James Tenney's Having Never Written a Note for Percussion (for John Bergamo)

March 21, 2017

By Debashis Sinha

The directions, written originally on the back of a postcard, are punishingly simple: play an extended roll on an undefined percussion instrument for an undefined period of time, from silence to a peak of quadruple fortissimo and back again.

Encountering Tenney’s enigmatic and iconic Having Never Written a Note For Percussion (for John Bergamo) was the first time I came to understand something deep within myself, something I couldn’t articulate clearly until I encountered this work on the page: that music, for me, was about ideas - not texture, not technique, not virtuosity, not skill (but yes, all those things). Music was about an idea and its resonance when it came to being. The place it began and the path it exposed, and whether or not we choose to walk it, one foot in front of the other.

The complete postcard-sized score for Having Never Written a Note for Percussion, copyright James Tenney. You can hear a recording below made by Joe Strutt of Mechanical Forest Sound from an outdoor performance of the piece in 2014.

Tenney’s piece clarified my lifelong fascination with music, a fascination that was fuelled not by traditional analysis or study —I was an unenthusiastic tabla student in my pre-teen years, and I quit school band in grade 9 without learning to read a note—but by a drive and a curiosity that I fed through my own suspicions that music was something more than what one merely listens to. Music encompassed my desire in my early teen years to pull apart instruments and music making machines, to use them along with the terrible microphones I had in ways that were not intended; to set up my drum kit backwards and record the falling of stacked objects and rolled drums across the basement floor in my Winnipeg home; to seek out the punk rock community and go to concerts in reeking basements of abandoned buildings watching bands like SNFU and the local poets of the scene—these were all part of a deeply felt but inarticulate desire to explore ideas about culture and counter-culture. Music as sound, place, and identity ultimately allowed for the conception and expression of my self.

Debashis Sinha in performance at the Canadian Music Centre in Toronto, November 2015.

At first, I am ashamed to say, I thought that this commitment to idea as a starting point for music was something unique to western contemporary art music. And yet, I was still driven to explore deeper percussion systems, travelling the world studying with master teachers of a wide variety of instruments and traditions. It should have been an immediate signal to me then, but I’m happy to say I eventually heeded it: as I grew in my experience and age, I realized that this idea of “idea” as the starting point is everywhere, in every place I practiced and played music, and in every tradition that called to me. The following of the path of ideas has deep roots in human history - not just across cultures and musical traditions, but in humanity itself. We begin with the idea. We begin with the one step that leads us to the next, and the next, and the next. We take the rhythmic cell of 2 or 3 or 7 or 108, we pull it apart, we subdivide and extend, we push and we pull. Everywhere this process takes place - from the first series of strikes of the gleeful toddler on a pot to the 1 hour mrdangam solo by the master drummer in a hall in Chennai, to the amateur samba band at the protest march, to the night long prayer rituals around a fire that have taken place, and will forever.

In keeping with my desultory history as a music student, I come to my understanding of this work through my own path, rather than through a concentrated and extended program of study. No matter—in many ways I feel I know very deeply what this composition is because it so completely encapsulates what I am lucky enough to be spending my life doing: working with sound as an expression of ideas that are not necessarily about sound itself. Having Never Written A Note For Percussion is a refined, focused gesture, built on Tenney’s lifetime of study, experimentation, compositional virtuosity and dedication to the idea of the idea. I seek it myself, and in myself. In that way I feel this piece is a part of me—I participate in this work even though I have never played it, nor witnessed it played. The idea exists - it has been put out into the world, and my awareness of it plays it silently, as long as I will live.

For more information on James Tenney and his postcard pieces, you can read the Spring 2016 edition of the CMC digital magazine, Notations.

You can learn more about James Tenney by visiting his CMC profile page, and you can hear more percussion pieces by James Tenney on recordings from Nexus, Evergreen Club Gamelan, and Rick Sacks. This is part of a series of blog posts that highlight various works from CMC Associate Composers. Check back regularly for new posts, and new pieces!