Ironically, the story of Tuning Up sums up 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 few 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 , and B) in the preceding measures (mm. 36-37) with the addition of one pitch (D). 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).
The most enigmatic notations in the drafts are the numerous large (in size) and long (in number of measures) signs of crescendo and diminuendo. These are not synchronized with the dynamic marks for instruments, which often seem contradictory. It could easily be assumed that he had some electronic means in mind. But Varèse had been trying to contact Theremin in Russia without success since 1940, and he would hardly have had time to explore other devices unavailable to him.
There are no other indications in the drafts as to what kind of musical content these hairpin signs are for. On the other hand, Varèse’s two sirens were in plain view in his workshop and could easily be brought to Carnegie Hall on demand. It was therefore decided to interpret these signs as for instruments in the orchestra to play “as if tuning” and for the sirens as used in Ionisation. In the completed edition, available instrumental groups are assigned to “tuning” passages in a total of 49 measures, about half the score, in accordance with Varèse’s notation in the drafts. Sirens join in some of the passages (mm. 28-30, 73-74, and 87-90) as suggested by the nature of the quotations. Elsewhere, sirens are assigned when no pitched instruments are available (mm. 49-51, 52-54, 68-69, 75, 79-81, and 86).
In recognition of his usual attention to register, timbre, and dynamics, Varèse organizes these added “tuning” passages according to how they interact with the notated parts with respect to these parameters. Similarly, percussion parts are expanded or filled in, mostly by quoting in Varèse’s own manner from Ionisation and Amériques, to highlight or contrast the pitched parts he wrote, and to correlate with the parabolic sounds of the sirens.
Because of the fast-paced quotations, the drafts consist of frequent tempo changes, with a total of 17 in barely three minutes. These tempo marks have been adjusted and edited, with the number of tempi reduced from seven to four. In addition, a few measures have been added to provide space or expansion to the sketched materials in the drafts (mm. 26, 70, 78, 92-93, 99-100).
Tuning Up is an inter-play of flashes of orchestral sonorities, rainbow-like colors of percussion, spatial trajectories of sirens, and the undulating sound of “tuning.” On another level, Varèse clearly had fun with the pitch A — teasing and flirting with it, juxtaposing or building upon it, and often resorting to his favorite scheme of intercepting cycles of intervals, frequently the fifth. Tuning Up is a perfect overture to Varèse’s music, and an equally fascinating opening for any symphonic concert.
Because of questions raised above, no attempt at reconstructing or completing Tuning Up was undertaken until 1998. The completed edition was commissioned jointly by Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (of Amsterdam), Casa Ricordi, and the Decca Record Company, Ltd.