Meandering along a stream of Tenney thought

Besides revamping the EMC website, I have been researching a few projects — one short and nearly complete, the other very long. And it was in the research for the latter that I found myself carried away on a stream of linked subjects in a very pleasant manner.

Today I needed to look up basic data on the composer James Tenney (1934–2006). Although I had spoken to Tenney several times, it was only to answer the telephone at the composer Barney Childs’ house, hear, “Is Barney there? This is Jim Tenney”, and, being too shy to bother him, would hand the phone over to Barney immediately. I have a collection of Tenney’s Postal Pieces sent in his early years at CalArts (the early 1970s) to Childs. More about these pieces — classics in both mail art and music — can be found in a reproduction from Larry Polansky, “The Early Works of James Tenney”: VII Postal Pieces, in Peter Garland (ed.), Soundings Vol. 13: The Music of James Tenney (Santa Fe, New Mexico: Soundings Press, 1984). This reproduction of the first edition, in Soundings‘ typical typewritten style, was edited and expanded by Polansky for liner notes for a recording on New World Records, but the style of the original, and its reproduction of the pieces, is especially gratifying.

Tenney’s Wikipedia page, albeit a bit out-of-date, is full, with a link to an appreciation page on Kyle Gann’s excellent Postclassic blog, posted just after Tenney’s untimely death. There is also a link to recordings on UbuWeb (though the rights issues on this site are a bit unclear, as usual), beginning with the marvellous and influential tape piece Blue Suede. But here the Wikipedia article led me to another facet of Tenney’s work. He was not just a major electronic pioneer, nor a major composer in post-1960s indeterminate text and graphic notation, who stepped across the Uptown and Downtown New York City scenes with ease. He was also a pianist of note and a scholar of experimental music history. Here is Tenney performing the first two of Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes at the Schindler House in 2002, on the tenth anniversary of Cage’s death.

It is a ravishing setting, and a beautiful performance. It recalls James Pritchett’s Six Views of Sonatas and Interludes, which appears among the holdings of his site and blog, The Piano in My Life. Pritchett’s blog on Cage, Feldman, and others is well worth meandering down,* and it is definitely worth reading the “Six Views” article in connection with Tenney’s performance, meditating on the ways in which this particular performance exemplifies those views.

And now, having meandered from my original research, I must meander back to it.

* On a Facebook thread just today, the theorist Kevin Holm-Hudson cited Gann’s Postclassic and Pritchett’s The Piano in My Life as two of the best “public musicology” (meaning jargon-free and useful) websites.

Teaching 4’33”

This post is an expanded version of a Facebook post I wrote yesterday, and is informed by replies I received from Elliott Schwartz, Chas Smith, and James Pease. Thanks all.

Reading Andy Costello’s recent article on NewMusicBox (the website for New Music USA), “What 4’33” Teaches Us,” , is a mixture of the appealing and the depressing. Appealing, because Costello launches his discussion (after some personal background) with the statement that “all performative acts are pedagogical in nature.” In order to introduce what 4’33” “teaches”, he introduces the idea of silence as a potent and educative statement.

The heroes and heroines of these performative lessons include: 1) House democrats in a moment of silence for the victims of the Orlando shooting, 2) Black Lives Matter activists at a Bernie Sanders rally, 3) Muhammad Ali’s famous protest of the Vietnam War, and 4) my personal experience as a middle school music teacher.

The first three examples, of silent protest as a strong (and “loud”) statement, are one thing. The fourth point, Costello’s teaching experience, is entirely another thing. Here Costello describes his “lesson” on 4’33”.

Now, in 2016, I taught a general music class to middle school kids at a private school in Chicago. In one class, I thought it important that they watch a performance of 4’33”. It failed miserably—the kids laughed at the performer and found nothing of value in the work. I explained to them that they were criticizing the piece before truly hearing it, so I offered them the challenge of performing 4’33” together as a group before they offer any critical feedback, and they unanimously agreed to the challenge. So, I told them we would officially begin the performance of 4’33” when I give them the cue. I set the timer for 33 seconds (the duration of the first movement), started the timer, and gave the cue to begin. Several of the students laughed and made silly noises within the first ten of those seconds, but I let the movement go on without reprimand. I then went on to the second movement, 2’40” in length, during which the students began to hit the desk loudly, throwing pencils and other small objects at one another. They were having a great time. Still, I said and did nothing to sway their sounds and actions. I then gave the last movement of 1’20”, during which the bravest of students stood up and began roaming around the classroom, sometimes running, sometimes crawling underneath the desks. One student narrated their actions to the rest of the class in a voice somewhat akin to the late Steve Irwin. At this point, six of the 15 kids left their seats, at least 10 of the 15 were audibly laughing and/or talking, and not a single one of them was looking or listening to me. This is how this performance of 4’33” came to an end.

