James Tenney

(b. 10 August 1934, Silver City, New Mexico – d. 24 August 2006, Valencia, Santa Clarita, California).

American composer, later resident in both Canada and the USA, of mostly orchestral, chamber, piano, and electroacoustic works that have been performed throughout the world; he was also active as a scholar.

Prof. Tenney studied composition and engineering at the University of Denver from 1952–54 and piano with Eduard Steuermann at the Juilliard School in New York, New York in 1954–55. He then studied composition with Lionel Nowak and conducting with Paul Boepple and Henry Brant at Bennington College in Vermont from 1956–58, where he earned his BA, and studied composition with Kenneth Gaburo and electronic music with Lejaren Hiller at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign from 1959–61 and there he earned his MA. He also studied composition privately with John Cage, Chou Wen-chung, Carl Ruggles, and Edgard Varèse. He later received an honorary doctorate from the Dartington College of Arts in Devon in 2000.

As a scholar, he worked to develop programmes for computer music with Max Mathews and other researchers at Bell Labs in New Jersey from 1961–64. He wrote numerous articles on computer music, musical acoustics, musical form, and perception, as well as the books META/HODOS: A Phenomenology of 20th-Century Musical Materials and an Approach to the Study of Form (1961) and META Meta/Hodos (1975; published together by Frog Peak Music, 1988) and the text A History of 'Consonance' and 'Dissonance' (1988, Excelsior Music Publishing Company).

He was also active in other positions. He co-founded with Philip Corner and Malcolm Goldstein the Tone Roads Chamber Ensemble in New York, New York in 1963, a group for contemporary music that performed until 1970. In addition, he performed with the ensembles of John Cage, Philip Glass, Harry Partch, and Steve Reich.

He taught electrical engineering at the New York University Polytechnic School of Engineering from 1966–70 and musical subjects at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, Santa Clarita from 1970–75 and the University of California, Santa Cruz in 1975–76. He then taught composition at York University in Toronto from 1976–2000, where he was Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus from 2000–06. He taught as the Roy E. Disney Family Chair in Music Composition at the California Institute of the Arts from 2000–06.

His publishers are Smith Publications, for most music written from 1956–87, and Frog Peak Music, for music written from 1987–2006.


E-mail address for consulting scores:



Choreogram, dancers, any number of players, 1964

deus ex machina, tam-tam, live electronics, unwary audience, 1982


Quiet Fan for Erik Satie, small orchestra (13 players), 1970–71

For 12 Strings (rising), 12 strings, 1971

Clang, 1972

Three Harmonic Studies, 1974

Chorales, 1974

Tangled Rag, string orchestra, 1978 (version of no. 3 from Three Rags)

The Road to Ubud, prepared piano, gamelan, 1986

Forms 14, variable orchestra (16 or more players), 1993 (its sections may be performed separately)

In a large, open space, variable orchestra (12 or more players), 1994

In a large, reverberant space, variable orchestra (12 or more players), 1995

Spectrum 3, small orchestra (20 players), 1995

Diapason, 1996

'Scend for Scelsi, alto saxophone, small orchestra (13 players), 1996

Song'n'Dance for Harry Partch, adapted viola (instrument by Harry Partch), diamond marimba (instrument by Harry Partch), small orchestra (percussion, strings), 1999

Last Spring in Toronto, gamelan, orchestra, 2000


Seeds IVI, flute, clarinet, bassoon, French horn, violin, cello, 1956, revised 1961

Sonata, piccolo, flute, oboe, clarinet, alto saxophone, bassoon, French horn, trumpet, trombone, tuba, 1958, revised 1983

Just a Bagatelle, viola, 1959, revised 1999

Monody, clarinet, 1959

Stochastic String Quartet, string quartet, 1963

Instrumental Response, any wind instrument/any brass instrument/any bowed string instrument/piano/percussion, fixed media (Ergodos I or Ergodos II), 1964

Postal Piece No. 5: Maximusic, percussion, 1965

Postal Piece No. 6: Swell Piece No. 1, any number of instruments capable of sustained tones, 1967

Postal Piece No. 1: Beast, double bass, 1971

Postal Piece No. 3: (night), percussion, 1971

Postal Piece No. 4: Koan, violin, 1971

Postal Piece No. 7a: Swell Piece No. 2, any player, 1971

Postal Piece No. 7b: Swell Piece No. 3, any player, 1971

Postal Piece No. 8: August Harp, harp, 1971

Postal Piece No. 9: Cellogram, cello, 1971

Postal Piece No. 10: Having Never Written a Note for Percussion, percussion, 1971

