James Tenney, 1934-2006

tenney.jpgThe great James Tenney died last night [actually, the night before, August 24]. Word went around a few weeks ago that his old lung cancer had returned after a long remission of many years. He was a great teacher, great drinker, great companion, and an interestingly odd personality. As a composer he was a kind of hard-core conceptualist driven by theoretical curiosity. As a result his music could be awfully dry at times, but in about half of it or more the conceptualism transformed in kind of an amazing alchemy to an extreme sensuousness, lovely, slow sound-metamorphoses that you just couldn’t believe. I’ll repeat here what I said about him in American Music in the Twentieth Century:

In a way he stands at the center of American music, a kind of focal point: he studied and worked with seminal figures such as Varèse, Partch, Ruggles, Cage, Kenneth Gaburo, and Lejaren Hiller; he performed in the ensembles of his contemporaries Philip Glass and Steve Reich; and he has taught some of the leading young composers, including John Luther Adams, Polansky, and Peter Garland. Though his music and interests put him squarely on the side of the experimentalists, he is the only such composer so admired by the academic establishment that an entire issue of the academic journal Perspectives of New Music was devoted to his music. No other composer is so revered by fellow composers, and so unknown to the public at large…

It’s difficult to believe he’s gone, and he will be sorely missed.

UPDATE: Read the comments for a number of personal reminsicences about Jim by his students, colleagues, and young composers who met him.


  1. Brent Reidy says

    I am only a graduate student now, and two years ago it was my absolute pleasure to have welcomed Tenney as guest composer for a festival at Dartmouth College I organized with my fellow Dartmouth student Eric Lindley (now at UCLA). Our honored guest was an absolute pleasure, and I feel incredibly sad by this loss…I count myself lucky for having met him when I did.

  2. Arthur Jarvinen says

    Jim was brilliant in the way that some people are in that they don’t even know when they’ve been brilliant.
    Sorry, not a great sentence, but here’s an example.
    I use Jim’s piece Blue Suede when I teach the idea of appropriation as composition in my Intro To Comp class at CalArts. One day a couple years ago I had just finished sharing that piece with my class, and ran into Jim in the parking lot. So I asked him why he chose to use the Elvis recording of Blue Suede Shoes as his source. I could give a shit about Elvis – period – but I am a Carl Perkins fan. If I had thought of that piece, it would have been a no-brainer to go with Carl’s version. I mean, it’s his song!
    Jim said he never even thought about it. The record was there in the studio and he just used it. If it wasn’t there, he would have done the same piece with another song. He said “I wasn’t hip enough to know the difference.”
    But, in thinking about it, and having used his Blue Suede piece in a number of classes, whether by design or just dumb luck, Jim got it right. Because the success of appropriation as a compositional strategy depends on the listener’s familiarity with the appropriated material. Jim gives you only the briefest fragments of the orginal song. If he used the Carl Perkins recording, few people might even guess what he was doing. But Elvis’s VOICE is what you hear in a nano-second, whether you know the tune at all. Jim’s piece is as powerful as it is because he used an Elvis recording, not because he used a well-known song.
    And he did it by accident.
    Damn, Jim was really good.
    Art Jarvinen

  3. Richard Friedman says

    This is really hard.
    We’ve lost so many of that generation over the past two or three years. Like the death of a parent.
    But one correction, Kyle. Jim wasn’t, as you say, a “good drinker”. I had to rescue him once from a reception. His only comment to me as I led him to the car (he could barely make his way) was “Richard, Richard, Richard…” in his soft, descending tone. He knew. We both knew. It was hard.
    Unfortunately, that’s the verbal memory I’m left with now.
    I first met Jim in 1964 at Brookly Poly when I was a student. Trying now to pull my thoughts/memories together. This is very hard.

