Wednesday, March 20, 2019

James Tenney: Music Theory Pioneer

A little over a month ago, University of Illinois press released the paperback edition of From Scratch: Writings in Music Theory. (The hardbound edition had been published in 2015.) This is a collection of essays by music theorist and composer James Tenney, written between 1959 (when he was a graduate student at the University of Illinois) and 2003. The collection was jointly edited by Larry Polansky, Lauren Pratt, Robert Wannamaker, and Michael Winter; and Polansky provided the book’s Introduction.

I should probably preface anything I write about Tenney with a bit of personal background, since I first encountered his writing when I was still an undergraduate. The first article of his that I read was “Sound-Generation by means of a Digital Computer;” and it was published in the Spring, 1963 issue of the Journal of Music Theory (Volume 7, Number 1). (I began my undergraduate studies in September of that year.) This essay provided an account of the software technology that Tenney had encountered at the Bell Labs facility in Murray Hill, New Jersey, where Max Mathews had developed a programming language for sound synthesis. (Mathews would subsequently write his own book, entitled The Technology of Computer Music, by which time the software had acquired the name Music V. The ideas behind that software are now available as Max, a programming language named after Mathews.) It would be fair to say that reading Tenney’s article and learning about Mathews’ work had a major impact on how I arrived at a topic for my doctoral thesis.

Many years later I would have my second significant encounter with a Tenney article. This time it was his review of Thomas Clifton’s book Music as Heard: A Study in Applied Phenomenology. That one appeared in the Spring, 1985 issue of the Journal of Music Theory (Volume 29, Number 1), by which time I had published two Journal of Music Theory articles of my own! That review had a revolutionary impact on how I would think about music more in terms of a practice, rather than just a collection of marks on paper.

The Bell Labs article is not included in the From Scratch collection, but the Clifton review is. If the purpose of the book was to provide a comprehensive review of Tenney’s thoughts about music and music-making, that review definitely deserves to be one of the nineteen articles (as well as the three Appendix articles) that form the contents of the book. Furthermore, after reading Polansky’s introduction, realized that I should prepare to renew the “dialog in my head” that began with my very first encounter with Tenney’s writings. Indeed, there is so much breadth and depth to From Scratch that it would be impossible to do justice to it in a single article. How I shall continue that dialog in subsequent articles remains to be seen; but, in order to get things rolling, I shall begin by limiting myself to the earliest essay in the book.

Written in 1959, that article has the longest title in the collection: “On the Development of the Structural Properties of Rhythm, Dynamics and Timbre in the Early Nontonal Music of Arnold Schoenberg.” In this essay Tenney plants a significant stake in the ground with the proposition that, in contrast to long-standing traditions of analysis, Schoenberg’s music should not be reduced to the study of pitch classes and how they contribute to melodic sequences or the simultaneity of what may be taken to be chords. Instead, he makes the case the one must take additional dimensions into account; and the article allots one section each to those dimensions of rhythm, dynamics, and timbre.

It goes without saying that I support Tenney’s thesis. Nevertheless, I feel that some issues need to be raised over how he discusses each of those dimensions. Most importantly, he never says anything about the extent to which any analysis of music entails an ability to distinguish foreground features from those of the background. This is a perspective that owes much to the insights of Heinrich Schenker; but Schenker’s approach to analysis would not recognize atonality as a “grammatically legitimate instance of music.” However, we should not throw out the bathwater of the foreground-background relation along with Schenker’s baby that basically viewed Johannes Brahms as the last legitimate composer!

I would argue that both rhythm and dynamics provide cues about what is in the foreground and when background material enters the foreground (and vice versa). In the two Schoenberg compositions that Tenney examines in his Rhythm section, the Opus 11 piano pieces and the Opus 26 wind quintet, a convincing performance demands a clear sense of what should be in the foreground on the part of the performer(s); and I fear that Tenney was too wrapped up in the notes themselves to acknowledge this fundamental precept. On the other hand, his enumerations of the “functions of the intensity-parameter” in the dynamics section seems to acknowledge foreground-background distinction at least implicitly, if not explicitly.

The real kicker, however, arises in the section on timbre. As might be guessed (at least among those who know their Schoenberg), the discussion focuses primarily on the third of the five Opus 16 orchestral pieces, to which Schoenberg himself assigned the subtitle “Farben” (colors). For the most part this movement is structured around a single chord whose instrumentation keeps changing. I have always felt that this movement poses major challenges to conductors, as well as listeners; and, for my money, Simon Rattle is (and has been for some time) the conductor that has come closest to achieving what Schoenberg had in mind.

Excerpt from Hindemith’s “Kleine Kammermusik” (from IMSLP, public domain)

Nevertheless, I have always felt it would be a good idea to add a bit of levity to the seriousness of the challenge that Schoenberg posed with this one movement. Opus 16 was completed in 1909; but the idea behind “Farben” seems to have been revisited by Paul Hindemith over a decade later. The composition I have in mind is the 1922 “Kleine Kammermusik” (Opus 24, Number 2) for wind quintet. The third movement has a middle section that involves a prodigious repetition of a B minor triad, which is played by flute, (B-flat) clarinet, and horn (in F). However, the pitches of the triad keep bouncing from one instrument to another. To my ears this is Hindemith twitting Schoenberg by showing that one can play the “Farben game” with a triad just as easily as one can deploy it in an atonal setting. Nevertheless, this is just my own opinion about “rhetorical voice;” and I can appreciate Tenney’s decision to focus solely on Schoenberg himself!

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