Saturday, February 26, 2005

Jim Tenney at Mills College

Last Saturday night, at the second of two Jim Tenney concerts, the piece for string quartet finally provided enough of a palate cleanser for me to realize that more musicians ought to 1.) perform a concert, and then, 2.) present a concert of their composed works. Only in summing up the two evenings could I begin to appreciate Tenney performing not as a performer but as a composer: the performance framed the composed works as much as the composed works framed the performance. The commentary that developed between the two concerts helped soften my critial agitation. I began to perceive the two movements from Ives' Concord Sonata (oh woeful mess!) and John Cage's Sonatas and Interludes (prepared piano, why do you sound so gimmicky to me now?) as sources of ideas and inspiration for the composed pieces. Yet Tenney does not come across as derivative; in fact, his composed works stood in strong contrast to the previous night's Ives and Cage. The two-piano Chromatic Canon and the solo violin Koan, for example, surprised me with their quiet, non-stop minimalism. Both pieces unfold simply, naively, with a certain...pastoral...quality. True, portions of the Concord allude to a New England "pastoral," and the prepared tones of Sonatas and Interludes can become mesmerizingly meditative, but these are not the singular or lasting impressions we take from these pieces. The Ives, in particular, is a complicated mess (mass?) of notes and harmonies, something which, after hearing his composed pieces, I am sure Tenney could distill to the minimal essence. I was reminded of a very messy desk (Ives) which reveals a precise scrap of genius (Koan) to the one who knows how to see it.

I guess what I'm getting at is: people can surprise you. We may not play at all like the music we most admire. We can depart from our influences as easily as we can imitate them. Don't judge the desk by its mess. And let's hear more of these multi-facet revealing, performer-in tandem-composer programs.


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