Costello let his students run riot over the piece. He didn’t teach them what the piece means and how it works in performance. And this is where the quality and care of presentation comes into pedagogy. In teaching 4’33” (and I’ve done this lots of times over the years) I’ve often started with the 33″ opening movement without comment. The students will have some idea of why I’m doing it, though, as I will introduce it in a unit about time and performance, or some other related topic. Context and setting is all important in education, if the students are to be receptive to the information they are given. Anyway, my first go has, quite often been accompanied by laughter, texting, and the other joys of large classroom life, particularly in groups of mixed arts students, or younger students, such as Costello’s. Then — and this is where Andy Costello failed miserably — I begin to talk about what a performer can do, and must do, to perform 4’33”. Do we choose and instrument? Do we follow David Tudor’s use of closure in some way? If so, how? Which version of 4’33” do we use? How do we as performers bring across 4’33” as a piece (because performance is, like the culinary arts, about presentation and service)? What will the audience get from our performance if we just fidget around, or make funny faces? (I often tell students that the most effective way of performing even the most silly Scratch Orchestra or Fluxus pieces is with an air of serenity, letting the audience interpret the silliness for themselves). I tell them about the presenter at the Royal Musical Association conference whose paper, entitled (as I remember it) “Is 4’33” Music?”, was based on his fidgeted performance. We talk about whether there can be good or bad performances, and what the students might do to perform 4’33” in an effective manner. We talk about indeterminate instrumentation: how would a band perform this (I directed a really great band performance). What will the performance space give us (the 2005 Barbican performance, in an acoustically dry room, was dull)? How about an al fresco performance? What about changing the timings? How to we act between movements? And so on. We then try a group performance, first of the 33″, and then, should we have the time, we’ll definitely move on to a whole performance, though after squeezing all that goodness out of the performance aspect alone, we rarely have that time. That’s how I’d show that performative acts are pedagogical. And in the past, some of these students have taken the questions and moved into demonstrating what they’ve learned by performing 4’33” themselves. There will always be a few students who are resistant to the combination of opportunity and responsibility that 4’33” gives the performer — they just don’t get it — but then again, we all receive information differently, and that in itself is part of the pedagogical process.

And that’s where Costello’s other claim about 4’33” falls absolutely flat: “all art says something, even when that something happens to be nothing.” Like the minority of students in my classes, Costello just doesn’t get it. Looking at all of the considerations surrounding the performance of 4’33”, plus a whole host of political, social, and philosophical implications, and what 4’33” says is patently not “nothing”. It pretty much says almost everything.

In the Silent Void

We have a new archival recording out on the EMC Bandcamp page: Chris Hobbs’ In the Silent Void. Written in November 1981, and recorded in a live concert performance at Royal Holloway College, Egham, Surrey, this is an amazing recording of Chinese texts in translation by Arthur Waley, from his collection Chinese Poems (George Allen & Sons, 1946). This performance is by three composer/performers at the top of their game: the late Brian Dennis, whose vocal performance has not been bettered; Andrew Jones, with a great viola performance; and Christopher Hobbs, playing piano, keyboards, and percussion.

It’s here:

This is well worth a listen. It’s certainly not minimalism, nor is it your daddy’s experimental music. But it is a lovely, reflective, and gorgeous performance of a piece from Chris Hobbs’ eclectic period. One of our favourites.

The Politics of New Music, then and now

One of our favourite independent new music magazines of the classic era of experimental and minimal music (along with Soundings and Contact) was SOURCE, founded by Larry Austin and Stanley Lunetta, in the 1960s. Here is an absolutely excellent extract from SOURCE 6 from 1969, in which twenty composers were asked, “Have you, or has anyone ever used your music for political or social ends?” Harold Budd, Robert Ashley, Robert Moran, Daniel Lentz, David Tudor, Jerry Hunt, Barney Childs, Dick Higgins, Phil Winsor, Roger Reynolds, Terry Riley, John Cage, David Behrman, Charlotte Moorman, Steve Reich, James Tenney, Andrew Stiller, Lukas Foss, Morton Feldman, and Frederic Rzewski were included.

