Piece which starts with casual tuning?

November 17, 2020, 12:09 PM · I am beginning to write a piece for string quartet, and I had this strange idea to start the piece with the musicians casually tuning, then slowly morphing that combination of sounds into something comprehensible. I think it would be a really cool and interesting start to a concert, but am wondering if this idea has already been taken by a famous composer? It just seems too good to be true that I'm the first to use this concept, as interesting/silly as it is...

Replies (29)

Edited: November 17, 2020, 1:06 PM · The beginning of the Berg violin concerto comes to mind. I wouldn’t call it casual tuning but it was intended to evoke that idea.
Edited: November 17, 2020, 1:43 PM · Haydn did something similar in one of his symphonies if I remember correctly. Before the last movement the violins had to tune their G down to F (sharp?). Then, after a fermata, they all retuned before the music resumed.
November 17, 2020, 3:12 PM · Made me think of the Wieniawski Dudziarz. I wouldn't be surprised to hear that it's been done before, considering all the different kinds of extended technique I've heard in contemporary music.
November 17, 2020, 4:35 PM · Some banjo players have outfitted their instruments with "Scruggs tuners", which enable them to quickly tune a string down a half step and back up again. This is used in tunes like Foggy Mountain Chimes, and there's a nice arrangement of Home Sweet Home which uses them too.

We now return you to our regularly scheduled classical discussion, as I grab my fiddle and slink off to another bluegrass jam...

November 17, 2020, 5:29 PM · Careful what you call casual—in 50 years, they may play your piece in the greatest halls with penguin tuxedos and stone-cold faces.
Edited: November 17, 2020, 8:56 PM · I wrote a piece in the mid-80s that began with an apparent sound check, for a group that used sound reinforcement. "Check, test, can you hear OK?" With claps and other sounds associated with sound checks until people just started to figure out that something was going on, and then the sound come together in a rhythm. It was pretty effective. If you can ride that edge between it seeming awkward and seeming intentional, I think it has promise. Other aspects of my piece dealt with technology in interesting ways, so the ideal path, IMO, would be to figure out what you are intending to say with it, since it will be a powerful device. As a gimmick, it seems less appealing, I think. But I say, go for it!
Edited: November 17, 2020, 10:20 PM · You could specify in the score that the music must not be played wearing penguin suits. You could maybe specify dashiki shirts or purple Nehru jackets.

But ... back to reality ... I think your idea is clever. Maybe even .... catchy.

November 18, 2020, 2:07 AM · James, check out Corigliano's Oboe Concerto. The first movement, called "Tuning Game," does what you are describing (although the "comprehensible" requirement is up to the listener's taste :) ).

The Berg violin concerto definitely is drawing on the idea of tuning, and even Mussorgsky's Gopak opens with a kind of written out rustic tuning ritual.

November 18, 2020, 2:16 AM · The ball scene in Mozart's 'Don Giovanni' has three little orchestras on stage which simultaneously play different dances that reflect the social classes of the characters. The dances begin with simulated tuning.
Edited: November 18, 2020, 3:38 AM · @Albrecht - It's Haydn's symphony No.60 "Il Distratto". After a very short introduction to the tiny finale the violins for some reason decide to play double open strings and discover their G's are all tuned to F. Exactly why that should be defeats me. The retuning is supposed to happen in tempo which is prestissimo so that gives them about 5 seconds. It would be considerate of him not to ask the violins to use their G-strings for the rest of the movement, but the seconds are supposed to play a few C's. Another difficulty in performance lies in everyone tuning their G-strings down between movements without the audience twigging that a "joke" is coming up. It probably works best if you really do it slickly in tempo without making a great deal of fuss, which is what usually happens.
Edited: November 18, 2020, 5:16 AM · Are you thinking of this piece? Varese - tuning up. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z0z19ZVBybM
November 18, 2020, 6:46 AM · How about Miles Davis?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=By9OyX2DfWY

