Tuning was commissioned by the Carnegie United Kingdom Trust for performance by the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland in recognition of the 150th Anniversary of the Birth of Andrew Carnegie and of European Music Year 1985. It is scored for very large orchestra, including quadruple woodwind, six horns, two tubas, and a substantial percussion section. There are also five trumpets, who are spread out across the back of the orchestra and towards the end are instructed to stand up to play their closing fanfare-like figures.
The idea for the piece had been in my mind for some time before I was asked to write a work for this orchestra, and it derived from a moment at an ensemble concert I attended, when the assembled players on the platform were tuning up prior to giving a performance of the Mozart Serenade for 13 Wind Instruments. By sheer chance, they alighted a couple of times on rich sonorous chords, and it is from this accident that the impulse for this piece derives. So it is that, after an A from the oboe, the strings spread outwards from the same note and arrive at one of the four main chords of the work, sustaining it while harp and tuned percussion decorate it (though with a different harmony). After this process has been repeated, the woodwind have their "tuning" material, their static chord being decorated by a group of wooden percussion (xylophone, temple blocks, etc.), and when the brass enter, their percussion partners are drums (timpani, bongos and tom-toms).
Needless to say, the piece goes on to develop the harmonic material stated in these "tuning" sections (which are written-out fairly precisely, with some degree of freedom for the players), and the themes themselves are derived from these all-important chords. The work falls into two sections, the first slow and texturally quite dense, and the second fast, making much use of repeated notes and patterns and building up to a climax at which, apart from the trumpet fanfares already mentioned, the remaining brass instruments gradually join in to lead to the closing flourish. The final chord, the only moment in the whole work at which all the performers play together, is sustained quietly on solo strings, giving the effect of a distant echo.
© John McCabe