James Tenney Interviewed by Douglas Kahn
Douglas Kahn's 1999 interview with James Tenney was published in LEA Vol. 8, No. 11 (November 2000). The same issue of LEA included a companion article written by James Tenney, "Computer Music Experiences, 1961-1964," and featuring his illustrations.
Toronto, February 1999
Introduction to interview with Tenney
The following interview with the composer James Tenney concentrates on his work during the 1960s, when he was working at Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey (September 1961 to March 1964), and participating in the flourishing experimental arts scene in New York City. While at Bell Labs Tenney worked closely with Max Mathews, John Pierce and others, as one of the first composers to use computer synthesized sound (most of his computer compositions from the time are included on the compact disc, James Tenney: Selected Works, 1961-1969, available from Frog Peak Music, or CDeMUSIC). David Lewin preceded him briefly at Bell Labs, but Tenney was the first composer there on a protracted basis, let alone one who could bring such formidable knowledge of the underpinnings of twentieth century composition to bear. Indeed, Meta / Hodos, his Masters Thesis at the University of Illinois, finished just before he arrived at Bell Labs, proposed nothing less than a fundamentally new approach to understanding twentieth century composition (after having a long cult status among composers, Meta / Hodos is increasingly being recognized as one of the most important musical documents of the 20th century). Tenney's work from this period can be understood from a larger perspective. Given that music was the first art to use computers in a sophisticated way, Tenney could also be understood as one of the first digital artists. With many digital artists today moving so easily among the arts, there is good reason to do the same historically.
During this time, Tenney was married to the artist Carolee Schneemann, was close friends with the experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage, was heavily influenced by the music and thought of John Cage, and could be found among Fluxus and other experimental artists. I was interested in finding out how he reconciled these two, apparently disparate worlds, one highly technical, the other senuous, poetic, and political. Many artists now are both artistically and technologically sophisticated, and the practice of retaining artists within research settings has become more common. But in the early 1960s, Tenney was one of a very few artists in the world in this position. His experience of this 'schism' or, rather, the fact that he did not experience it as a schism, is increasingly relevant today.
As you will read, the way he reconciled these two areas of his life had to do with his entire approach to music. By mid-20th century, several trends within Western art music had accepted that all sounds (ostensibly) were available for musical use, and this became codified in the work of John Cage, the musique concrete composers, and others during the 1950s. For some people, the potential of computer-generated, digitally- synthesized sound was imagined within a similar framework: the computer could construct, from the microsecond elements of a wave form, all possible sounds. Tenney went beyond that and said that the computer was differentiated by its capacity to not only generate all sounds but to constitute a continuum between and among any and all musical and sonic entities, and to do so from the inside out, from the most minute elemental level to the largest organizational form. Whereas other musical technologies like the tape recorder were, in effect, restricted to invoking an emblematic ideal of all sounds, the computer was able to actually create and establish gradients among them. As he says toward the end of the interview, "It is a temperamental thing of mine. I like to make those bridges, those connections." It is this impulse that underscores his talent to reconcile seemingly disparate realms wherever they might occur: a sine tone and white noise, a research lab and the avant-garde, Murray Hill and Soho and so on. For Tenney, computer sound synthesis became the instrument of a personal and cultural stimulus toward synthesis.
The interview is accompanied by Tenney's own account of his work at Bell Labs, "Computer Music Experiences, 1961-1964", written soon after his departure. It is a very important document but has not been widely available, having been previously published in Electronic Music Reports #1 (Utrecht: Institute of Sonology, 1969). Leonardo is pleased to have the opportunity to present it here.
The period covered in the interview is but one part of a long, productive and ongoing career, as a composer, theorist, and teacher. Tenney left New York for California, where he took up a position at Cal Arts starting in July 1970 and, after teaching many years in the Music Department at York University, he has returned to Cal Arts to take up the Roy E. Disney Family Chair in Musical Composition.
The interview was conducted at York University and at Tenney's home in Toronto during February 1999, concurrently with an investigation of Tenney's papers held in the Special Collections of the Scott Library at York University. The research was sponsored in part by a grant from the Australian Research Council and the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at University of Technology, Sydney, where I teach. I would like to thank Dan Lander, Lauren Pratt, and Larry Polansky for their kind assistance with different parts of this project, to the staff of Special Collections of the Scott Library for their kind and professional assistance, and to Maria Iacono for help with transcription. Anyone interested in Tenney's early works should refer to the compact disc mentioned above and to Larry Polanksy's indespensible essay, "The Early Works of James Tenney," Soundings 13: The Music of James Tenney (1984). Most of all, many thanks to James Tenney who fielded any question I threw his way with much tolerance and a healthy dose of good humor. In fact, one final note, I had to remove the traditional [laughs] from the transcription because it would have increased the length of the interview by half.
Douglas Kahn When you were at the University of Illinois as a student, Jerry Hiller was teaching there, Kenneth Gaburo, Harry Partch: quite the crew! 
James Tenney Yes, Harry Partch was there on a fellowship. He wasn't on the faculty and wasn't teaching. His arrangement with the University meant that I became his assistant for a while, and I was also paid to be Hiller's assistant. Ben Johnston was around too, but I didn't take a course with him or have much connection at all. Although I must say I did run afoul of Partch. I had a habit at the time of annoying my elders. I used to come to work, he would be sitting there doing, I don't know, tuning reeds or something, and I'd say, "What do you think of Webern?" Or "What do you think of Varese?" Or Ives, or Cage. Harry Partch really wasn't interested in anybody else's music but his own. It just bugged the hell out of him, but I kept doing it. Not only that, if he said something negative about one of these composers, I would argue with him. I wouldn't do that anymore, of course; I would have more sense of diplomacy. After he fired me, I went to his apartment to try to have him change his mind. His complaint to me was that I was arrogant, and I guess I was. Partch, you know, was a cranky old man. Not very generous to any other composers, and a lousy teacher. What he needed was a disciple and I was not about to be that. That was the end of my relationship with Partch.
DK That's interesting because you are, perhaps more than anyone else, associated with being responsible for championing an American rogue tradition among composers, which would include Ives, Ruggles, Nancarrow, Cage and others, and Partch is right in there too.
JT Yes, definitely. Partch would be central to it, despite my personal difficulties with him, which were beside the point. One is personal, the other the aesthetic, the technical, the historical. If I can't get along with somebody, whether it may be because of the other person or myself, it has no bearing on whether that person's ideas are important or not. In the case of Partch - I don't feel like apologizing - he was being a jerk. I was, in my way as a young person, being a bit of a jerk too. On the other hand, I was hoping we could have a nice discussion about these other composers. I was wrong.
DK Another little irony, you too would belong to that American rogue tradition, yet here you are in Toronto, teaching at York University, oft times identified as a Canadian composer.
JT It is an irony.
DK Then again, there was Nancarrow in Mexico.
JT Except for the fact that Nancarrow wasn't supported by the Mexicans - he was totally on his own - whereas here in Canada they are very generous and open. They say, if you're a landed immigrant, a permanent resident, you have nearly the same rights and privileges as a citizen; the only thing you can't do is vote. I have been treated so well here; it's amazing. I think that the social system here is much more humane than that in the United States. I have no sympathy whatsoever for the politics of the American government toward the world or their own population. Then again, at a certain point you have to separate the political from the cultural. Take the 1950s. It was a terrible time politically, yet there were amazing things happening culturally, artistically. From my viewpoint I am both an American and a Canadian.
DK Could you describe your comings and goings leading up to the early 1960s?
JT I met Carolee [Schneemann] in New York in 1955, just as I was finishing my year at Juilliard, and we lived together that next year in New York, finally got married, and then went to the Bennington Composers Conference and stayed at Bennington. I then had my two years at Bennington, but we had a year and a half in New York before that. After Bennington we came back to New York for six months and then went to the University of Illinois, for two-and-a-half years, then we came back. I rented a house in New Jersey near Bell Labs, an old funky hand- made stone house, and Carolee had a loft in New York, and we would travel back and forth. I was doing the work at Bell Labs while I was also getting involved in the regular sort of music performance scene in New York, starting the Tone Roads Ensemble with Phil [Corner] and Malcolm [Goldstein], and being involved in the theater work of Carolee and others.
DK How did you get to Bell Labs in the first place?
