Hermits of Re-Tuning
Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar, Show #115, 2 August 1997. Kalvos & Damian on the road in Toronto at the composer’s home. Listen to the interview from the original broadcast [0:33:30–1:45:02].
A performer as well as a composer and theorist, James Tenney (1934–2006) was co-founder and conductor of the Tone Roads Chamber Ensemble in New York City (1963–70). He was a pioneer in the field of electronic and computer music, working with Max Mathews and others at the Bell Telephone Laboratories in the early 1960s to develop programs for computer sound-generation and composition. He wrote works for a variety of media, both instrumental and electronic, many of them using alternative tuning systems. (Canadian Music Centre, January 2008)
[Kalvos] James Tenney, welcome to the Kalvos & Damian New Music Bazaar.
[James Tenney] This is what it’s like, huh?
[K] I’m afraid so. [General laughter] You are a frequent performer. We’ve played every single cut of the historic 1961–1969 pieces many times on our show. It’s a monument. How’s it feel to be a monument?
[JT] Well, it’s fine, but I have to say you obviously have very good taste. [Laughter]
[K] We do, and so does our listening audience.
[Damian] Right. Limited budget has nothing to do with it. [General laughter]
[K] But the individual pieces on that — I mean, it’s 25–30 years ago now, the works on there — but they hold up over a generation with no trouble. That’s not the case with so much other music from that era. You listen to some pieces from very well-known composers, and they just weaken, they just become dated. You hear the datedness. But something remains fresh, with For Ann (rising) for example. Simple concept, but a maddening piece, and still every bit as fresh as the day you created it. Blue Suede, same thing. I mean, everybody did collages, you did some of the early ones, but it works. It works, 30 years later it works. So, bring us up to date. Maybe you could start from — since our audience is familiar with those pieces already — how you jumped off from that era and where you went, and how you came to Toronto, and what you’re doing?
[JT] Well, what that recording represents is the work that I did in the 1960s. In fact, the dating on it is 61–69. Essentially, I was focused on electronic and computer music that whole decade. I was doing other things, but I was involved in the Happenings scene in New York during that same period, so I did some theatrical things and was performing in New York with Malcom Goldstein and Philip Corner. We started a performing group called Tone Roads Chamber Ensemble, named after a couple of pieces by Ives. It was intended to perform, in many cases for the first time in New York, music by people like Ives and Ruggles and Varèse and Cage, and so forth. It’s hard to believe now that some of that music, in the case of some of the Ives music, was then 50–60 years old and had not been performed. In some cases it was not published, and we had to dig up the manuscripts.
But at the end of that decade, things changed for me, and I moved to California to teach at the California Institute of the Arts. I essentially stopped doing electronic music, and went back to writing for live players on acoustic instruments.
[K] Why did you do that? Was that the California influence or that you changed everything including your geography?
[JT] No, it was really just a kind of confluence of things. Much of my work in the 60s had involved computer sound generation, but when I went to California, that kind of medium was not available to me. What was available was analog synthesis with Buchla equipment, and I’m just not a knob-twirler. It didn’t work for me. But I found I was surrounded by fabulous performers, so I began writing for them, and this brought me back into the medium of instrumental music. At just about the same time — I guess 1972 — I developed an interest in harmony, which had seemed rather irrelevant to me before that, even though when I was a student at the University of Illinois I had worked for a while with Harry Partch. So I’d had an introduction to the whole matter of exotic tuning systems, but it just didn’t really affect my own work until the 70s. I would say that just almost all of the music that I have done since 1972 has involved, in one way or another, the problem of harmony — or what Schoenberg called the “problem of harmony.” Well, or perhaps “problems of harmony.”
