Tenney and Literalism

In sketching out my thoughts about literalism in 20th-century music, I inadvertently maligned a composer I very much admire, James Tenney, by failing to articulate some important distinctions that I had in mind. If not well-known to the public, Tenney is certainly well-known to composers, and he has an interesting underground reputation: as sort of the concentrated, prescription-strength form of whatever drug Steve Reich is the name-brand, over-the-counter variety of. Reich dresses the idea of gradual process up for the concert hall, but many of the best-known of Tenney’s varied works (Spectral Canon, Koan, For 12 Strings (Rising), Chromatic Canon, Critical Band) give it to you straight in a more uncompromised, even severe form that doesn”t always sound like what you think of as music but is often surprisingly sensuous. Critical Band, for instance, slowly opens up an overtone series the way you might watch a flower open up, and it’s an enchanting experience. Bob Gilmore, a Tenney expert, played me a recent similar orchestral work called Diapason, which is exponentially more beautiful: no rhythm, no tunes, just a slow, rich timbral metamorphosis before your astonished ears. I wish I could tell you how to hear Diapason: we badly need more of Tenney’s music on disc.

American music in particular has always had a recurring back-to-nature element, and it comes at opportune moments. In the 1970s, 12-tone music, serialism, stochastic music, chance music, all left us up in the air about what music was supposed to be, and Reich and Tenney, along with La Monte Young, Phill Niblock, Tom Johnson, and some others, returned us to a kind of secure bedrock of sonic processes. Johnson, purveyor of pieces based in simple arithmetical logic, came up with the motto, “I want to discover the music, not compose it,” which well expresses the extreme endpoint of a kind of objectivist mindset. That music grounded us in the nature of sound, and opened up a new era. My own proclivity, especially as a composer but pretty much as a listener as well, is that objectivity is not endlessly satisfying, and that eventually the human element needs to reappear, since music is (and this is not so self-evident or uncontroversial as it sounds), for me, a communication between human beings.

But what I see as the problem of literalism in music is something much wider and deeper. The gradual processes of Reich and Tenney are at least right on the surface and you can listen to them: the musical interest is in the tension between the objective process and the subjective listener. The bulk of the iceberg is all the literal process and method and structure in late-20th-century music that you can’t hear. One notable example is Elliott Carter’s piano piece Night Fantasies, which is structured around a cross-rhythm of 175 against 216. Buried within the mercurial texture are accented chords which mark off that slow phase relationship over a 20-minute period. You can’t hear 175 against 216 over 20 minutes with a lot of other stuff going on: from the listener’s subjective apprehension of the appearance of the piece, it’s unimportant that that’s in there. Neither is it a criticism of the piece that it contains that inaudible structure, but it is symptomatic of the late-20th-century situation in which many, many composers came to believe that as long as they knew some objective structure was in the music, it didn’t matter whether the audience could hear it, or indeed what the audience heard. As Babbitt says in Words about Music, “It’s not whether you can hear it, but how you conceptualize it.” And by the latter “you,” he clearly seems to have meant the composer, not the listener.

So you can’t hear everything that goes on in late-20th-century music: this is hardly a novel complaint, and hardly worth reiterating. What I am urging is an explicit revival of the ancient aesthetic principle that art is about appearances, not about reality. I complain about a piece of music and the composer thinks he has refuted me because he can show me in the score the fascinating structure I missed. (I once heard a very erudite lecture analyzing Carter’s music at a prestigious college. Hanging around afterward, I overheard the lecturer sadly tell a friend, “You know, you find all those wonderful structures in Carter’s music, but then when you listen to it, you can’t hear them.”) We still let certain composers get away with justifying their music via things that are “really” there but that we can’t hear, and, worse, in teaching composition we still tend to emphasize inner musical structure over audience perception. The problem is admittedly on the wane, but making a plea for “what the audience can hear” will still garner looks of condescension and contempt in many composers’ circles. What I’d like to see in our musical discourse is for “You can’t hear that” to become a damning critical interdiction, and for “but it’s really there” to become an inadmissable defense.

My work has taken me into theater lately, and the theatrical attitude offers a good lesson for composers. The script calls for a sausage. The director, looking around, picks up a stuffed sock. “That doesn’t look like a sausage,” I say. “It will from the audience,” the director calmly replies, and he’s right. And how it looks, or sounds, from the audience is all that matters.