  4. Berenice Reynaud says

    I just got back from France and received the news from a dear colleague of mine, Adam Hyman, curator at LA Film Forum. Jim was my colleague at CalArts — he taught in the Music School, I teach in the School of Film/Video. I know his wife, Lauren, who is the producer/coordinator of the Music Program at the Roy and Edna Disney CalArts Theater (REDCAT), where I also work to coordinate and curate the film program. In the 1980s, in New York, I was very much a part of the film/music avant-garde, and in our small, yet dedicated circle, Jim was truly a model and a legend. In a collection of texts on scores and notations, New York-based composer David Behrman quoted Tenney saying “now the composer is not privy to anything.” This sentence, in his alluring mystery, has stayed with me all these years, because it seemed to articulate, with great elegance, a certain dilemma experienced by contemporary composers.
    Elegance — that’s the word I think about when I picture Jim. His music was sophisticated, elegant, fluid, and so wonderfully free. So was the man, in his post-hippie garb and his smiling mixture of kindness and irony.
    I wish Lauren and the children all the courage they need in their loss and send them all my affection.
    James, now you’re privy to the great mystery of all. In the eternal music of the universe, I hope you still think of us, whose life you have enriched by your presence, and who are still struggling to lead our lives in the dark.

  5. Miguel Frasconi says

    Thanks for your post, Kyle.
    Jim was my mentor, my teacher, and, for the 8 years we were both in Toronto, a close & dear friend. I will forever treasure the many hours we spent playing music together (mainly his “Bridge” and much Satie). Playing an Ives ensemble piece with Jim conducting was one of the highlights of my student years. Whenever I have heard any of his pieces I have consistently thought: this is the future of music. Jim forever changed how I hear and how I think about music and performance. He was a great man and will be deeply missed.

  6. says

    It is not only because he was an important musician, performer, and theorist that Jim Tenney is revered by those who knew him. Jim was a downright wonderful person. Period. I believe it is because he didn’t play The Game that he never got the wider recognition that he deserved. He had other, much more important things to do…

    My first exposure to Jim’s music, through Barney Childs, was Blue Suede. This was before it was commercially available. When Barney introduced it, it was with the hushed tones of a clandestine event: this work was an unauthorized use of a popular song and may not exactly be within legal bounds. (It was played to us before “plunderphonics” gained the ire of Michael Jackson’s mob, before Negativland’s woes, and before the common use of appropriation.) It was auditioned off of a 7-inch reel-to-reel tape –kind of like it was a single on its own. After some discussion about the piece (and there was plenty to think about for those of us just getting our fingers dirty with the splicing block), we were regaled with stories of Jim’s exploits which, yes indeed, included a bit of drinking. I think the Redlands New Music Ensemble scheduled a performance of a piece called “In Case of Beer…” which is dedicated to Tenney, if I’m not mistaken.

    Thankfully, many of Jim’s friends and former students helped get the word out about his work. The two most important for me where Jim Fox who published one of my favorite Tenney pieces —Spectral CANON for CONLON Nancarrow – on his label Cold Blue, and Larry Polansky, who introduced me and my peers to META Meta/Hodos (Frog Peak) at Mills.

    I’m sure that anyone that knew Jim is feeling a great loss with this sad news. The world has lost a true musical renaissance man.

  7. says

    very sad, i love james tenney’s wonderful postal pieces and his forms 1-4 for ensemble. we lost a great sound poet, inventor, and explorer in sound and its perception. “What they (the audience) can do is begin to really listen to the sounds, get inside them, notice the details, and consider or meditate on the overall shape of the piece, simple as it may be.” James Tenney, Interview by Gayle Young (1978)

  8. says

    Jim was a wonderful teacher and a great friend through my undergrad days at York University. The austere honesty of his approach to music has been such a source of admiration and awe. I’ve wanted to emulate that in so many ways.
    He will be missed. My thoughts go out to his family.

  9. Christopher John Smith says

    This is very sad news. I was not especially familiar with Dr. Tenney’s work, but I did have the pleasure of hearing him give a talk in 2004, and attending a couple of performances with him present. He was clearly a bright light in an increasingly dismal musical culture. Along with the passings of Dr. Mosko and Dr. Zvonar in the past year, and the loss of LACMA to cheap commercialism and ignorant corporatism, Los Angeles has been very hard hit. We can only hope for the survival of our local culture.

  10. says

    As prepared as I was for this news, it doesn’t make it any easier. Jim had great ears and a big heart.

    I wrote a piece for solo and taped bassoons that was premiered in Toronto. The tape was a last minute affair, with only a few hours to make it, and the bassoonist insisted that she couldn’t start by playing the lowest notes of the piece, which set up the whole tonality of the piece. Jim was the only one to notice that the piece wasn’t really in tune, and he had enough credibility to convince the bassoonist that we had to re-record the piece.