Over the years, I developed the historical point of view that the evolution of harmony in Western music came to a kind of an impasse around 1910. This was basically because the harmonic resources of the twelve-tone equal temperament had been exhausted, and that in order to pick up that evolutionary thread again, it was going to be necessary to go beyond that. So, much of the music that I have written — though not all of it — involves some kind of new tuning system as well. But the tuning, for me, is a means of exploring different aspects of harmony, rather than what it has been for some composers using new tunings. Even, for example, Partch. His motivation to deal with new tunings had to do with an interest in, or desire to, imitate the human voice, its inflections. And along with that — though not particularly logically connected to it — was a motivation on his part which was a kind of rebellion against the status quo, and a return to a kind of Neo-Greek classical ideal.
[K] Yeah, certainly his large productions with the soloists and chorus, and the people who not only act and sing and play the instruments, but they’re costumed…
[JT] Very much inspired by Monteverdi, really, and the Camerata. Or in other cases, I think the motivation for using new tuning systems may be just to extend the chromatic resources, for finer, more complex lines, et cetera. In other cases, it may be purely timbral or textural.
[K] Certainly in things like the Chromelodeons and some of the other instruments, which were about long sounds. That textural quality, as well as the harmonic quality, seemed to be the uppermost there.
[JT] Right. So anyway, that word harmony. I’ve been spending many, many hours puzzling over, “What does it mean, and what can we do about it?” I do not mean a return to a familiar harmonic style. It’s not neo- in any sense, and I’m really not interested in those regressive movements that are happening all around us.
[K] Yeah, it’s certainly startling that it has happened.
[JT] Yes. But, it’s easy to forget that there have always been the neo-’s. In every era, there are people that are trying to go backwards, and are managing to go backwards. [Laughter]
[K] Yes, they’re succeeding and piling up the CDs! [Laughter]
[JT] Yeah, as somebody said, “proceeding into the future, walking backwards.” So, I’m not interested in that, and I hope my own work doesn’t make any listeners think that I’m referring to the past, either.
[K] Point to a piece or two from where you made the transition or the new exploration into those different ways of tuning, and different harmonic thinking.
[JT] Beginning in 1972, I did two pieces. One is for orchestra, called Clang. I began this process rather modestly, that is at the beginning I didn’t dare to ask players in an orchestra to do very much except kind of bend their pitches a little bit in certain directions. It was essentially based on the harmonic series. That same year I did a piece for string quartet and bass called Quintext, which did ask for specialized tuning. I figured I could ask a string quartet and bass to do it, if not the players in an orchestra.
[K] A good string quartet has that sensitivity towards shifts of pitch.
[JT] Right, they’re doing it all the time. Anyway, this is just a matter of asking them to do it differently than they were doing it before. In ’78 I did a series of pieces which began in 1976, called Harmonium, long before John Adams wrote a piece called Harmonium. In ’84 I did a piece for two pianos and eight hands — that is, two players at each piano. The pianos were re-tuned in a special tuning system, a just tuning system. That piece is called Bridge, and it’s a 45-minute work. That was intended to demonstrate the possibility of moving continuously from what I thought of the sound world of John Cage to another sound world I could vaguely identify with Partch, but it’s not at all like Partch. It’s really my sound world, I guess, but involving tuning and new harmonic relations. That is on the Hat Hut CD, along with another piece that is also for two pianos. What else?
[K] Where was [Bridge] first played?
[JT] Here in Toronto. I was one of the pianists, with three others: Casie Sokol, Gordon Monahan, and Miguel Frasconi. Then we took it to the New Music America festival in Hartford. This was August 1984, and we performed it there. Since then, it’s not been played again in in North America. It’s been performed twice by two different groups, maybe even three times by three different groups, in Europe. The European performers are much more adventurous than North American.
[K] Yeah, that’s interesting. In the States, I haven’t heard any of your music played in a long time, but when I was in Europe I heard a couple of pieces. I also heard a piece of yours that Clarence Barlow realized, the Spectral CANON, and I thought that was very fascinating, the MIDI rendition of that.
[JT] Well, that’s a piece from ’74. I had met Conlon Nancarrow in Mexico City, and began a correspondence with him. I began studying his player piano pieces, and I was inspired to write a player piano piece myself, but I wanted the piano re-tuned. So in effect, the notes of the piano that are used are tuned to the harmonic series on a low A, and the whole piece is based on that. So this harmonic series connection relates to harmony, and the tuning is also another instance of using new tuning.