Quintext IV: Five Textures, 2 violins, viola, cello, double bass, 1972

In the Aeolian Mode, prepared piano, variable ensemble, 1973

Canon, 4 double basses, 1973

Chorale, violin, piano, 1974, revised 1998

Three Pieces for Mechanical Drum, mechanical drum, 1974

Three Pieces for Drum Quartet, 4 percussion, 1974–75

Harmonium No. 1, variable ensemble, 1975–76

Harmonium No. 2, variable ensemble, 1975–76

Harmonium No. 3, 3 harps, 1978, revised 1980

Harmonium No. 4, 10 players, live electronics, 1978

Harmonium No. 5, violin, viola, cello, 1978

Saxony, 1 or more saxophones, live electronics, 1978

Three Indigenous Songs, 2 piccolos, alto flute, bassoon/tuba, 2 percussion, 1979

Septet, 6 electric guitars, bass guitar, 1981, revised 2000

Glissade, viola, cello, double bass, live electronics, 1982

Milk and Honey, any number of mandolins, any number of mandolas, any number of mandocellos, 1983 (version of no. 2 from Three Rags)

Koan, string quartet, 1984

Changes: 64 Studies, 6 harps, 1985

'Water on the Mountain...Fire in Heaven', 6 electric guitars, 1985

Rune, 5 percussion, 1988

Critical Band, 10 or more instruments capable of sustained tones, 1988, revised 2000

Tableaux Vivants, clarinet (+ bass clarinet), soprano saxophone (+ baritone saxophone), bassoon, violin, piano, vibraphone, 1990

Pika-Don, 4 percussion, fixed media (4 tracks), 1991

Three New Seeds, clarinet (+ bass clarinet), trumpet, double bass, piano, 2 percussion, 1991

Cognate Canons, percussion, string quartet, 1993

Tempest II, mechanical drum, 1994

Spectrum 1, bass clarinet, trumpet, violin, double bass, piano, 2 percussion, 1995

Spectrum 2, flute, oboe, clarinet, French horn, bassoon, 1995

Spectrum 4, alto recorder, bass clarinet, tenor-bass trombone, electric guitar, violin, double bass, piano, vibraphone, 1995

Spectrum 5, flute, oboe, bass clarinet, bassoon, harp, viola, piano, percussion, 1995

Diaphonic Study, piano, string quartet, 1997

Diaphonic Toccata, violin, piano, 1997

Diaphonic Trio, violin, piano, 1997

Seegersong No. 1, clarinet, 1999

Seegersong No. 2, flute/alto flute, 1999

Harmonium No. 7, any 8 or more instruments capable of sustained tones, 2000

Spectrum 6, flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, percussion, 2001

Spectrum 7, flute, cello, piano, live electronics, 2001

Spectrum 8, viola, ensemble (flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, percussion), 2001

(Fontana) Mix for Six (Strings), 2 violins, 3 violas, cello, live electronics ad libitum, 2001

Arbor Vitæ, string quartet, 2006


Postal Piece No. 2: A Rose is a Rose is a Round, mixed chorus, 1970

'Hey when I sing these 4 songs hey look what happens' (text from a source of the Iroquois people [translated by Jerome Rothenberg]), mixed chorus, 1971


Thirteen Ways of looking at a Blackbird (text by Wallace Stevens), tenor, 2 flutes, violin, viola, cello, 1958 (also version for bass, alto flute, oboe, viola, cello, double bass, 1971)

'Listen...!', 3 sopranos, piano, 1981, revised 1984

Voice(s), any number of female voices, variable ensemble ad libitum, live electronics, 1982–83

Sneezles, soprano, alto recorder/flute, clarinet, tenor-bass trombone, electric guitar, violin, double bass, vibraphone, 1986, revised 1995

Ain't I a Woman? (text by Sojourner Truth), speaker–cello, 2 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos, celesta, 1992


Music for Player Piano, player piano, 1964

Three Rags, 1969 (also version of no. 2, 'Milk and Honey', for any number of mandolins, any number of mandolas, any number of mandocellos; version of no. 3, 'Tangled Rag', for string orchestra, 1978)

Spectral CANON for CONLON Nancarrow, player piano, 1974 (also longer version, 1991)

Chromatic Canon, 2 pianos, 1980, revised 1983

Bridge, 2 microtonal pianos 8 hands, 1982–84

Flocking, 2 quarter-tone pianos, 1993

Ergodos III, 2 pianos, 1994

Three Pages in the Shape of a Pear, 1995

Prelude and Toccata, 2001

To Weave, 2002–03


Collage No. 1 (Blue Suede), fixed media, 1961

Analog No. 1: Noise Study, fixed media, 1961

Entrance/Exit Music, fixed media, 1962 (collaboration with George Brecht)

Dialogue, fixed media, 1963

Phases, fixed media, 1963

Ergodos I, fixed media, 1963 (may be performed with Instrumental Response)

Ergodos II, fixed media, 1964 (may be performed with Instrumental Response)

Fabric for Che, fixed media, 1967

For Ann (rising), fixed media, 1969

Form 5, fixed media, 1993


Love me doDo you want to know a secret (The Beatles), piano, 1992

Five Studies for Player Piano (Conlon Nancarrow), small orchestra (with 2 conductors), 2000


Interim, 1952, revised 1998 (Stan Brakhage)

Viet Flakes, 1966 (Carolee Schneemann)

Brakhage, 1998 (Jim Shedden)

