‘Theory is a Recipe for Style’ (James Tenney) – entry 01

TenneyJames Tenney – Cellogram (1972)

James Tenney used to say that “theory is a recipe for style”.

This idea has led me to many fascinating musical spaces.

To think outside of the conventions of style, which represent evolutions of cultural preferences that define how musical materials are to be organized. Just as no two people experience music in the same way, no two cultures share exactly the same values, preferences, ways of listening, consumption, function, attention…

Technology is one key factor in the shaping of musical style.

Here’s a rough list of human innovations that influence the way we hear, make, and feel music. Chronology is rough and somewhat speculative. New innovations rely on previous innovations.

  • auditory system (no, not a human invention, but an invention of our gene pool)
  • speech/dance/calls/
  • stone tools
  • bone flutes
  • drums
  • guitars
  • keyboards
  • notation
  • phonograph
  • synthesis
  • sampling

Our attempt is to understand how we respond to technological, environmental, political, religious, moral, wealth, well-being… through music.

As we measure and analyze musical activity, we rarify, simplify, quantify. We draw lines through nature, and break it into little parts and larger parts, decide what elements are most important and how to represent them in two-dimensional forms.

The moment of listening is the first imposition where we preference our attention, or respond to, particular elements of the music. Many people listen to songs and hear the words foremost. Some listen holistically (never completely), some listen for melodic invention, rhythmic intensity, spectral interferences, contrasts in timbre, texture, bass line, some just move, work, play, unaware of where their attention lies.

The ear (body, ear, brain, eyes (?), are always hearing, but we don’t always listen. Perhaps that should be the other way around. Our ears are always on. The input is continually monitored for meaningful information (like a soldier on night patrol (who may be asleep or attentive), or wired to be triggered by a sensor).

Theory is useful in some ways.

  1. It gives us labels for specific musical events we wish to draw attention to, and develop our ears for. A ‘C major’ chord is a category of pitch interactions of certain qualia. We could describe it in a number of ways, but we’ll just tell you that it is any arrangement of the notes C, E and G shown here on this 5-line staff or on this keyboard.
  2. We could describe chords more specifically, as in figured bass which is more precise in describing the voicing of the chord (which note is lowest: C, E or G?).
    1. Figured bass is more specific. it differentiates more finely the difference between root position and inversions (which may not have been thought of as inversions, merely chord types). And admit it, they sound distinct from each other…
  3. Measuring things can help us develop awareness for types of events.

[more to add here]

A visual artist sees the world and ‘reflects it in their art’ (Neil Peart). The artist inflects what they see with their imagination: their psyche, their perspective, their unique life circumstances, their taste, their exposure and appreciation of cultural styles. They inflect the work of art with their experience, which is set against all which has come before that led to the moment of the artistic creation. This is the case in any field of (human) activity. Each work becomes the special case, though not usually ‘special’ in relation to all art work through time and place. Just pretty much a fact of nature and evolution

…style often based on the surrounding physical world. upon nature, draw inspiration from, condense, make vague, exaggerate, mutate, truncate.

When the artist draws an object of human construction, a skyscraper, say, they do it with some knowledge, partly intuited and partly learned, of the natural environment from which it grew. We know the difference in a tree from a telephone post; in the first we see how gnarly and surprising, and how homogenic trees can be at various degrees of magnification, and how unpredictable, usually on the fine scale, but also on a scale of a forest–perhaps a region has been burned by fire, or in the autumn only portions of the trees’ will have turned colour, or as a breeze rustles through the leaves creating waves transduced in …at large timescales we see sometimes dramatic shifts as in season to season, flooding, and we see growth and decay–which the artist captures in a moment (sometimes able to suggest what is to come or what just has been); in the second we see a structure with some similarity to a tree–a central trunk with radiant arms, each with several glass tubey thingamabobs (like leaves, but few and evenly distributed into two tidy rows of 4). True, the arms extend at a right angle on a telephone pole, and they are equal in length, and in general equal in proportion and size to the surrounding telephone poles, which are aligned along the side of a road, relatively straight but with a few gentle curves side-to-side and up-and-down (undulating as if a moment of a membrane short after being struck), it grows in an instant, one evening not there, and then fully grown the next morning–along with all its mates align in the aforementioned way (I just wanted to say ‘aforementioned’! Makes me feel like a dusty old fuddy-duddy ponce. (just wanted to say that too, and to use nested brackets)). They are all connected together by wires, like vines, threads of spider web, spittle dangling from top to bottom of slobbery, half-parted lips. From the day of their birth, they begin to decay and attract many staples and torn sheets of paper at a region encompassing waste to forehead when compared to a human of average height, with a guassian distribution weighted to the middle of that region and tending to be more heavily populated on surfaces further from the road. Seagull and pigeon shit builds up below the level where then tend to perch. They start out a bright pine colour and dim over the years to a murky, striated, black-brown hue.