[K] What I thought was interesting about that particular one is that Clarence said that he had thought that piece was incomplete and that he created a realization of the piece that carried out the process you set in motion to what he considered its ultimate end. [Laughter] Having heard that realization, what do you think of that?
[JT] I like it, I like it a lot. But you know, the way I remember it was that Clarence had programmed it. It’s in the nature of the piece that it’s possible to write a simple algorithm that will generate the whole thing. I gave him the formulas required and explained the process, he wrote a little program and input it to his computer MIDI device, but as I remember, he forgot to shut it off where the original piece had shut off! So, it was really a serendipitous mistake, but Clarence doesn’t like to remember it that way. [General laughter] In any case, it’s almost a collaborative effort. Yeah, I like it a lot. We call it the “extended version.”
[K] Okay, let’s jump back to the 80s. Let me ask you if you can reflect a little on other composers who have worked on tuning systems as well, some of who are probably better known for that in the public eye, who sit at the just-tuned keyboard.
[JT] Well, like La Monte Young and Ben Johnston.
[K] La Monte Young as the more public view.
[JT] Yes, whereas Ben tends to be known in the more academic world. He’s a very fine composer and doing very interesting stuff.
[K] So a number of you were exploring these different intonations. Maybe if you could spend a little time talking about what it means, to not just the “niche listener,” shall we say, but to the world of music at large — how you expect that maybe this rethinking of intonation as a direction for harmonic thinking will have an impact down the road.
[JT] Well, first of all, just consider the situation that we’ve had. Some 200 years of a standardized tuning system. In fact, that standardization is so deeply engrained in people, that most musicians don’t even realize that that particular tuning system developed over a period of time, that it became what it was for certain reasons that had to do with the musical needs and desires of composers at a certain period. I believe that music students just sort of grow up thinking that’s the way reality is. Well, this is not the case.
For a lay audience, they should realize that the tuning they encounter whenever they hear a piano playing — whatever, Bach, Chopin — it’s an artifact, it’s a construct. It’s not some basic aspect of reality. It was created once, and over a period of time it evolved, but it can be changed. And it’s time that we do that, because without tuning, what’s possible to achieve from a harmonic standpoint — and I want it really understood that I’m only talking about harmonic development, not musical development in general — when I said that the harmonic evolution came to a dead end in 1910, I don’t mean that music came to a dead end, because it clearly did not. Composers went off in a dozen different directions exploring other aspects of music, and a fantastic body of music was created that I love very much. But in this one respect, an aspect of music stopped developing, because there was just nothing much more that could be done. Actually, that’s not quite true, because there was some more harmonic development done by jazz musicians. But, it didn’t really carry things much farther than they had been brought to by the end of the 19th century in classical music.
Now, that idea of a standardized tuning system is like other aspects of our industrial world. We somehow, I guess, take for granted that you buy hardware and it’s in standard forms and standard sizes, and this and that. But some people have defined this as a “post-industrial” era and we need to look at everything around us and question it, question its “given-ness,” instead of taking these things for granted. Hardware doesn’t bother me, but when standardization so affects an art (like music), then clearly something needs to be cleared away and… swept clean. [Laughter] And that’s the nature of the creative process, you have to continually question what’s given to begin with.
[K] Now, among the possibilities today are not only that instrumentalists — as you point out with the string quartet and double bass — can play in a different tuning system, but electronic instruments have developed to the point where changing to a different tuning system is not like re-tuning a keyboard (requiring a piano technician and a few days), but rather a push of a software icon and you’ve got a different tuning system available to you.
[JT] That’s true, but trying to carry it farther, I’m writing for re-tuned instruments of every kind. Recently a piece was done by Ensemble Modern in Frankfurt that involved strings, woodwinds, brass, piano and harp, and all of them are asked to play exotic tunings. The piano and the harp are re-tuned, and the others are asked to alter their pitches (and they need coaching to learn how to do this), but they can do it.
