James Tenney


mode 185

Melody, Ergodicity and Indeterminacy



mode 185 James Tenney: Melody, Ergodicity and IndeterminacyPoem, Ergodos I, Monody, Ergodos II, Seegersong #1, String Complement (with Ergodos II), Seegersong #2, Instrumental Responses (with Ergodos I), Ergodos III, Percussion Response (with Ergodos I). The Barton Workshop, James Fulkerson & Frank Denyer, directors.
First Recordings.

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Melody, Ergodicity and Indeterminacy
Includes program notes by James Fulkerson in English with French and German translations ([15] p. : port.) linked to from resource. The Barton Workshop (Charles van Tassel, baritone ; Joe Zwaanenburg, flute ; John Anderson, bass clarinet ; Krijn van Arnhem, bassoon ; James Fulkerson, trombone ; Jacob Plooij, violin ; Manuel Visser, viola ; Nina Hitz, cello ; Stefan Pliquett, contrabass ; Tobias Liebezeit, percussion ; Nora Mulder, piano ; Frank Denyer, piano). Recorded in 2007.

Poem (1955)   (2:12)
    Jos Zwaanenburg, flute
  Ergodos I (1963)   (3:31)
  computer music
  Monody (1959)   (3:09)
    John Anderson, clarinet
  Ergodos II (1964)   (4:02)
  computer music
  Seegersong #1 (1999)   (12:35)
    John Anderson, clarinet
  String Complement (with Ergodos II) (1964)   (10:27)
  computer music with violin, viola, cello, bass
  Seegersong #2 (1999)   (12:31)
    Jos Zwaanenburg, flute
  Instrumental Responses (with Ergodos I) (1964)   (8:48)
  computer music with flute, bass clarinet, trombone, bassoon, violin, viola, cello, bass, percussion, baritone
  Ergodos III (1994)   (13:49)
    Frank Denyer and Nora Mulder, pianos
  Percussion Response (with Ergodos I) (1964)   (8:42)
    computer music with Tobias Liebezeit, percussion
    Barton Workshop
    James Fulkerson & Frank Denyer, directors
    First Recordings
    James Tenney (1934-2006) was probably the first composer to develop an aesthetic for computer music, realizing that electronic music almost forced the composer to accept noise as “music” and to abandon the idea of absolute control over a composition. He came to accept Cage’s passion for randomness, but from a different angle: computer music can be “unpredictable” (rather than “random”).
    This CD looks at how Tenney persistently asked two questions: “What if?” and “How does it work?” Entitled Melody, Ergodicity and Indeterminacy, it brings an understanding of Tenney’s exploration of the act of listening and the factors of composition, of how materials can be assembled, how a composer creates musical continuity.
    It contains four solos for flute and clarinet which are taken both from some of his earliest works, Poem (1955) and Monody (1959) and from relatively late in his career, Seegersong #1 & 2 (1999).
    The CD features Tenney’s Ergodos compositions (forerunners of minimal music or drones) – instead of a fixed object, the listener hears a process and assembles his own experience from the sounds which have enveloped him.
    The reel-to-reel source tapes for Ergodos I and II are unique in that they may be played in either direction, beginning and ending at any point and/or with any number of super-impositions of parts (channels). On this CD, both Ergodos tape pieces are presented along with the tape and its STRING COMPLEMENT, INSTRUMENTAL RESPONSES (10 performers) and also with a percussion soloist (PERCUSSION RESPONSE).
    Like so many of Tenney’s pieces, these works walk a line between the composers input and the choices of the performers in order to come to fruition. Tenney’s conscious inclusion of the performer’s input is a consistent characteristic of his music and remains a factor which distinguishes him from many other composers.

Language : English, German, French.


James Tenney
    Melody, Ergodicity and Indeterminacy

    The Barton Workshop
    Mode 185
  Four Stars
    James Tenney was an American experimentalist who died two years ago at the age of 72.
    The earliest works on this disc, pieces for solo flute and clarinet written in the 1950s, hark back to the manners of the early 20th century.
    Within a few years, in the early 1960s, Tenney was exploring the statistics of ergodicity in pieces written for computer (Ergodos I & II), which can be played forwards, backwards, wholly, partially, separately, or overlaid – the disc offers the works individually as well as in combination with other instrumental pieces.
    It’s the purely instrumental works (which include two Seegersongs from 1999 and the Cagean Ergodos III of 1990 for two pianos) that make the strongest impression in this fascinating collection.
    – MICHAEL DERVAN, Irish Times, 15 February 2008


James Tenney
Melody, Ergodicity and Indeterminacy

    The Barton Workshop (US, 1959-1999, pub.2007)


I fell upon this album by a to me still unknown composer who has early computer music in his program clearly not expressed from an obsession with the technical experiment of it, but with a matured and prepared philosophical composer’s viewpoint which makes it interesting because its results will show that important creative bit of which makes the difference.


