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Interview with James Tenney

Recorded at The Music Gallery, 179 Richmond Street West, Toronto
May 3, 2000

Paul Hodge, audio engineer

This interview was the result of my wish to have a final conversation with Tenney before he and his family left Toronto for California, where he was to resume teaching at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) after an absence of some 25 years. It was aired shortly after recording on the program Radio Music Gallery on CIUT (which I hosted from 1997-2000) and aired again by the late Ron Gaskin on the same program in 2006, after Tenney’s passing. The interview is in places somewhat informal or presumptuous on my part. That said, it also reflects the warm relationship I had developed with my teacher over the years. At the very least, by that time I was quite well informed about his work and was a big fan. The present audio includes the entire conversation, with some pauses edited out.

— Bruce A. Russell

Photo: James Tenney and Lauren Pratt, The Music Gallery, September 1999 (Bruce A. Russell)


BR: Hi Jim.

JT: Hello Bruce.

BR: Thanks for talking to me today.

JT: It’s my pleasure.

BR: Well, my first question today is regarding the transcriptions for orchestra of Conlon Nancarrow [Five Studies for Player Piano, 2000] that you’re co-conducting on May 30th — the CBC Vancouver Orchestra for MusicCanada 2000. There are five studies that you’ve hand selected?

JT: Yes.

BR: And you also originally had catalogued the numerous studies for player piano of Mr. Nancarrow and as such, you’re more familiar than many with these works. Why did you select the ones you did?

JT: Well, many of the player piano studies would be absolutely impossible. I looked through the whole set searching for ones that I thought it would be feasible to make a transcription for orchestra, and it turned out that five of the earlier ones appeared to be possible to do. There are a few more that could be done, but I was asked to do — I agreed to do five. So once I had chosen those, I knew I had a set to work on.

I got to know Nancarrow’s music very early by just good fortune. I met him in Mexico City in about 1973 and then corresponded with him for many years, and he began sending me scores and tapes. So, I was in a position that virtually no one else in the world was in. I had the material, so I did more than just catalogue it. I analyzed it and wrote about everything that I had.

BR: Right. You went down to his studio there as well.

JT: Yes, a couple of times.

BR: What was that like?

JT: Well, that was wonderful because in his workspace, which was just a big kind barn-like, cinder block building, he had two player pianos at one end of the room turned with their backs facing out because that’s where the soundboard — they’re uprights, and the soundboard radiates the sound. So, to listen to one of the studies you would be located to the rear of the pianos. And it was very amazing to hear it directly like that.

And then he had, of course, his whole collection of rolls, and his worktables, and part of his enormous library of books. I think that’s how he survived in exile down there for so long, was by keeping in touch with what was going on by way of books and journals.

BR: Were there any particular challenges in orchestrating these studies?

JT: Indeed! [laughs] Even to say that these five were possible didn’t mean that they were easy. Quite aside from the decisions that had to be made about instrumentation and so forth, the whole rhythmic problem comes in in all of them. Because what Nancarrow was doing in all of those studies, from the very beginning, was exploring new possibilities of rhythm that the medium enabled him to do.

BR: In a way that maybe wasn’t possible for human beings at the time.

JT: Right, or was extremely difficult. Now, things have changed since his early days. Performers are undertaking more complex rhythms, but still, two out of the five are going to require a second conductor working simultaneously with the first conductor so that we can have two different meters going at the same time.

BR: Yeah, that was something I’d wondered about. Now, what is the size and the composition of the orchestra? Because obviously from an acoustical standpoint, if there’s rhythmic complexity a big orchestra is going to be a great challenge.

JT: Right, it’s a small orchestra. The woodwinds in pairs, and just one each of the brass instruments, two percussion players and a smallish string choir. I think there are only two basses. It’s a chamber orchestra, really, but it is large enough to provide considerable timbral range, variety. But for these, you’re quite right: you not only don’t need, but you wouldn’t want a big, fat orchestra on these because the rhythmic complexities are most often going to have to be dealt with by soloists, right?

BR: Yeah, there’s no question that two people are going to stay together on some of the rhythms.

JT: Right, exactly.

