Sarah Davachi: Long Gradus

The first few notes of “Long Gradus (strings)” are so fragile that they might break at any moment. Each member of string quartet Quatuor Bozzini bows one long tone without any vibrato or other ornamentation, stretching it out until it becomes paper thin. It’s like a skeleton of a Sarah Davachi piece—just the notes, none of the reverb. To write Long Gradus, the Los Angeles-based composer draws on many of the ideas that have shaped her work over the years—slow tempos, just intonation, harmonies inspired by Medieval and Renaissance polyphony. But where her previous albums felt cavernous, Long Gradus strips her music down to its bones, zeroing in on the timbre of each individual note.

Davachi composed Long Gradus while she was in residence at Quatuor Bozzini’s Composers’ Kitchen. The artists worked closely together to develop the piece, which explores psychoacoustics—the science of sound and perception—through sustained tones. It is composed of four movements, each between 15 and 17 minutes long, that progress through a series of intervals, tracking their evolution in time. Intended as an open-ended work, Long Gradus offers guidelines but no strict rules, so it may be played by any group of four instruments.

In the album version, Davachi shows the composition’s adaptability by presenting recordings of string quartet, woodwinds, brass and organ, and choir and electronics, demonstrating how the piece translates across instrumentations. Davachi has never shied away from writing long pieces—her albums often run an hour or more—but Long Gradus takes her work to a new extreme. Its four discs spread out over four and a half hours, examining the contours of the work from seemingly every angle.

Throughout, tones enter and fade with the ease of breathing. Each movement creeps from low to high pitches almost unnoticeably, save for some occasional clashes between frequencies, and ample pauses between notes give the music a glacial quality. Davachi has always explored measured, subtle motion: Her stretched-out progressions often seem to exist outside of time, moving at a pace that’s guided by intuition. But that’s a zoomed-out picture, and Long Gradus shows the granular: With this composition, Davachi invites us to take stock of every tone in the minutest detail.

The four iterations take on strikingly different qualities. When notes get close together in the string quartet version, there’s pronounced beating; when woodwinds play, there are soaring overtones. The strings often sound ghostly, while the woodwinds are bright and feathery; organ and brass feel deep and resonant while choir and electronics take on a Medieval air. Those changes are so subtle that listening to each feels repetitive—this is the same piece, after all, just played by a different set of tools. But the four versions of Long Gradus do show how the work transcends the particularities of a given adaptation. No matter the instrumentation, Davachi’s music is still evolving.

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Sarah Davachi: Long Gradus