JT While I was at University of Illinois, Jerry pointed out an article by Max Mathews in the Bell System Technical Journal, the first description of the computer music process. By this time I had been at Illinois a couple of years and experienced a lot of frustration in trying to make music with a primitive analogue synthesis studio. It was the most primitive set-up you could imagine: a couple of tone generators, turn dial to change the pitch, three little cheap tape recorders, Vikings - a big monster vacuum tube mixing board that had been donated to the School by a local radio station when they upgraded and, when I got there, just about nothing else.
The first job Jerry gave me as his assistant was to learn to solder and put together, following a circuit diagram, a little noise generator. It was hopelessly primitive in terms of making any kind of interesting music. I struggled with it for a couple of years, and then I saw the article by Mathews and I thought, - That's the medium for me. - I could really go with that. So that Christmas break , Carolee and I drove to New York and I called up and asked if I could come out and visit Bell Labs and talk to Mathews. I went there and they were very cordial. I talked to Mathews, John Pierce came around, and at the time they found it remarkable that anybody in the outside world would be interested in what they were doing.
Eventually they decided they should get a musician able to deal with the technology to come in and help develop this project. They had had only one real musician before me - David Lewin - who had come in for a short period to do a study, a little piece, with them . I was the first musician that they hired for any length of time to work with the system, and then [Jean-Claude] Risset followed me.
Anyway, I got out there and talked with them and I thought it was really interesting. I just happened to have a splitting headache the whole time, so I was constantly rubbing my temples. Maybe they thought I was some kind of heavy, some kind of thinker. When I got back to Illinois, I didn't really expect anything but then I got a letter from Pierce. I thought, "Well, this is fantastic." But I didn't know where I was going, where I was going to get a job, and so on. I wrote to him and said that I don't know where I'm going to be working, but if I'm anywhere near Bell Labs I will certainly want to use the system. Then I got another letter offering me a job.
DK There were a few letters in between, where your obvious enthusiasm and attention to concrete detail no doubt helped your job prospects.
JT Really, I've compressed the whole thing in my mind. In my memory it was just an exchange of a couple of letters and that was that.
DK What about information theory? Claude Shannon had been at Bell Labs, of course, but you ran into it at the University of Illinois. How?
JT Hiller was teaching that too, it was one of his subjects. I already had Shannon's book; it had been given to me by a friend in about 1955. I tried to read it but the math put me off, then Hiller helped me to understand what was going on. Shannon was gone by the time I got to Bell Labs, to Harvard or MIT, but I once visited him with John Pierce, when we went to Boston, to give a talk on the rise-time of a tone at a symposium. Pierce was going to talk also. We went together to visit Claude Shannon and Jerry Lettvin, one of the guys who wrote the ground breaking article called "What the Frog's Eye Tells the Frog's Brain ." Anyway, I met Shannon, but it didn't mean anything.
DK It seems from a distance like it might have been schizoid to be involved, by day, in a highly technical world of Bell Labs in New Jersey, of programming and acoustics, submitting proposals to the National Science Foundation, etc. and, by night, in the experimental arts scene In downtown New York, with its sensuousness, irreverence. Such a stretch might be more common today, but it would seem to have been at the time so uncommon as to be disorienting.
JT It didn't seem odd at all to me. It might not have been common but I didn't feel any schism. It is just having both the right side and the left side [of the brain] working simultaneously.
DK Of course, Billy Kluver was associated with both worlds, and later both Mathews and Pierce could be found making appearances in the New York art world. Where did Kluver figure in?
JT He came from Sweden with that European hipness about art, where they know a hell of a lot more about culture than most North Americans. He was working with laser light, mazers or something at Bell Labs, but he was also interested in the arts in New York City and his girlfriend, Letty Eisenhaur, was a performance artist; she was in Claus Oldenburg's Store Days with Carolee. Hey, George Brecht was a chemist. That was Jerry Hiller's background too. He came out of the chemistry department and crossed over to music. It doesn't mean that some of these guys didn't feel the schism, but it didn't happen to me.
DK Brecht eventually left Johnson & Johnson in 1965.
JT He probably didn't really like chemistry as much as I liked and still like acoustics. I was having fun, learning, involved in exciting things. I feel very fortunate - you know a lot of it is just plain luck - to have fallen into these things. If I didn't get that job with Bell Labs or if I hadn't been married to Carolee, everything might have been very different.
DK When did you start investigating psychoacoustics?
JT It was first psychophysics, actually, of which psychoacoustics then became a subfield. The former means any science that attempts to deal with the physical correlates of some perceptual process. My study began with Jerry at the University of Illinois and then developed exponentially at Bell Labs. There was so much exciting work being done and I got to know people who were involved in this work. It seemed to me, as it still does, that it is very relevant to any kind of musical theory. Music theory needs to deal with all of that information.
DK Was there any focus on psychoacoustics in your study with Hiller?
JT It didn't focus directly on psychoacoustics, but I remember we had two texts. I still have them; they're wonderful books. One is Musical Acoustics by [Charles] Culver [3rd Edition (NY: Blakiston, Co., 1951)] and the other is called On Human Communication by Colin Cherry [Cambridge: MIT Press, 1978]. I don't think I encountered the term "psychoacoustics" until I got to Bell Labs.
DK You had a real emphasis on listening from the very beginning. In Meta / Hodos, your Masters Thesis at the University of Illinois from 1961, there is a strong emphasis on listening. If it didn't relate to psychoacoustics proper until you arrived at Bell Labs, where did your interest in listening come from in the first place? 
JT I've always been concerned with the interface between the art of music and the science of music, science of sound, that place where the two things collide. Since I was 11 years old I really have been about as interested in science as I was in music. It's temperamental, the way my mind works.
DK From reading Meta / Hodos it seems that your emphasis on listening also derived from a certain frustration about how 20th century music and materials had been understood. Your notion of a clang would be a direct product of that, since by its nature it resists isolation from actual acts of listening.
JT You have to start at a general, contextual place in perception and music and I got that from the Gestalt psychologists, especially Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka and Wolfgang Kohler. I was reading all kinds of things at the time and I just came across that by accident. I thought the observations that they were making were very persuasive, but they were mostly applying them to visual perception. It occurred to me right away that it should be possible to apply some of these ideas to musical perception.
DK There was no nod toward musical perception or any type of aurality?
JT It's funny. In fact, they do refer to music through an earlier psychologist, who said that because you can take a melody and transpose it, it could be that each one of those pictures is different and yet you recognize it. The configuration, the shape of the thing is what indicated an identity. It seems to us such a kind of an obvious, trivial observation, but to them it was significant. However, they never did any experiments with sound. The experiments and examples were always visual, and that is because it is so hard to work with sound. To do an equivalent thing with sound is extremely difficult. Yet, that is what psychoacoustics is: the science of trying to deal with those things precisely. S. S. Stevens' work started in the 1930s, but I first encountered it in books on acoustics that would rarely refer to the original research on which they would base their statements. But I got more aware of that kind of work at Bell Labs, and I even did one psychoacoustic experiment while I was there, on the perception of the rise-time of a tone .
DK There was a whole folder in your papers containing a number of Bell Labs technical papers on visual perception and pattern recognition, closely followed by a few sonograms. Was there something about pattern recognition in sound, mediated visually, that you were after? What were your interests at the time?
JT Those papers were free to me, so I took absolutely everything of interest. I still have a lot of them at home having to do with things about computers and sound and speech, etc. As to the papers on visual perception, I have always felt that we have things to learn across modalities and that discoveries in one perceptual mode may be relevant to others. You have to be careful about drawing parallels, but if you are careful then there are things to be discovered. I wasn't so much interested in pattern recognition as perception in general. In fact, during the late 1960s, I ended up teaching a course on perception at the School of Visual Arts in New York for a year. It was my acoustics course expanded to deal with visual and tactile perception too. Dore Ashton invited me.
DK There were also materials on the acoustics of bells, which I guess would be appropriate, being Bell Labs and all.
JT One of my projects working on the synthesis program involved efforts to generate the sound of bells, so I was gathering all the analytical data I could to help me synthesize it.
DK This is interesting. You start off immediately with noise, the extremely complex acoustics of bells and timbre. Seemingly, most people would have started off with something a little easier, the simple, and moved to the complex, whereas you continued to dive right into the deep end. Historically, so many acousticians, composers, philosophers - whoever ventured comment on the nature and bounds of music - would argue for the value of starting with the simple and move to the complex, and would in fact not just defer the complex but never get around to it at all. It was a good way to eliminate noise, a variety of noises, actually. In this way, that whole trajectory from the simple to the complex itself seemed complicit in defining the nature of music in a restricted way.
