Wednesday, July 17, 2019

James Tenney’s 1990 Darmstadt Lecture

The next article I encountered in my traversal of the chapters in the James Tenney anthology From Scratch: Writings in Music Theory is entitled simply “Darmstadt Lecture.” The lecture was delivered on July 26, 1990, when Tenney was one of the many composers attending that year’s Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik, Darmstadt (international summer schools for new music at Darmstadt). I gathered from the first sentence of this article that much of the activity involved attendees presenting lectures to their fellow attendees; but, apparently, titles for the lectures were not required.

Tenney began by suggesting the title “Problems of Harmony (II),” the number indicating that Arnold Schoenberg had written a paper with the same title (without a number), which he presented as a lecture on January 20, 1927. (Given that date, it is clear that both the title and the presentation were in German.) Tenney then explained that the plural referred a variety of “smaller problems,” addressing different aspects of the overall topic. Those “subproblems” were, in the order discussed: the historical, the role of theory, the phenomenological, the psychoacoustic, the semantic, and the compositional.

My first reaction was that this fit neatly into “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two,” the title of a famous paper by cognitive psychologist George Armitage Miller about how many different “items” you could hold in your head at any given time. However, much as I admired Miller and always enjoyed listening to him lecture, I realized that I was much more at home with the ancient tradition of division into three parts. That realization reminded me of the first time I tried to write something serious about the performance of music on this site, in which I explained why I had a tendency to be skeptical of recitals given by competition winners.

My overall framework followed the “rule of three” but in an unlikely manner. The foundation for my argument was the medieval trivium of logic, grammar, and rhetoric. I treated each of these as a “dimension” along which I could describe both my listening experiences and my negative response to those experiences. That article was written in March of 2007, and well over a decade later I continue to appeal to either parts of that framework or its entirety when taking on problems of both describing and evaluating listening experiences.

Tenney’s lecture, on the other hand, was the product of a composer, rather than a listener. Nevertheless, each of the problems he reviewed amounted to a problem that would confront anyone trying to describe a piece of music, whether it involved the nature of how the music would be performed or the nature of the experience from the perspective of a listener. As Tenney worked his way through the first five problems, I found myself sometimes nodding in agreement, sometimes feeling is if a lightbulb had gone on above my head, and seldom with a Spock-like arched eyebrow.

However, when Tenney came to composition as a problem unto itself, I felt as if either or both of us had hit a brick wall. Rather than talking about composition as a particularly unique subclass of human behavior in general, Tenney devoted almost all of his attention to the concept of a “harmonic space.” His punch line then turned out to be that the activity of composition could be described in terms of “activity in harmonic space” (emphasis in the source text).

This surprised me for any number of reasons. One of the most important involved the close and friendly relationship that Tenney had with John Cage. (Tenney may be the first composer to appreciate and accept what Cage was doing since the early days when Cage and Pierre Boulez were correspondents.) The conclusion of Tenney’s lecture led me to wonder whether he had encountered Erik Satie’s (in?)famous dictum that “music is what happens at concerts.” Cage clearly embraced that assertion and never seemed to run out of innovative ways to exercise it.

Tenney, on the other hand, always seems to have fallen back on “marks on paper,” whether the medium was a score page, a mathematical proposition, or a line of code in a FORTRAN program. To be fair, it would not surprise me if those were also the three “frames of mind” found in every other participant of that year’s summer school. We are getting close to the 30th anniversary of that particular summer school, and I feel a need to ask whether we have advanced or regressed.

I would like to believe that no-one writes code in FORTRAN any more; and it has been quite some time since I have encountered anything requiring me to resuscitate my previous education in higher mathematics. The good news is that I still encounter a fascinating diversity when it comes to the sorts of marks on paper that pass from composer to performer. I take this as a significant departure from the need for “academic reinforcement” when one sets about to make music. The marks on paper have declared their independence from “academic constructs;” and I have yet to regret where that independence is leading us!

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