Writing Gradus ad concordiam, step by step


Very seldom do I sit down to write about my composition process but I felt that, for Gradus ad Concordiam, I needed to record an account of my experiences, since they were incredibly eye-opening and different than anything else I have been through before. “Steps to harmony”, the title reads--and this is a work about steps, both literally and metaphorically. The piece is structured upon a series of ascents, beginning on a single note, played in unison by the five recorders and gradually ascending toward a higher note. These ascents are done very gradually, step (gradus) by step, as it were, while the musical fabric rapidly unfolds into several voices. The point of arrival is achieved again in unison. This process is repeated three times, each ascent starting and ending on different notes. Each ascent is immediately followed by a chorale where a given harmonic progression (concordia) is the focus. The harmonic structure of the chorales is the same for all three, although the first two are considerably troped.

In March of 2017, I travelled with my family to Sao Paulo, Brazil, where I had the opportunity to workshop this piece with the members of Academia As Flautas de Sao Paulo. My work is the first of a series of commissions of new works for Renaissance instruments by GReCo and is being funded by a grant from FAPESP, Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado de São Paulo.  

Gradus ad concordiam is scored for 5 performers playing a total of 11 different recorders, from Contralto to Great Bass. The recorders were built by Bob Marvin based on Praetorius’s Syntagma Musicum and are tuned in meantone temperament at A=466 Hz. And here is where a long journey of many, many steps begins.

Meantone temperament began to be used in the early Renaissance. The system was paramount in the development of polyphony. If one thinks of one interval that defines the beginning of the Renaissance, that interval most likely would be the third. And it is for that specific reason that meantone temperament values pure thirds the most. This is also the reason why Renaissance music (and later music, for that matter) played in meantone temperament reveals its full harmonic color and pathos, which cannot be achieved in, for instance, equal temperament.  As fascinating as this may be, I had little idea how much meantone temperament will come to alter the conception and structure of my piece as a whole.

My harmonic language is quite chromatic and some may say it is highly “saturated”. However, I believe in harmony that has some sort of direction, and therefore I explore several methods by which pitches gravitate towards a center (e.g. my recent orchestra work Gravitações  is underpinned by that very idea). My first realization was that heavily chromatic harmony was simply not going to work in meantone—at least not for my ears. Within the early tonality of Renaissance and early Baroque music only a few keys were possible, as the majority sounded extremely out of tune. One can imagine what happens to chromatic harmony in meantone…

This apparent caveat turned out to be a true epiphany for me. As soon as I tuned my keyboard in meantone, I discovered a different world altogether. The “steps to harmony” had literally become my own [baby] steps toward a new harmonic world. An example of this can already be seen in the first few pages of Gradus… where, for twenty bars or so, the only altered pitches are E-flat, F-sharp and, later, B-flat. I hadn’t done something like this since my counterpoint assignments! The fascinating aspect for me was obtaining so much variety in harmonic color with just a few pitches.

During the readings/workshops, I learned [a lot] about these fabulous instruments, the Praetorius recorders. Their limitations were overwhelming at first, but learning about their flexibility in, for example, the use of different fingerings not just for color but for dynamic purposes, was a revelation. A lot changed from the first to the last version of the piece. The main changes were all somehow related to register. In order to achieve the right pungency at the top of the ascents, I needed to, in some cases, change to higher recorders and choose a pitch that would work well for all fiver members of the consort playing in unison. Many passages had to be rewritten to achieve the then new goal or “gravitational” pitch-center. The three chorales were also revoiced and even transposed. There were, for example, changes from Tenors in C to Tenors in D and from Bassettos in F to Bassettos in G so certain pitches could be produced more cleanly.

During the first reading, I told the performers that the ascents were supposed to sound unstable, unsettling, perhaps even uneasy or distressed. The chorales were to be played peacefully, with a feeling of cohesion and steadiness. And this is most apparent given this piece’s [less chromatic] harmonic language. The expressive dissonances provided by meantone temperament exponentially embolden the pathos of each musical phrase, each passage of this piece.  As I write in the introduction to the score, drawing on the connotation for concordia meaning "peace", Gradus ad concordiam can also be understood as my plea for the attainment of peace among humankind. In sum, Gradus ad concordiam is steps to harmony; my steps to a “new” harmony; and a few [hopeful] steps to peace.