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Chamber Collaborations Compositions Concert Family Percussion Performers Personal Piano Postclassical

Livestream and Programme for “The Music of Bruce A. Russell”

Here is the link for tonight’s first-ever concert of my music by The Array Ensemble. Viewing is free or by optional donation. You may be asked to create a free account in order to access the livestream. Please consider donating to Arraymusic as they are a historic and vital part of Toronto’s new music scene, and an important venue for providing access to underrepresented artist communities.

Programme and Notes

Companion, for two pianos (2019) 12′
Stephen Clarke, Wesley Shen; pianos


Children’s Suite, nine pieces for piano (2007-2014) 30′
Stephen Clarke, piano


aix, for two pianos (2004) 2′
Stephen Clarke, Wesley Shen; pianos


limina, for two pianos and percussion (1996) 5′
Stephen Clarke, Wesley Shen; pianos
Rick Sacks, percussion

Companion was composed through late 2018 and early 2019, while the first pencil sketches date to 2011. It is dedicated to my two youngest children. All of the material derives from seven-note rows: orderings of the pitches of the diatonic scale. The harmony resembles traditional tonality heard through a pandiatonic filter. There are four sections, divided by key signature: F major, A-flat major, B major and D major.

Each section is constructed from one or two unique, quasi-symmetrical rows that proceed most often by the interval of a fourth or fifth. Each row is layered against itself in a homorhythmic canon of up to six voices, often accompanied by high and low pedals tones that present an additional canon in augmentation. Almost every chord in Companion is the result of a basic serial process, one exception being the transition between the third and fourth sections, which features chords built from nested fifths. Ultimately, such chords result from the canons as well.

The final chord is arrived at through symmetrical voice leading from the penultimate chord and is also the initial row spelled vertically from bottom to top. Form at the local and vertical levels is highly rationalized, while global and horizontal form—rhythmic structure and phrasing—is loosely associative.

Children’s Suite (2007-2014) is a cycle of 3 three-movement pieces for piano which I composed for my children in the respective years of their births. All nine movements are written in diatonic C major/A minor. The cycle opens and closes with fast movements; otherwise, the music is in a slow to moderate tempo. All the pieces employ steady rhythmic motion, sometimes in triple or quadruple metre and sometimes in patterns of five, seven or nine beats. While there is a limited amount of complexity and abstraction in the tonal and rhythmic details, forms and structures are for the most part simple and pop-song like. 

To varying degrees in each piece, I take inspiration from Bach’s Prelude in C Major, in the idea of a repeating pattern with changing harmonies. Some other ideas recur from one piece to another as well, such as a texture of broken chords which overlap in multi-voice canons (“A New Day,” “Fourths + Fifths,” “Lullaby”); a texture of bassline and suspended chords (“Oh Seven,” the latter sections of “Young Afro Future”); a harmonic structure of six diatonic modes in sequence (“Fourths + Fifths,” “Golden”) and the use of patterns from my kalimba music (the middle section of “Queen Peace,” “Golden,” the second section of “Son’s Light”). 

The texture is often developed from a single line into homophony, with “Moon” being the clearest example. Here, a melodic fragment is harmonized with chord clusters and a descending bassline. The interval of the perfect fifth figures heavily throughout the suite, both melodically and harmonically; especially in “Oh Seven.” The opening section of “Son’s Light” has a traditional circle-of-fifths harmonic structure and includes the most triadic music I’ve composed since my early days writing pop songs.

“Queen Peace” is a simple waltz based on 4 four-note chords in A minor, with the bassline D, G, A, C. The melody flows out of the chords. While most of the suite was composed using a systematic approach, this movement grew more spontaneously from a pop sensibility.