    He was also very supportive, playing my music for others and putting me in contact with people who he thought I should know.

    He delivered a lecture on contemporary (primarily) North American music at Darmstadt that was brilliant. He was also fun to hang out with.

    My favorite putdown of my music is one that came after a concert in Minneapolis, when Jeff Brooks mother said that she disliked 4BC (a piece of mine that Jim particularly liked) almost as much as she disliked the piece she’d heard by James Tenney. Needless to say, I was thrilled to be lumped in such bad company.

  11. David Cavlovic says

    A sad loss. Greatly enjoyed Blue Suede. By sheer coincidence, Canada also lost a giant, John Weinzweig, last Thursday. Never one to mince words, John aptly summed up the problem modern music faces when addressing a bunch of music producers (is that known as a gaggle?, not sure), when he said in 2002 :
    “I’m too old for nightmares, but I have this dream that somebody is going to discover a piano concerto that was written by Mozart at the age of two and when the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) gets hold of this thing, that’ll be the end of Canadian music for the next 10 years.”

  12. says

    Jim taught me many things, just one of which was the term “L.A.P.” for that genre of turgid, morose but well-crafted music that we are all familiar with. It’s short for “Late American Pedestrianism.” Thanks, Jim.

  13. says

    Teaching at the same institution, CalArts, as James Tenney, gave me the treasured opportunity to know him and Lauren, his wife, as colleagues, friends, and neighbors. My visits with Jim this summer led to discussions ranging from the role an artist might or should take within society, to the impossibility of the moniker ‘minimalism,’ to Wagner’s Prelude to Das Rheingold. He had been obsessed with this overture and its elements of recycling and stasis, and was planning to work with a similar idea that, unlike Wagner’s, would not ‘lead’ to the beginning of an opera. Jim remained solidly engaged with his compositional projects, and with the beauty of his surroundings, taking pride in his otherworldly cactus garden. His wry sense of humor never waned, and his spirit seemed to transcend the physical difficulties confronting him. For those who were fortunate to be somewhere within his orbit over the course of his life, and for the greater community of artists who value experimental work that is conceptually rigorous, we might be comforted to imagine how extensive Jim’s influence was. His legacy will be disseminated by scores of former students, and by his devoted colleagues, serving as a living testament to an exceptional, extraordinary, and most generous artist.

  14. milton parker says

    been listening to Tenney’s music all weekend. repeated listenings to ‘critical band’. but there are so many major pieces of his, often the most special ones, stranded on rare compilations. we’re still waiting for a coherent overview that can bring his finest moments together, and once this happens I think his reputation of being a dry or cerebral composer will vanish entirely.
    ILM thread discussing various works here, including links to a wonderful douglas kahn interview with tenney originally published in leonardo music journal: http://ilx.wh3rd.net/thread.php?msgid=7257365#unread
    also, this podcast begins with a stunning piece of Tenney’s for strings that I’d never heard before. if one of the knowledgable members of this round table could identify this piece and recording, I’d be grateful for the information.

  15. says

    It makes me sad to read about the death of James Tenney. I saw the notice on newmusicbox.org and winced. I have been a huge fan of his for a long, long time and still recall the first moment I heard such pieces as For Ann (rising), Blue Suede, Critical Band–not to mention the terrific writing about music. During my days at the American Music Center, I spoke with him a few times, but always wished I could have gotten to know him better. I thought he had a fresh and wonderful take on the world and sound and am so sorry to learn of his death.

  16. Arthur Jarvinen says

    “a bunch of music producers (is that known as a gaggle?, not sure)”
    I have been reading up on venery terms. I think the correct one is “an anxiety of music producers”.
    As usual, I could be wrong.