In 2015, the exercise was repeated for Leonardo Music Journal with the title, “Politics of Sound Art”. Artists included Pauline Oliveros, Annea Lockwood, Kristin Norderval, Rinde Eckert, Billy Martin, Jon Hassell, Anne LeBaron, Elliot Sharp, Brenda Hutchinson, Stuart Dempster, John King, Rhys Chatham, Pamela Z, Ben Neill, Alvin Curran, Ben Barson, Christian Wolff, Laurie Spiegel, and, updating their responses, Frederic Rzewski and Terry Riley. We would have liked it if the new survey didn’t just follow the current interests of Leonardo Music Journal editors, but had instead followed the people who had originally answered. For example, although Daniel Lentz and Harold Budd were on the original survey, there are no composers/artists in the Los Angeles pretty music tradition on the present survey. Perhaps this is reflected in the new title, focusing on “sound artists”. However, the present editors have added someone who might have appeared on SOURCE: Christian Wolff. Wolff’s answer is of particular interest — well worth reading.

Thanks so much to Douglas Kahn, who with Larry Austin edited the SOURCE Anthology, published in 2011, for notifying us of this questionnaire, which is normally behind a paywall on the LMJ site. You can find it here:

The joy of good writing

Having lived around academia for so many years, I’ve had to read many technically specialist books and articles, not only on experimental music, but on most aspects of musicology. And to be honest, that reading is more often than not a chore rather than a joy. Much analytical literature is written only for those devotees of the analytical system used (Schenker, Forte, Perle). Musicology has suffered from the application of critical theory to subjects, often with no particular understanding how critical theory works. In my readings, I can dig down through the jargon only to find that the whole argument either crumbles to meaningless dust, or else it is just plain wrong. Even if the author manages to write clearly about the subject, the writing may well be just pretty dull, or even patently bad.

What fires me up are the good writers who present their subject with clarity and grace; the writers who present their history as a real page-turner; the analytical or philosophical writers who write about their search for details as if they were writing a detective story. Or the writers who are so clear that it is simple to follow their logic and to see their proofs, even if the logic and proofs themselves need much thought. And (this is not always possible) the writers who are able to reach not only specialists, but also interested amateurs. And sometimes the best writing does not happen in peer-review publications; it can happen on blogs.

Here’s a great example of fine writing:  James Pritchett’s continuing series of short blog entries on Morton Feldman’s 1981 piano piece Triadic memories. Pritchett employs analytical and philosophical rigour with a great read. As the index, or ‘landing pad’ for the three posts thus far states, Pritchett is interested in looking at Triadic memories at local levels: “The series has no overarching structure, but instead takes up individual moments, images, and questions about the piece and follows them where they lead.” It is here:

Students of the aesthetics and utility of music notation will especially like his first post, on the way that Feldman’s published scores in manuscript tell us more about the music than typeset versions: It’s something I’ve seen in all sorts of music for some years. Having been told by a pianist many years ago that he didn’t play music in manuscript, I thought, well then you’re really missing the music. Typeset versions can suffer from errors, of course, but in the case of Feldman’s music (like much postwar experimental music), it’s the layout that provides the musician with insight into the space, control — the “breath” — of the piece being played.

The second post examines a practical feature of Feldman’s manuscript spacing and the actual durations of the notes as written — Pritchett uses sound files to demonstrate the difference between his “accurate” performance of a section of Triadic memories and the “Feldman-approved” version by Aki Takahashi, which she had developed under Feldman’s supervision. If you find the time to read it, do so, as it’s fun.

However, Pritchett shared his third post on this subject, today— — which is the reason I began musing on good writing. Good writing not only explains the point that is to be made, it also draws us into the world it inhabits. I like the pace of Pritchett’s prose, his word use, and the way he presents an analysis as both a philosophical meditation and investigative narrative. He begins with one small event: a two-sound chordal grace note figure. This figure is significant to Pritchett as a listener: “it is a signal that something is changing.”

Pritchett moves out from this event to the passage six minutes before, then outward farther into memory, into the experience and limitations of listening to music in real time, of what follows, and how the figure affects him as a listener when it reappears. Prichett uses metaphor and similes (“like a ghost whose name has been spoken”), but this refers aptly and only to the music and his experience as an experienced listener.

I won’t go on; it’s much better to read these posts on Triadic memories for yourself. Pritchett illustrates this post with clear musical examples, accompanied by relevant sound files, so that I think that anyone, regardless of musical literacy, could follow him. Although Pritchett is subjective, he never makes the story about himself. He focuses on Feldman and, by extension, on the way we listen to music of such concentration.

New Michael Parsons album

Levels editContinuing our Bandcamp theme, and continuing our Michael Parsons celebration, we’ve just uploaded a short album, called Levels. This set of three pieces were performed on Michael Parsons’ seventieth birthday concert in 2008. They consist of the title track, Levels (2007), a piece for retuned string quartet featuring the Post Quartet (Mizuka Yamamoto, Jennifer Allum violins, Richard Jones viola, Becky Dixon cello); Syzygy Duets (1991), two duets performed by Nancy Ruffer, flute, and Andrew Sparling, clarinet, arranged and extracted from an original set of eight short pieces for pairings of oboe, clarinet and two trombones; and Barcarolle (1989), a piece written for Ruffer’s alto flute, and played by her on this recording.