JT It is the trajectory, though, of the mathematician or the mathematical physicist. They start with simplifying assumptions, to make a problem tractable. I understand that very well, in fact, when I teach acoustics I start with sinusoidal motion. It would be possible to begin with noise and then see small periodic sounds as subsets of all the sounds around it, and that would be a lot more realistic with respect to the world. To deal with things mathematically, it works better to start with simple assumptions and build up one little brick at a time. However, I always keenly felt the limitations of electronic music up to that point. My problem with it was that it was too simple, the sounds were too simple. From the very beginning of my work at Bell, I said I want to start with the whole world of sound, so what kind of programming structure would I have to design here that would have all the variables needed to get that noise that I just heard down the street? I would walk around New York City listening to sounds and ask myself, how would I generate that?
DK There is a difference, then, in music and mathematics, since in Meta / Hodos the clang, this complex aggregate of sound, has elemental status. You start from the complex, therefore musically you weren't being a good mathematician.
JT I guess they combine in theory because, the way I think about it, somewhere along the way some mathematician first had the idea of a function, say a function of time, or a function of another variable. The concept of the function is very simple and yet extremely rich because it can include so much. That is the way I think about the clang; it's a simple, singular concept, just as it is a single word, but it is almost as open-ended as the idea of a function. Stockhausen had gone the way that seemed logical. He started with sine waves. In his first two Studies (1953/1954), even when there's basically noises, he's put them together just by adding sine waves. So he was thinking that way. He was thinking like Fourier, that anything can be built up out of a sonic sine wave. It may be true, but the results in the first two Studies that he did I found unsatisfactory because they were too regular, too static in some way, too fixed. Gesang der Junglinge (1956) is another matter, but he had to actually record a person's voice in order to get that element of richness back in. Varese started at the other end, at the musique concrete end, and started with richness but it could include some sine waves too, just as special cases of sounds. So there was plenty of reason to go the way I went. But my approach to music and acoustics was unusual: people are still theorizing about trichords.
DK How did you first encounter the work of John Cage?
JT Much of my knowledge of new music was from records, although I have no idea how I first came upon the name of John Cage, but I knew about him pretty early and was interested. I still have the original Dial records of Sonatas and Interludes from close to 1950, maybe 1954, and my Webern records on Dial. And in 1958 I was there at the Cage Retrospective at Town Hall in New York. Carolee and I were at Bennington at the time, and when we heard it was happening we went to New York just for that. Williams Mix (1952) was performed. The recording of that concert with Williams Mix included came out a couple of years later and I first heard it when I was in Illinois. It was dense and you could hear audience noise and everything, because it was a recording made from a mike in the hall off the loud speakers. Obviously, it was an essential influence on my Collage No. 1 (Blue Suede) (1961). The idea of collaging, quick cutting through this kind of material was from that.
DK You were listening to Cage's music, but were you interested in his ideas at the time?
JT Only a little bit because not much was available; Silence wasn't published until 1961. By the way, Peters began publishing his music that same year and when I visited Cage, he was very happy about it. He said, "You know, I have the same publisher as Beethoven."
DK There was a letter to you from Cage mostly about Satie's Vexations in which there was some debate about the distinction between chance and indeterminacy. [September 18, 1963]
JT I don't remember the exchange, but Cage's definitions were very idiosyncratic. He undertook to personally redefine all those terms, so you must be aware what he intended to mean. By anybody's definition chance is a form of indeterminacy, but Cage meant something functionally different by it. Chance for him meant the composer using an indeterminate method to make something determinate. When he wants to call something indeterminate, what he really means is that he doesn't know how it's going to come out; the result is not specified. I understand that, but it's a very personal definition.
DK Noise Study, your first piece at Bell Labs actually seems more Varesean than Cagean, if only in the way it relates to the anecdote about your regular commute through the Holland Tunnel to Bell Labs.
JT Cage and Varese had a common attitude about the world in general; where they differed was in the ideas about how an artist makes a piece. In the beginning I was really much closer to Varese than to Cage, but gradually during my two-and-a-half years at Bell Laboratories there was a gradual evolution toward Cage. It was very conscious on my part. I was making a very conscious effort to come to terms more and more deeply with Cage's vision, his point of view, his aesthetic. You're right, Noise Study is closer to Varese than it is to Cage, but the last piece I did at Bell Labs, Ergodos II, was my closest to Cage, the aesthetic of that piece is the closest I have ever been to Cage's aesthetic. And I'm very proud of that piece. I love that piece.
DK In what way were you close?
JT It involved more and more letting go of control, step-by-step. I can step you through the pieces that I did at Bell Labs and show how this was happening, bit by bit until Ergodos II, not Ergodos I, for even there I felt I had to shape the beginning and the end, with something of a fade in and a fade out. In Ergodos II I said "none of that!" Here's a system, just this range of possibilities in x number of dimensions; set that system going and let it go free with some other caveats. I included some other Gestalt stuff that Cage either never understood or knew nothing about, but he wouldn't have noticed them either. Besides that I was also doing something to try to ensure a certain Gestalt structuring. I was saying to the computer go wild, you're free, and that's the closest that I ever came to that aesthetic.
DK Can you say that to a computer?
JT No. What it means is that I didn't input any of the usual kinds of constraints. Anything less than complete freedom to realize the process involves more information on the input. You have to specify. You want this shape? Okay, you've got to do this. You want this to happen? Everything that you want to control you have to input as information. So Ergodos II was the piece in which, aside from the program, I gave no constraints on the particular shape of the output.
DK You mentioned that you could do a step-by-step explanation of the pieces you did at Bell Labs, going from a Varesean noise in Noise Study to a Cagean noise in Ergodos II, could you do that now?
JT All the evidence is in my paper "Computer Music Experiences" and the whole case can be made in relation to the works included on the CD [James Tenney: Selected Works, 1961 - 1969 (FP 01/ART 07)], even though there were a few other computer works form this time, like the George Brecht piece and some studies.
Noise Study (1961) involves a very clear shaping, dynamically and in terms of what I call temporal density. It has a classic shape: it starts softly, builds up to a peak about 2/3rds of the way through, and then fades gradually. It's a canon as well, because I took the same tape, re- recorded it at half-speed and then at double-speed and superimposed these three recordings in such a way that the peaks in all three of them occur at the same moment. There's very strong shaping of large form. The sound is noise and I used random processes to determine the particular characteristics of each clang or sequence in it. I was already involved in a random process, but that overall shaping was still very strong.
In the next piece Dialogue (April, 1963) that shaping is still there. The whole thing is really about how to create a piece with two layers of different kinds of sound that gradually change roles. One starts out more prominent and then gradually becomes background, whereas what was the background in the beginning changes role and becomes prominent, and then they exchange roles again later. Lots of shaping involved. In Phases (for Edgard Varese) (December, 1963) the shaping is more subtle and less dramatic. In fact, it is basically not dramatic at all, but there is shaping nevertheless involving very slow, wave-motion-like tides, ocean tides, very slow increases and decreases of certain variables defining the characteristics of the sound. But I was approaching steady state, approaching a kind of statistical status already, which the first two pieces did not have. There's no way you could describe them as static.
The last two pieces are called Ergodos I (for John Cage) (August, 1963) and Ergodos II (for John Cage) (March, 1964). I coined the title by borrowing an adjective from Gibbsian thermodynamics. A late-19th century, early-20th century form of thermodynamics, where the latter day concept of entropy was developed as a statistical concept, was formulated by [J. Willard] Gibbs, an American scientist, and [Ludwig] Boltzmann, a German physicist. The term ergodic means a condition, like the molecules of gas in a room. You can assume, given a long enough period of time, that those molecules might go through every possible state, every possible configuration. It relies on the term phase space, an abstract notion of a many- dimensional space, two or three times as many dimensions as there are particles. The concept of a point in a phase space represents a configuration of all the billions and billions of particles. Ergodic means that that point in phase space eventually will have gone through every position in the phase space.
With Ergodos I, I still couldn't quite let go, so I faded it in. The first minute out of twelve minutes was a gradual fade in and the last minute was a gradual fade out. But through the whole middle ten minutes it was what I would now call a stationary state, statistically. I made two tapes and specified that they could be played alone or together, played in either direction, combined with each other in any way. That's way beyond any Varesean idea, much closer now to Cage.