  17. says

    [Copy of announcement sent from CalArts School of Music.]
    James Tenney 1934-2006
    Dear Friends and Colleagues,
    I write both to communicate sad news about the passing of our esteemed and revered colleague, composer, James Tenney, and to begin an invocation to celebrate the boundlessly creative spirit and uniquely productive life of a great musical artist. Jim died peacefully late Thursday night, August 24th, 2006 after a difficult battle with cancer. His tenacity in life and his determined, affirming energy never wavered. His keenly focused composing and theoretical work continued nearly to his last moments. During recent years at CalArts, Jim taught the works of composers he referred to as American musical mavericks. Clearly he was also one of the greats among them. History will remember him as a vitally significant American artist. Jim was a faculty member in the School of Music in the early 1970s when CalArts was finding footing as a somewhat maverick arts institution, and he returned later in the 1990s to assume the Roy E. Disney Family Chair in Musical Composition. In the interim, he taught at the University of California at Santa Cruz and York University, in Toronto. Jim’s mere presence on campus was always inspiring, touching countless lives over the years. A master teacher, treasured by so many, he was also a close personal friend and often collaborator over at least three decades. He will be greatly missed, and we will continue to celebrate the continuity, the power, and the encouraging, constructive quality of his influence, along with his devotion to the forward evolution of music as an essential force in the life of all human kind.
    A brief memorial service will be held in Roy O. Disney Recital Hall at CalArts on Monday, August 28th, 2006 at 11:00 AM. A concert celebrating Tenney’s life and work will be planned for later in the fall.
    A brief biography of Tenney can be found at:
    David Rosenboom, Composer/Performer
    Dean, School of Music
    California Institute of the Arts

  18. David Cavlovic says

    “a bunch of music producers” vs. “”an anxiety of music producers” :
    My experience with music producers (and I’ve had plenty), is that they tend to hiss at one another, usually behind each other’s backs. And they NEVER understand the “new-music” producers.

  19. James Isenberg says

    My heart sank when I heard the news of Jim’s passing.
    I have many fond memories of Jim from time spent in his lectures, private lessons with him, just chatting about music in the hallway. One of my favorite is the first day I formally met Jim, in the first of several of his classes I was able to take, he immediately changed my life as a composer. I know that sounds dramatic but it is sincere, he took the 4 of us in the class on a “composed walk” around the CalArts campus. I haven’t walked or listened the same since that day.
    The first time I heard any of Jim’s music was at the concert for his 70th Birthday at REDCAT. Having Never Written a Note for Percussion stuck with me in ways I still cannot articulate. Jim was an amazing composer, an amazing artist and an amazing person. I will miss him.

  20. Katherine Knoff says

    I studied with Jim, in the early 70’s at Cal Arts. In a school that was still struggling for an identity, a school with a poorly defined piano major, from my recollection, he gave me three wonderful years of piano study. It was an enlightening journey through early 20th century composers, as Carl Ruggles, whom he had studied with, and Ives. I’ll always remember his kindness and warmth as well as his intellect. The world has lost a great mentor and teacher, as well as a great composer.

  21. Anthony B. Creamer III says

    In the late 1980s I attended the world premiere of James Tenney’s piece Critical Band – – commissioned and performed by the Relache Ensemble in Philadelphia. Kyle or Joseph Franklin will have to help with this, but the piece is essentially a single note that does some sort of cycle modulation. I have come to love the piece a great deal, but at the time I can’t say I really got it. Anyway, I was seated next to then Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode (the chap who bombed the MOVE house in 1985). Mayor Goode squirmed through the entire piece. At the conclusion, the Mayor turned to me and said “that must have been very difficult to play.” Turns out at the time old Wilson ‘got it’ better than I did. Fast forward to 2004 when I spied Jim Tenney across the lobby of a UCLA theater where MCDC were performing. I took my chances and introduced myself. He could not have been more polite as I told him my Critical Band story. As I best recall, he said something very funny to me. Something about playing a bassoon. I have been listening to Critical Band in his memory. It really is a beautiful piece.

  22. says

    i’ll always remember the moments i shared with this great teacher and human being; a few years ago i participated in a performance he conducted of Cognate Canons, and also the great pleasure of playing the john cage nocturne with him.
    thanks for everything jim – you’re the man !

  23. Raven chacon says

    My teacher.
    Always reminded me of a cowboy. Real American music. We talked a lot, but rarely (directly) about music.

  24. Tamara Levitz says

    I’m very sad that James Tenney has died. A group of us at McGill University invited him for a week as “composer in residence” in the late 1990s. It was a magical event in every respect. I remember his fabulous ear, the intensity of his lectures and music, and the shock of drinking wine with him at breakfast at 8am. Mostly, however, I remember Jim himself. He was warm, generous, funny, open, kind, and exquisitely patient and generous as a teacher and mentor. He was golden, and it breaks my heart that he is now gone. I hope all of us who love contemporary musical culture will save a little space in our souls for his memory, and strive to continue on in his spirit.
    My thoughts go out to his family.