BR: Over the years, the names of the dedicatees of your pieces, often those of former mentors or colleagues, have appeared as in or as the titles themselves. Now, with Song’n’Dance for Harry Partch (1999), recently premièred at the Donaueschingen Festival, you’ve actually used the instruments of the dedicatee, Mr. Partch himself. For someone who could be considered revolutionary in your approach to composition you seem to have a great affinity with the musical community from which you came. Where did the idea for this commission come from?

JT: Well, it was not my idea originally. A former student of mine who now works for CBC Vancouver, Jon Siddall, called me one day and he said, “Would you be interested in a commission to make orchestral transcriptions of some of Nancarrow’s player piano studies?” And, I don’t think it would have ever occurred to me to try to do such a thing, if it hadn’t been requested like that. So, that’s wonderful. Oh, you were asking about the Partch, weren’t you?

BR: Well, both.

JT: The same is true of the Partch, and that’s why I confused the question a little bit. In both cases, the idea came from someone else. In the case of Song’n’Dance for Harry Partch, the idea seemed to have been initiated by the director of the Donaueschingen music festival, who seems to be a fan of mine. It’s the third commission I’ve received from them, all his doing. His name is Armin Köhler.

BR: Well, congratulations, it’s not bad to have a friend in those kinds of places.

JT: Yes, indeed! But it was his idea and somehow Betty Freeman was brought into it and in fact the money for the commission came from her — the same Freeman that gave the name to Cage’s Freeman Etudes, right?

Now, it was left somewhat indeterminate which instruments might be used. Because, of course, Partch built, oh, there must be two dozen different instruments, and my decision to write for the Diamond Marimba and the Adapted Viola was partly determined by portability because the instruments are in the United States and they would have to be shipped to Germany. But also, those were two instruments that I was familiar with from having worked with Partch, and I could well imagine writing for them.

As it turned out, although I conceived the part for Adapted Viola it was actually played by another instrument, a different instrument, not one that Partch had built but one that is currently being used as a substitute for the Adapted Viola in performances of Partch’s work.

BR: To the specifications of the adapted viola, the original?

JT: It has the same range, but it’s an instrument designed and built by Carleen Hutchins in New Jersey, who is an acoustician who has for many years been working on the acoustics of string instruments and built a family of, I think, eight different size violins; from one that’s smaller and higher than the regular violin to an enormous bass violin that is so large the player has to stand on a platform to perform.

BR: Wow.

JT: But they’re all acoustically better designed, in terms of the size of the resonant chambers and so forth.

BR: Control over pitch?

JT: Yes, well, dynamics is really the important thing there — dynamics and timbre. Now, the instrument that was actually used is called the tenor violin, but it has the same range as the adapted viola, which is from the G an octave and a half below middle C — the G below the regular viola C. And it’s played like a cello, by a cellist (laughs), but the player had a lot of experience already playing Partch’s music in unusual tunings, so he was extremely good at dealing with the tunings that I was asking for.

BR: I imagine I we’ll be able to hear this piece on a forthcoming Donaueschingen — they have their annual releases.

JT: Yes, they do putout sort of a documentary CD.

BR: On the Col Legno label I believe.

JT: That’s right.

BR: Also, in regards to title — the piece is called Song’n’Dance for Harry Partch — by the way, I guess, the Song’n’Dance — we should talk a bit about that.

JT: OK, well — it’s in two movements, the first of which features the tenor violin. In the first movement, the Diamond Marimba has a kind of an accompanimental part. And the second movement features the Diamond Marimba, and the tenor violin is in an accompanimental roll. The first one is another of my efforts to simulate speech with musical instruments.

BR: In more than just a rhythmic sense.

JT: Yes. It’s related to an earlier work — one of the earliest pieces I did after I moved to Canada called Three Indigenous Songs [1979]. Anyway, it’s based on a text, part of instructions by Harry Partch about how to play the Adapted Viola, so it’s very self-referential. The second one is simply a quick, uptempo, kind of dance-like movement which exploits the pitch and the pitch structure, which itself is also reflected by the physical structure of the Diamond Marimba, an aspect of which is in the name: it’s diamond-shaped. Anyway, that dance could be almost thought of as kind of a demonstration of structure of the Diamond Marimba.