The titles and ordering are as follows:

Remi (2007)
I. Oh Seven
II. Queen Peace
III. A New Day
Kenza (2012)
I. Fourths + Fifths
II. Moon
III. Golden
Tijani (2014)
I. Son’s Light
II. Lullaby
III. Young Afro Future

aix (“waters”), for two pianos, is a short study in rising and falling patterns, with alternating chordal and canonic textures. The primary melodic shape, an ascending seventh followed by a descending second, is heard in several of my piano pieces of the early to mid 2000s, which I later grouped together as a cycle under the title “Kindred Pieces.” The piece is written in diatonic A-flat major, with a harmonic progression on the scale degrees 4-3-2-1-5-6.

limina (1996), was composed as an exploratory diversion between larger projects. The title, “thresholds,” is meant to suggest points of transition or spaces between categories.

There are two sections; the longer and more eventful first is in duple metre and features a pop-like, four-chord progression in A major. The second is in triple metre and A-flat major, with an outro-like quality. The transition between sections introduces more complex harmonies and a percussion break.

All of the music is built around the initial melodic pattern, a loop that descends in fifths and ascends back to its starting point in fourths (a pattern also heard in “Fourth + Fifths”). This line is in fact the opening chord unfolded horizontally, and it becomes the rhythmic motor, layered against itself in canon. The final chord is the same as the opening one, though transposed down a semitone.

Categories
Anniversary Archive Choral Compositions Electronic Experimental Memoir Percussion Photo Pop Postclassical Vocal

95/25: Uhuru

Uhuru is a self-released album which was completed during the winter of 1995 and released in the fall. I had originally hoped to release it on CD but was unable to secure sufficient funds, so it arrived in a run of 100 cassettes. The program was over 70 minutes long, comprising mainly songs and instrumentals I had composed in the preceding two years, much of it dedicated to my adoptive father who had passed away at the beginning of that period. In honour of the 25th anniversary, I present three selections from the album.

The recordings were a bit more developed than demos, though with a very minimal budget for studio hours, it was still well in the realm of bare bones production. All of the solo vocal tracks were sung live to master in a single take, over a backing track created on my keyboard workstation (a Korg 01/WFD which sits beside me now, waiting for archiving assignments). I called this method “guerrilla karaoke.” Several tracks involved overdubbing my voice to create a chorus, and benefitted from a mixdown, usually on the spot after recording.

While I had sung in a church choir, community musical theatre and in bands through high school and university, some years had passed without me singing anywhere at all, thus my voice on Uhuru often has a plain, hushed or tentative quality. It suited the part of me that embraces the imperfect in art, often in an uneasy relationship with the part that tends to want structure and precision. I seemed to enjoy rediscovering and exploring my voice, all the same.

There was no preplanned theme to the album, and it was highly eclectic in sound and style on purpose. In retrospect, it appears to focus on discovering and exploring my own identity and personal myths, often letting these remain fragmented and obscure.

In terms of its strange audio, “Fermentia (Apple of My Eye)” was my response to trip hop. It was a gesture towards a quiet inner music, with my noisier tendencies surfacing at points in seeming opposition to the precious bits. The lyrics wander through some personal images from childhood, and in an abstract way are processing my questions and feelings around being a transracial adoptee, from the perspective of a young fine arts grad. I rode the distortion and delay effects on the Korg workstation during the instrumental sections while doing the vocals. I performed this song live several times during that period, with the same setup. The ascending and descending melodic line near the end (“you are eros in my life”) is the opening row of “Uhuru” transposed.

Written and recorded January 1995
Korg 01/WFD, voice live to DAT
Engineered by Scott Collings
Photo: Uhuru cassette and layout

“The Farthest Shore” incorporates voices, penny whistles, floor tom and ocean drum (beaten, shaken and tilted for the ocean sound). The harmonies were roughed out beforehand, based in part on the augmented scale, while some notes are improvised. Everything else was created during recording. The title is from the book by Ursula K. Le Guin, the third in her Earthsea Cycle. I met the late literary icon five years later at a reading and book signing, and she was encouraging to me as a composer in any potential attempt to set her work. It’s neither an attempt at world music nor at conveying a particular narrative concept.

