The Barton Workshop, James Fulkerson, Frank Denyer, co-directors
James Tenney (1934–2006) was one of the most versatile figures in contemporary American music. Apart from creating a large, wide-ranging, and fascinating body of compositions, more than a hundred of them, he was one of the key music theorists of the late twentieth century.
This CD set offers complete recordings of one of the most important of Tenney's later sets of pieces, Spectrum Pieces 1-8, the first five of which were written in Toronto in 1995 and the last three in 2001, after he moved to Valencia, California, to teach at the California Institute of the Arts. They offer a summation of much of Tenney's compositional practice and at the same time break open new and fertile territory that he had regrettably little time to explore in subsequent compositions.
The Spectrum pieces are chamber works, each for a differently constituted ensemble. The smallest, Spectrum 7, is for only three players, though with optional delay system (which, if used, gives the impression of a much larger ensemble); and the largest, Spectrum 3, is for a small chamber orchestra of twenty musicians. The specific instrumentation of each piece was determined largely by the constitution of the various ensembles for which the eight pieces were written.
The first two were Canadian commissions, the first for seven instruments (for Arraymusic) and the second for the five players of Toronto’s 5th Species Wind Quintet. Spectrum 3 was written for Germany’s Ensemble Modern and Spectrum 4, for eight musicians, for Holland’s Maarten Altena Ensemble. Spectrum 5 was written in December 1995 for ten players of the contemporary music ensemble of the California Institute of the Arts. Some five-and-a-half years later, when Tenney produced the sixth work in the series, it was a further Canadian commission, this time for six musicians from the Continuum Ensemble.
Spectrum 7, for flute, cello and piano, was a commission from the Wolpe Trio from Essen, Germany, and Spectrum 8 from that country’s Ensemble Recherche; this last piece is for viola and six instruments, a scoring that brings to mind the second of Morton Feldman’s The Viola in My Life pieces (although the actual music is very different).
The eight works were not intended to be listened to sequentially or as a whole set, nor need they be; Tenney thought of them as a "family" of pieces, with certain shared features, not as a cycle. Collectively they form a body of work in which many of Tenney's musical and theoretical preoccupations converge, interact, and yield music of deep fascination and strange beauty.