Now, your original question had another component to it, which referred to the titles and how other composers’ names are involved in my pieces. And, I guess, it is something that [sighs] is somewhat unique to my sensibility: that I like to celebrate my connections with other music — earlier music, rather than trying to hide ’em. (laughs) I think it’s important — and I’ve felt this way since very early days, in the early 60s and before that — that it’s important to see our own work, to understand our own work, as being part of an ongoing tradition, even if that tradition is anti-traditional in some sense. It’s meant to be experimental, or “making it new,” in Pound’s phrase. Still, no matter how iconoclastic we might be or wish to be, wherever we are is the result of the work by people that came before us. And I like that. I like that connection. So, I’ve never had what, who was it, Alan Bloom or some literary critic referred to as the “anxiety of influence,” (both laugh) implying a kind of Oedipal reaction to kill the father. I don’t relate to that.

BR: Great. The titles also are rarely of a poetic or allusive nature, other than alluding to your influences.

JT: Usually not, but I think you would — if you looked them over — they do often refer to formal aspects of the music. I am much more concerned with the sound itself, including its overall form, rather than its allusive or symbolic or expressive characters. Music can’t help but be expressive in a certain sense, but that’s not what primarily interests me.

BR: We seem to be getting at a different musical paradigm than is traditional with concert composers going back to the time of program music [in the] nineteenth century — a hundred years ago. Care to comment? Do you feel yourself as part of — well, I can see definitely that you are part of a different musical paradigm — and what is it?

JT: Well, I don’t know. The first bit of theoretical writing I did had to do with form: Meta+Hodos. It was about form and formal perception. I don’t know if this is of interest to anybody else, but I’ve always felt that with music where the intention was expressive or even expressionistic I hear it purely as form (laughs). For me, Schoenberg and Webern in their expressionist, pre-twelve-tone period? It’s no more expressive than anything else to me, but I hear it formally. Whether this is just a matter of personal idiosyncratic temperament or not I don’t know what, but that’s the way I relate to things. I wouldn’t presume to say that the way I view things can be thought of as characterizing our time or some new direction that anybody else might be going. But that’s certainly the direction I’ve been going.

BR: The fall at CalArts will be a homecoming of sorts for you since you taught there in the early 1970s. How has the school changed since you were there?

JT: The school looks remarkably like I remember it. Even the students that I see there, and the area has changed, though. It’s much more developed that it was 25-30 years ago. But it’s pleasant. So, a homecoming in a way except that I’ve been here 24 years!

BR: A sort of forced homecoming.

JT: Yes. I definitely feel like Toronto is my home after 24 years, more than a third of my life. In some ways perhaps it includes the most significant, most important years of my career. I have very mixed feelings about leaving and going back to California. There’s all kinds of stuff that’s positive about it, but there is a real sadness about leaving Toronto.

BR: Well, I can say that we’re sad to see you go! You and your family. Will the things you teach there be different from what you taught [here]?

JT: No, it looks like it’s going to be very similar to what I’ve been teaching here at York. Right away, there’s a course that is informally being called “the Jim Tenney course” which is musical acoustics, psychoacoustics and formal perception; the course that I taught at York every two or three years. And then besides that I’ll be teaching composition. So, it’ll be very similar.

BR: Here’s a touchy point, perhaps: what do you think of music education as a whole today in Canada compared to say the US, or Germany, where you lived for a short while?

JT: I lived in Germany a year, but I didn’t really get much of an impression of the music educational situation there because I wasn’t teaching. I don’t see any significant differences in the education systems or situations in Canada vs. the United States. In both places, you’ve got a great range of philosophies, attitudes from very academic and traditional to much more progressive. And York has been very progressive. If I had been teaching here in some other institutions I might not have been nearly as happy.

And CalArts is also very progressive in this respect. I’m not moving into a situation where I’m expected to teach traditional subjects. I can move in my own way and that has been the case at York as well. I would say it’s similar in both places, but the variations within each country are probably greater than the differences between the two countries.

BR: What about the changes over the last quarter century?