One of the really consistently fascinating things about Michael Parsons as a composer is his thorough, microscopic investigation of musical elements. These three pieces share that fascination. Really lovely, lovely music. You can get it here on the EMC Bandcamp page: And if you find that you like the EMC’s new Bandcamp page — which will be featuring archival and new recordings as quickly as we can get permissions and set them up — do think about giving extra to the EMC to help keep this page up. There’s more to come — perhaps Californian and a good vintage — but I can’t say more at present.

Slie in March

Last night’s South Leicestershire Improvisors Ensemble monthly residency at Quad Studios, Leicester, featured special guest, the innovative percussionist Walt Shaw. Virginia Anderson laid out for part of a set to snap this candid film before returning to her bass clarinet. Lee Allatson, the drummer on the left of the picture, made some more formal films, which we shall share as soon as possible. Completing hte line-up is Bruce Coates, on sax, Chris Hobbs, piano, and some guy walking through the stage area for no apparent reason (actually, there is a reason: there’s an entrance behind the curtain).

Cage/Feldman Radio Chats

James Pritchett has made an entry point for his recent series of blogs about Radio Happenings, a show of of over four hours of conversations between John Cage and Morton Feldman, on WBAI Radio, New York City, in 1966 and 1967: On the Cage/Feldman Radio Happenings. You can find them on Pritchett’s blog, The Piano in My Life, 7–29 December 2015.

And if you’re interested in other articles about experimental music, drop in on the Journal of Experimental Music Studies, the EMC’s own house journal, containing original work, reprints of classic writings from Contact magazine and elsewhere, and  links to related writings on the web.

Anderson on the Scratch Orchestra and the ‘Leicester School’

Thanks to the nice people at the University of Michigan Press, we are able to make available an uncorrected draft of the chapter by Virginia Anderson, ‘Experimental Music after Nyman’.* This chapter was published in the book Tomorrow is the Question: New Directions in Experimental Music Studies, edited by Benjamin Piekut (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2014), and has been uploaded onto Virginia Anderson’s page. This might make a nice taster for the book as a whole, which is available here. For now, here is the draft chapter:…/British_Experimental_Music_After… .

Here’s Virginia’s abstract:

Tomorrow is the Question presents an approach to experimental music designed to be different from that of the ‘first wave’ authors (David Nicholls, David Patterson, Christopher Shultis), by exploring a global, multi-ethnic, and postgenre scene beyond strictly Cagean music. The chapter itself begins by noting a radical difference in subject matter between Gavin Bryars’ foreword to the Ashgate Research Companion to Experimental Music (2009) and the book itself. This begs the question of what ‘experimental’ music actually is: the process and the resulting sound? Or is it cultural: the shared ethics and activity that tie musicians together as a group, regardless of the music they make? I compare the ethos and activity of the Scratch Orchestra, who appear in Michael Nyman’s Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond (1974) with the Leicester School of composers (which Bryars founded). The Leicester School music can sound classical, almost opposite to the ‘textbook’ definition of experimental music, yet its subject matter and presentation exemplify traits that are fully as experimental as Cage.

And Virginia also says, ‘Hope you enjoy it!’

* ‘After Nyman’ means after the 1974 publication of the book Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond by Michael Nyman. Michael Nyman is, of course, very active as a composer today, so there’s no question of ‘after’ Nyman the composer!


A few days ago the music theorist Kevin Holm-Hudson shared a Soundcloud file to my Facebook timeline. Almost the same time the artist John Emr posted the same link to Hey Exit’s file. And it’s a good one. Hey Exit has time-stretched every recording of Erik Satie’s famous first Gymnopedie in its original piano version (so no Three Dog Night) to the length of the longest version.

Sounds a bit gimmicky? Well, there is a good precedent in British experimental music for the presentation of simultaneous versions of a particular piece (Christopher Hobbs’ McCrimmon Will Never Return, having four variant versions of the original piobaireachd lament played together). Also—and I don’t know if I’m reaching a bit here—the combination of the reverb on this recording and the arpeggiated attacks, due to variants in expression, create a sound that reminds me of Southern Californian ‘pretty music’: to an extent, Harold Budd’s ‘soft pedal’ style, but also the 1970s ABC recording of Daniel Lentz’s Song(s) of the Sirens. A gorgeous experiment; thanks so much for sharing, Kevin and John; thanks for making, Hey Exit!