Composing is a discovery act

Rodrigo Lima – [email protected]
  Escola de Música do Estado de São Paulo

This article is based on a lecture held in December of 2015 during my participation in MAB’s IV Composition Seminar at the Music School of the Federal University of Bahia. The lecture followed two lines of thinking:

I. The fundamental role of harmony in the creating process of the works Elegia em Azul, for eight trombones, and Antiphonas, for alto saxophone and ensemble.

II. The composing act is also a discovering exercise. The composition of a piece of music doesn’t take place only from the materials initially defined, but most of all from the freedom to incorporate the structures that emerge during the process. To perceive them is the part of the game in which the materials are not seen as fixed entities, but as a kind of color palette that, at all times, transfigures itself into the pentagram.

The harmonic aspect, or the idea of having a harmonic matrix as a compositional principle, has been a stubborn concern for a long a time now. Pre-thinking the harmonic color of a piece of music is like preparing the inks and colors before painting the picture itself. This previous relation with the harmonic aspect arose from an unpretentious reading1 of the theories on the idea of “autopoiesis”, by the Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. From Greek roots, “autopoiesis”—-“self” and “to produce” (“poiesis” as in poetry)—-“refers to the continuous production of oneself through life”. It is, in the biological context, the capacity that organic beings, these “autopoietic entities”, have to perpetuate themselves through chemical activity and molecules movement. That is, an organism that is self-regulating and self-regenerating in a perpetual metabolism. It is from this “autopoietic” assumption that I’ve started thinking about the possibility of establishing ramifications of a certain harmonic material throughout a work. Once such material is defined, another essential practice that precedes the process of fixing the music on paper begins. That’s the stage through which I try to establish a kind of affective bond with the material and its infinite plasticity. Reconfiguring, juxtaposing, deleting, rewriting, and reshaping the material in a periodically way are some of the strategies for uncovering latent sounds in the harmonic matrix itself. That happens very often during long “improvisations” alternated between the piano and the sketch paper. Here is a kind of catalogue of materials that become part of the process as a reference object until the completion of the work. Sometimes, such a game inevitably leads me through real labyrinths, which, in my point of view, it’s not really a problem; rather, it is an intriguing aspect, for it is in the midst of labyrinths that I, very often, come across more satisfactory continuity solutions.

In the case of the works Elegia em Azul2 and Antiphonas3, the initial harmonic material was determined from the Fibonacci numerical series, favoring the following sequence: 3, 5, 8, 13, and 21. This sequence takes place here in semitone occurrences, that is, the number 3, for instance, is equivalent to three semitones, a minor third. In Elegia in Azul, the initial harmonic matrix has the G1 note as the fundamental sound which, after having the Fibonacci sequence applied to it, results in the following chord: G-Bb-C-Eb-Ab-E. Then, three projections of the same numerical sequence are applied from the note C, E-flat and E, as shown in figure 1 below.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Sketch of the original matrix and its three projections.

Those developments have had, throughout the piece, a strong influence on the sections creation, since, as I see, herein they are not merely a transposition, but a way of occupying the sound space, either by overlapping different projections to evoke new harmonies or as a mechanism to establish a polyphonic fabric, see figure 4.

In Elegia, the next step was to create blocks that would contemplate the eight trombones asset. To do so, I’ve added elements from block A into the original matrix different tessituras, thus generating two blocks of eight sounds that are presented in the first bars of the work (Figure 2 and 3).

Figure 2

Figure 2: Building process of two blocks of eight notes each, in Elegia em Azul

Figure 3

Figure 3: Blocks D and E Orchestration in Elegia em Azul, for eight trombones

Once the initial nuances were defined, Elegia was conceived in such a way that the feeling of movement, the time coming and going, was constantly modified. Such a process has in its rhythm an indispensable ally, not only by shaping the emission of sound blocks and lines, but also by creating a dynamic relation of low and high mobility between the sections. “The deeper the blue becomes, the more strongly it calls man towards the infinite, awakening in him a desire for the pure and, finally, for the supernatural”. From these words, from Wassily Kandinsky, the title and atmosphere of the work are born.