Now, if you’d never seen a tree before, and someone told you that trees are a lot like telephone poles, and you went on to make drawings you call ‘trees’ and teach people about ‘trees’ and you make measurements and conclusions from your ‘trees’, people might start to think you’re crazy… Unless they’ve never seen trees before either. And they learn about trees from a book, because telephone poles don’t exist any more, and they have to imagine all the details of ‘trees’ that are lost in photographs and text descriptions.

Pretty soon you have a large group of people that think trees and forests look like Flander’s Fields, without the poppies.

Then someone writes ‘The Theory of Trees and Forests’ and artists learn the technique of depicting trees in their artwork, to herald back to the glorious years when the earth was covered in forest, a mythical, distant past, where rainbows, unicorns, and lollipops…

We could then imagine another place in the world where someone compares trees to windmills, or to the crucifix. And we develop a curious fascination for the ‘crucifix’ style, and begin to learn about it. Then a nostalgic return to ‘windmill’ style in honour of the visit of Emperor of Windmill.

Then! A group of people come to shore of Telephone Pole Land in a life boat. They’ve travelled far.

“Have you ever seen an actual tree?”

“What is a tree?”

“They are tall objects that come up from the ground and have limbs that spread out to the sides”

“Ahh. Yes. Trees! We know what you mean. We know much of trees. We like trees very much and, in fact, as we had lived in forests for centuries, the tree is a special symbol in our culture. It is very important in our art work that our trees have treeness. That the art captures some essence of the form, growth, history, significance, proportion…

It’s a shame you have none here.”

“Oh, but we do! Turn around, in the square, a tree from many years ago stands central”

“Ah-ha! That is a very strange tree indeed! A wonderful joke!”

“You do not like our tree?”

“I like it very much. It has caused me to laugh and smile after such a long and sorrowful journey”

“But you find it a joke?”

“Not at all. We can certainly there is some treesness to it. It stretches the limits of our imagination and is therefore curious and a bit mysterious. Well done indeed.” [then he whispers in his native language to a friend “what simple people these must be.”

A young patron of the arts wishes to see. He is charmed by their najvitee, how child-like their gestures, the lines of the tree are so wobbly, irregular… well, I couldn’t really call them trees at all! But, dang-nabbit, they are so sincere and committed to this. And they all seem to enjoy doing it, not just a few. I cannot say that any are better than the other, they all look hopeless to me, but their is a deeper message here, [insert some philosophical justification for their art here]

He decide to put on an exhibit of the primitive Forest People art work. (they do not call it art, art is not distinct from life in general).

All the finest connoisseurs of Tree Art, variously experienced in the Windmill, Crucifix, and Telephone Pole styles, arrive in style. The event will raise money to educate our new friends!

Ghassp! They don’t know anything about trees! These are horrible trees! What stupid culture could produce nonsense such as this?

I probably could have picked a better example, but you know what I mean. And for the time being, artists can see many elements of nature (though in the city we loose the stars, we loose sight of large swaths of colour and texture) and compare, contrast it, reflect it, negate it, imply  or suggest it against technology and contemporary environment and media…



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