With Ergodos II I let go even of that shaping and I ended up with an eighteen minute tape and said that the material on this can be used in any way to create a program. Somebody can take that tape and mix it with itself, or tape a short portion of it, whatever. They're almost totally free. I then created an instrumental work called Responses (March, 1964), which are charts that players can use to play with that tape. They are as close to pure indeterminacy as I ever got, except for some verbal pieces from around that same period. I was testing how far I could relinquish control while still making something that I would be interested in.
DK It seems there are a number of ways to understand shaping and ways in which different types of listening might intercede. Noise Study is associated with your anecdote about traveling through the Holland Tunnel and shifting your listening to the noises surrounding you from an annoyed one to an attentive and aesthetic one, which in turn calls up Varese's own comments about the influence of environmental sounds . If Phases was increasingly non-dramatic, then what was the dramatic character of the previous pieces? In other words, what in the character of the shaping did you abandon with the Ergodos pieces?
JT That brings up the question of how we understand what form is. I think in most of the music of the last 300 years or so, form has usually been one of two things. One is straight dramatic or narrative form as you have in opera, but sometimes I think that even the symphony and the so-called abstract musical genres are just abstracted opera. Therefore, I'm inclined to call the last 350 years the operatic era even though there is lots of so-called abstract music. The conception of what music is supposed to be doing is very much related to its origins with Monteverdi, the Camerata and the beginnings of opera with its expression of emotion, the provocation of emotion in the listener, etc. Now, in the so-called abstract music of that same period, the model was actually Aristotelian rhetoric as it was taught in the Middle Ages. Exposition, development, recapitulation - those are all terms taken from the discipline of rhetoric. So even when it wasn't explicitly narrative or dramatic, it was at least a strategy of persuasion. The purpose of the form was to grab the audience and pull them along.
There have been a few other conceptions of form. In the early 20th century you've got impressionists like Debussy or Ravel, with music suggesting an idea of the visual or image of process, or in Schoenberg's discussion of form as a means of ensuring comprehensibility, where formal devices are meant to clarify the relationships among the different parts in a piece of music. I came to a point where the form of a piece was to be an object of perception in itself, where the piece is the largest Gestalt, where the piece is the largest clang. It was not important to me for the shape to be comprehensible as anything other than an object of perception, certainly not in a narrative or dramatic way, and not as persuasion. It was a shape that was interesting to me. I was doing that in Noise Study but, again, there is a shaping involved there, not a Cagean relinquishing of that control.
This way of describing form is recent on my part, but when I look back it was pretty much what I was doing. Both Noise Study and what you hear when you drive through the tunnel have a similar shape - the deeper you get into it the more you are submerged and then as you come out it comes on again - yet it was still fairly symmetrical. But there was a deliberate asymmetry that may relate back to Bartok's use of Fibonacci ratios and similar things which I still use. In fact, since Ergodos I don't do totally open things any more. I've been up to something else, which has been to treat form as an object of perception simply at the largest level.
DK When speaking about Noise Study you said that the sound employed was noise. Historically, especially in the 20th century, the relationship of noise to music has been quite variable, whether it is understood as hitherto extramusical sound which was to be brought into the fold of music, or noise already resident in musical practice and material. In the context of Bell Labs, however, there were a number of other understandings of noise, from information theory, cybernetics, acoustical research and the like.
JT There are different definitions of noise in those various areas. In information theory all it means is an unwanted signal. It could be Beethoven's Fifth Symphony; if that's not what we are trying to listen to, then that becomes the noise. In acoustics it is a broad continuous spectrum created by a random or quasi-random wave form. I started with the notion that the early distinction between so-called musical sounds and unmusical sounds was useless.
DK And when did that come about?
JT Very early, probably before I went to the University of Illinois. It was derived from a simple observation about all the wonderful music of the 20th century. If you attempt to distinguish between so-called musical sounds and nonmusical sounds, you'll have to throw out half the great music, or more. There are still books on acoustics that make that distinction! It's just useless. I consciously had in mind very early on that I was interested in all sound, that any sound could be an element in a piece of music. You can't say what kind of sound can be in a piece of music because any kind might be. Then, what I tried to realize in a practical sense at Bell Labs was a notion that all different kinds of sounds existed on a continuum. If you define all the necessary parameters and look at the widest range for each of those parameters, if you do it right, you are going to include all possible sounds, including nice, so-called musical sounds, noises and all the sounds of the environment. We have to have the attitude that there is an incredibly broad continuum of possibilities for the materials of music. Computer music, for the first time, really made it possible to define that space.
Cage had come awfully close to it in his early articles, such as "The Future of Music: Credo" (1937) and "Forerunners of Modern Music" (1949). If you reread those or read my "John Cage and the Theory of Harmony" where I highlight those things, you'll see he was so close. He was very much an influence on my thinking about these things . If you listen to Varese, too, it doesn't make sense to draw lines between types of sound; there is just a huge continuum in many dimensions of possible sounds.
DK Do you see that continuum as diapasonic, that is, as having a regularity of features across its expanse? Hasn't the computer run up against difficulties in generating speech, let alone environmental sounds? How could a continuum work with such widely varied instances of sound?
JT Computer music really gave the key to that. Noises are generated by a certain amount of random amplitude or frequency modulation of a sinusoid, where the modulation parameters are speed and range, that is, how drastic is the modulation and how fast are the things changing. And those two things affect the bandwidth of the noise and other characteristics of the noise. You can have an absolute continuum from the sine wave to a white noise and back, just as I did in the piece with George Brecht [Entrance and Exit Music]. The continuum from a sine wave to more complex wave forms is easy enough; you just gradually begin to modify the wave shape and you start introducing harmonics. So you're altering a spectrum, you're enriching the spectrum.
I wrote an obscure article "The Physical Correlates of Timbre" which was published in the Gravesaner Blatter [Vol. 26 (1965)], that Hermann Scherchen published out of his acoustics laboratory in Gravesano, Switzerland. In the article I suggested that it might be useful to conceive of timbre, or the physical correlates of timbre, as resulting from various deviations from simple harmonic motion, meaning sinusoidal motion. The first way you can deviate from that is by distorting the wave form: keep it periodic but just start changing the shape of it. Like I said, you introduce harmonics and then you can imagine going through all possible spectral shapes. The second way you can do it is by quasi-steady state modulations in amplitude or frequency or spectrum. Those modulations can be periodic or aperiodic. The third kind of deviation are envelopes, transients. These are one-time-only changes, which I distinguish from steady-state. I'm suggesting that all possible sounds could be included in a continuum defined by those three large types of variation.
What made it possible was really the structure of the computer music program; the approach to sound generation that Max Mathews developed at Bell Labs. In a way it wasn't his invention; he was simply applying known acoustical principles to the problem of generating digital sound, so ostensibly he wanted a wide variety. When I arrived there wasn't even a noise generator, so that tells you something about what he originally imagined. In Ergodos II or Phases, all the sounds were generated by the same sound generating structure which Mathews called "the instrument". As you could imagine, you've got this oscillator here, this input, these controls, this and that, and you build up this structure, which could be thought of as a logical analog of a physical structure. The very wide range of sounds in these pieces are but samples from what is absolutely a continuum, because all of the inputs had to be specified for every sound. I think it's significant, to realize that it is the same sound producing structure.
DK Why wouldn't they have had a noise generator?
JT Because in the beginning they just wanted to make tones. So there was no noise generator, no envelope generator, no band pass filter. Those were all things I told them we needed.
DK Were they thinking about the problem of timbre at that point?
JT Yes, but only very simply. The only way they had to affect it was by changes of wave form, but they were discrete. You would have one wave form of a certain shape stored here and another one stored there. You could choose your wave form but then it was constant during the tone; there was no way to gradually change it during the course of a sound. There was modulation of a simple kind, because they were thinking "vibrato". Very early after arriving at Bell Labs I asked for a noise generator for Noise Study. It immediately opened up wonderful possibilities because the characteristics of each noise (what would have been called a "note" in Mathew's terminology) could be interpolated from one condition to another in a single sound. It could start narrow-band and go to wide-band or start soft and go loud or low and go high, etc. Noise Study was dependent on that kind of possibility. That piece varies from the beginning to the dynamic peak; it goes from wide-band noise to very narrow-band noise, and these are almost like sirens, the sound going up and down. They are very narrow bands so you hear them as tones. So already that dichotomy between noise and tone was implicitly wiped out, replaced by the idea of a continuum.
