- When the American composer James Tenney wrote the score for "Having Never Written A Note For Percussion," he did so on the back of a postcard. The directions are almost too simple: an extended roll is played on an undefined percussion instrument for a "very long" time. It must rise from silence to a quadruple-forte peak, then return again to silence. That's it.
On this LP, Rrose performs the piece twice. Both recordings are around half an hour long, and played on a 32-inch gong—two conditions that must have made these performances physically demanding. First up is a studio recording, dry and relatively soft. The focus is on the shimmering sound of the instrument: initially just a low thrum of bass frequencies, then the rising complexity of the overtones. The piece doesn't reach its crescendo in a straight line, but in fluctuating waves that almost imperceptibly gain intensity. It's a great recording—powerful, textured, rich.
The second version was recorded live in Washington D.C.'s Dupont Underground, an abandoned subway station. Here the focus is shifted to the sound of the space, which the instrument cannot fill. The microphones are further away, and the reflections from the vast concrete walls dominate. The smooth, rippling rise of the studio recording has vanished. In its place is a darker, altogether more threatening sound. The rustle of footsteps, the traffic echoing in the stairwells and the abrupt clattering of doors are just as much a part of the piece as the gong. Though far less immediate than the studio recording, it's no less compelling.
Though it's not used here, the title of Tenney's piece is often written as "Koan: Having Never Written A Note For Percussion." Simplifying greatly, in Zen Buddhist teaching a koan is an enigmatic statement, question or story, given by teachers to students in order to test them. Traditionally, they lack any clear resolution. They inspire reflection, doubt and, ideally, a moment of insight.
Tenney chose his words wisely. There is no set way of playing this piece, no fixed idea of perfection to which one can aspire. Instead, his simple instructions open up a space for reflection on the mesmeric nature of hammered metal and the endless variety of tonal shades that emerge both from the instrument and the room it inhabits. A thousand strokes blur into a single sound. The player, the instrument and the room become one.
Just as the student of Zen must give their whole body over to contemplation of the koan, Rrose approaches the physical and mental challenge of this piece with remarkable patience and dedication. The results, rising and falling in asymmetric harmony, are just as beautiful and as complex as you could hope for.
A1 Having Never Written A Note For Percussion (Studio Version)
B1 Having Never Written A Note For Percussion (Live At Dupont Underground)