February 25, 2007

Tenney on Form

A second use of [form] that is, again often encountered in musical discussions is illustrated by such terms of "sonata-form," "ABA-form," "rondo-form," etc., which refer to specific formal types, generally associated with particular styles or historical periods. And although each of these formal types may be characterized by certain intrinsic formal features, common to all examples of the type, and constituting the original basis for classification, they tend to represent, in each case, not so much a form, but a formula, and are not, therefore relevant to the problems I am concerned with here.
James Tenney, Meta (+) Hodos

I read a description of this book somewhere that was along the lines of "the most important 20th century theory book that no one's read" (though a search has revealed that someone is sharing a copy via BitTorrent). It is, indeed, pretty kickass, particularly considering it was his Master's Thesis. Whereas music theory tends to posit abstract structures and work towards the score and the listening experience, Tenney starts with the listening experience and works in the other direction. He tries to articulate how people process sounds, what gets us to group them together and divide them out. He does not assume that people hear a piece with a set of structural expectations. When he makes analogies, the vocabulary of visual art is used frequently ("figure" and "ground" as terms for structural importance, etc.).

As you might guess, American experimentalists provide most of the musical examples. Ives and Varèse get the most attention, but early Schoenberg (yay op11) and Webern make brief appearances. The analytical highlight for me was the discussion of how dynamics shape the opening of Density 21.5, implying a rhythm in an otherwise "static" pitch (way more interesting than aggregate completion).

Some Tenney links:
Daniel Wolf's very thorough review of Meta (+) Hodos
"John Cage and the Theory of Harmony"
Tenney Bibliography
Tenney Slideshow with "Raggedy Ann"

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