Loving James Tenney

Professor James Tenney was a world-renowned composer and Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus at York, Tenney died Aug. 24, 2006, in California. He was 72.

Right: James Tenney

Tenney’s legacy and memory will be honoured in a special screening of short films. The screening, titled Loving James Tenney: 1934-2006, will take place this evening in Jackman Hall in Cinematheque Ontario at the Art Gallery of Ontario in downtown Toronto.

Friends and colleagues of Tenney gathered films created by the late American avant-garde director Stan Brakhage (1933-2003) and American performance artist and filmmaker Carolee Schneemann. In each of the films, Tenney appears or has composed the sound. The films span almost 50 years and include Brakhage’s first film Interim (1952), a black and white idyll of first love, and the intricately layered lovemaking of Schneemann’s 1967 silent film Fuses along with her short film Viet Flakes, composed from an obsessive collection of Vietnam atrocity images that Schneemann compiled over five years from foreign magazines and newspapers.

Tenney was 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.

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 (1963-1970). 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.

Left: James Tenney (left) photographed in 1963 with the American composer Carl Ruggles and filmmaker Carolee Schneemann. Photograph courtesy of Carolee Schneemann.

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.

Tenney looked to science, mathematics and philosophy to understand and describe the nature of music and how it is perceived. In his compositions, he sought to reveal what it is about sound that cannot be shown in any other form. An inspired composer, performer, theorist, teacher and advocate for what he liked to call "unpopular music", his impact on music was decisive.

The tribute also includes the Brakhage films Desistfilm (1954); Loving (1957); Matins (1988); Christ Mass Sex Dance (1991); …Reel Five (1998); and, Schneeman’s Carl Ruggles’ Christmas Breakfast (1963) and Meat Joy (1964).

Admission is free at Cinematheque Ontario at the Art Gallery of Ontario, 317 Dundas St., West (entrance on McCaul St. just south of Dundas).

For more information on James Tenney, see the Sept. 1, 2006 issue of YFile. For more information on Loving James Tenney: 1934-2006, visit the Cinematheque Ontario Web site.