Composed and recorded February 1995
Half-inch 16-track mixed to DAT
Engineered by Scott Collings
Photo: near Sunnybrook Park, spring 1994

“Uhuru” —or, as I like to joke, life before autotune—emerged spontaneously from my vocal explorations, and was my first notated choral piece. The text was chosen somewhat randomly, sometimes more for sound than meaning. Key words and phrases suggest a lament for something lost in a hidden past, and a prayer for the end of violence against Black bodies. There is also a comforting hint of the ever-present pop ballads of my childhood, offset by angular sonorities. Except for one brief moment of chromaticism, the music uses only the seven pitches of the diatonic scale in C major as spelled out in the opening row, employing a variety of symmetrical chord structures (lots of stacked fourths and fifths) and featuring a short canonic break.

Composed November 1994, recorded February 1995
8 voices (sung by the composer, 2 per part), half-inch 16-track mixed to DAT
Engineered by Scott Collings
Photo: handwritten score excerpt, 1995

Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce A. Russell 2020

Categories
Chamber Compositions Concert Percussion Performers Personal Piano Postclassical Toronto

Arraymusic Presents “The Music of Bruce A. Russell”

In two weeks, on Saturday, November 21st at 8 pm EST, the Array Ensemble will present the first ever live concert dedicated to my music, featuring all world premieres. It will be livestreamed from https://www.arraymusic.ca/brucerussell/ and tickets are by donation (or free). The performers are legends: Stephen Clarke and Wesley Shen on pianos, and Rick Sacks on percussion.

Programme:

Companion, for two pianos (2019)

Children’s Suite, nine pieces for piano (2007-2014)

aix, for two pianos (2004)

limina, for two pianos and percussion (1996)

My sincere gratitude to Artistic Director David Schotzko, the performers and the team at Arraymusic for committing to this. I’m donating my earnings from this event after expenses to these organizations, among others: Black Legal Action Centre (BLAC), Black Lives Matter – Canada, FoodShare Toronto, 1492 Land Back Lane – Legal Fund and to Arraymusic, who have been giving artists across communities a space to create and perform for many years.

Categories
Africa Collaborations Compositions Concert Percussion Performers Postclassical

New Kalimba Canon Video

A little over a week after they gave the live world premiere of Kalimba Canon (1999), Prism Percussion have released a one-take performance video of the piece, recorded earlier in the fall. The performance and acoustics are stunning; the imagery speaks for itself in the moment we’re in.

Categories
Africa Compositions Concert Percussion Performers Postclassical

Kalimba Canon Live

On Friday, October 30th, 2020, Prism Percussion will give the live concert premiere of my Kalimba Canon (1999), in a concert hosted by the Golden Gate Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. The program of percussion duets also includes music by Adrea Venet, Eric Cha-Beach, Alexandra Gardner and Molly Joyce. It can be streamed via this link at Facebook Live. The concert runs from 7:30-8:30 EDT.

Prism Percussion “explores the expressive colors of percussive sounds utilizing non-standard instruments and seeks to champion works by Black, Indigenous, People of Color, Female and Queer composers.”

Categories
Anniversary Archive Compositions Electronic Funk Memoir Pop Postclassical Vocal

90/30: Eccentricities

Eccentricities is a six-song, self-released cassette EP which emerged in the fall of 1990. I recall having 100 copies made and being satisfied with that level of dispersion; it was all I could afford in any case. In honour of the 30th anniversary, I present two of the songs here (with a third linked below).

My recordings during this period were all effectively demos. Made with no budget, engineers, producers, retakes, final mixdowns, editing, mastering, label releases or promotion. They were an in the moment document, like the solo piano recordings I turned to focus on in later decades, created with a minimum of tools and preparation and on the raw side. There are many songs and pieces I’ve returned to for revision or reimagining, but the version 1.0s are always done quickly, very rarely seeing a live performance.

Track 1, side B. In its awkward, often corny way, “The Gardener” was about envisioning a sustainable, equitable and peaceful future. Musically, it looked back on the two decades which preceded it terms of tempo, rhythm and melodic style; and even further back in the century with the use of stacked-fifth chords as the main harmonic fabric. All the keyboard parts were performed live. The presence of the TR-808 marked the first time I incorporated a preprogrammed element into my music. I often wish I had seen fit to capture it on its own as a stem as it was so fun to make, and like the song itself, it expressed a unique side of my musical thought at a particular time.