The terms noise and tone imply a categorical distinction that I don't believe exists. Every sound we hear has some noise element in it, every sound we actually hear in our environment, including those of the orchestra, and most noises have some tonal aspect to them. We keep reverting to the distinction because it is in our language. But our language is not really very well equipped to deal with what I'm proposing except by using a more general term like sound, and speaking of any sound or all possible sounds describing a continuum of sounds. There is no dividing line.
DK With Cage, Varese and others, the idea of all sound had an emancipatory significance. Rhetorically, this "liberation of sound" had political implications and, in fact, in certain of Varese's works, such as Espace and the Red Symphony, the politics are everywhere in evidence. Are there similar ideas present in your idea of the continuum?
JT Sure, there's a kind of aesthetic liberation, but I felt that I was simply starting from a place to which those composers had already brought us. Other music too. How can you listen to Webern's Opus 6 without realizing how integral tone and noise have to be considered to be in order to even describe such a piece? Yeah, it's liberating, but conceptually it had already been achieved. So it was just a matter of furthering it. I could carry it further because they didn't have the means, the medium in which this could be realized quite so thoroughly. The computer could move across the continuum, demonstrate a continuous character by creating a sound that goes from one category to another with no break. What was once two different categories would become just two ends of the same sound. I don't know but I may have been the first person to do this. Certainly the computer made it possible, but it also required somebody who wanted to do it.
DK This relates to a tendency in modernist music regarding new technologies. Busoni imagined a futuristic keyboard that would really be "the work horse of the composer" by being capable of playing all the instruments of an orchestra, much like the typewriter had been seen to thin out the difference between author and publisher. In short, he wanted a sampler.
JT He didn't know how awful they can be!
DK Percy Grainger too, in developing his Free Music instruments, wanted to circumvent the obstacle between composition and performance. He didn't want musicians intervening between compositional thought and realization, but instead wanted the composer to go straight to realization. Was this a factor for you with the computer?
JT What the computer did with the program was to make available, for the first time in history, the possibility of moving continuously throughout the total field of sound because it was dealing with the signal itself. You are not dealing with a mechanical apparatus, an instrument, a machine; you are dealing with the signal, and you have to specify all the parameters. You have to make choices you didn't have to make previously because they were already made for you. If you wrote for a violin, or an oboe, all your timbral decisions had already been made for you. But with the signal you have to decide what the timbre is going to be. Mathews and Pierce hadn't really done this, but they were coming from a different place, musically naive.
DK Good engineers.
JT You bet. The best. But musically, I'm afraid, just engineers. I had huge arguments with John Pierce about aesthetics. He would say that if you get too much information, it would just be a white noise. Then I would say but white noise can be another element; at a certain perceptual point it is no more complex than a sine tone. The computer made it possible. You could also say that musique concrete makes it possible but only by having available every sound you can record. But in most cases you are not hearing the continuous transition from one sound to another. If you heard a million different sounds you might surmise that they are simply points in a continuous multi-dimensional space, but in order to move continuously in that space you need special technology.
DK Is that what attracted you to glissandi? You said that Noise Study contained movement almost like a siren. Busoni, Cowell, Grainger and other composers favored glissandi because they could trace an uninterrupted continuum akin to natural states and processes, not fragmented by temperament, which Grainger compared to a visual artist being restricted to making mosaics.
JT In a way. The simplest conception of what one is doing when working with the computer program might be that with each sound you're going to generate an initial amplitude and a final amplitude, an initial frequency and a final frequency, an initial spectrum and a final spectrum. That's a huge simplification because the way things change between the beginning and end could be much more complex than simple interpolation. Yet even that is so much richer than the usual notion. I was simply extending what is taken for granted, at least with amplitude, extending that to pitch and frequency and spectrum, and noise parameters and a number of other things. So in the Ergodos pieces, every sound has an initial and a final value specified in all those parameters, and there is a gradual transition.
DK Again, it's attached to a larger notion of continuum and a diapason of all sound, going back to Busoni's equating the continuity of tone with both an infinite gradation of nature and, in turn, with plenitude and possibility, or Varese's fascination with the sirens used in Helmholtz's acoustical research, or the test tone recordings played on the variable speed turntable in Cage's Imaginary Landscape No. 1, etc.
JT It's in Partch too, where gliding pitches are associated with speech. He recognized that we're continually gliding our pitches up and down. They are not sing-song, they are not fixed, and that's one reason speech sounds like speech to us. Early in the development of his instruments, his scale, and so forth, Partch had a desire to be able to relate to natural speech more closely, not necessarily to imitate it, but to relate to it, yet sometimes even to imitate it. He would just slide a finger along up and down his adapted viola following the pitch contours of the speaking voice.
DK You mentioned in passing in Meta / Hodos that the distinguishing characteristic of 20th century Western art music as a whole could be understood as a product of a deeper reign of speech, as opposed to traditional musical form. Was that provoked at all by Partch's ideas on speech?
JT I don't think I got that from Partch; I arrived at it independently. It just seems obvious to me. The speaking voice is an extraordinarily wide-ranging sound generator, that is, when it is not constrained to sing, constrained to do what people think is musical. If you really listen to the music of a speaking voice, it is quite extraordinary: timbrally, in terms of changes of pitch, the whole ball of wax, it's right there. Moreover, it is not insignificant that the whole institutional drive for computer sound generation derived from efforts to synthesize speech. That was the original impulse to develop that program at Bell Labs. No one said, "Oh, let's make music." Instead, there just happened to be a guy who was involved in the speech synthesis project who was an amateur musician, and he said, "Hey, I can make music with this too."
Originally, their intention was to simulate the vocoder, that is, they were going to use the computer to simulate an electronic device. It would be cheaper. You didn't have to go change all the resistors, you just changed the numbers and thereby you could experiment with it more easily, whereas an actual piece of hardware was more cumbersome and slower. In the process, they learned quite a bit about speech. While studying all the various parameters and variables involved in speech, they found that it was very difficult to synthesize anything that sounded natural. It was, nevertheless, the beginnings of a concerted effort to describe the speech signal.
DK So you're saying that the ability to produce this wide variability is modeled within speech at a much more supple level than it is within the symphony orchestra or the attendant musical instruments.
JT Especially spoken vocal sounds, in contrast to the early efforts to have the computer sing. Max Mathews generated a version of a little tune called "Daisy", a classic piece of trivia because it's fun.
DK When did you first meet Stan Brakhage?
JT In my last year of high school in Denver. He had been a year ahead of me in that same high school, but I didn't know him when he was a high school student. After he graduated he had gotten a scholarship to Dartmouth, went, and couldn't stand it. He said he had had a nervous breakdown, quit and came back to Denver. There was a group of artistic-minded kids that I was part of. We were in the drama class, in the plays. That year he came back to Denver, we had formed a film club too. We used to run films by Griffith, Cocteau and so forth. And when Stan did his first film he asked me to do the music. It was just piano music, which I played live at the first showings. There was a film that Stan made where I was involved in the making of the sound track, but it was just a wild party we were having, improvising at the piano, drums, things like that. It was called Desistfilm (1954). For another film, I actually composed the music for it, but it never got on the film because I was not knowledgeable enough. I was writing for an ensemble of strings, flute and piano, and I knew nothing about how to do this. So there were so many problems. One rehearsal session was actually set up; it was just hopeless. And then, more recently, Stan has made films to previously composed music of mine. Maybe five years ago he made a film, Christ Mass Sex Dance, to go with Blue Suede. Just very recently he's made a film to a piece of mine called Flocking, which is all just scratched emulsion, beautiful.
DK Then there was the article that you two wrote, "Sound and Cinema" [Film Culture #29, 1963]. How could your input be reconciled with his long-standing advocacy of using no sound?
JT Mostly during his career he has stuck with that, basically because he wanted to enhance the attention to the visual. But he's not absolutely dogmatic about, he's experimented with other things, he's done films to other people's music too.
DK In the Perspectives of New Music tribute issue Brakhage wrote that he had dealings with Varese and Cage. Were you involved in this?
