience music still eludes us; and, when one considers From Scratch in its entirety, one can see how that approach also eluded Tenney.

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