James Tenney  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

James Tenney (August 10, 1934 - August 24, 2006) was an American composer and influential music theorist, remembered for his work with Carolee Schneemann and Stan Brakhage.

Tenney was born in Silver City, New Mexico, and grew up in Arizona and Colorado. He attended the University of Denver, the Juilliard School of Music, Bennington College (B.A., 1958) and the University of Illinois (M.A., 1961). He studied piano with Eduard Steuermann and composition with Chou Wen-chung, Lionel Nowak, Paul Boepple, Henry Brant, Carl Ruggles, Kenneth Gaburo, Lejaren Hiller, John Cage, Harry Partch, and Edgard Varèse. He also studied information theory under Lejaren Hiller, and composed stochastic early computer music before turning almost completely to writing for instruments with the occasional tape delay, often using just intonation and alternative tunings. Tenney's notable students include John Luther Adams, Larry Polansky, and Peter Garland. He performed with John Cage, as well as with the ensembles of Harry Partch, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass.

Tenney's work deals simply and artfully with perception (For Ann (rising), see Shepard tone), just intonation (Clang, see gestalt), stochastic elements (Music for Player Piano), information theory (Ergodos, see Ergodic theory), and with what he calls 'swell' (Koan: Having Never Written A Note For Percussion for John Bergamo), which is basically arch form. His pieces are most often tributes and subtitled as such. As his friend Philip Corner says, For Ann (rising), "must be optimistic! (Imagine the depressing effectiveness of it — he could never be so cruel — downward)..."

Tenney wrote the seminal Meta (+) Hodos (one of, if not the, earliest applications of gestalt theory and cognitive science to music), the later Hierarchical temporal gestalt perception in music : a metric space model with Larry Polansky, and other works. An entire issue of the academic journal Perspectives of New Music was devoted to Tenney's music.

Tenney also wrote the in-depth liner notes to Wergo's edition of Conlon Nancarrow's Studies for Player Piano. (Nancarrow, as a favor, punched the roll for Tenney's Spectral Canon for Conlon Nancarrow). Tenney also starred nude in a 1965 silent film of collaged and painted sequences of lovemaking between him and his then partner, Carolee Schneemann called Fuses.

He taught at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, the California Institute of the Arts, the University of California, and York University in Toronto.

He died on 24 August 2006 of lung cancer in Valencia, California.


Tenney was one of the four performers of the rarely performed Steve Reich piece Pendulum Music on May 27th 1969 at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The other three were: Michael Snow, Richard Serra and Bruce Nauman.

Further reading

  • Garland, Peter (Ed.) (1984). Soundings Vol. 13: The Music of James Tenney. Santa Fe, New Mexico: Soundings Press.
  • Tenney, James (1988). Meta-Hodos and Meta Meta-Hodos: A Phenomenology of 20th Century Musical Materials and an Approach to the Study of Form. Santa Fe, New Mexico: Frog Peak Music. ISBN 0-945996-00-4.
  • Tenney, James (1988). A History of 'Consonance and Dissonance'. New York: Excelsior Music Publishing Co. ISBN 0-935016-99-6.

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