Analysis of Instruments and Composition of Collage #1 ("blue Suede") by James Tenney

Published: 2021-06-17 08:26:01
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James Tenney (1934-2006) was an American composer, performer and theorist, born in New Mexico and raised in Arizona and Colorado. He studied for his bachelor’s degree in the University of Denver, the Juilliard School of Music (1958), and had his master’s degree in the University of Illinois (1961), where he studied electronic music and worked as a research assistant with Lejaren Hiller in the Experimental Music Studio. It was then that he composed Collage #1 (“Blue Suede”), which is a tape manipulation of Elvis Presley’s cover version of Blue Suede Shoes by Carl Perkins. Later, he also came up with Analog #1 and Dialogue which are later collated in the James Tenney: Selected Works 1961-1969. However, most of these pieces in the collection were completed after he moved to Bell Telephone Laboratories (1961-1964), where he made use of Max Mathews’ Music III (a digital music program) that he learnt during his stay.
Due to the lack of support from the industry and institutions, the Experimental Music Studio was one of the few electronic music facilities that was operational in America. Furthermore, there were only “two professional tape desks, a console, various microphones, oscilloscopes, and amplifiers” that were available for use.The tape desk, or more commonly known as tape recorder, is a device that typically utilises magnetic tapes for sound recording and reproduction (referring to more modern setting and not wax or wire recorders). These recorders generally have three heads – erase head, record head and playback head; in this order, the machine can erase signals on tape (clear content), magnetize tape through electrical signal (record content) and amplify electrical signal created by magnetic signal (play content) respectively. The physical feature thus grants various functions, such as rewind, fast forward and create delay effect through distance between record and playback head. Nonetheless, considering the limited budget and early design on the tape recorder, the in-built speed manipulations functions might not fulfil Tenney’s requirements, so he could have possibly done these manipulations by hand instead. Apart from the machine itself, the tape is also a critical part of the instrument. Magnetic tape recording became the crucial recording medium that revolutionized the recording industries (whether for audio, film or radio broadcast) in the late 1940s as it greatly improved sound quality and listener satisfaction. At the same time, it opened up the possibilities to manipulate recordings with ease using techniques such as tape splicing, looping, echo, reversal, speed manipulation and etc.Many of these techniques were utilized in Collage #1 as it is essentially a plunderphonic composition of Blue Suede Shoes, which means that it is made by altering existing audio recordings.Nonetheless, due to the nature of analogue recordings, there are also some inevitable disadvantages. Firstly, it is highly time consuming to edit or splice, especially when it requires numerous splicing within short period of recordings and it is impossible to “undo” splicing or any other error as these are in hard copies. At the same time, unlike digital recordings, if Tenney requires repeated or overlapping sections of the recording and he chose to use splicing method, multiple physical copies of the recordings are required before concatenating them together. Lastly, unwanted noise like tape hissing is difficult to get rid of, especially considering Tenney’s limitations on tools. Most of these limitations are unavoidable and likely to be overcome by sheer effort and time from Tenney.
On the other hand, the inevitable grainy nature of tape recording has also brought a different timbre to the recording as well. Apart from these, in order to create a layering effect, Tenney possibly had used both tape desk at the same time, with one recording and other playing.
Collage #1 is a plunderphonic composition of Elvis Presley’s interpretation of Blue Suede Shoes by Carl Perkins. It comprises of sounds in all regions of register with fluctuating processes and has an interesting pattern that runs across the entire piece that created a layering effect. However, before further elaborating on these, the piece shall first be broken down into 4 main sections.
The first section does not resemble much of the original material used, it is even difficult to figure out which instrument(s) was being played, however, it is obvious that the vocal portion had been removed. It comprises mostly of low and continual reverberations that created a hollow timbre, like wind blowing through a hollow tube. It is likely that the section was recorded while slowing down the instrument playback without much variation in trajectories.
The transition from first section started out with a high-pitched squeakily noise without much echo, that resembles a series of concatenated, fast-forwarded or even reversed pieces that made their sources undifferentiable. The section then continued with similar high-pitched splices together with small segments of slightly lower pitched scraggly sound, that sounded like guitar, with each segment spaced apart slightly (≤ 1s). However, it is notable that the high-pitched segments were recorded in conjunction with the low-pitched first section (or similar styled segments) showing a polyphonic texture, even though it is less distinguishable due to the overpowering higher-pitched segments. Before entering the third section, the tempo, intensity and volume of higher pitched segments gradually increased until they seem to be overlapping each other slightly.
The third section is where the Blue Suede Shoes begin to surface, it unveils with a few short splices of Elvis’ voice with increasing density. This section then progresses with numerous generally unaltered quick splices of the recording, including both vocal and instrumental (guitar and drums) sounds. This section is exceptional as the central portion comprises of vocal and instrumental splices that are extremely short and seamlessly connected, without other manipulation techniques being utilised.
The fourth section is an extremely complex section as it is a combination of the first three sections. Apart from the vocal and instrumental third section, a new style of record splice was used; it resembles the high-pitched second section but with it having first section’s timbre, and it is also more metallic and ripple-like, creating an echo that is distinct and unfading. However, unlike the second section that has an overlaying texture, these new segments seem to run parallelly with the third section, with similar volume and pitch.
Nearing the end, the splices seem to be shorter, making it sound denser and somewhat like a fast-forwarded piece but with no change in pitch or trajectory. Then it finally ends with a slow fading guitar sound together with the ripple-like splice.

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