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Celeste Oram: Counting Step...Embedded video
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Gradus ad Parnassum (The Steps to Parnassus) is a method book on composing counterpoint in the style of Palestrina, written by Johann Joseph Fux in 1725. In one sense, it is a very dry book: a scourge of music students who—over centuries and around the world—have been assigned by curriculum to labour through its arcane contents.
In another sense, it is (like many musical method books) an underrated piece of philosophical literature, whose theoretical explications testify to the ways in which descriptions of musical logic & meaning are very much entangled with understandings of social logic & meaning.
Fux writes the entire book in a Socratic dialogue between the master Aloysius and the student Josephus, and their conversations are not limited to the rules of counterpoint. Of the various aphorisms which decorate Gradus ad Parnassum, two in particular caught my attention as I began this piece:
We do not live for ourselves alone; our lives belong also to our parents, our country, and our friends. Drops wear down the stone not by strength, but by constant falling. I write this piece in the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic: a situation which makes plain what is at stake in the contingencies and debts of our daily livelihoods.
In one sense, it’s become clear that our lives do not belong to us, but to capital — as life and suffering are crunched into cost-benefit analyses for economic stimulus and consolidations of geo-political power. In another sense, the instinct to take care has once again illuminated the things which can grow by being given away. A Neapolitan nurse was quoted saying: “I thought I was a weak person. Now I am discovering that I have power and courage above all my expectations.”
Commissioned by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group
This work is suitable for mixed-ability groups: i.e. students and amateurs playing alongside professionals