JT: Well, I’m not sure I know—that I can say anything about that. There have been changes at York but they don’t have to do with the educational or pedadogical procedures or curriculum. They have to do with lack of financial support. It’s a crime what’s being done to the university system in Ontario and across Canada. It’s really a shame.

BR: I concur. How about the music business? Let’s get onto that.

JT: The business! I don’t know much about the business, but it does raise the whole issue of public support for the arts which is in a very dismal situation right now. With the arts councils being starved for money, and cultural institutions of all kinds being practically starved to death. It’s not a good situation. I’m afraid that what is has to do with is precisely a kind of business philosophy; the free-market philosophy that suddenly with Ronald Reagan became respectable. So, all kinds of right-wing idiots came out of the woodwork, you know? Now they could show their faces and pretend to be respectable human beings, after some years of much more progressive or liberal philosophy in politics. It’s criminal. The government that’s running this province—they all ought to be taken out and shot. (laughs)

BR: (laughing) Well, they’re patting themselves on the back right now, so [I think] it would be a bit of a shock to them.

JT: I know they are! Notice, this new budget got nothing except some building funds for universities; nothing for the homeless; nothing for the arts. It’s scandalous, absolutely scandalous; but with the kind of mentality that people like Harris—these fools from the sticks!—come in and try to run a government. It’s no wonder. But they’re just little imitations; little wannabe Ronald Reagans is all they are.

BR: Let’s move over to Switzerland and talk about Hat Hut, their famous contemporary music label.

JT: Yeah, before I get really worked up! (laughs)

They have released three CDs dedicated to your compositions, and I believe a fourth is in the works at the moment. This is the most extensive and widely available survey of your music on one label to date. How did the relationship with the label begin, and are there any plans for a complete edition of your work to date?

JT: No, not for complete. That doesn’t even seem to me… possible! I’ve written too much. (laughs) I don’t remember how that started, but the man that runs Hat Hut/Hat Art, Werner Uehlinger, just seems to have decided that I’m part of what they’re now calling The New York School.

BR: (laughs) You’re kidding me!

JT: No! I think he thinks… there’s good reason to include me with that. If you look at his catalogue in general, he’s done a lot of Cage and Feldman and Wolff and so forth, in addition to a lot of progressive jazz. It makes me feel very good to be in that stable, as it were. In fact, there are two more in the works.

BR: Aha! I didn’t laugh, because… it’s not preposterous at all that you would be in the New York School, but of course it’s a posthumous label which a record exec can decide to change if he wants.

JT: I don’t know if he even uses that term…

BR: They have three releases called “New York School,” Vol. 1, 2 and 3. But, one of your pieces, Four Forms [Forms 1-4 (1993)], makes reference to that school in an indirect way, because one of each of the pieces is dedicated to Morton Feldman, Edgard Varèse, Stefan Wolpe and John Cage.

JT: Right, each one.

BR: Moving on to the topic of harmony—a big topic, don’t wanna cover too much of it—the Quintext for string quartet, finished in 1972: was that the first piece of yours to use an alternative tuning system?

JT: Yes, it was.

BR: In this case it was the harmonic series?

JT: It was based on the harmonic series although it’s manifested in a variety of ways in the several movements. There are five movements in the set and the last one is explicitly harmonic series based. Two of the movements however, don’t involve specific tuning. One is glissandos, with graphic notation. And the tuning of the other is only approximate. But three of them do have very precise tuning. It was, in fact, maybe the first time that I used the notation that I’m still using, with numbers above a note indicating deviations from tempered tuning in cents.

BR: Much of the harmonic material in the pieces you’ve written over the last quarter century is based on whole number ratios [involving] a fundamental. It’s a way of tuning that is complex in its own way, but much simpler than equal temperament.

