Live Reviews: Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival: James Tenney Retrospective

Live Reviews: Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival: James Tenney Retrospective

Quatuor Bozzini; Rick Sacks (percussion), Eve Egoyan (piano), Miriam Shalinsky (double bass), local instrumentalists / Huddersfield, Yorkshire 24–26 November 2008

Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival’s James Tenney retrospective was the largest celebration of the American composer’s music ever presented in Britain or Ireland. The Montréal-based Quatuor Bozzini was joined at various times by Rick Sacks, Eve Egoyan and Miriam Shalinsky, as well as a number of local volunteer instrumentalists (including myself) for In a large open space (for twelve or more sustaining instruments), to give performances of works spanning Tenney’s career from the 1970s to his final work, the string quartet Arbor Vitae.

In a 2006 interview with Donnacha Dennehy, conducted months before Tenney passed away, he talks of ‘elegance’: ‘The way mathematicians use the term “elegant”, that’s an idea of elegance that I strive for. And what that basically means is you’re doing more with less.’ This ‘elegance’ is at the core of Tenney’s music. In a large open space, Arbor Vitae, Saxony (for quartet and tape delay), the first and fifth movements of Quintext (for quartet and double bass) and Diaphonic Study (for quartet and re-tuned piano) ‘play out’ (sometimes very simple) algorithms for movements within a harmonic series. Tenney described the harmonic series as ‘the only thing given to us by nature’.

Other pieces are processes: thirteen overlapping canons between quartet and percussionist in Cognate Canons, a pizzicato texture that expands and contracts in time in the second movement of Quintext and an uniterrupted upward violin glissando in Koan, harmonised according to an algorithm. Other pieces are an immersion in a single sonic state: Chorale (an orchestral work arranged for piano and violin by Tenney’s student Marc Sabat), uses equal-tempered translations of pitches from the harmonic series as the sole material for a simple, step-wise harmonised melody, and the fourth movement of Quintext is five minutes of undulating glissandi.

Four pieces in the retrospective were ‘cover versions’ in some sense: two solo piano arrangements of Beatles songs ‘Love me Do’ and ‘Do You Want to Know a Secret?’, a solo viola transcription of bluesman Jaybird Hawkins’ ‘No More Good Water’ and the central movement of Quintext, which uses some of the basic materials of Carl Ruggles’ Angels to create a delicate mirror-image composition in homage to that composer. The ‘elegance’ is in these pieces too – one that amplifies the essential characteristics of the original. It’s like we’re listening to Tenney hearing the music.

Seldom am I made to listen so intently as when I hear Tenney’s music, especially when the performances are as focused and committed as those of Quatuor Bozzini, Sacks, Egoyan and Shalinsky. And I always hear more than the ‘elegant’ constructions – I am moved. In a recent interview in Dublin, a former student of Tenney’s, the composer Michael Byron, related how he had once asked his teacher what the difference was between a good composer and a great composer. Tenney replied: ‘Feeling more deeply’. Somehow, perhaps because of the clarity of its construction, the music transcends its construction, transcends even our concepts of expression in music to arrive at what composer Michael Pisaro calls an ‘ineffable poetry’.

Published on 1 January 2009

Garrett Sholdice is a composer and a director of the record label and music production company Ergodos.

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