Counting Steps Programme note by Celeste Oram

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 our descriptions of musical logic & meaning are very much entangled with our 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 that 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.”

Celeste Oram, 2020


Commissioned by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, with financial assistance from supporters of BCMG at Home and the following individuals through BCMG's Sound Investment Scheme: Samantha Bird, Paul Bond, Christopher Carrier, Stephen Johnson, Philip Mills, Michael & Sandra Squires, Myriam Thomas, and Christoph & Marion Trestler.


Celeste Oram

Celeste Oram is a composer from Aotearoa, New Zealand, currently based in Southern California. Her works investigate new media and strategies for musical performance and notation: video, audio, and text scores prompt performers into scenarios where they confront sound, history, and digital realities. Celeste Oram’s piece, for a Pierrot+ ensemble, has been conceived as a dual concept and will be accompanied by an interactive sound art installation at Stadtmuseum Simeonstift in Trier, Germany from 16 August, with excerpts to be broadcast on German radio in October 2018; and a second installation at a national museum in London September 2018.

Support a commission