Chou Wen-chung

Tuning Up (1947)

Ironically, the story of Tuning Up sums up in a nutshell that of Varèse’s life-long failure to gain support for his vision, therefore wasting so much of his creativity. The 1947 film, Carnegie Hall, produce by Boris Morros, featured many musicians, such as Leopold Stokowski, Bruno Walter, and Fritz Reiner. Varèse had long known Morros through Walter Anderson, a loyal advocate for Varèse and the editor of The Commonweal, who published Varèse’s seminal essay, “Organized Sound for the Sound Film,” in 1940. Morros, however, failed in the 1930’s to support Varèse in gaining use of the sound studios in Hollywood for his acoustic experiments. While Carnegie Hall was in production in 1946, Morros persuaded Varèse, through Anderson, to compose a couple of minutes of music parodying the orchestra’s pre-concert tuning up, to be played by the New York Philharmonic with Stokowski. Varèse evidently took the request seriously, whereas Morros wanted slapstick and abandoned the idea. It was said that Varèse was paid a large sum, but that he rejected the cheque in a fury upon hearing his music distorted at rehearsal. The truth was that Varèse had, without discussing a fee, worked hastily on the piece, and that no rehearsals had ever taken place. Besides, no score or parts exist.

What Varèse kept of this venture are two short drafts of about one-and-a-half minutes each, employing quotations from his own music (as well as a few fleeting suggestions of other familiar music). The drafts appear to be revisions of an earlier version, with parts of manuscript pages and photocopies pasted over each other. The quotations, ranging from a single percussion figure to a few measures, are taken from Amériques, Arcana, Ionisation, and Intégrales, and are often modified or juxtaposed with new material. To create a complete edition of Tuning Up for performance, the first decision was whether it would make sense for the two drafts to be played successively. At the end of one of the drafts, following a statement on the pitch A in six octaves, there are two additional measures (mm. 36, 37) of soft and isolated sounds of A-related pitches that call to mind the final and penultimate endings of Déserts, which suggest openness and the expectation for continuation (perhaps suggesting the endless expanse of a desert).

Déserts was composed a few years after Tuning Up, but much of the material actually came from Espace, with which Varèse was involved in 1946. It was then concluded that this draft should precede the other, with its open ending expanded in the fashion of the passages in Déserts, to serve as transition to the second draft which ends on open As. Three measures are interposed (mm. 38-40), essentially reiterating the pitches already stated (E, F-sharp, and B) in the preceding measures (mm. 36-37) with the addition of one pitch (D-sharp). These statements on A covering the entire orchestral range obviously have a significant role and are therefore elaborated slightly, with emphasis on registral expansion (mm. 33-35, 95-100).

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