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Phases (for Edgard Varèse)

James Tenney

Phases (for Edgard Varèse)

Between the completion of Dialogue and Phases (for Edgard Varèse), Tenney realized another piece, Ergodos I (1963; the later Ergodos II (for John Cage) is included on this CD), in which he experimented with the use of statistical formal processes to create an ergodic, or static musical form, one in which the statistics and probabilities of given parameters were fixed for long periods of time. With Phases, Tenney returned to the use of trajectories for means and ranges of parametric values, including note duration, amplitude, amplitude modulation rate and filter bandwidth, and the upper limit of frequency spectra. The shape of change for each parameter is sinusoidal, but the sinusoids are of different frequencies and phases, so that a kind of formal counterpoint is heard between the salient musical parameters of the work. Phases also incorporates some significant timbral and formal extensions to Tenney’s own compositional software. By using a more continuous range of modulation values, the distinction between noise and pitch (used so effectively in Dialogue) is blurred. In Phases, the computer makes statistical decisions at three levels: the clang level (groups of lowest level events), the sequence level (groups of clangs), and the segment level (groups of sequences). In this work, Tenney is using the computer to help create a highly complex structure. In The Early Works of James Tenney, I said that Phases is the most beautiful and interesting of the works of this period. It is impossible to describe the ungainly, almost other-worldly effect that it has, but it often seems as if it were not composed by either man or machine, but by some goblin-hybrid of the two. It remains, as well, one of the strangest and least accessible of Tenney’s compositions, as it seems to exist for its own purposes entirely. It now seems to me that much of Tenney’s extraordinary recent instrumental music (Bridge, Changes, Rune, and other works) has a great deal in common, aesthetically and formally, with this important early work, especially in the uncompromising sonorities and almost mystical adherence to simple formal principles that generate complex and surprising musics.

[source: ART 1007]


Phases (for Edgard Varèse) was first released on Musicworks #27 cassette. The version on the CD Selected Works 1961-1969, Artifact Recordings, ART 1007, was digitally remastered from the original analog tapes.

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