Arbor Vitæ (2006)

James Tenney

string quartet

Commission: Quatuor Bozzini, with support from the CCA


Program Notes

Arbor Vitae (2006) 13 ’Arbor Vitae, James Tenney’s last work, is both a culmination of many ideas from prior pieces as well as an unprecedented show of innovation. The title reflects Tenney’s attitude towards life and music as well as the compositional process, which uses the image of a tree’s roots and branches as a metaphor for its harmonic scheme. Features that exemplify Tenney’s aesthetic include the use of harmonic series to determine the pitch set, and, on the macro-level, a single gestalt illuminated through many dimensions of the work (expanding then contracting pitch range, crescendo-plateau-decrescendo dynamic swell, and increasing and decreasing temporal density applied over the entire duration of the piece). On the other hand, the extension of certain compositional facilities is truly exciting. The extended pitch vocabulary includes pitches derived from harmonics up to 1331st partial and the probabilistic scheme determining the evolving harmonies of the piece are incredibly dynamic. As the piece develops, sets of changing harmonic fields grow more expansive and complex. At first, the harmonies may be perceived in one tonality/harmonic field but later as branches of branches are used to determine the sounding tones, a more polytonal impression may be perceived. This work was commissioned by the Bozzini Quartet with the assistance of the Canada Council for the Arts. (program note by Mike Winter)