James Tenney – For Percussion Perhaps, Or… (night)

The search for ways to deliver new music to audiences during the pandemic continues, and on December 15, 2020, Music For Your Inbox inaugurated a promising subscription system for distributing video links via email. For Percussion Perhaps, Or… (night) (1971), by James Tenney was their initial offering and viewers were invited to subscribe or purchase tickets by December 10th, and receive the video link on the 15th. The performance by Stephanie Cheng Smith and Liam Mooney was previously recorded, available for viewing later at multiple times. In addition, subscribers were appropriately sent an original print postcard by dance pioneer Simone Forti, a good friend of Tenney.

James Tenney (1934 – 2006) although not widely known, was clearly one of the most influential composers of the late 20th century. He attended several academic institutions, including Julliard and the University of Illinois and studied composition with Carl Ruggles, Kenneth Gaburo, John Cage, Harry Partch, and Edgard Varèse, among others. Tenney was eventually associated in some way with most of the composers active in the late 20th century. His musical interests were wide-ranging and often crossed disciplines in an ever-expanding exploration of the experimental. He taught at a number of institutions but is perhaps best remembered for his time at CalArts. Some of his many students include John Luther Adams, Michael Byron, Peter Garland, Ingram Marshall, Larry Polansky, Charlemagne Palestine, Marc Sabat, Catherine Lamb, Michael Winter, and Daniel Corral.

For Percussion Perhaps, Or… (night) is one of Tenney’s postal pieces. He was apparently averse to writing letters to his friends about his music and instead sent them postcards, each with a score inscribed on the back. There are eleven of these and For Percussion Perhaps, Or… (night), was dedicated to Harold Budd – making this video all the more poignant given Budd’s recent passing. The score for this piece, as with the others in the series, is necessarily brief. The instructions are simply “very soft… very long… nearly white…”, leaving much to the interpretation of the performer.

The program notes state that Stephanie Cheng Smith, herself a composer “…sets a table with everyday objects— bowls and marbles — then sends them into motion to build a celestial sonic world.” There were no conventional acoustic instruments used in this performance but rather a collection of metal cups, jar lids and delicate ceramic bowls. A marble was placed inside a container, which was then set swirling around by the performer to create a sound. A thick plate framed by metal formed a base upon which the items were placed when activated. When the marble came to rest and the sound ceased, a new item took its place. Ms. Smith and percussionist Liam Mooney continuously added various new sounds in different combinations as the piece proceeded.

For Percussion Perhaps, Or… (night) opened with a single small metal cup that produced a soft swishing sound when energized. When the cup was placed on the base plate, the volume increased and the sound became more sharply metallic as the marble slowed to a stop. More metal cups were applied singly, and then a metal jar lid was added at the same time as another small metal cup. The two sounds were somewhat different – with the jar lid having a somewhat lower register – and the two metallic sounds mixed into an intriguing combination. The jar lid was placed on the outer edge of the base plate and its rolling sounds seemed to explode in volume. Small cups placed on the edge were similarly amplified and the sounds became a continuous stream as more items were added simultaneously.

The jar lids and metal cups were soon joined by small china bowls that rang with a clear tone when the marble was set rolling inside it. When two bowls of different sizes were activated together the two pitches were heard in harmony. This had the effect of adding a musical component to the piece that set off the mostly mechanical sounds of the cups and lids. All three of these elements were added in various combinations so that the overall sound was a pleasant ringing above the purposeful metallic rolling. The number of active items increased as the piece proceeded with the sounds filling the ear. Just at the top of this swelling crescendo a deep rumbling sound was heard, produced by percussionist Mooney rolling a ball in a large metal pot. The distinctively low register formed a sort of bass line to what was now an pleasantly ringing melody. The sounds of the bowls and cups gradually subsided and the rolling bass eventually emerged as a solo. The piece concluded with a quiet whisper from one of the smaller metal cups.

Ms. Smith’s choice of percussion elements for this piece was inspired – the rolling metallic sounds provided the ‘nearly white’ element called for in the score and the ringing bowls served to reinforce this. All the sounds were subdued in an absolute sense, with only limited changes in dynamics. The changes in texture as different items were applied to the base plate served to provide a sense of movement as the piece went along. The gradual swelling and decrescendo over the 18 minute duration of the piece was in keeping with some of Tenney’s other postal pieces.

The audio of the performance was of a high quality and did not seem to mask any of the subtle details in the sounds. The accompanying instructions to the video recommended listening with headphones, and this was a wise precaution given the acoustics of typical computer speakers. The video focused on the items and not the performers and was close enough for the viewer to see how the sounds were being created. The entire performance was, appropriately, dedicated to Harold Budd, as was the original 1971 score.

For Percussion Perhaps, Or… (night) was a successful realization of a piece that requires great imagination by the performers. Everything came together nicely both technically and artistically for this first Music For Your Inbox production. Two new video performances are scheduled for January and February.

Personnel for this concert are:

Stephanie Cheng Smith, realization & percussion
Liam Mooney, percussion
Simone Forti, art print postcard
Carlos Mosquera, recording & balance engineer
Ian Byers-Gamber, video
Middle Ear Project, concert design