Partch was willing to do this. He felt it a necessity, because the way in which the music was that he came into, he felt the necessity to build his own instruments. It seemed to him impossible — with a few exeptions: for example, I played one of the instruments in the second production of The Bewitched, and in that he used also a bass clarinet, a piccolo, of course the voice, and it seems to me even a cello. I may be wrong about the cello, but I’m almost certain there was a bass clarinet in it. So, he was asking those instruments to play in non-tempered tunings. But it’s possible to get any of them to play differently. So I just decided a few years ago, I was just going to way out on a limb and find out what was possible. I feel very encouraged now, because the old limitations are not so rigid, not so fixed, not so… unbreakable.
[K] The reason I brought up the comment about electronics is because it does require, of course, the enthusiasm of the composer and the ensemble to do this, and it also requires accomodation in terms of instruments which are very difficult to re-tune. Meaning, the idea of moving from a concert in which you’re incorporating your tuning to the second half of the concert — which might include a Bruckner — is going to be problematic.
[JT] Yes. You need two pianos.
[K] So there are practical issues that have to be addressed as we move forward.
[JT] Yeah, sure.
We listen to several pieces and excerpts (Barlow, Leeuw, Hiller) followed by Music for Player Piano, by James Tenney [1:00:00–1:14:23].
[K] How did that performance go, by the Ensemble Modern?
[JT] Oh, fabulous. Very, very good.
[K] How does the audience approach the music?
[JT] I’ve been very gratified by the audience response to my music. There’s a difference in the culture at large there, that the audience for a concert like that is invariably larger. This larger number of people seem better informed and more interested in new work than any corresponding audience I find in North America.
[K] Does an audience have to be informed?
[JT] Yes, I think it helps. When I say “informed,” what I have in mind is an audience that knows something about the history of contemporary music, that knows the music that influenced me. It disturbs me sometimes when I realize that people may be listening to my music — they may even like it — but often they haven’t the faintest idea what it’s coming out of. You know, have they heard Partch, have they heard Cage, Schoenberg or Ives? That music is not played very much, right?
[K] It is not.
[JT] In Europe, it is played more often and it is recorded. So, I hate to sound like an anti-chauvinist here, but we might as well be candid about it. The artist in North America is pulling a heavy load, and it’s a lonely situation. However, there is a positive side to that, too, just as there is a negative side to the cultural situation in Europe. It was beautifully exemplified once in a little story that Cage writes about, that a European composer said to Cage, “It must be difficult being an American composer when you have no tradition.” And Cage said, “It must be difficult to be a European composer because you have so much tradition.” That’s one part of it. The other part is that in a society that ignores its artists, as is the case here in North America, and especially in the States, the artist is free. Nobody cares about what you’re doing until you do what you want to. If you survive at all. Whereas I believe that in Europe, there is a sense of a kind of obligation on the part of the artists to their culture and to their society, because the society does support them. I think that constrains their creative freedom, actually, while at the same time it feeds them.
[K] You don’t envy the Mozart, in a sense.
[JT] Well, I’m talking about the present, the 20th century. There are two sides to the coin in both cases, is the point I want to make.
[K] So what worlds are opened up for your performers and listeners when they hear your music? For it to be important enough to not only have developed a clearly articulate philosophy of it, but to overcome the pragmatic difficulties of putting on these productions, what in particular are these approaches offering to the audience and the performers? Or what you hope that they’re offering?
[JT] Really, that’s difficult to answer. It’s always more difficult for me to talk about the deeper æsthetic issues involved, because it’s more difficult to talk about those things in relation to my own music than it would be for me to talk about those things in relation somebody else’s music. It becomes possible to create sounds that are extraordinary and that you can’t get any other way. And when you can do that, you can create pieces that are extraordinary, that can’t be created any other way. So, my unvarnished response to that is “God, that’s beautiful.” [Laughter] And I would be very pleased if other people had that response, but I don’t know, and I can’t really judge that response. But I’ve had pretty positive reaction to my music in the last 10 or 15 years.
