James Tenney was born in 1934 in Silver City, New Mexico, and grew up in Arizona and Colorado, where he received his early training as a pianist and composer. He attended the University of Denver, the Juilliard School of Music, Bennington College (B.A. 1958), and the University of Illinois (M.A. 1961). His teachers and mentors have included Eduard Steuermann, Chou Wen-Chung, Lionel Nowak, Carl Ruggles, Lejaren Hiller, Kenneth Gaburo, Edgard Varèse, Harry Partch, and John Cage. A performer as well as a composer and theorist, he was co-founder and conductor of the Tone Roads Chamber Ensemble in New York City (1963-70). He was a pioneer in the field of electronic and computer music, working with Max Mathews and others at the Bell Telephone Laboratories in the early 1960s to develop programs for computer sound-generation and composition. He wrote works for a variety of media, both instrumental and electronic, many of them using alternative tuning systems. He was the author of several articles on musical acoustics, computer music, and musical form and perception, as well as two books: META / HODOS: A Phenomenology of 20th-Century Musical Materials and an Approach to the Study of Form (1961; Frog Peak, 1988) and A History of 'Consonance' and 'Dissonance' (Excelsior, 1988).
He received grants and awards from the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council, the Canada Council, the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, the Fromm Foundation, the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst, and the Jean A. Chalmers Foundation. He taught at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, the California Institute of the Arts, the University of California, and at York University in Toronto, where he was named Distinguished Research Professor in 1994. He was appointed to the Roy E. Disney Family Chair in Musical Composition at the California Institute of the Arts. His music is published by Sonic Art Editions (Baltimore) and the Canadian Music Centre, and is distributed by them and by Frog Peak (Lebanon, New Hampshire). Recordings are available from Artifact, col legno, CRI, Hat[now]ART, Koch International, Mode, Musicworks, Nexus, oodiscs, SYR and Toshiba EMI, among others.
Tenney died on August 24, 2006 in Valencia, California, after a relapse with lung cancer.