JT Stan went to New York the same year I did; we were roommates for a while in 1954 while I was going to Juilliard. He wanted to use music by Varese for one of his films; I believe he wanted to use Ionisation for Way to Shadow Garden (1955). He was dealing with this film and another one that had music by Cage. He contacted each of them and made appointments to go see them to ask their permission. I went with Stan to both of these meetings, and that's how I first met Varese and Cage. It didn't lead right away to much more, but it was something. I remember what Cage said. We were sitting there in a pub and he said, "I'm no longer interested in that music." It was Sonatas and Interludes and this was 1954. He said, "I'm no longer interested in that music, I don't care what you do with it." I don't know if the current version of the film [In Between] still has Cage's music because not only his permission would be required, although this was before his music was published by Peters.
DK Brakhage also said that because you always learn from your contemporaries, he learned more from you than from Cage.
JT We spent a lot more time together. He didn't really spend that much time with Cage or Varese.
DK What did you learn from Brakhage?
JT First of all, things having to do with the role of the artist in society. Stan has always been a romantic artist with that idea of the function of the artist in society, and I believe that influenced me early on.
DK How would you describe that?
JT Basically, that artists are the sensory organs, if not the nervous system, of society. I would say the sensory organs, because there are other functions you might analogize to the nervous system. James Joyce said it in Portrait of the Artist, and McLuhan said it in Gutenberg Galaxy, that the artist has kind of a special role. It could well have been Stan's influence that made me decide to become a composer instead of, say, an architect or engineer or a physicist or any of the other things that I was interested in. When Stan started doing the more abstract films, even when they were still not totally abstract, but just pushing the limits of the medium toward a purely visual art form, it was easy for me to sense analogies to music. Stan did too. For a long time I believe Stan thought of music as a model for what he was doing in film. He was so concerned with rhythm; he would get a feeling for the rhythm of the shot sequences. But the more he moved toward abstraction and a purely visual, as distinct from psychological or narrative film, the more the connection with music and the stronger it became. It was very easy for me to see that the shot is a clang; a sequence is a sequence, in fact that's what they call it in film. I read Eisenstein at the time too but Stan was more immediate. Anyhow, I always felt very strongly about that. This formulation is in retrospect, but I took it for granted. And I made a connection between Stan's films and Carolee's paintings too. I think we learnt a lot from each other, all three of us.
DK Brakhage's fascination with seeing runs parallel in a sensory way with your emphasis, from the very beginning, on listening. However, few people listening to your music and contemplating your theory would say it's romantic, yet you hold an essentially romantic notion of the role of the artist?
JT Most importantly, we're not here to make money, we're not here to get famous, we're not workers like everybody else. Somehow we're doing something very important, and it's kind of special. That's a very elitist view in a sense, but we pay for it. I have the notion that we're all involved in our current evolutionary process, through cultural evolution, and things really do change quite radically. It is purely mental and sensory. Our brains are changing and to the extent that each of our sensory systems includes parts of the brain, and those parts are changing. It's mainly the artists who are causing that change, defining those changes.
Nevertheless, after I wrote Meta / Hodos I sent Stan a copy of it and he wrote back to me something that I felt was kind of curious. It wasn't a very substantive response. He said something like, "On reading Meta / Hodos I realized how complicated music is!" To me it was kind of a friendly evasion. He wanted to be positive but it just occurred to me it really hadn't meant a hell of a lot to him.
DK Early on Brakhage was writing poetry and you were also writing poetry, which I ran across in your papers.
JT Brakhage was writing a lot of poetry. In fact he originally wanted to be a poet. I didn't write much except in one very short period in the 60s, but it doesn't amount to a hell of a lot. If somebody asked me, did you ever write poetry, I would say no. But for Stan it was a much more important thing, and it has very much influenced his prose writing style which sometimes seems to me overly mannered, but it is definitely Brakhage.
DK There's some similarity between Brakhage's and Carolee's writings, starting with their letters, a very forceful poetic density. It flows beautifully like molasses, yet it is in no way obscure. Both of them are very impassioned, which gets me back to another angle on the alleged schism between this type of impassioned poetics and sensuousity and the technical priorities of Bell Labs. I might suggest that they meet for you in your attention to Wilhelm Reich. He's there with your notes from about 1964 onward on bio-energetics, information theory, and Schroedinger's What is Life?, going back even further to a letter you wrote to Varese, recommending D'Arcy Thompson on the organization of the organism. All told, this type of bio- electrics melded a technical orientation of physics, psycho-physics, with a sensuous organism, techniques of passion.
JT For a while I thought that a case could be made that would connect Schroedinger and information theory, which would be the whole idea that entropy is somehow related to life, in one way, and related to information. I found very relevant things in Reich, that is, before I got disillusioned with his later developments. I imagined seeing them synthesized in some way. I obviously wasn't the person to do it, I didn't have the chops! It was just one of the things that fascinated me. I had read the Schroedinger years before and always remembered it, and was very early into Shannon and information theory.
DK I seem to remember that Carolee said she had run into Reich in 1957 or so while rummaging around a University of Illinois library.
JT I don't remember it that way. I didn't run into him until 1961. In fact, it was a guy at Bell Labs that made me aware of Reich, a strange guy named Sheridan Speeth, who was there for working on a project to find ways of automatically distinguishing between the seismographic records of atomic bomb tests and of earthquakes. This was when one of the reasons the United States and Russia couldn't agree on any kind of test ban was that you couldn't tell the difference in monitoring. Sherry, he called himself, had the idea that you could figure out the difference, and he was working on that project. But he also was into the writings of Wilhelm Reich, and he loaned me the Selected Writings of Reich. Carolee and I thought that it was very very interesting.
DK That's very interesting, a concrete connection between the atom bomb and Reich, since his ideas of an evil atmospheric energy invites comparison with above-ground testing and radiation. Your attempt to reconcile Reich, information, and Schroedinger, did it lead anywhere?
JT I don't think it led to anything artistically but I did get into Reichian therapy, and worked with Alexander Lowen . I've long outgrown this, but I was still in the self improvement mode of thinking, wondering how I could make myself better and, of course, it was after the breakup with Carolee. Reich was trying to get to a more viable, holistic physiology. I still think there are things that he understood, maybe in a distorted way, just as chiropractics can help people, but the way they talk about it is totally distorted in terms of any other kind of knowledge. I think Reich was on to something that I'd never seen in any other place about whole- organism integration that relates to the sexual function. I still think it is interesting, but you have to wade through so much. In the later writings there is so much that is questionable and indefensible, but the first few books are still very important.
DK The interest in Reich, Artaud and others signaled a new attention on the body in the 1950s that certainly informed the 1960s. Eastern body practices too; Kundalini was seen by some in the 1960s as a great way to gain transcendence while fucking.
JT That's the Western Way. We want the best of all those worlds, don't we?
DK In a brief interview several years ago during which we discussed Cage and Fluxus, you talked about the general influence upon young artists of the 1950s of Cage's 4'33" in terms of its theatrical and the conceptual aspects. Was there any influence along these lines evident in your work at Bell Labs?
JT Probably not with the pieces I did at Bell Labs, but there were some other pieces that were related to 4'33": Metabolic Music, perhaps, but I'm thinking in particular of a piece called Chamber Music, a series of little cards inspired by George Brecht, which was played several times at the Fluxus Symphony Orchestra Concert.
DK Was that one of the Postal Pieces?
JT No. I wrote it when I was in New Haven. The idea just came to me. I was waiting for a concert to begin and noticed how much was going on that we generally filter out. We don't consider it to be what we are there to observe, yet it often is very rich and potentially interesting. The score reads: "Chamber Music. For any number of performers anywhere. For George Brecht. James Tenney, May 1964. /Prelude. In preparation. / First interlude. Instantaneously. / Second interlude. Instantaneously, etc. / Postlude. In appreciation." In the Fluxus Symphony Orchestra Concert at Carnegie Recital Hall (June 27, 1965), for the prelude the orchestra comes out, sits down, tunes up. Then the conductor comes out and gives an upbeat and the lights go off. For the interlude, they are out there in the dark and the lights just kind of flash on and off, with a single sound - BANG!! - from the orchestra. The postlude, the lights come on and no sound occurs. The conductor is just giving the wrap up; they put their instruments down, etc. It's an obvious thing, but it was fun.
I made one special copy, this is No. 5, Chamber Music with Commentary. For Bob Rauschenberg. The way I remember it, after the Fluxus performance Yvonne Rainer came up and asked me, "what are you trying to do?" Maybe it was Bob who asked me. Anyway, its says "Commentary." On the back of the card for Prelude it says " 'anywhere' illuminated". On the back of the First Interlude, "Preparation. In common./Second interlude, Instantaneously. Simultaneously for Yvonne Rainer, (etc., etc.) zero to infinity./Postlude, Appreciation without exception."
