James Tenney: Maximusic

Program Note

James Tenney was an integral figure in the development of minimalism and computer music, part of the group of innovative composers that includes Philip Glass, Steve Reich, John Cage, and Morton Feldman. Born in 1934 in Silver City, New Mexico, Tenney’s interest in computers and acoustics developed early, leading him to study engineering at the University of Denver. After two years in Denver, he made the decision to devote his life entirely to music, moving to New York where he studied piano at Juilliard with Edward Steuermann, a former student of Arnold Schoenberg, and composition with Lionel Nowak. In New York City he co-founded and directed the Tone Roads Ensemble, which fueled the revival of Tenney’s idol and forbearer, Charles Ives.

In the 1960’s, Tenney spent a considerable amount of time conducting research on the physics of sound and physiology of music at the Bell Laboratories, Yale University, and the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, where he made significant advancements in the development of electronic music. In later years, Tenney stepped away from computer music, turning his attention solely to instrumental music, and the concepts of just intonation and alternative tunings.

In the 1980’s, Tenney began to devote his time to musical theory, posing serious questions focused on musical perception and investigating the idea of experimental intonation, which he termed “harmonic space” in his most influential publication, “A History of Consonance and Dissonance”. Tenney served on the faculties of the California Institute of the Arts, the University of California, and York University of Toronto until his death in 2006.

Maximusic, published in 1965, is part of a larger group of short pieces entitled Postal Pieces. According to Tenney, this set came about through his hatred for writing letters, and realization that many of his short minimalistic pieces would in fact fit neatly on one side of a postcard. Each Postal Piece is intended to explore the acoustical possibilities of the instrument it is written for. Of this set of pieces Tenney expresses how he wants his listeners “to really listen to the sounds, get inside them, notice the details, and consider or meditate on the overall shape of the piece, simple as it may be." Maximusic, in particular, was inspired by what Tenney describes as “the sound of a motorbike on the freeway, heard from afar on a damp June evening.” 

—Alexander Hardan