Written and recorded July 1990
half-inch 8-track, unmastered mixdown to DAT
Roland S-50, Roland TR-808, Yahama DX-27, Fender bass, voice

Track 3, side B. “One Foot Firmly Planted” is the closing song of the EP, and like “The Gardener” which opens the side, it employs chords of stacked fifths in the organ as the harmonic material, sometimes doubled here by the voices. A piece which did not perhaps emerge from the ground as I boast in the liner notes, but formed spontaneously without a preplanned direction from a bare bones beat of conga, clapping and floor tom; coloured with organ and hailed by some strange, quasi-philosophical, quasi-choral voices. In an unconscious nod to the period of study of electroacoustic composition which I had just concluded, I randomly spliced and recombined the last few seconds of the multitrack tape, where the song disintegrates.

Written and recorded July 1990
half-inch 8-track, unmastered mixdown to DAT
percussion, Korg CX-3, voice

(Here’s one more piece from Eccentricities, “Quarter-Tone Study.”)

Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce A. Russell 2020

Categories
Concert Memoir Personal

Black on Steve’s Birthday!

Iconic composer Steve Reich turns 84 today. He was recently alleged to have made some pointedly anti-Black racist remarks in the early 70s.

Today is also a kind of late emergence for me; my first performance on a symphony orchestra program (albeit of a chamber work). As a child, I first heard the n-word, directed at me, in the early 70s.

I don’t need to imagine how white people were back then. I was there. Neither am I shocked to the point of sudden offence by recollections of it today. It was normative then; now it is “partisan.”

The two events above are unrelated, and yet as a simultaneity they’re cause for some reflection in my world. I’ve been a huge admirer of Reich’s music for decades, and have spoken with him numerous times after his concerts. His work has influenced my own as it has generations of other musicians, except that as someone from the African diaspora, I once saw that influence as my own reclaiming of the African diasporic musical ideas in minimalism.

I studied the music of Ghana—the predominant source of Reich’s structural ideas and sound—as well as that of other African nations, at the same time I was discovering his music and minimalism in general. I remember as a student observing his defensive spin on appropriation and bristling at the “mechanized Africans” joke that he wrote in his early 70s book. He was still making that joke in the 2010s. I’ve always loved his music but remained mindful of its composer’s positionality and increasing conservatism.

It would be wrong for me to actually claim Ghanaian musical traditions as my own, though in fact my distant and not-so-distant ancestors came from there and other places in West Africa, and notwithstanding my eternal quest for the roots of my Black identity. Reich got around the problem of appropriating another culture the way white people have for centuries: entitlement.

I can think of a lot of examples of bald-faced Orientalism in my early music, as embarrassing for my lack of originality as for their crassness. I’ve long noted how the lack of performative Blackness in my person and my music creates a distance between me and the Black communities I’ve interacted with. It is what it is. At the same time, I’ve sought to be authentic for who I really am rather than what I might aspire to.

A longstanding power struggle within Black diasporas is over whom among us is truly Black, in terms of cultural heritage and especially skin tone and lineage. Blackness is not monolithic, and neither is that conflict. But we didn’t create it; colonialism did.

Reich, an artist who built their career through exploiting Black voices, was outed as a racist by a white journalist, Val Wilmer, who made their career by exclusively covering Black voices and photographing Black faces. This bears examination. From the get, Black folks aren’t party to the discussion.

Cancelling Reich or anyone else of his generation is disingenuous in this context, especially when led by the white classical music world who’ve generally kept us Black people off the concert stage and out of the canon. And I can tell you, after many years of attending new music concerts, it’s usually been pretty darn awkward being in the audience too, or the post-concert mingle: “Who are you, again?”

Honestly, go cancel Handel for buying shares in the companies that transported and traded Africans into slavery. See how well that will work out.

Conversations on race aren’t going to address anti-Black oppression. Sharing the power is, and that does mean white folks getting out of their comfort zones, taking up way less space and not enacting white gaze. Reconsider your obsession with Black culture and Black pain, profiting from it, if you’re not Black. Are you supporting or dominating?