DK Among the Postal Pieces there occurs the "swell", this shape - not a bell curve, but flattened out from a bell curve - that Larry Polansky talks about in his essay as one of two important recurring figures in your work (the other being "clang") . He says that it's both a sonic event and a philosophical "generator" of sorts. He also appreciates the possible pun involved. What's it all about?
JT It defines the form of a lot of my pieces, starting with Noise Study. The term comes from the Postal Pieces , the Swell Pieces, which involve each player doing just that: a fade in and fade out with these overlapping among a group of instruments. It occurs in Having Never Written a Note for Percussion (for John Bergamo) (1971), as the crescendo/decrescendo on the tam-tam roll. It's just a shape that I like. There is an obvious relationship to the old narrative and rhetorical forms. In the narrative, dramatic forms there is what Aristotle called the climax, and in the rhetorical form there is the peroration, the climatic point of the argument. I'm in a funny position because I try to distinguish what I'm doing from these things, yet I don't know how long I could hold that position. It may be that I'm simply maintaining something I've been conditioned to or, on the other hand, it could be that Aristotle and Shakespeare also liked that shape! Yeah, even as an object of perception. I think I'm going to take that position.
DK Doesn't the swell shape proper have a certain symmetry that these narrative and rhetorical forms lack?
JT There actually is an asymmetry common to my use of the swell and to those forms. The peak doesn't come in the middle of the piece, it comes later. The peroration does not come in the middle of the speech, it comes later. In fact, in Swell Piece there is no shape to the whole thing; that's left open, that's ergodic. Only the swell on each individual tone is described.
DK Let's talk about For Ann (rising) (1969), the piece associated with the Shepard tone.
JT Let's not call it a Shepard tone. Nobody seems to realize that I generated that tone for Roger Shepard. He was working at Bell Labs right down the hall and he came to me and said, "Do you think we can do something in sound with a computer like that M. C. Escher staircase?" And I said, well, I bet we could. So I generated it for him. The first version was step-wise and in that way was actually more like the Escher. It wasn't continuous. The complements are an octave apart, which merge into a single pitch percept. There's always a sense of only one pitch class at a moment. Because it is fading in at the bottom and fading out at the top there is always something there in the middle. Roger was interested in illusion, or what people call an illusion. It's really not. Only in a certain verbal sense can you really call it an illusion because it is, in fact, continually going up. It is not like it seems to be continually going up, it is going up all the time.
I didn't want to create an illusion, I was just trying to carry forward a notion developed toward the end of my Bell Labs period into a piece some five years later. I was working with the idea that it was not necessary anymore to think in terms of discrete sounds that began and ended in relatively short times. It occurred to me that this was a hangover from a time when the only way we could produce sounds was by an action that caused an object to vibrate, which would then stop vibrating after a little while. So I began thinking instead about a notion of continuity, which I first used in the piece called Fabric for Che (1967), where by not hearing the beginnings or the ends of sounds I wanted it to be a kind of a terrible, incredible turmoil.
A couple of years later, this kind of continuity was used in For Ann (rising) to create something that could potentially go on forever, where there seemed to be no beginning or end, except arbitrary ones. The first version made wasn't on a computer. I did it with old fashioned Lafayette oscillators with a decade counter. You had to switch it and it would multiply the frequency by 10, so you had two ranges: low and high. One had to go up from the bottom to a certain point in the middle and then switch and start in the middle and go on up to the top. Then I had to try to splice together two pieces of tape to make it sound continuous. It was very primitive, very imperfect. So I called Jean-Claude Risset and asked him to generate a single glissando for me which I then mixed just by regular tape techniques, to create the final tape. The version on the CD was redone by Tom Erbe using up-to-date digital sound generating equipment.
DK More ergodic than Ergodos?
JT Yes, more than Ergodos. A wonderful thing happens in For Ann (rising). So little seems to be happening, yet there is continual change, partly because it appears to be in some way completely predictable, right? The mind starts moving around in the sound in an extremely interesting way, and everyone is taking a different path through it. You can just sit there and follow unintentionally and find yourself going here and there or you can actually focus your hearing and cause yourself to change your focus within the texture.
DK This is Ann, your second wife, right? So, the title?
JT Everything was getting better and better.
DK What's the relationship between your Metabolic Music (1965), which uses biofeedback gear, and Alvin Lucier's Music for Solo Performer, often known as "the brainwave piece."
JT It was one of those independent coincidences. I hadn't heard about Alvin's piece until after I did my own. Also, it was just a little sketch of an idea. It was never realized in a performance, whereas Alvin's piece was fully realized.
DK Were such relationships between art and technology in the air? Certainly there was the activity of Experiments in Art and Technology and other groups at that time.
JT Of course. But Alvin wasn't involved with Kluver or E.A.T. He was just doing his thing, brilliantly. Yet there was something in the air: my work at Bell Labs, Paik's work with television sets, what George Brecht was doing, Max Neuhaus was beginning to move in the direction of sound installations, Cage with his Variations and Cartridge Music.
You may not know about this - I don't think it has ever been published - but in the mid-1960s at Dick Higgins' Something Else Press Gallery, which was basically his and Alison's [Knowles] living room, I gave a series of lectures on computer programming. Let's see, how did it start? Cage had a discussion group about [Buckminster] Fuller, that he invited some of us to and it was at Dick and Alison's place. I then invited some of the friends who had been involved in that group to learn about programming: Dick and Alison, Nam June Paik, Phil Corner, Steve Reich, Max Neuhaus and two or three others that I can't remember right now.
DK When was this? Was it in 1967 when you wrote a letter to Cage about Fuller and politics?
JT That was my response to the series of meetings that John organized. Fuller had just put out a series of documents, 8-1/2 x 11" soft-bound; I believe they were published by the University of Southern Illinois. They were part of his focused attempt to save the world by design science. I still have them. Cage was very intrigued by this idea and wanted to talk about it with people. We would meet at Dick and Alison's place once a week, get wildly drunk and talk about Fuller.
So here was this group of friends of mine, who knew nothing about what I was doing except from hearing the results of it. I thought they might be interested in learning a few things about computer programming and, in fact, they did get interested. Dick and Alison each did a piece. Alison's A House of Dust [computer poetry] was a result of that little series of lectures. I helped her in the programming, but she programmed it. I can't remember what Dick did; I think it may have been a piece of concrete poetry. Also, you talked about that schism. I didn't feel it in myself but I knew it existed outside myself, precisely right there among my friends. I think I was trying to make a bridge. I was trying to say that these things might be relevant to you too if you had a way into it. Nam June Paik used to call me his guru! He liked playing with hardware and here I was talking software. He was very interested, but didn't do anything with it.
DK Could you tell me about your relationship with George Brecht and Entrance/Exit Music?
JT We met at Fluxus events. George was interested in what I was doing at Bell Labs, and he was one of the people who could understand it easily and quickly. He came to me one day with an idea - it was his idea - and asked me if I could generate a sound that went from a sine tone to white noise. I said yes. It was used as entrance and exit music at a lot of concerts that Paik and Charlotte Moorman did. I forget which way it went.
DK Wouldn't it go from white noise to sine tone, and then sine tone to white noise, like bunting at either end of a concert? That would be from the chaos of the world to the order of the performance, although that might not make sense for a Paik and Moorman concert.
JT Maybe! I just know that Paik and Moorman took it with them on a European tour and every concert was opened and closed with that piece. They sent me the programs. That was one of the pieces that didn't get on my CD with the Bell Labs pieces.
DK When did you first get involved in politics?
JT I've always been on the left, never in any kind of party politics. I think I'm a Marxist, in a sense, or certainly socialist. I read quite a bit; I used to subscribe to the I. F. Stone Weekly, the National Guardian, things like that. I participated in the movement against the Vietnam War as it was developing and getting stronger. That didn't require my leftist sympathies, such sympathies were hardly relevant. It was just an ugly thing no matter where you were coming from. We also tried to levitate the Pentagon. It was when Norman Mailer got arrested, part of the Zeitgeist.
