Barton Workshop

James Tenney: Spectrum Pieces

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American composer James Tenney (1934-2006) left behind a large body of work, but he remains known to few outside the community of new music enthusiasts. His was certainly not a populist or easy aesthetic, but with listeners who have an ear for his distinctive sound, his works have depth and substance. His concerns were often with pitch (an exploration of the notes that fall between the 12 pitches of the tempered scale was an enduring interest), timbre, and dynamics, rather than with linearity or harmonic simultaneity, and indeterminacy was common in his work. Spectrum Pieces, eight works lasting a total of over two hours, written in 1995 and 2001, are among the most important works of his late period. They were not intended to be performed as a set, but heard together as they are here, they have a cumulative power. Each is scored for a different chamber ensemble, so they have considerable timbral variety, but it's their single-minded aesthetic unity that is most striking; this is largely slow music consisting largely of sustained tones, although the speed of the changes and the length of the durations evolve within each piece. An imperfect description of his music could be that in some ways it resembles Morton Feldman's, but is far denser, and is continuous, without any silences. The more active pieces, such as Spectrum 3, for chamber orchestra, have a roiling instability, and the slower ones, like Spectrum 2, for five winds, are gently contemplative. While this is about the farthest one could get from narrative music, the end of each piece arrives with an inexorability and inevitability that give it, in retrospect, a purposefulness that had not previously been obvious. The Barton Workshop, directed by James Fulkerson and Frank Denyer, plays with scrupulous attention to the composer's microtonal demands, and the performances are graceful and nuanced. The sound is immaculate and present.

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