  25. Josh Thorpe says

    Enjoying wine is no sin. When I studied with Jim I drank at his and Lauren’s house many times. We also ate, talked, tested things out, concerned ourselves with each others’ concerns, made dumb jokes. And I always stayed too late, and was always graciously suffered.

    I was one night fishing for approval and Jim told me he approved, which warmed me and prepared me for what followed: that I need not concern myself with his approval, which, having made a hero of Jim, I needed to know. In fact, the first time I hung out with Jim he told me, sensing my deference, he didn’t think of me and the other grads as students, but as colleagues.

    He was also sometimes fierce. Once I delivered a report on Sofia Gubaidulina. I hit play on a dark track and read her biography with stupid solemnity. The music scored my stupid talk stupidly. After 90 seconds Jim cut in, annoyed, and said, “Could you turn off that music? It’s distracting; I haven’t heard a word you’ve said.” Of course, he was right, and he stopped me from making an ass of myself any longer.

    Oh, and he corrected split infinitives!

    I miss him.

  26. says

    I took Jim’s first class on his return to CalArts in 2000. I still think often about the insightful wisdom about sound in that Acoustics class. Bizarre, I had just picked up the Partch book again last week, I was going to email him a note of thanks and to tell him that what he taught me had finally influenced my thinking! Sadly it’s often too late to thank your mentors. Jim was the quintessential American maverick composer. And on top of it all, he was a loving teacher with a great sense of humor.

  27. Peter Gena says

    I am deeply saddened. My first contact with Jim’s work was Meta-/Hodos in manuscrript form, given to me by my mentor (and one of his), Lejaren Hiller. It was later that I discoverd his thought-provoking music. Just last Fall, we brought him to speak in our Sound department. Though for me this shocking news transforms that wonderful visit into a poignant memory, our students have had the benefit to witness and hear first-hand the words and work of a true original.
    I always find myself quoting Cage’s message to Tenney, “It’s useless to sing lullabies to those who can’t fall asleep.” Rest well Jim, you’ve heard every note.

  28. Allison Cameron says

    Every time together that I recall, every piece of music we shared and every conversation we had makes me grateful to have known you.
    I will always cherish the memories of you and your music.

  29. mark van de voort says

    I am quite shocked by the loss of James Tenney; within a few months the musicworld has lost two great and openminded composers and soundexplorers: Gyorgy Ligeti and James Tenney.
    As a regular music fan, I have been collecting Tenney’s music since the early nineties which was very difficult to get on so many small labels. Only in recent years a label like Hat Art has done a tremendous job with several Tenney’s discs. But beautiful pieces like ‘Quiet Fan for Erik Satie’ , ‘Diapason’ and ‘Scend for Scelsi’ are still not released. Hopefully in the future!
    By the way, answering the question of Milton Parker, the James Tenney podcast above starts out with Tenney’s indeed very beautiful ‘Harmonium #5’performed by Arraymusic on their cd ‘Strange City’ (artifact ART CD002)
    More people should hear this music.
    With kind regards,
    Mark van de Voort

  30. says

    I was a student of Jim’s during my undergrad and grad years at York University. His warmth and humour are remembered by all whose lives he touched; many of us positively transformed by the integrity of his ideas and teachings and the singular brilliance of his music.
    Never one for emotional expressivity as a raison d’être in music, Jim’s compositions were nevertheless thrilling to hear and remain so. His classroom performances of Ives’ Concord Sonata (from memory) are legendary of course. I also remember asking him after class one day about his Chromatic Canon, a work for two pianos, which prompted him to launch into a solo version on the spot. I’ve never lost the sensation of that moment.
    I was fortunate to get to know him and Lauren and something of their lives outside of music. Realizing that someone great was exiting our midst, I took the opportunity to interview him for a community radio broadcast just before he left Toronto for Valencia in 2000.
    In that interview Jim railed against small-minded, selfish politicians; spoke highly of his years in Canada; and by way of discussing his then recent commissions provided further insight into why he was such a successful teacher and composer as well as writer. On all fronts he was engaging but rarely didactic; acknowledging past influences while recognizing the need to move on. He offered his own strong mix of intellectual rigour, conceptual boldness and artistic pragmatism, with a dash of creative permissiveness.
    It might have struck me in a superstitious way that I had an impulse to revisit the interview in the days just after his death but before I had heard the news. This however was a last lesson in the unflaky by a man who didn’t believe in the collective unconscious: Jim will always be a conscious presence in my life. My thoughts go out to Lauren, the children and grandchildren.

