James Tenney | USA (b. 1946)

Postal Pieces (1971) [PDF, 295k]
Liner Notes to Postal Pieces CD [PDF, 57k]


The postal pieces, which Tenney called “Scorecards,” are a remarkable series of eleven short works printed on postcards. Each card contains a complete if minimally stated work to be performed by instrumentalists. Several of the pieces were written in and around 1971 for a select group of Tenney’s artistic friends and colleagues. Each is a kind of meditation on acoustics, form, or hyper-attention to a single performance gesture. The set includes pieces written between 1965 and 1971, but it was actually produced in 1971 with the help of Alison Knowles and Marie McRoy at California Institute of the Arts. Tenney related the genesis of these pieces to his aversion to letter writing. Since he had a number of very short compositions, he was able to turn them into postcards, in which a single image (or sound) magically engages in strange, hypotactical relationships with the almost punitively abbreviated message on its reverse side.

Composers and artists have long been fascinated by postcards—among others, Pauline Oliveros and Tom Phillips have made extraordinary experiments in the medium. Years ago, Bay Area experimental composer Tony Gnazzo created and mailed a fantastic set of successively color-bled postcards each of which contained one word, and which, after four years, said “Certain processes evolve gradually.” Tenney’s set is an early example of the form, and certainly one of the most striking and important.

James Tenney in UbuWeb Sound