There was an interesting encounter that I had with a fellow at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn. They asked me to do a little talk about computer music. But I was sure that they were doing all kinds of defense research at the engineering school, and that at my talk there was going to be representatives of the military or Defense Department, or corporations under defense contracts in attendance. I thought to myself, why do I need to talk about computer music to these guys? I said I'd rather not. I just didn't want to have anything to do with them. And they said, "Oh, come on, please." So finally I said okay. I had just finished a piece called Fabric for Che (1967), which said something about my disgust about the war in Vietnam. I talked about the process, which is all very interesting, then I announced it and turned it on. These guys began to squirm. Rudy [Rudolf Drenick, Head of the Department of Electrical Engineering at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn] squirmed. He had been very friendly to me before that point. He was a refugee, I think from Germany, and the association he made was just the polar opposite of what I think he should have made. He compared me to the Nazi professors who had a captive audience, to espouse Nazi philosophy in front of their students. It all blew over after a while. I was defended by some very high-powered people at the Institute. Sid Deutsch was a very important guy in neuro-modelling, long before its recent popularity; he defended me.
DK Could you talk about your composition, Collage #2 (Viet Flakes) (1966), for Carolee's film Viet Flakes?
JT The whole thing is put together from fragments of a fixed set of pieces of music. I had each of several songs recorded on small reels, the reels were labeled, and I put them on a rod above the tape recorder equipment. I would reel off parts of one, decide how long I wanted it, splice a piece in, listen to it, and then decide what the next one's going to be. There is a Beatles song in there, and there are several other songs that you hear coming in and out. A good deal of the work in composing that piece was really composing the words, putting together the verbal content of these fragments of the songs.
DK So there's a type of ventriloquism going on, in that you were saying things with other people's disparate words.
JT Yes. The words of the songs were essential to the continuity of that piece. It ends "life is very short..." That's the end.
DK Were there other sounds besides the music?
JT No, it's all music. But it included some western music: a Bach cantata and some harpsichord music, fragments of a Mozart piano concerto, as well as some Southeast Asian folk music that I took off of Folkways Records, Vietnamese, Cambodian and so forth. There's noise sometimes on those things, but it is all fragments of music.
DK During an interview with Carolee several years ago, I remember her telling me that there were sounds of you two making love on a train.
JT She may be conflating two other tapes. They never became pieces. They were simply materials. There's one tape that I have of sounds that I recorded while we were making love and another tape of sounds that I recorded in a railroad yard with trains coming in, unhooking and hooking up. There would be a tremendous clamor. Those tapes are probably disintegrated by now. They did not get on to Viet Flakes. Now, wait a minute. Ah yes, I think I used some of these other materials for other parts of the theater piece which was called Snows. Viet Flakes was just a little segment of the whole work. So, she's probably right about that, but it was just sound materials that I had never actually put together into what I call a piece.
DK Could you talk about your use of popular musics. You did it most forthrightly with Collage No. 1 (Blue Suede) (1961). Of course, Satie was using popular music all over the place, Ives too, etc. Yet for some reason it was still a daring thing to do in the early-1960s within the ranks of Western art music, even more so because you used the recorded music itself as material. What was your thinking behind Collage No. 1?
JT I had been very excited when I first became aware of Elvis Presley. I loved it. I'd never enjoyed popular music before that. What "popular music" meant at the time was Perry Como and Frank Sinatra, which I hate to this day. When Elvis Presley came in I was really bowled over. I loved the sexual energy of it and his voice was tremendous. I needed no more rationale for using it than that I loved it. I knew I was going to cut it up and collage it, but I wanted it to carry the resonance of the original.
In Viet Flakes, Carolee and I both remained involved with popular music, just enjoying it. It was part of the culture. I remember at a party once Claus Oldenburg introduced Andy Warhol to me and he said to Andy, "Jim is interested in Elvis Presley too." The whole pop art movement was happening, which I didn't know about until I had already done Blue Suede. If I didn't have the conception of the continuum of sound, that I mentioned earlier, it might have been harder not to feel schizoid during that period. But I never felt that way at all.
DK In other instances it would be seen as a continuum of culture. Are you saying that the continuum of sound helped you bridge what would otherwise be discontinuous cultures?
JT I've long been doing that in a lot of different ways. I see it in Wilhelm Reich, a continuum between the mind and the body. I don't see a split there. In Bridge (1984) I try to demonstrate that I can create a continuum between Cage's world and Partch's world, things considered by most people to be antithetical. They're not. I can make a smooth transition from one to the other. Neither Cage nor Partch would have admitted such a possibility. It is a temperamental thing of mine. I like to make those bridges, those connections.
Looking at that [photocopies of his archived papers], it is like looking at a different person, a different life. What I'm doing now is different from what I was doing in the 1960s mostly because I'm interested in harmony. I'm dealing a lot with tuning systems. I can see the way in which Varese's interest in the continuous frequency variation was an expression of the frustration with the step-wise nature of the piano, musical instruments or the whole musical culture, which had crystallized into that tuning system. That's the way I was dealing with pitches while I was at Bell Labs, on a continuum. The basic conception is not different, but my focus is a bit different now because I'm interested in harmony, what might be conceived as certain special relations between pitches and so forth. What Ivan Wyschnegradsky refers to as pantonality, meaning all possible tones.
I started my association with Bell Labs of Murray Hill, New Jersey, while I was a junior fellow in composition and theory at the Society of Fellows, Harvard. Ed David, Max Mathews, others at Bell wanted a musician involved in their musical-sound-generation project, and had asked Milton Babbitt, who recommended me. I had had no experience with computers, but had a degree in math.
In exchange for accompanying him on the violin, Max gave me a crash tutorial in Fortran II (the most advanced at that time) and in a wonderful assembler for the IBM 709 (704?), called BEFAP. BEFAP was used to set up the actual "instrument" subroutines, and FORTRAN for such esoterica as coding frequencies into pitch-class-plus-octave register, and decoding before the actual sound generation. Since I was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I would write programs and mail them to New Jersey, where staff would put them on Hollerith cards and run them, sending me the analog-converted results by return mail. Eventually this led to a couple of "studies," that found their way onto a Bell demo record called "Music from Mathematics," and later onto a commercial 78 disk by Decca. In 1961 I moved to California (UC Berkeley), and the mailing-back- and-forth become too difficult. (Stanford was just starting up but had nothing in place yet.) Tenney must have followed shortly after.
I found myself limited in two main ways. One was the concept of "the note," which made all kinds of sense for efficient programming but tended to produce bad-Hammond-organ sounds. The other (and related) was the lack of a quick, easy way to modulate attack transients for pitched sounds. I remember trying to describe the musical problem for some awesomely distinguished technical people, without being able to get across to them what could be done about it. I remember someone mumbling about "sidebands," but all that had to wait for Chowning's fast-FM quite a while later. Wave-shaping and the like were unheard-of.
David Lewin's Study No. 1 and Study No. 2 (1961) are included on the compact disc Computer Music Currents 13, WER 2033 - 2 (1995). See http://www.schott-music.com/shop/Audio_CDs/1000083/1660296/show,93269.html.
 J. Y. Lettvin, H. R. Maturana, W. S. McCulloch and W. H. Pitts, "What the Frog's Eye Tells Frog's Brain," Proc. IRE, 47 (1959); reprinted in Warren S. McCulloch, Embodiments of Mind (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1965).
 The reference is to George Brecht's Entrance and Exit Music, the marketed version first being available in 1964, consisting of a six-minute, quarter-track audiotape of a smooth transition from white noise to sine wave tone for the entrance, which is then reversed for the exit. The tape was engineered for Brecht by Tenney. See Jon Hendricks, Fluxus Codex (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1988), 192.
 For Tenney's anecdote, see citation in Larry Polansky, "The Early Works of James Tenney," Soundings 13: The Music of James Tenney (1984), 154 - 155. For Varese's listening to foghorns and sirens in Manhattan, see Louise Varese, Varese: A Looking Glass Diary, Vol. 1 (New York: Norton, 1972), 150; Peter Garland, "Americas," Soundings (Spring 1974), 115; and Douglas Kahn, Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts (MIT Press, 1999), 86 - 87.
 See the chapter "Information Theory and Art" in John R. Pierce, An Introduction to Information Theory: Symbols, Signals and Noise (Second Edition), (New York: Dover Publications, 1980), 250 - 267.
Copyright© 2001 International Society for the Arts, Sciences and Technology (ISAST)
All rights reserved. Unauthorized use of material on this website is strictly prohibited.
Updated 27 October 2014