  31. Petra von Huene says

    Almost six years ago Stephan von Huene died, a dear friend and colleague of Jim Tenney, with whom he did his great “Drum” for the Exploratorium.Jim wrote three compositions for it, among them “Wake for Charles Ives”. I had the pleasure to meet Jim at the Donaueschingen Music Festival, where also Stephan presented his “Magic Flute”, then later in Berlin again, where Ligeti had come to see the “Drum” and then when I visited California in 2005 for the first time after Stephans death. It was so good to meet him and Lauren and talk about hope and despair and the future. I was shocked to now read in a German paper about James Tenneys’s death and I called the director of the Lehmbruck Museum in Duisburg, which now owns the “Drum”, to play it.

  32. Marcus Morgan Quin says

    One of my favorite moments in composition class with Jim involved everyone in the class introducing themselves and stating their musical influences. Lots of mention of Stravinsky and Beethoven. Someone mentioned that they were very interested in prog-rock. Jim’s brow raised to which he responded “Prauge-rock?!” The student continued by asking if he knew the band Yes? To which Jim answered without missing a beat “ah…No!”

  33. Sebastian Semper says

    A brilliant and original composer with an exciting conceptual link between form and harmony.
    Sebastian Semper,
    graduate student Stanford University (Music)

  34. says

    I can’t believe I just now found out about Jim’s death. I am devastated…and yet so honored to have been his friend and to have been lucky enough to have had Jim as my first composition teacher. He lived a great and honorable life – I will always cherish my many memories of discovery through his brilliance.

  35. Peter Lefevre says

    I got to know Jim while on staff at CalArts and while we spent a lot of time talking about music, we spent more time on the golf course. “I started playing when I was in New York, but it wasn’t really ‘hip’ to golf back then, so I keep it to myself,” he told me. So we’d play hooky from CalArts every now and then, grab the clubs and go. We almost never talked about music on the course, although once while we were tooling around in the cart, I asked him what he was teaching that semester. “A history of tuning systems,” he said, in the same tone of voice he’d describe what he had for dinner. What a terrible loss. How fortunate to have met him.

  36. Louie Madrid Calleja says

    I have many fond memories of Jim when he was still teaching at York University…one of which was our endless debates over aesthetics and past-versus-present styles of composition. His Meta-Hodos was a great influence in my work, and so were his lessons in conducting, acoustics, and instrumentation. Although we disagreed on many things, we shared a common bond – a curiosity for what is musically there, and how to incorporate it in our works in such a way that gives it that stamp of individuality. He helped open my mind and ears to so much when I was his student – for this I will be eternally grateful.
    “Music is my religion…” he said to a student once clad in his usual black leather jacket, black leather cowboy hat, and boots. We never questioned it for we felt the truism and sincerity of such a statement. He sobbed listening to Satie once…I could never forget that moment.
    Requiescat in pace, Jim…

  37. justin hiscox says

    i always recall the first composition class i ever had with Jim… he said “there are two types of music: popular, and UN-popular. WE are going to compose UN-popular music.” Later in the same class he was asking all of us what kind of music influenced each member of the class, and one fellow piped up “you ever hear of the band YES?” and Jim’s answer dry and hilarious was “NO”… memories… he will be missed.

  38. Jane Howard Baker says

    I send this message of condolence to the remarkable Lauren Pratt, Jim’s widow. Lauren, I think of you often and remember the fun we had trying to raise funds for the Music Gallery and Inner City Angels among others. All my love goes out to you and your children. Jim had a great love in his life.

  39. Christine says

    I am writing since I believe James might be the son of Laura Tenney Green, my GrandFather’s wife. You see, my Grandfather, Ret.Col.Bert Green married Laura. I would like to contact Laura’s children.