Stephen Clarke / Marc Sabat

James Tenney: Music for Violin and Piano

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James Tenney is an iconoclast even among avant-garde composers. His "classicism" (eloquently defined by Art Lange in his liner notes as "...to designate certain formal procedures, implying the values of simplicity, restraint, proportion and balance in a non-expressionistic environment...") is one of precise method and mathematical recourse in structures of sound. Tenney's works are concerned with locating timbres, microtonalities, distended harmonics, and even intervals that are made apparent because of this methodology. His disdain for "emotionalism" notwithstanding, there is something so raw and so paradoxical about Tenney as to seem nearly primitive. These six works, all of which delve deep into the physical structure of the chosen instruments, are musical in the same way Elliott Carter is: He works along a line whereby his scores find voices for their instruments rather than vice versa. Tenney uses sound and space classically, to decorate even these breakdowns -- Ergodos II With Instrumental Responses uses sound from inside the instruments as well as their playing surfaces to illustrate his systematic approach to tonality and dissonance. Elsewhere, on Diaphonic Toccata there are fugue-like piano tempos rigorously charging through clashing arpeggios as the violin plays molto along the wall of a dissenting harmony. Another long work here, Koan, makes use of the violin as a two-note drone, repetitiously, then hypnotically, then torturously, in cut time, moving ever slowly up the instrument's register until there are no two pairs of notes to choose from. He resolves his quandary through dynamics, reaching up once more, until he engages total silence. This is Tenney at his most academic and, that is to say, his level best.

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