JT: In certain respects it is simpler, because it is closer to natural pitch relations as they occur in the sounding of a single complex tone, for example. It was around 1972, or a couple of years earlier, that I began to get interested in this large question of harmony. And not in the sense of wanting to go back to an earlier harmonic style, not at all, but rather the way I’ve conceived of it is to pick up the thread again of the evolution of harmony which seemed to me to have come to a crashing halt around 1910. The reason that it came to a stop (I certainly don’t mean that music came to a stop, but harmony, the evolution of harmony) is because the specifically harmonic resources of the twelve-tone tempered scale had more or less been exhausted. Almost immediately what that meant to me was the necessity to begin to explore other tuning systems. Having worked with Partch was the big, initial inspiration for that kind of thinking, although my music sounds nothing whatsoever like the music of Partch. The idea that one of the first pre-compositional decisions that a composer has to make now is “What tuning system shall I use?” (laughs) It’s just as important as the question, “What instruments should I write for?” or “How long is the piece going to be?” or “What notation shall I use?”

BR: Let me ask you this—do you ever think of writing a piece in equal temperament anymore?

JT: Yes, I do. Because it has properties that can be useful under certain situations. There are occasions when I decide to suspend the whole harmonic aspect of things and work with pure texture, where specific pitches are not that important. It’s what you might call clouds of pitches or clusters of pitches that are creating shapes, movement and forms that is the important idea.

BR: Such as [in] your recent piece Flocking for two pianos [1993].

JT: Yes, Flocking was an example of it, because I was asked to write a piece for a piano duo that played a lot of music for two pianos tuned a quarter tone apart. Quarter tone tuning does not increase in a very clear-cut way the harmonic resources of the tuning system. It does increase the textural aspect. But just dividing those semitones in half doesn’t get us really any closer to those natural intervals, except for one of them: the eleventh harmonic is almost exactly right on. But we’ve skipped over the third, fifth and seventh. So, when I was working on that piece, I thought of it specifically as not involving harmony. So what’s left, if you’re not doing harmony? I call it texture.

BR: Not form.

JT: Well, it’s an aspect of form, absolutely. And a piece I’m working on now is similarly motivated. It’s a piece for the Esprit Orchestra and the Evergreen Club Gamelan. The problems of correlating the tuning systems of those two groups—at first I thought this will be an opportunity to do something interesting with tuning, but the more I got involved with it, the more I finally came to the conclusion that a more interesting way to go would be to treat it as pure texture. I want to completely integrate the two groups, so that there’s no obvious distinction between the roles that they play in the music.

BR: The last time you wrote for the Evergreen Club ensemble was The Road to Ubud, 1986, and just recently recorded and released by them. You did address the issue of harmony because you were working with a prepared piano, and I guess you retuned the piano for that to match their scale.

JT: That’s right. That one I did treat the pitch as a harmonic resource because it was prepared piano, but you’re right it was retuned prepared piano.

BR: You’ve indicated that when you sit down to write a piece that there are any number of ideas or ways of working that might strike you.

JT: Yes.

BR: As far as the—how do I put this?—the amount of systematization in a piece, or how much structure you want to apply to it; I guess if you could just comment generally on how you work that way. Do you always work within a system? Do you sometimes just say, “Let’s be crazy, irrational, or whatever here?”… intuitive?

JT: Most of my work of the last twenty years, I would say, or fifteen anyway, has been within a sort of system of my own devising. I call it stochastic, but I mean something different than what Xenakis meant when he first started using that term. By stochastic I mean a constrained random process. It’s the constraints on the random process that give shape and form to, not only the whole piece, but to its smaller sections or parts. I do a lot with a computer. I’m able to program these processes on the computer and get various kinds of output. The piece I’m working on now is going to be graphic output coming directly from the computer.

BR: Exciting. You’re always working with new notations as well. I guess it’s similar to Stravinsky’s idea that it’s really important to place restrictions on yourself. Those are the most important things, in a way…

JT: Well, in a way, and yet, you know, one of the possible forms—in fact in some sense you could say it’s the ur form—is the formless; the shapeless. The flat surface is in some ways the most basic surface. The straight line in some ways might be thought of as the most basic line. And what I call a stationary process, or ergodic form, is a very important type that I use occasionally. It’s the sort of form that Cage’s music of the fifties and sixties manifests and lot of people complain about that because they don’t understand that there is a point to that, and a certain kind of listening attitude that’s appropriate to it that allows you to get the most out of it. It’s not one where you’re sitting on the edge of your seat waiting for the dramatic action to develop, or trying to understand a narrative line. It is precisely the opposite; it’s more like standing in a forest and listening to the sounds, or standing on the street corner and listening to the sounds of traffic and not expecting them to tell you a story. (laughs)

BR: Observing a phenomenon in nature.