The album is compiled very well. It was registered by The Barton workshop, an Amsterdam ensemble dedicated to experimental contemporary music and the plan to give, also according to the liner notes, overviews or in-depth representations of the chosen composer’s work.


The sub-title of the compilation “melody, ergodicity and indeterminacy” from a theoretical viewpoint show already how the expressions of James Tenney are not about composition in the most commonly followed classical sense of note-reading ideas. In a way you can experience his results also very intuitively.


The first flute solo, a student work called “Poem” (1955) already expresses all. It is an improvisational bird-like meditation with some contemporary harmonies. This feels very natural. When the next piece, “Ergodos I” (1963), an early computer music recording, comes in, this strangely fit into the same rhythm with space and the feeling of creation in space. Different from most electronic music, what is so strong about this electronic piece is that is it mostly the work from the prepared vision of the composer, made possible with the help of the perfect technician (whoever or in case of the computer whatever this might be). What is felt clearly is how tone clusters come to live in space and environment in a very natural way and with very complex, even interactive detail with this space and environment. This is so full of natural detail more than possible with physical playing because of the determination of the skills and materiality of the involved player and instrument.
    This is followed by a similar dance in space like a bird but this time played by clarinet, the track “Monody” (1959), another contemporary vision with a natural feeling. Like the liner notes mentioned there must have been something of the influence of Debussy in here besides the contemporary element.


The booklet also relates such pieces to ergodicity, a term which also relates to indeterminacy. You could also call these compositions, like I mentioned before, like an intuitive description of a reality. There is so much open system involved that the result feels natural. In that way the description of the living event even with his open factor is a closed idea, lives in his own system just like life within its environment, like a ready meeting point.
    “Poem” and “Monody” are also considered as language-based pieces, not in the sense as spoken word, but as pure inspired language, which gives an extra context to what I called the bird-like sense. It should and can be understood more directly, like a direct message through hearing and appealing understanding. An ergodic work involves the listening process through means of experiencing the process.


This is followed by another computer piece called “Ergodos II” (1964) with the same qualitative understanding of the use of sound within bigger structural spaces as the first one.


“Seegersong 1” (1999) is the next clarinet solo, this time a bit longer. This stretches in time and deals with perceptive or natural desire for certain changes when a more minimalist idea is involved under the form of louder parts and climax building, a useful pattern which is obviously chosen.


The next piece, “String Complement” is a bit of a strange completion of  the computer piece “Ergodos II” with interactions and interactive contributions. The different players locate their spaces and complete with only theoretically determined responses. The interaction sounds partly intuitive, the complete score becomes more like a more stuffed surface compared to the original computer piece. The factor of communication is limited by filling in the details and more than a new communication unfolds the responses becoming like a field of determination.


This is followed by a different version of the “Seegersong” idea (part 2, 1999), this time played by flute instead of clarinet. Like the previous piece also this you can consider as direction communication though music. Logically it gives a somewhat improvised feeling. The score says it is “written in space-time notations with systems of 10 seconds with beamed note groups like legato phrases separated by rests”. This isn’t just the evolution of a melody, also rhythmically, like in a raga, it finds a climax, followed by “descending pitch range with crescendo and decrescendo form” (quoting the booklet with that).


“Instrumental responses (with Ergodos I)” (1964), is another, older piece with responses to the computer piece. Compared to the previous listed track, this composition and performance has more dynamics, includes voice, string and whistle and horn instruments and percussion. These responses include the outside context ideas of the notions of dance or theatre as well as the direct interactions through percussion, or the synthesis through orchestration. This way the additions tend slightly to break out of its context, which gives the reactions extra life. It keeps the elements fresh, but still tends to fall back on its randomness, and through its open ending.


“Ergodos III” played by piano shows the organisational talent of James Tenney in its basic form through the qualities of the strongly focused pitched instrument of what is the piano. Low and high notes, abruptly played and open tones are mixed together with melodically organised clearly separated notes. Compositionally this piece was organised by patterns of different balances, responses and additions of different characters. Each aspect was played by a different player. For instance one player played the white, the other only the black notes.