[K] If you could help direct the river of music in a kind of conscious way, what you see other artists begin exploring? If somehow you were the musical hand of God, how would you see other artists exploring territory that you’re exploring? What things would open up in the musical world? Right now it’s a very small place in which you live, because of the practical difficulties and the size of the informed audience, the audience that knows the Partches and the Cages, and the places in which it can be heard.
[JT] Well, I’m not too concerned about the smallness of it, because it’s in its nature that it naturally grows. It will just get bigger, it will just get more widely known. That happens without me, without doing any more than just sending the pieces out. I’ll tell you a little story about it. I’ve forgotten the year exactly, but I think it was in about 1988 that I wrote a piece that was performed (with me not there) at the New Music America festival in Miami, Florida. John Cage happened to be in the audience. This is a piece that begins with the normal tuning process, and the piece arises seamlessly out of that. So nobody quite knows when the piece starts. Later, Cage told me that he was, like everybody else, talking with somebody and waiting for the music to start. He said, “… and then I realized that they weren’t just tuning, that the music had begun.” Of course, in Cage’s philosophy, even the tuning was music. Well, to make a long story short, after that performance, Cage called me on the telephone, and he said, “I just heard your piece in Miami, and it was beautiful. If that’s harmony, I take back everything I ever said. I’m all for it.” [General laughter] Now, what that refers to is Cage’s story about working with Arnold Schoenberg. Cage actually became a student of Schoenberg in Los Angeles. Schoenberg would have them writing chorales in the harmonic style of Bach for months on end, and the way Cage told the story, he comes in one day to a lesson and says to Schoenberg, “I don’t think I have a feeling for harmony.” Schoenberg said, “Without a feeling for harmony, it will be as though there is a brick wall in front of you — between you and becoming a composer.” And Cage said, “Well, I’ll devote myself to banging my head against that wall.” [General laughter]
And in most of Cage’s writings, when he refers to harmony, it’s negative, because he thought of it in terms of the old textbook rules of harmony. He didn’t like being hemmed in by rules. But I think that what I was able to show Cage was that harmony could mean something else that was not rule-bound, was not the kind of academic backward-looking thing that it had seemed to him to be. It changed his mind about it. Now, if I could change Cage’s mind about harmony, or if my music — and, in fact, an article that I wrote, as well, called “John Cage and the Theory of Harmony,” if that could change Cage’s mind, it seems to me that it’s very powerful, that it can change people’s hearing. It can change the way we hear music, the way we hear sound.
[K] We’ve heard pop music pulling a lot of eclectic elements in the past decade. Do you anticipate that sort of re-tuning to filter its way into it? Pop music often has a great deal of flexibility in other areas. Do you hear that, or has it happened already?
[JT] Yeah, I think so, I think it will. There’s a lot more exchange between the pop world and the world of what I call “unpopular music.” [General laughter] I think half of my students will end up working in the pop music area. So yeah, I think it’s going to affect popular music. Look at La Monte and… what does he call his blues band? Something like Forever Bad Blues Band, or something like that?
[K] So why are you here?
[JT] Why am I where?
[K] Toronto. You’ve been here a long time.
[JT] Yeah, well, I got a good job. That’s a good part of it. A good, steady teaching gig, in a place that feels like there’s enough going on in terms of new music and cultural activity that I don’t feel I’m in some kind of a wasteland. It’s not New York City, but it’s a heck of a lot better than a lot of places I could be.
[K] I’m just curious because there seems to be a fairly diverse new music culture here, and I wondered if you found that particularly attractive.
[JT] I do, I do. Also, the Canadian Arts Council’s scene is a little bit more like what you have in Europe than in the States.
[K] But you have that freedom you were talking about.