JT: A natural phenomenon, yes. Now, some of them do have a kind of quasi-dramatic shape. But mostly when we talk about nature we’re talking about these ongoing, more or less in the large sense, stationary, statistical situations. So that’s one kind of form which I use sometimes. More often I use other sorts of forms that are interesting shapes that I like to play with.

BR: Can you see an evolution of listening in terms of the abilities of performers to realize your music, and also in terms of the audience response? I’m referring to the kind of listening required to distinguish the “new” sounding intervals in your tuning systems.

JT: Well, I do indeed and I believe that we are involved in a kind of evolutionary process all the time. The evolution of our hearing, our musical perception. You know, it’s important to realize the auditory system is not just the ear; not even just the inner ear, but it involves part of the brain, necessarily. And whenever you have circuits in the brain involved, they are changeable. They’re malleable. And they change on the basis of experience. Right? So we are literally changing the way we hear by the experience of the effort to make these new kinds of music. And I definitely see it among performers that I’ve worked with. The interesting thing is, they can all do what I ask them to do, but they’ve never been asked to do it before. In music school, all you’re asked to do is distinguish twelve different pitches in an octave. I asked them to distinguish many more, but in a context in which those distinctions make harmonic sense. And the first thing they discover is they can do it! (laughs)

BR: Surprise, surprise!

JT: Yes, surprise, surprise. And that’s a very wonderful thing. They all realize that there are distinctions that they can make. If they’re decent musicians, they can do it. The same is true with rhythmic perception and rhythmic performance. This is involved in an evolutionary process as well. And that’s very exciting to me.

BR: I think one of the best things about your work—I’m thinking of the first time I heard a piece of yours that involved the harmonic series in a very clear way—perhaps it was Voices [1983/84]. It literally blew my mind (JT laughs), because these intervals; I’ve never heard them before! It’s a very fresh sound and yet you’re connecting right back to a natural phenomenon as you said but you present things in such a clear way.

JT: Well, that’s kind of a formal intention, I guess. I like to think of the form as a kind of object of perception itself, and it can be interesting. It can have some clear relationship to the forms at the smaller levels; what we might call content. And maybe in some cases I have been influenced by Schoenberg’s idea about form, which was that form is a means of ensuring comprehensibility, so that it can be used to clarify content.

BR: Do you think that new technologies—I feel somehow compelled to mention new technologies; we’re in an age where every day in the news you hear about the internet, cyberspace, etc. Do you think that those new technologies are going to—well, how do you think they’re going to change the way in which music is created, performed, accessed? Will it relate in a positive way to what you’re doing?

JT: Oh, I think it will. People are remarkably creative in how they make use of the existing technology. Thirty-five years ago, I was very much involved in the early developments of digital technology in music and you see how ubiquitous that has become.

BR: When I hear any bit of hip hop, I think [about] how you were one of the first people working on digital sampling back in the 60s—early 60s.

JT: But I have not stayed close to the developments in technology. I use the computer but not in very sophisticated new ways. So I don’t really feel like… my work will not involve those technologies, but I see it around me. Younger people are definitely doing interesting things with new technologies and sometimes with funky old technology, too. That’s very important. It was like David Tudor in the 60s and 70s, piling up on one table a whole lot of electronic junk and then connecting it together to see what would happen and inventing these extraordinary networks.

BR: Unique feedback loops.

JT: Yes, right. Or Max Neuhaus in that same period. And my own students have shown this kind of creativity in thinking of ways to work with technology. So I do, you know? It can’t help but happen. The human species is remarkably creative. Although this last century has been one of the most horrendous of all the centuries we know about historically, I would say it’s also been one of the most creative in the arts; in the sciences; and it’s just a manifestation of the extraordinary creativity of the human mind.