The last piece is a “percussion response (with Ergodos I)” (1964). Here the accents of responses are only limited to percussive instruments, which works well with the basic computer piece as a chamber music performance. It also has an open ending, like a statement these compositions expresses experiments based upon a few different values.


A near 80 minutes compilation.


    * One of the meditative thoughts I had during the period I was listening to the album and writing the review was about my questioning how many people, including myself, for one part or another are so much driven into time / future that their lives are consumed by so many obligations which are stretched and stretched so far that at the time when their life cycle will be ended nothing serious or any deep change might have been allowed to occur, as if in that case something of the deepest potential was wasted and all that has been wasted before had continued, in a way destructively. Breaking the mechanical, physical and animalistic conditions is that kind of spiritual thought some writers write about. Their purpose is to use the consciousness of the moment or what is needed for each moment much better. This is nothing like a new distinction of more good and bad, but like a practical way to gain back more qualitative attention so that any changes in time can unfold from within, theoretically or practically more in benefit of the true nature of all what happens. When a composer points out a centred situation and gives it an eternal place by giving it a life through sound, repetition and change he creates this with consciousness, less enslaved by habitual pre-concerns. In that way I have to admire James Tenney, for having been involved to some degree or another with this sort of process.



The way our brain functions is that it deals with the different processes of recognition, memorisation and forgetting. It functions like a water surface where thoughts are like ripples that create recognisable patterns. It is a benefit to a person when he could find for himself the right activations and preparations of ideas so that we have on that surface useful and recognisable structures unfolding in which all sorts of potentials become possible. This process is influenced by two tendencies.


Firstly we have the awareness related within the current actions, a consciousness over the moment, a being involved in the process and secondly, the projections towards the future with a planning. When the planning and conditioning, in this case under the form of the role of a melodic composer are dominant it could become a slavery extension with repetition, preconditions and habits, things which have their extensions and delays of inner evolution in time, by projecting all in future or by limiting its expression today. Space is something which can open up the situation for more consciousness of the moment. Also used by James Tenney was a preplanned context which when well enough prepared doesn’t lose itself in its improvisation.


It is recommended for creativity when to have it mixed with a spiritual consciousness (something I will define elsewhere) that a perfect balance is found with all the current and useful elements so that communication through an inner language (which are the newly unfolding patterns) and the outer language (which are the learned patterns which are recognised easily from memory of the past) can direct and transcend new thoughts on the moment (enabeling a possibility to find a spontaneous recognition of something new). This new potential of recognition should be able to adapt new patterns under the idea of ‘found solutions’ or resolutions under the form or idea of the opening up of a situation, or of the increasing intelligence under the form of a recognition through synthesis in thoughts. When a composer succeeds in getting this attention of awareness he manages with some historical importance beyond local habits and times. He creates something like a new input or access point of memory and adds something to the creative process of understanding. In that way he makes a potential growth of more spiritual consciousness which is an awareness to make more interconnections as before, in a way the ripples on the water have a more practical order with strange elements, sobering. All this could increase human possibilities of using recognition as an intelligence.


You can find 4 levels of consciousness or 4 sorts of people and the way they think or use their thinking process. The first one is the instinctive reactionists, also described as having the strongest animalistic nature. Compared to animals, the animals are often more living in the moment, or are more aware of their horizontal being, while these people can also be vertical in a way they can also be enslaved in time or towards their future by habits which are not particularly necessary in the moment. Instead that they use a direct understanding of the moment they are more instinctive in the vertical processes based upon general human preconditions. The second sort of person is the questioning and becoming more intuitive person who is more ‘human’. Rationality is that which keeps him hung on the verticality, while emotionality readapts him on a horizontal awareness plane. He’s nowhere and somewhere, driven between ego-and personal power and honesty. People on the next level can be called the “Holy men”, like the Yogis who are aware of – let’s call it here – diagonal consciousness, which is aware of change through creative synthesis, and about how this process works and can be activated. The last sort of persons are the humans as “Gods” (-just look at the historical context like in the Ancient world of associations-) who are constantly recreating the context, not entirely in a positive or negative way they are the ones who create history. The spiritual messengers and true consciousness-increasing artists are living on the same level as the ‘Holy men’.


— Gerald Van Waes, www.psychemusic.org


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