James Tenney; Two Koans and a Canon

September 1, 2015

September is here and I am resolved to finish this performance score of Jim Tenney's Two Koans and a Canon before the end of the month. I came across this piece for solo viola in the summer of 2006 when I was working for Jim and Lauren in their home in Valencia, CA. I had just finished my MFA at CalArts and was very grateful to have the opportunity to work on Jim's archive. My first task was to make a complete works list of all of Jim's compositions, no small feat as Jim was very prolific. 

Being a violist, I was pretty happy to find Two Koans and a Canon, a piece in three movements that Jim had written for his late wife, violist Anne Holloway. It was in a large manilla envelope and handwritten on heavy manuscript paper. I remember saying "Jim, you've been holding out on me!". He laughed and said something vague about the piece and I added its name to the list and moved on to the next mystery to unravel in his vast collection of scores. That summer Jim passed away and this piece sat in a pile along with many of Jim's other scores that were still unpublished. 

Last fall the Southland Ensemble programmed a concert of Jim's music and they asked me to play a solo on the concert. Two Koans and a Canon came to mind and so I began the process of researching just how to perform it correctly. There were no performance instructions offered as well no program notes and so I consulted with various Tenney aficionados before driving up to Lauren's to do a little sleuthing. I compared this piece to others that he wrote at a similar time or using similar notation and came up a plan for how to perform the work. 

I was able to identify the tuning system, seven equal divisions of a semi-tone, as well as determine dynamics, use of musical affects (such as vibrato etc.) and decode some peculiar markings (a left-hand pizzicato with a circle around it and a sideways quarter rest that looks suspiciously like a mordent!). Then came the hard part, learning the actual music. I had someone make me a practice click track of the final movement as well as a max patch to create digital delay in lieu of the tape delay as indicated by the instructions. 

And so, on December 19th, 2014, I performed Two Koans and a Canon at the Center for the Arts Eagle Rock in LA. Not wanting this prep work to go to waste, I decided to create a performance version of the piece so that it can be readily performed. I remember that Jim really wanted his music to be performed and didn't worry so much about publication rights and royalties and so it is very much in this spirit that I hope to offer this piece to the contemporary music community. 

With any luck it'll be available in the near future from Frog Peak