Conversations are still necessary, but they have to reflect equitable power structures.

I’m not really sure if I have a coherent, fully-formed take on what is happening with my music right now. For one thing, it depends on whether it continues to happen. But I do know that, as with how silence and empty space operate in tandem with musical sound, what is not happening, what can’t be heard or isn’t being noticed, is just as important as that which is.

I’m here. I’ve always been here. As with minimalism in music, what is changing depends upon your vantage point. If change is in fact constant, the answer to when change will happen can never be, “Give it time.”

Categories
Chamber Classical Compositions Concert Performers Personal Postclassical

Emergence: Linea Nigra in Concert

My octet for strings Linea Nigra (2015) will receive its world premiere this Saturday, October 3rd at 7:30 pm MDT, in the release of a prerecorded performance by the San Juan Symphony, conducted by music director Thomas Heuser. It will feature as part of a program entitled “Black Voices and A Ballet for Martha,” which opens the orchestra’s virtual 35th Season. The program also includes Jessie Montgomery‘s Voodoo Dolls (2012) for string quintet, and the suite from Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring (2012) in the original scoring for 13 instruments. The concert requires the purchase of digital access in order to view it.

I recorded a conversation with Thomas on September 30th which is viewable for a limited time here. I discuss the origins of Linea Nigra, the compositional techniques it employs, and how it relates to my own cultural story.

The piece will in fact receive a double premiere: a second prerecorded performance, by the Idaho Falls Symphony, will be released in a virtual concert also conducted by Thomas Heuser on Saturday, October 10th at 7:30 pm MDT. This program also includes Jessie Montgomery’s Starburst for string orchestra, Hanna Benn‘s Where Springs Not Fail, and the suite from Copland’s Appalachian Spring. Tickets are available here.

These performances will represent my debut on a symphony orchestra program. While my piece is for a chamber ensemble, the need for a socially distanced performance environment for the concert provided the opportunity for it to be included. The offer came out of the blue less than three months ago, and I am thrilled and humbled.

While I was more or less retired from an active life in music, this blog, my SoundCloud page and the writing I’ve done for I Care If You Listen have kept me just visible enough, it seems. Since June, I’ve been getting a lot of requests from musicians and ensembles looking for a Black composer to actualize their commitments to social equity in their programming. It’s sobering as to when and why this has come about, but I’m taking it as a call to action.

I have donated my earnings thus far from these engagements to Black legal justice causes and the families of the victims of police shootings and SIU incidents in the US and Canada. In several cases, the musicians who purchased my music have made matching donations in their communities; in San Francisco, Louisville and Vancouver, to name a few. It means a lot to me that my music can be part of something more than just art for art’s sake, but whether or not this is all just performative (not referring to musical performance but politically correct virtue signalling) depends on real systemic change happening.

Is this my emergence as a composer, decades late? Time will tell. Watch this space.

Categories
Collaborations Compositions Percussion Performers Postclassical

Kalimba Canon premiere

On July 17, 2020, Second Note Duo (Gabriel Costache and Will Richards) gave the world premiere of Kalimba Canon (1999). It was the final composition presented in their socially distanced, video recital A Day in the Life. Second Note contacted me a little over a month prior to the release date, and things came together quickly including sourcing instruments to play the piece. I am thrilled with the result. Funds were donated to the Black Legal Action Centre.

Two alto kalimbas play identical melodic loops, with the second kalimba echoing several beats behind the first, to create a composite musical line. Minimalism in miniature. Will (kalimba 1) recorded his part at his home in Illinois, while Gabriel (kalimba 2) recorded at his home in Colorado. The mirrored outdoor setting for this sequence in the video—sunsets near water—is a perfect one for the piece.