DISCOGRAPHY (as composer)

Harmonium No. 5. Arraymusic (Artifact Music: ART-002, 1988)

Postal Piece No. 4: Koan. Malcolm Goldstein, violin (¿What Next?: WN0005, 1991)

Critical Band (original version). Relâche (Mode Records: mode 22, 1992)

Collage No. 1 (Blue Suede); Analog No. 1: Noise Study; Dialogue; Phases; Music for Player Piano; Ergodos II; Fabric for Che; For Ann (rising). (Artifact Music: ART-1007/Frog Peak Music: FP001, 1992)

Chromatic Canon (revised version). Edmund Niemann, Nurit Tilles, pianos (Composers Recordings, Inc.: CRI 637, 1992)

Love me doDo you want to know a secret (The Beatles). Aki Takahashi, piano (Toshiba EMI: TOCE-8021, 1992)

Ergodos I. (Koch International Classics: KIC-CD-3-7238-2, 1993)

Viet Flakes. (Musicworks: 56, 1993)

Three New Seeds. Michael J. Baker/Arraymusic (Artifact Music: ART-006, 1993)

Tableaux Vivants. Sound Pressure (Soundprints: SP9301, 1994)

Spectral CANON for CONLON Nancarrow (revised version). (col legno: WWE 31882, 1995)

'Water on the Mountain...Fire in Heaven'. Seth Josel, electric guitars (Composers Recordings, Inc.: CRI 697, 1995)

Three New Seeds. Michael J. Baker/Arraymusic (Canada Council for the Arts/Sony Music Special Projects: CDSP 4510, 1995)

Koan. Modern String Quartet (Musicworks: 64, 1996)

Saxony. Henrik Frisk, saxophone (Hornblower: HR 96101, 1996)

Bridge; Flocking. Tomas Bächli, Erika Radermacher, Gertrud Schneider, Manfred Werder, pianos (Hat Hut: ART 6193, 1996)

Septet (original version). Mills College Ensemble (Leonardo Music Journal: 7, 1997)

Saxony. Ulrich Krieger, saxophone (OOdiscs: 32, 1997)

Diaphonic Study. Hildegard Kleeb, piano; Tetras String Quartet (ORF Steiermark: MP97 ORF 15, 1997)

Diapason. Kwamé Ryan/SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg (col legno: WWE 20008, 1997)

Rune. Nexus (Nexus: 10511, 1997)

Septet (original version). Seth Josel, electric guitars, bass guitar (OOdiscs: 36, 1998)

Postal Piece Nos. 3: (night); 5: Maximusic; 10: Having Never Written a Note for Percussion; deus ex machina; Instrumental Response (with Ergodos II). Matthias Kaul, percussion (Hat Hut: hat[now]ART 111, 1998)

Tangled Rag from Three Rags (original version). Virginia Eskin, piano (Koch International Classics: KIC-CD-3-7440-2, 1998)

The Road to Ubud. Henry Kucharzyk, prepared piano; Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan (Artifact Music: ART-021, 1999)

Diaphonic Toccata; Diaphonic Trio; Postal Piece No. 4: Koan; 3 Pages in the Shape of a Pear; Chorale (revised version); Instrumental Response (with Ergodos II). Sabat/Clarke Duo (Hat Hut: hat[now]ART 120, 1999)

Postal Piece No. 10: Having Never Written a Note for Percussion. Sonic Youth (Sonic Youth: 4, 1999)

Chorale (revised version). Sabat/Clarke Duo (Musicworks: 77, 2000)

Milk and Honey from Three Rags (original version). Elaine Keillor, piano (BR: 1336, 2001)

Instrumental Response (with Ergodos I). (University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, 2001)

Forms 14. musikFabrik (Hat Hut: hat[now]ART 127, 2002)

Spectral CANON for CONLON Nancarrow (revised version). (Cold Blue Music: CB0008, 2002)

Postal Piece No. 5: Maximusic; Postal Piece No. 6: Swell Piece No. 1; Postal Piece No. 2: A Rose is a Rose is a Round; Postal Piece No. 1: Beast; Postal Piece No. 7a: Swell Piece No. 2; Postal Piece No. 10: Having Never Written a Note for Percussion; Postal Piece No. 4: Koan; Postal Piece No. 3: (night); Postal Piece No. 7b: Swell Piece No. 3; Postal Piece No. 9: Cellogram; Postal Piece No. 8: August Harp. James Fulkerson/Barton Workshop (New World Records: 80612-2, 2004)

Music for Player Piano; Spectral CANON for CONLON Nancarrow (revised version). (Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm: MDG 645 1406-2)

Three Rags. Nurit Tilles, piano (Jazzology: JCE 87)

The Road to Ubud; Cognate Canons; Three Pieces for Drum Quartet. William Winant/San Francisco Contemporary Music Players (New Albion Records)

Rune; Pika-Don; Three Pieces for Drum Quartet; Postal Piece No. 5: Maximusic. Jan Williams/Maelstrom (Hat Hut)