In his studies with John Cage, Harry Partch, Edgard Varèse, and other prominent composers of the twentieth century, as well as his pioneering work at Bell Labs in the 1960s, James Tenney became one of the most innovative (and, sadly, one of the most under-recognized) composers of his generation. A recurring theme in his work is the intersection of acoustical phenomenon and musical meaning, and a number of his pieces have explored the essential physical parameters of sound and/or utilized alternative tuning systems. The electronic work Critical Bands, for example, tests the ear's ability to differentiate sounds, while Water on the Mountain...Fire in Heaven creates otherworldly sounds through the assemblage of six guitars tuned to successively sharper incarnations of the same pitches. In Saxony, composed and premiered in 1978, Tenney utilizes a combination of acoustic and electronic elements, namely a variety of saxophones and a digital delay, to explore what is perhaps the most fundamental principle of musical acoustics: the harmonic series.
Although they are usually not noticed as distinct pitches, virtually every musical sound contains an array of frequencies -- a fundamental tone and its (usually much quieter) harmonics, or overtones. The frequencies of these pitches have set mathematical relationships with each other, and interact in specific ways when they are introduced as individual sounds. For example, combinations of certain sounded harmonic frequencies can create the illusion in the ear of certain other harmonic frequencies, including high, whistling combination tones or low phantom drones. Tenney utilizes these and other acoustical and psychoacoustical effects in creating the sonic environment of Saxony.
The score for the work is not a rigid, note-by-note prescription for performance, but rather a guide for improvisation. Tenney provides the player with a sequence of pitches upon which to improvise. The player is allowed considerable freedom in terms of rhythm, phrasing, articulation, and gesture, but the selection of pitches always follows one strict rule: every pitch involved in the piece falls in the harmonic series of an E flat fundamental tone. (It is interesting to note that this idea has been explored independently by La Monte Young, whose Well-Tuned Piano uses a unique scale based on the overtone series of a low E flat -- not to mention by Wagner, whose famous low E flat in Das Rheingold shook the seats at Bayreuth!). As the piece develops, the player is allowed to venture higher and higher into the overtones of the E flat, progressing through successively higher instruments (baritone, tenor, alto, and soprano saxophones). Throughout, the digital delay system allows established pitches and figures to linger and blend together, so that the combined harmonics create a vertical lattice of interrelated tones. As the piece nears its close, Tenney achieves one of his most engaging effects: the lingering harmonics of the low E flat, which by now is not being sounded by the baritone saxophone, combine in such a way as to trick our ears in to hearing the absent fundamental drone.