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James Tenney, 72; CalArts Teacher & Contemporary Composer
James Tenney died on Thursday, August 24th of lung cancer.
The last time I spoke to Jim Tenney, it was at Target in Valencia. As always, it was a bit of an awkward situation. I think I was buying Halo 2; something that may not be too impressive to a professor who was a conceptual composer. The only music I was doing post-college was scoring a documentary, but his body language seemed stoic in reaction to it.
"He was a great teacher, great drinker, great companion, and an interestingly odd personality," said Kyle Gann in his Postclassic blog on ArtsJournal. One of the great things about CalArts were the various parties professors would hold at their homes. As the "great drinker," Tenney did this often, with much wine to be drunk and shared with students.
If you listen to contemporary classical music and have no idea who I'm talking about, it would be no surprise. Gann summed it up perfectly in American Music in the Twentieth Century: "No other composer is so revered by fellow composers, and so unknown to the public at large... "
If you were a Sonic Youth fan, you may have heard his work on their album, Goodbye 20th Century, where they covered the 60's avant-garde. It featured Tenney's honestly titled Having Never Written a Note for Percussion, written for another uber famous CalArtian - percussionist, John Bergamo.
In one of his best-known scores, "Having Never Written a Note for Percussion," he drew a single note on a postcard. He asked that the note, of no specified pitch, last a long time. It begins at the threshold of hearing, rises in volume to the threshold of pain and returns to near-silence. But the sound can prove astonishingly complex and the effect on a listener is memorable. No instrument is indicated, but if, say, a cymbal is used, the textures grow so thick that the ear becomes all but overwhelmed by their richness and volume. [LA Times, Mark Swed]
Tenney was born in New Mexico, but ended up in the Los Angeles suburb of Valencia (in Santa Clarita) twice: once in the early days of CalArts in the 70's and then again in 2000. I remember him always to be clad with a hint of cowboy, which was more appropriate to the history of the Newhall neighborhood next to Valencia. I would sometimes see him walk to CalArts via the paseos, where soccer moms frequented, on hot days dressed in those clothes. The desert heat never seemed to bother him.
I found him to be a very confident man. Solid.
Tenney loved telling us stories of his times with all the 60's composers and we envied him for that experience. If people like John Cage excite you, then you know what I'm talking about.
It took a few days for the LA Times to catch on, but I'm glad Mark Swed finally wrote an obituary. I'll leave the rest to him as he can explain Tenney's music and importance better than I can.
However, I am surprised Swed left out, what may be a lingering question in people's heads about Tenney being involved in a certain art film. From what I've heard, it was more of a light-hearted subject that friends joked about with him, but maybe Swed thought differently as readers might be offended to reading about that in an obituary. This was not about exploitation, more about art and there's nothing wrong with that: Carolee Schneemann, Sexual Liberation and the Avant-garde of the 1960s.
CalArts will be doing a concert honoring Tenney this fall, but I can only assume there will be one at REDCAT as well.
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