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 composers’s notes copyright Bruce A. Russell 2020
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.
76, for piano (2019), is dedicated to Ashil Mistry. The opening melody comprises three pitches, and is designed so that these pitches rotate with each repetition of the rhythmic pattern. An ascending bassline and four-note chords harmonize the upper pitches, now moving in parallel thirds and fourths. The bassline is then inverted and thus descends, as the metric length and register of the melody are expanded.
Composed and recorded December 2019, unedited take on digital piano
Photo: Whitney Block, Toronto, January 2019
Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce A. Russell 2020
Companion, for two pianos, was composed through late 2018 and early 2019, while the first notehead 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 move generally by fourths and fifths. Each row is layered against itself in homorhythmic canons of up to six voices, often accompanied by high and low pedals tones which form 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.
Composed 2018-2019 Audio export from the notated score, April 2019
Photo: Centre Island Beach, August 2019
Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce A. Russell 2019
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 this period.
Composed and recorded 2004, Korg 01/WFD Restored from playback on the original device, 2019
Photo: breakwater, Marilyn Bell Park, Toronto
Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce A. Russell 2019