Category Archives: Composing

Best Concert, James Tenney

Interesting to hear more land acknowledgements this year. Opening remarks at public events stimulate thought even though some people read it without much life in their voice. Guess you can’t force people to wake up but you can supply information, not be silent, let them do with it what they will. When I was young, studying with Casey Sokol, if he recommended something I wouldn’t forget. Once, he came to class stoked about a concert the night before, music by James Tenney. “I love the way that guy hears music”, said Casey. Note to self – James Tenney.
I only got around to exploring him this year when the Music Gallery presented a retrospective of his work, it was my fave concert with one caveat, they removed Ain’t I A Woman, (based on Sojourner Truth’s 1851 speech). I looked it up and read Tenney’s notes from 1992, “Black women have always been doubly disenfranchised in our society, and Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) was one of the earliest and most eloquent voices speaking out against both racist and sexist forms of oppression.” The composition is based on string instruments imitating the human voice, specifically her speech….”In this piece I have tried to simulate certain acoustical properties of the words in Sojourner Truth’s speech, as read and recorded for me by Michele George….the fundamental (or first harmonic partial) of the voiced sounds is taken by the first cello, while the first formant region in the spectrum is represented by the violas, and the second and third formants by the celesta and violins, respectively….These various acoustic components of the speech sounds are introduced gradually – incrementally – in an effort to facilitate both an “analytical” and “synthetic” hearing of the material-and perhaps a more profound meditation on the social implications of the text.”
I get a little thrilled when musicians travel down political roads, because most hide under rocks and I believe art can affect change so I was excited. “A more profound meditation on the social implications of the text.”
Incredible, adventurous, unusual, revolutionary music. Just what the Music Gallery is about ….right? I think the public explanation was that they removed it because there was concern about stories by Black people being told by White people who have not had to struggle with same issues like accessibility, racism, etc. But isn’t that partly why he wrote the piece? Why then didn’t they remove his anti war piece Viet Flakes despite the fact that he wasn’t Vietnamese or a soldier. They didn’t remove the anti nuclear piece Pika-Don despite the fact that he wasn’t identified with the people from whose accounts he quoted. He wasn’t a scientist, priest, general or a Japanese women or a Japanese child or someone who actually experienced a nuclear bomb. Nope, he was just a guy who wanted people to think about real shit.
The evening started with a land acknowledgment that makes people consider colonial history, consider the bigger picture re: what happened and where we are. Didn’t understand then why not apply same sensitivity before performing Tenney’s piece if understanding the background was the point. I do love the Music Gallery and I think the people currently at the helm have been making it compelling which is awesome but something about deleting a piece from a retrospective didn’t sit right. Left thinking about Kurt Vonnegut and his story about the future where smart people wear ear pieces and loud train sounds go off every 20 seconds to interrupt their line of thought and make the world a more level playing field intellectually.


Used to drive on the left and faster than the pack but experience altered me. Now the slow lane, no guarantee but better odds for longevity. Hard to not play fast when you know how to play fast, it often impresses everyone, except maybe you. Sitting with Jonnie Bakan yesterday discussing his thesis about cafe culture and Harlem and how politics and music intersect and that other more important school he graduated from, Freddie Stone school. He directed me towards spicey books I now need to eat: Adorno, Attali, Denning. Left music school in the 80s because of how much money I owed from having a student loan and what to do with my relationship to the piano. There is no substantial audience for what I’m drawn to do, freely improvised music, might as well pack it in rethink what to do with life and then I met John Oswald. Sometimes you have imaginary ideas about someone when you meet them. He hosted a jam session of improvisers in the back room of the Cameron and invited me to come. I agreed but internally imagined he wouldn’t be up to my speed. Turns out I was the inferior one. Lucky about Blue Rodeo but luckier to befriend John. Those years I played with him every Saturday afternoon I could, often just us. Loved our molecules smashing round the space while trying to keep up, the free draft beer from Herb, Handsome Ned painting bandanas in the other room, an audience of maybe 2 people and other guest musicians. Changed my driving, golden lessons.


Yesterday was several kind of blue. The blue eye glass frames on the woman on the subway, wondering how does one do that? How the homeless woman in the Bank of Nova Scotia lobby used her blue shoes to get the young business man out of her seat. The darkening blue sky as puffs of snow floated down tall windows. Someone in class presented a talk about intuition, asked everyone to take 3 deep breaths and internally say “I am creative and intuitive” then doodle on paper for a minute, then share or interpret their doodles. My doodle was the words “this is stupid and a waste of time, I do not give a shit about this, creativity is not about taking deep breaths in order to be enabled “. I considered sharing and imagined my explanation would simply be asking if anyone can guess what it means? Eventually I couldn’t take it and piped up from a different angle, the one I know and said when people listen to music they reserve special anticipation for the solo because it is like a demonstration of intuition and creativity. The how much should I say blues.