[JT] Well, there’s a little bit of money, actually, available for commissions once in a while. I think in all the years I was in the United States I got one $500 commission, and one $2,700 NEA grant. That’s it. Here I’ve had it must be 15 or 20 commissions from performing groups here that applied to the Canada Council or the Ontario Arts Council for commissioning money. So, the Canadian system is somewhere in between that in the States and that in Europe. It’s not as good as the situation in Europe, but it’s a hell of a lot better than the States. So that was another aspect of being here. I certainly didn’t come here for the climate, because I was born and raised in the Southwest. Not even southern California, but I’m talking about New Mexico and Arizona, so I’m kind of a desert person. These winters are hard to get through. [Laughter] But it’s okay.
[K] So what are you working on now?
[JT] I’m working on a piece for violin and piano, a recent commission from performers here in Toronto. I have another piece for a group in Europe, for string quartet, trombone and piano. So in the next few months these are two pieces that I have to get done. I also continue to work on theoretical ideas. They feed my composing, and vice versa. So for me, it just seems natural. It’s not even a separate area for me, it’s just another way of dealing with some of the same issues.
[K] Have you ever returned to doing any work in electronics, any substantial work in electronics?
[JT] Not really. A few years ago, I was invited to spend a couple weeks at an electronic studio in Switzerland and to do a piece, and I did that. But once I had finished it, there were changes that I wanted to make, and I didn’t have time to get those changes made. So it’s not a piece that I will even let people hear yet. I did, however, work at one more piece of electronic music, but it’s the only thing I’ve done that really involves electronic sound production since 1969.
[K] And you haven’t returned to it for practical reasons, for æsthetic reasons, for…?
[JT] No, and I think partly it’s that I’m intrigued by the challenged of doing these difficult things with players on acoustical instruments. In a sense, it would be too easy to do it electronically. You know, this is a strange irony that those years when I was working at Bell Labs with the computer, I could have had any tuning I wanted. It was trivially easy. At the time, I was not interested, so I didn’t rationalize tuning at all. That is, I allowed pitches to be any pitches. They were drawn from an absolutely continuous spectrum of possibilities. I didn’t say it before, but when you mentioned pushing a button and getting another tuning system, I have something of a negative feeling about that precisely because it’s so easy. The struggle involved to hear it and to tune it, that struggle seems to me at this point important. Although, I have used an electronic keyboard as an aid in some pieces, where that tuning can help other people get their tuning. Any means to end of helping people to hear these new pitch relations is okay and fair game. But I don’t want it to be too easy, because the learning process is undercut by that, I believe. It’s short-circuited.
[K] But once it’s learned…
[JT] Once it’s learned, sure.
[K] Once the musical community has learned, then…
[JT] Oh, it will be wonderful for it to be that accessible and easy, and that variable. And that variation, that diversity, is part of the break away from the standardization that I was talking about. So now, in our electronic era, we can go beyond that standardization. The new technology releases us from the limits of that previous standardization, and that’s very good. But this process, you see, it involves learning to hear differently. Not literally, in that it affects a part of the auditory system. It’s not just the ear, or even the inner ear, but it involves part of the brain. Even in the most primitive kind of auditory perception, brain circuits are being used. I don’t mean thinking about it or anything like that, but for the processing of that information. That part of the brain is changeable. The other part is not, but that part is, and that’s the part that’s changing as we learn to hear differently.
[K] Do you find it hard to listen to equal tempered music?
[JT] No, I don’t. In fact, I’m not a purist. This is one thing that Ben Johnston disagrees with me about strongly. We’re good friends, but on this we’re almost on opposite poles. I will use tempered tuning sometimes, understanding it as simply an approximation to a set of ideally just ratios. But, a temperament has a property of infinite modulation. It’s an open system, in a sense, or… in its closedness, it is infinitely open.
[K] Yes, it’s permutable inside this. You’re dividing the octave into 12 pieces. So that our audience understands, in a fixed system, you can stay within a key, whereas in the equal tempered system the key of C sounds equally as good or bad as the key of F-sharp, because the intervals are equally spaced. In the just-tuned system, it is really fundamentally addressing a certain order and set of pitches, and moving away from that will sometimes produce difficult… auditory results. [Laughter]
[JT] Right. I forgot where we were.
