James Tenney and Wolfgang Köhler

James Tenney taught at York University in Toronto for 24 years. He was a prolific and influential composer, friend of John Cage and well connected to the Toronto avant-garde musical scene.1 

Tenney’s MA thesis at the University of Illinois, META + HODOS, was published in 1961 and is subtitled “A Phenomenology of 20th-Century Musical Materials and an Approach to the Study of Form”. Along with its central treatment of ‘clang’,2 it repeatedly references Wolfgang Köhler‘s Gestalt Psychology.3

Tenney does not seem to have been mentioned by McLuhan and he may or may not have read Tenney’s META + HODOS.  But it could well have been through knowledge in Toronto of Tenney’s musical and theoretical work that McLuhan came to read Köhler in 1964, just after the publication of Understanding Media. Köhler’s figure/ground would, of course, be at the core of McLuhan’s work for the remaining 15 years of his life. As he said to Nina Sutton:

I was not using figure/ground [in Understanding Media]. It was in the early time [of my thinking] when I wrote that book. I was not using figure/ground. Now [1975] I have switched completely to figure/ground. (…) The medium is ground and the so-called message always figure. (…) The wheel and the axle is figure/ground. (…) They can change roles. The axle can be figure. The wheel can be ground. Or vice versa. (…) They flip all the time. Anything can become a figure to a ground and any ground can become a figure to another ground. They interrelate. (…) Remember, in figure/ground, they both work simultaneously. And it doesn’t much matter which one is top and which one is under. (…) It’s complementary, figure/ground. One has to have the other. You can’t have one without the other.4

  1. Tenney’s Collage No. 1 (‘Blue Suede’) from 1961 is said to have been an early model for John Oswald’s plunderphonics:
  2. ‘Clang’ is discussed already in McLuhan’s 1951 ‘The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape Poetry’: “T.E. Hulme on space-thinking in Speculations will lead the student back through Hartmann and Lipps on these questions. Lipps is of special importance for an understanding of Joyce, Pound, and Eliot: ‘The simple clang represents to a certain extent all music. The clang is a rhythmical system built up on a fundamental rhythm. This fundamental rhythm is more or less richly differentiated in the rhythm of the single tones.’ Theodor Lipps, Psychological Studies, 2d ed., tr. by H.C. Sanborn, Baltimore, 1926, p. 223.” The thinking here is that the same momentary process, or ‘rhythmical system’, beginning in an act of creation, underlies all cognition, from the most ordinary to the most artistic: “the greatest artists of the 20th Century — Yeats, Pound. Joyce, Eliot — had discovered a totally different approach, based on the identity of the processes of cognition and creation. (…) Artistic creation is the playback of ordinary experience” (Playboy interview).
    Lipps and clang are mentioned again in ‘James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial’ (1953): “The experiments of Lipps at the end of the last century illustrated how all possible musical structures were contained in a single clang of a bell.”
    Twenty years later in a letter to Ted Carpenter: “
    You remember Theodore Lipps with his observation that all possible symphonies were contained in the single clang of a bell? Is not the same true of language? Acoustically speaking, an entire linguistic culture could be encoded acoustically in almost any phrase or pattern of that tongue.” (March 23, 1973, Letters 473)
  3. The term ‘gestalt’ appears 82 times in the 95 pages of META + HODOS; Köhler is mentioned by name a further 6 times.
  4. Around the same time as his conversations with Nina Sutton, McLuhan wrote to his old friend, Morton Bloomfield (the two were at the University of Wisconsin together in 1936-1937): “I have begun to realize that my peculiar approach to all matters has been to enter via the ground rather than the figure. In any gestalt the ground is taken for granted and the figure receives all the attention. The ground is subliminal, an area of effects rather than of causes.” (March 26,1973, Letters 473-474)