AMN Reviews: James Tenney / Scordatura Ensemble – Harmonium [New World Records 80803-2]

Our perceptual responses to the world around us are sensual in two meanings of the word—both sensory and evoking aesthetic enjoyment. Through their focus on the processes and artifacts of aural perception, much of the work of composer James Tenney (1934-2006) pivoted between both kinds of sensuality. Tenney liked to say that he handled form not as a vehicle for a quasi-narrative arc, but instead as an object of perception—something of interest in its own right. And the pieces on this recording are indeed consistent with that description.

One of Tenney’s interests was in the range of consonances and dissonances contained within the spectrum of the harmonic series. Tenney’s work with the harmonic series, which represented a kind of North American spectralism independent of the spectralism developed in Europe, was aimed toward focusing attention on, and deriving independent pleasure from, these basic sound materials underlying more complex musical forms. This is apparent in For Twelve Strings (rising) of 1971, which is based on the tension between the consonant relationships among the lower harmonics and the more dissonant relationships that arise the higher up the series one reaches. The piece, scored for four violins, four violas, two cellos and two double basses, consists of simultaneous and constantly rising glissandi across registers, sounding like a looped siren or a Moebius strip of sliding tones.

Tenney’s interest in pitch combinations producing acoustic beating phenomena is represented by Two Koans and a Canon (1982), a three-movement work for solo viola, played by Elizabeth Smalt, and tape delay. The first movement, essentially an adaptation of Tenney’s 1971 solo double bass piece The Beast (a title some of us may prefer to read as an anagram on “beats” rather than a commentary on the nature of the instrument), plays out as a gradual, microtonal divergence and convergence of pitches relative to a constant pitch. This produces a beating effect that changes with changes in the distances between pitches. The tape delay comes in at the third movement, a canon that begins with the viola’s open C string and develops through a process of stacking harmonics along ascending and descending paths. (The koan for this canon might well be, “What is the sound of one pitch unraveling?”)

A tape delay system is also deployed in 1984’s Voice(s), realized here by a small ensemble of voice, recorder, clarinet, viola, keyboard, trombone and cello. The piece is largely concerned with textural organization as it thickens and thins and plays off of the perception of different pitches appearing to fuse and separate.

Harmonium, which also includes the compositions Harmonium (1976) and Blues for Annie (1975), is an excellent point of entry into the world of this important composer.

Daniel Barbiero