Figure 4

Figure 4: A polyphonic set up of the harmonic projections in Elegia em Azul

In the case of Antiphonas, I’ve initially assumed the mutuality and ritualistic aspect suggested by the title as a propelling element of the interaction between the soloist and the ensemble. However, the dialogues are not mere responses or repetitions; they project themselves in time as a sort of distorted Echo, or “antiphonal dialogue”4. Together with that reciprocity, I seek to create a kind of sound simulacrum where points, lines and textures tend to deform themselves in a game of construction and deconstruction of movement and sonority. It is from this idea of ?Echo that I came to conceive the Fibonacci numerical series not only in one direction, as in Elegia, but in two of them. Here we have a composition metaphor. Let’s imagine a musical note as if it were some sort of crystal. Then I cast a beam of light upon it. This imaginary light is the Fibonacci series that, as it crosses the crystal (axis note) refracts itself in bundles of lights (sounds) in two directions. These sonic beams project a double movement of expansion and contraction of the numerical sequence 3, 5, 8, 13, and 21. The ending of that expansion occurs symmetrically towards the departure axis, as shown in figure 5.

Figure 5

Figure 5: Initial sketch of the double harmonic expansion in Antiphonas, from Db

At first, that preliminary sound microcosm was intended to establish just a “harmonic field” for the work. However, that stage of the process was crucial and revealing with regard to its temporal architecture. Through this assumption, I’ve seen that the music was already in its own gesture of expansion and contraction. That is its driving force—-and the soloist is the axis from which a spiral dialogue with the ensemble is continually obtained. That immediately incited imagination. Only the form shaping (within time) and orchestration of the gesture were now missing. Such a handcrafted process of sculpting the gesture has had the soloist performance as a starting point. The piece begins with the saxophone attacking what has become the note-axis of the work (A). Then it is transfigured from a multiphonic into two more sounds, C and D, which, in relation to the axis (A), would be numbers 3 and 5 of the Fibonacci series, respectively. The ornamented Ab in the third compass is the number 13 of the lower projection. Below, in figure 6 we have the beginning of that process—-and its amplification together with the ensemble in figure 7.

Figure 6

Figure 6: First five bars of Antiphonas, for alto saxophone and ensemble. The soloist begins the gesture of expansion and contraction from the axis. Example in C.

Figure 7

Figure 7: Amplification of the double movement of expansion and contraction of the numerical sequence 3, 5, 8, 13, and 21, from saxophone’s A5, in Antiphonas

Those are the revelations that make me believe that the craft of composing is a discovery act. In the process, there is a constant need to interpret the materials, since they have that intrinsic natural force, an immeasurable plasticity. And one of the roles of the composer is precisely to reveal that. The painter Paul Klee had already traveled these paths: “Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible”. When writing music, I realize that the “makes visible” is proportional to the degree of immersion we have with the process and with everything that enfolds its craft. The affective bond with the material incites those forces. Inspiration? A flow. Composing is an energy that moves constantly through intellectual speculation and sensory pleasure. “The Real, which is not at the beginning or at the end, shows itself to us along the journey...” 6. Therefore, let's walk together...


LIMA, Rodrigo. Elegia em Azul para octeto de trombones, São Paulo 2012.

LIMA, Rodrigo. Antiphonas para saxofone alto e ensemble, São Paulo 2014.

LIMA, Rodrigo. Da nota ao som: explorando territórios harmônicos, Dissertação de Mestrado, Unicamp, 2009.

KANDINSKY, W. Do Espiritual na Arte. Martins Fontes, São Paulo 2000.

KLEE, P. Sobre a arte moderna e outros ensaios. Trad. Pedro Sussekind. Rio de Janeiro: Jorge Zahar, 2001.


1 O que é a Vida? MARGULIS. L & SAGAN. D. Rio de Janeiro: Jorge Zahar, 2002.

2 Elegia em Azul (2012) was composed in memory of the trombonist Radegundis Feitosa, especially for the Brazilian Contemporary Trombone CD, by the trombonist Carlos Freitas.

3 Antiphonas (2014) was premiered at the 17th World Saxophone Congress & Festival 2015 in Strasbourg (France) by Brazilian saxophonist Pedro Bittencourt accompanied by Ensemble Linea and Proxima Centauri under Guillaume Bourgogne’s regency. Listen to the composer’s works at .

4 This is the origin of the work’s title. “Antiphonal Dialogue” is a direct reference to the polyphonic procedures used by Josquin Desprez (1440-1521) in his Pange Lingua Mass. Monumental work in the art of imitative polyphony, where we can find, at the Benedictus, a beautiful “Antiphonal Dialogue”.

5 Remembering that the F# in the E-flat saxophone sounds a major sixth down, (A). In this case, A is the double projection’s axis of expansion.

6 ROSA, JOÃO, GUIMARÃES. Grande Sertão: Veredas. 20. ed. Rio de Janeiro: Nova fronteira, 2001.