Retired music prof was a world-renowned composer

James Tenney, a world-renowned composer and Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus at York, died Aug. 24 in California. He was 72.

Tenney taught in York’s Department of Music for 24 years. After he retired in 2000, he accepted the prestigious Roy E. Disney Family Chair in Music at the School of Music, California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), and moved back to his native land.

Right: James Tenney

“Aside from his great strengths as a composer, Jim was a man with strong convictions and high ideals, qualities that he passed on to his colleagues and students,” wrote Phillip Silver, dean of York’s Faculty of Fine Arts, in an e-mail sent to all members of the Faculty. “Those of us who knew him – even slightly – will have strong and long-lasting memories of him.”

Tenney was world renowned as a composer of avant-garde music. He was a pioneer in the field of electronic and computer music, working at the Bell Telephone Laboratories in the early 1960s to develop programs for computer sound-generation and composition. He wrote works for a variety of media, both instrumental and electronic, many of them using alternative tuning systems.

Born in 1934 in Silver City, New Mexico, he grew up in Arizona and Colorado, where he received his early training as a pianist and composer. He attended the University of Denver, the Juilliard School of Music, Bennington College, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1958, and the University of Illinois, where he received a master’s degree in 1961.

A performer as well as a composer and theorist, Tenney was co-founder and conductor of the Tone Roads Chamber Ensemble in New York City (1963-70). He appeared with the ensembles of Harry Partch, John Cage, Philip Glass and Steve Reich, among others. His chamber, orchestral and electro-acoustic works were commissioned, performed and recorded by leading North American and European soloists and ensembles.

During his tenure at York, Tenney received numerous honours, including a major retrospective in the New Music America festival, two Festschrift publications and the first Jean A. Chalmers Award for Music Composition from the Ontario Arts Council. A dedicated teacher, he helped develop a new generation of Canadian composers and performers, among them Jon Siddall, Nic Gotham, Allison Cameron, William Beauvais, Don Ross and John Gzowski. He was named Distinguished Research Professor in 1994 in recognition of his outstanding contributions in the field of contemporary music.

In American Music in the Twentieth Century, composer and music critic Kyle Gann wrote, “When John Cage, who studied with Schoenberg, was asked in 1989 whom he would study with if he were young today, he replied, ‘James Tenney’.”

Tenney was the author of articles on musical acoustics, computer music, and musical form and perception, as well as two books: META + HODOS: A Phenomenology of 20th-Century Musical Materials and an Approach to the Study of Form (1961; Frog Peak, 1988) and A History of ‘Consonance’ and ‘Dissonance’ (Excelsior, 1988).

A memorial service was held Aug. 28 at CalArts, which is also planning a concert celebrating Tenney’s life and work later this fall.