Edited: November 18, 2020, 6:54 AM · @James - that's hilarious! The only thing missing is the second violin who breaks a string and has to dash offstage for a replacement - as happened to me in the same place, 40 years earlier...
November 18, 2020, 8:20 AM · James Woodrow - yes something like this!! My goodness, I'm reading that it was conceived already in 1946.. I guess it's really hard to be original these days...
November 18, 2020, 8:22 AM · Re the Varese, it was completed by Chou Wen-Chung (his student). It's not completely clear how much is original or a completion. It has lots of material from Ameriques in it though, and sound distinctively like Varese.
Edited: November 18, 2020, 9:33 AM · James D, the concept reminds me of a community orchestra rehearsal I once had the misfortune to deputize in. The "conductor" didn't notice - or just didn't care ;)
November 18, 2020, 9:50 AM · The Danish composer Rued Langgaard has a tuning imitation in his 6th string quartet. Not in the beginning though. The quartet is in one movement and consists of variation episodes over a Swedish folk tune. In one of the transitions the first violin plays a series of open string fifths as if tuning.
Also the first track on what I believe is the first album by the vocal group Take 6 starts with an orchestra tuning before the singers fade in a long chord. The first time hearing this you can fooled into thinking for a few seconds that an orchestra is playing.
November 18, 2020, 2:17 PM · I, like Mary Ellen, thought of the Berg concerto
November 18, 2020, 2:39 PM · Copland's Hoedown (from Rodeo) begins with simulated tuning.
Edited: November 19, 2020, 9:57 AM · There’s a cute little piece by Mussorgsky, an arrangement for violin and piano called “Hopak” with a similar idea. Makes a nice encore. Milstein and Rosand liked to play it.
November 19, 2020, 9:19 AM · Steve, about that Haydn symphony and its practical difficulty: Couldn't you play the whole symphony with the G down a second? You'd just have play in "scordatura", nothing will be unplayable. I also think Haydn wouldn't force you to be sticking to that presto while the joke is ongoing.
Edited: November 19, 2020, 11:20 AM · Seems a lot of trouble to go to for a joke! At the end of the first movement exposition the seconds play a GDF chord which would be kind of awkward...

Maybe the joke would work better if the F's were out of tune, as if the pegs had slipped?

Edited: November 19, 2020, 4:45 PM · On one of Eric Idle's albums they did a band tuning up and then breaking into song:


Hello, testing, one, two
Testing, one, two
How do you do?
Testing, one, two

It's ONE-derful TWO be here
Testing, one, two
Testing, one, two

(blowing into and tapping microphones)

Our orchestra did Mussorgsky's Hopak a few years ago (although our version spelled it "Gopak"). Lots of open strings there, for sure.

November 19, 2020, 6:06 PM · Any middle school fiddle piece.
November 20, 2020, 12:17 PM · I can't give the details, but years ago I heard a BBC broadcast in which, after mentioning Haydn's Farewell Symphony, they played a symphny by a not very prominent composer of that period, in which. at the beginning, players came on stage at different times, tuned, and then played with everyone else already present. Anyone with the time to trudge through years of BBC archives can probably find it.
November 22, 2020, 9:03 AM · Steve, I played that Haydn piece in my orchestra, once.
When I read the question, I was desperately trying to remember what piece and by whom it was, where there was this very funny tuning break in the middle of it. It was very funny to play! We had to secretly de-tune the G-strings before that movement, without grinning and spoiling the surprise.

Tuning used be quite annoying; I once read a quote from that time, where the writer complained about musicians notoriously tuning and getting on people’s nerves. Again, I completely forgot who said that, just remember the contents.
Keeping in mind that everyone was playing on gut strings and that there was not much of insulation inside against heat or humidity, instruments getting out of tune must have been a constant issue. No wonder, Haydn made one of his practical jokes on it.

Now, concerning the question, why not just do it? Even if it turns you weren’t the first one. Maybe you are, because the examples given here are a bit different from the idea that you described. After all, it will be just one interesting musical effect amongst others, and those might also involve some features that are not new (playing behind the bridge, clapping on the instrument and whatever else, you get the idea).
If an effect is well designed and incorporated in a good context, it is not worth less when it had been used, before.

Edited: November 22, 2020, 12:09 PM · I think it’s a really good idea!

I don’t know if it’s been done but I know of a live recording of the Beethoven concerto where the orchestra tuning is included as a track. And I suppose it makes sense.

I think it would be interesting to leave the performers the choice of whether or not to tune casually before morphing into the written music. Maybe specify the tuning source? Or leave it to the performers’ discretion?

November 22, 2020, 12:27 PM · Saint Saens Danse Macabre - the solo violin entry is sort-of tuning noises, though whether they count as 'casual' or not......
Also one movement of Bartok's Contrasts (finale?) starts with open strings.
Both of these examples are scordatura - I don't know of that's significant....
November 23, 2020, 2:54 PM · An example of something like this in musical theater is the opening of A Little Night Music by Stephen Sondheim. The musical opens with 5 singers of the chorus doing warm-up exercises for about 30 seconds.


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