Composed January 1999
Recorded and premiered July 2020

Photo: team KC reunion, July 2020

Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce A. Russell 2020

Categories
Afro-Caribbean Family Memoir Personal

A Juneteenth Musing

The northern Great Lakes steel town took a big fat eraser to my Blackness. The adults had no way to acknowledge it because it exposed the cognitive dissonance of my existence in their world, and thus had no way to deal with the bullies, the rednecks and the N-wordage that swarmed around me like black flies at the beginning of camping season. They would say to me, in 1970s Canadian news voices, “Look, you have only good things here. If you had been left with your poor brethren you would suffer urban blight.” They would say, “You are accepted because… you are here.”

So was the caricature Black lawn jockey across the street from the schoolyard sandbox I played in everyday. It was in a front yard next door to my aunt’s house, on the same street as ours, and I don’t remember anything about the people who lived in that house. Or if people actually lived there. Who would do stuff like that. The sandbox was beside the basketball court.

Every time I tried to play basketball I kept seeing that damned lawn jockey. I don’t remember now when exactly it was removed, somewhere in the 1980s perhaps, but anyway I discovered performance sports felt like too much exposure for my body, a body that had no guarantees of its protection.

They who were in those days more bookish would tell me I was biracial. I realized much later that it meant: white… and something else. I would forever be expected to be a model of racial harmony, and spend a lifetime listening to white people ring that front desk bell in my consciousness.

Getting kicked out of the lobby of a Howard Johnson in Biloxi, Mississippi in 1978 was the most surreal moment of my childhood. If not the most traumatic, because my white family claimed me and I got to go back to our room. (In fact, my parents were out of state for the night and one of my older siblings rescued me, as they often did). It was the coldest water I ever felt seize my body, and I grew up jumping in freezing lakes. That was my introduction to the American South. My ancestral homeland.

Being an early transracial adoptee was traumatic in many ways. If you are a white person reading this, I am not recounting or performing this trauma for you. I am not your James Baldwin. This is a Juneteenth musing. As I get older, I start to understand more my own sense of my relationship with my Black biological history in Alabama, the Caribbean and West Africa. My white heritage, settler North America, the United Kingdom and Western Europe, was virtually handed to me on a plate.

I never ever have to celebrate my white history—as the historical narrative underpinning systemic racism it was used to temporarily but effectively obliterate my Blackness—but I am always aware of my economic and cultural privilege through my proximity to whiteness, and shade privilege through my light skin.

Two summers ago I briefly visited the steel town again, for the first time in two decades. I had a few spare, early morning minutes to walk down my old street and see my old house and also the schoolyard where I’d spent nine school years and summer breaks interacting with other children in the community, almost all white.

There was one critical exception: my closest friend was of Indo-Caribbean descent. It didn’t hurt that we lived a few doors away from one another. He had a large family with whom he shared a heritage. I loved hanging out with him and getting up to many things, including a two-man, lo-fi 80s band and much later, a theatre/music partnership.

In front of my old house, the one where all the good, ecstatic, formative and traumatic episodes occurred, at around seven in the morning, a grey dawn, I paused with a calmness I wish I had had more at the ready back then. Our old home was there, and I took in all the little changes to its appearance, feeling the coziness of the street again. A man emerged next door, with an infant.

I never thought about being the feared other upon returning home. Because it was a given, a constant value like n always equals, at any hour of the day, in any setting. A trip to a Mike’s Milk in 1986, home for a visit after a few weeks away for my first year of university, saw me sucker-punched and bloodied, glasses knocked to the ground and damaged over my garish clothing: a five-dollar sixties leather mosaic vest from Courage My Love in Kensington Market. It certainly wasn’t about anything but the clothing… and my uppitiness in wearing it and inevitably challenging the manhood of a frustrated young white man. It wasn’t the worst thing that ever went down there, but it was the one that reminded me once again who I was beyond the protection of white family proximity.

I chatted with the father, as it turned out, of the infant. I knew the history of families who had lived in all the houses on the street, almost. He seemed less interested in clocking my presence right about then. Mine was a very old house built in about 1905; it wasn’t a stretch to add me to its history in a border town.

That morning I discovered that there were townhomes being built over where the sandbox, the basketball court and the view of that racist front yard had been, leaving me without any familiar visual to trigger memories. I was OK with that. You can’t go home again, and sometimes you don’t want to.