updated 10 April 2019

James Tenney

American composer and resident of Canada, born 10 August 1934 in Silver City, New Mexico; died 24 August 2006 in Valencia, California.

James Tenney was born on 10 August 1934 in Silver City, New Mexico. His musical education began with piano and composition lessons during visits to Arizona and Colorado. He went on to study at the University of Denver, Julliard, Bennington College (B.A. 1958), and the University of Illinois (M.A. 1961). His composition professors included Chou Wen-Chung, Lionel Nowak, Carl Ruggles, Lejaren Hiller, Kenneth Gaburo, and Edgar Varèse.

Upon completing his studies, Tenney worked at the Bell Telephone Laboratories from 1961 to 1964, where he collaborated with Max Mathews on the development of several computer programmes for music composition and synthesis, thereby making an enormous contribution to the burgeoning field of electronic music.

In 1963, Tenney founded the Tone Roads Ensemble, a group which enjoyed considerable success in New York thanks to their performances of the music of Charles Ives, Varèse, Feldman, Ruggles, Cage, and other noteworthy composers of the time. Tenney was the pianist and conductor of the group from 1963 to 1970. He also performed with the ensembles of Harry Partch, John Cage, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass.

Tenney’s pivotal theories on digital synthesis are among his most significant contributions to electronic music. He authored several articles on acoustics, computer music, musical form and perception, as well as two books: Meta/Hodos: A Phenomenology of 20th Century Music and an Approach to the Study of Form (Frog Peak, 1988) and A History of “Consonance” and “Dissonance” (Excelsior, 1988).

He received numerous accolades throughout his career, including from the National Science Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, Ontario Arts Council, Canada Arts Council, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, Fromm Foundation, and DAAD, as well as the Jean A. Chalmers Prize in 1993 for his work Critical Band.

Starting in 1966, Tenney taught at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, the California Institute of the Arts and the University of California. From 1976 to 2000, he taught composition, theory, and 20th-century music history at York University in Toronto, where, in 1994, he became the first faculty member to be named Distinguished Research Professor.

James Tenney’s work attempts to address the questions raised by the pioneers of North American experimental music, i.e., Charles Ives, Carl Ruggles, Edgar Varèse, and John Cage. Throughout his career, he remained dedicated to research on sound and perception. As a composer and theorist, he made a massive contribution to the evolution of music after John Cage. He composed for various media, using both acoustic and electronic instruments.

He died on 24 August 2006 in Valencia, California.

© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 2007

Catalog sources and details

Musique de films

  • Interim (Stan Brakhage, 1952)

Catalog source(s)

Musique de films

  • Interim (Stan Brakhage, 1952)

Liens internet

(liens vérifiés en avril 2019).


  • Malcolm GOLDSTEIN, « The Politics of Improvisation », Toronto, Musicworks n° 77, été 2000.
  • Ciarán MAHER, « A Different View of a Larger Picure: James Tenney in Conversation with Ciarán Maher on Harmony, Intention, and Phenomenology », Toronto, Musicworks n° 77, été 2000.
  • Gayle YOUNG, « James Tenney’s Cultural and Compositional Diversity », Toronto, Musicworks n° 77, été 2000.
  • James TENNEY, A History of « Consonance» and «Dissonance**», New York, Excelsior Music Publishing, 1988.
  • James TENNEY, Meta-Hodos and META Meta-Hodos: A Phenomenology of 20th Century Musical Materials and an Approach to the Study of Form, Frog Peak Music, 1988.
  • James TENNEY, « A Tradition of Experimentation: James Tenney in Conversation with Udo Kasemets and Musicworks », Toronto, Musicworks n° 27, printemps 1984.
  • James TENNEY, « John Cage and the Theory of Harmony », Toronto, Musicworks n° 27, printemps 1984.
  • Peter GARLAND, Soundings 13: The Music of James Tenney, Soundings Press, 1984.

Discographie sélective

  • James TENNEY, Harmonium #1 ; For 12 strings (rising) ; Two Koans and a Canon ; Voice(s) ; Blues for Annie, Scordatura Ensemble, dans « Harmonium », 1 CD New World Records, 2018, 80803-2.
  • James TENNEY, Beast ; night ; Glissade ; Shimmer ; Array (a’sysing) ; Bessel Functions of the first kind ; Trias Harmonica ; Stochastic-canonic Variations, dans « Bass Works », 1 CD hat[now]ART, 2016, hat[now]ART 197.
  • James TENNEY, Critical Band ; Harmonium #2 ; Koan: Having never written a piece for percussion, dans « Old School: James Tenney », 1 CD Zeitkratzer Records, 2010, zkr 0010.
  • James TENNEY, Form 1 ; Form 2 ; Form 3 ; Form 4, dans « Forms 1-4 — In Memoriam Edgar Varèse, John Cage, Stefan Wolpe, Morton Feldman », ensemble musikFabrik, 2 CD hat[now]ART, 2002, hat[now]ART 2-127.
  • James TENNEY, Ergodos II with Instrumental Responses ; 3 pages in the shape of a pear ; Diaphonic Toccata ; Chorale ; Koan ; Diaphonic Trio, dans « Music For Violin & Piano », 1 CD hat[now]ART, 1999, hat[now]ART 120.
  • James TENNEY, Maxomusic ; Ergodos II ; Koan: Having never written a piece for percussion ; For percussion prehaps, or…; Deux Ex-Machina, dans « The Solo Works For Percussion », 1 CD hat[now]ART, 1998, hat[now]ART 111.
  • James TENNEY, Collage #1 (“Blue Suede”) ; Analog #1 (Noise Study) ; Dialogue ; Phases (for Edgard Varèse) ; Music for Player Piano ; Ergodos II (for John Cage) ; Fabric for Ché ; For Ann (rising), dans « Selected Works 1961-1969 », 1 CD Frog Peak Music, FP 001, ART 1007, 1992.
  • James TENNEY, Hey When I Sing These 4 Songs Hey Look What Happens ; Phases ; Quiet Fan for Erik Satie; For Ann (rising) ; Spectral CANON for CONLON Nancarrow ; Bridge ; Voice(s), dans « The Music Of James Tenney: Selected Works 1963-1984 », 1 CD Musicworks, 1984, MW 27.