[K] I’m sorry! [Laughter]
[JT] That’s alright.
[K] I was asking whether or not you could listen to that, and you were talking about the disagreement that you and Ben Johnston have.
[JT] Right, yes. For Ben, it’s essential that there’s the idea of rational just relationship, that idea is important to him. So that even though he admits that we’re always dealing the approximations, we wants the ideal always there as a goal. My attitude about it is a little different. My belief is that those rational relations are referential in the auditory system — in the nervous system, in fact. We’re always dealing with approximations to them. But there is a certain tolerance range, and what I mean by that is that there is a range of mistuning within which the harmonic meaning remains the same. Even though it may be a little bit clouded, it doesn’t change to a different harmonic sense.
[K] In a terribly obvious example then, if we were to take what we hear as a major chord and slowly push the tuning of the middle note of that chord down, eventually at some point we would “re-hear” it, in our way of perceiving, as a minor chord.
[JT] Right. But, you could mistune it — in fact, it is, on the piano, mistuned — by about a seventh of a semitone. This means that for 200 years we’ve been accepting a mistuned major third as, in my view, standing for the properly-tuned major third. That’s our harmonic understanding of it. For example, take one of the pieces on the CD, the one I mentioned played by the group called Sound Pressure. The piece is called Tableaux Vivants. Although it’s based on ideas related to just pitch relations, it’s written for tempered instruments, because I wanted to modulate through the cycle of fifths.
So, tempered is a very contextual thing. For certain music, piano sounds awful to me. That major third is just bad, you know? It’s wrong! On the other hand, for other music, it doesn’t sound bad at all. Chopin sounds wonderful on the piano, I think. He managed to work out a style that somehow suppresses the mistuning, or hides it in some way, and it’s a beautiful sound. Schoenberg sounds terrific on the tempered piano. I’ve tried playing Schoenberg on other tunings, and it doesn’t improve it. [Laughter] You can’t improve it that way. So he really was writing for that. Ives’s piano music sounds terrific on the tempered piano. It wouldn’t improve it to have some fancy just tuning.
[K] Including his quarter-tone tempered…
[JT] Absolutely. So no, it doesn’t bother me, in a general sense. But in special cases, it could.
[K] So where are you going? Let’s look at the future, what your hopes are for what your own music is going to discover.
[JT] This term, I invented a new course that I’m teaching. I’ve been very excited about it, and I think the students are really getting into it. It’s a course that I could have called “The Dissonant Contrapuntalists in America.” 1895–1945. What I’m doing is seeing as a group — seeing as various manifestations of the same phenomenon — some of the most dissonant and complex work of Ives, the music of Ruggles, Dane Rudhyar, Ruth Crawford Seeger, and the theoretical writings of Charles Seeger. I’m connecting all this and the music of Varèse and Stefan Wolpe. I see them as various manifestations of the same phenomenon, which is the taste for dissonance, and at the same time a taste for complexity of other kinds, rhythmic complexity. Right now I’m interested in integrating that dissonant, contrapuntal idea in my own work along with the new insights I have about harmony. This is a difficult problem, because in its nature, when you’re working with harmony, unless you work very hard to avoid it, it’s easy for things to start sounding sweet. [General laughter] So, it’s a fine tightrope here, trying to integrate the dissonance with harmonic function, and harmonic sense. That’s what I’m working on right now.
[K] Will this approach appear in the violin and piano piece and the string quartet and trombone piece?
[JT] Yes, if I succeed in solving the problem. [General laughter]
[K] Well, that takes us round the circle to the end, at least for the moment. Thank you very much for joining us on the show, and filling in a whole vast career of a really groundbreaking composer. I mean, as a composer, I think each of us says “we do what we do,” but you, in fact, have set a marker in the 20th century for some very important work.
[JT] Well, thank you.
[K] I appreciate the time you’ve given us today.
[JT] My pleasure.
[K] Thanks very much. Again, our guest James Tenney, Jim Tenney, on the Kalvos & Damian New Music Bazaar.