BR: Many of your ideas are open ended, for example the use of the harmonic series itself. The harmonic series is infinite in the sense that a fundamental could have any number of partials, it’s only limited by the number of whole numbers which are infinite. So, in a sense there’s a revolution which could occur people working with the harmonic series as they get to become more familiar with these intervals, you could get more and more complex. There’s really no limit, there’s only a human limit.

JT: There’s a human limit; there’s also practical limits. You know, any length of string is going to have a certain limit to the number of harmonics you can actually elicit on it. Because you get down to shorter and shorter segments of string; pretty soon there’s not like strings anymore; they’re like columns. There’s stiff, relatively, and they won’t vibrate in higher and higher harmonics. The same thing is true with any pipe or the human voice; any actual acoustical, physical sound producing object or device will have its practical limits. And you can think of a sort of endless proliferation of new types of intervals but at a certain point, you begin duplicating or so newly duplicating pitches that you already have in the system that there’s a way in which it’s self-limiting there, too. So, although theoretically it’s infinite, in a practical sense, it’s finite. But it’s very much larger than the small set of relationships that we’re used to working with in traditional harmony and in our traditional tuning system.

BR: Even with what you’re doing now, you’re up to dozens of harmonics, and we’re assuming of course that we’re always going to be using physical means of producing sound. Let’s speculate that perhaps in a century or two there might be ways of hearing music that don’t involve air—the vibration of air.

JT: I don’t know (laughs). I can’t imagine it, but maybe.

BR: That’s why I’m referring to the possibility of things getting pretty far out, but of course, infinite… hmm.

JT: Yes, if you’re talking about electronic generation of course. It’s not limited in that way.

BR: Neural electronic, maybe, but that’s only a flight of fancy.

JT: Right.

BR: The other thing about the open-ended possibility of your music: some of the forms such as the Harmonia pieces work with a structure which is akin to the harmonic series, in arithmetic series that are created in the rhythms. You sort of stop the pieces off at a certain point, and they could get much more complex. They do hit a certain level of complexity, but perhaps at some point…

JT: Well, an example of it is Spectral CANON for CONLON Nancarrow [1974]

BR: A player piano piece.

JT: Yes, the piece of mine for player piano in which the piano is retuned so that notes corresponding to the first 24 harmonics are actually tuned on the piano. Those harmonics—when you get up to 24, they’re getting so close together that pretty soon you run outta keys (laughs), right? So, it seemed like that kind of provided me with a natural stopping point, although I’ve thought it would be interesting to have an electronically generated version of it that goes higher.

The thing about the harmonic series is, it’s virtually the only thing that is given to us by nature, rather than culture. I guess the other thing that one could say is given to us by nature is numbers. (laughs)

BR: Numbers don’t lie! (laughs)

JT: Just about everything else that determines of our musical material has been given culturally. So, maybe that says something about my long-term fascination with it. It’s also just a beautiful—it’s beautiful! I like the sound of it! (laughs)

BR: So do I, I think it’s very beautiful. Jim, how do you feel Canada has been to you?

JT: Oh, very good. Very good. Before I moved here, I had received one small arts grant and one small co-commission for this work that I did with a sound sculptor. I’d never been commissioned to do a new piece for a performing ensemble. Since I came to Canada—I don’t know, I’ve been here 24 years and I think I must have been commissioned almost that many times. So, it’s been a tremendous advantage to me. Teaching at York has been good in spite of the financial problems that I don’t blame people at York for—have to blame politicians for that. And also, there’s a very lively, active new music scene here in Toronto that lots of young people, many of ’em ex-students of mine, and I like being involved in that way with the ongoing new music activities here. So, it’s a very lively scene, I think I’m gonna miss it. I don’t expect to have anything quite like that in California.

BR: Well, in turn we’re going to miss you. I can’t imagine what the music scene would be like without you, or would have been like without you; or my education of course, as you’ve been my teacher. Sorry to see you go. I hope you come back soon and regularly to visit us.

JT: Thank you Bruce.

BR: And thanks for doing this interview.


BR: OK, talk to you soon.

JT: Right. Bye.

Archive Compositions Dance Electronic Memoir Percussion Postclassical


Sequences (2000, rev. 2020) is scored for percussion and two marimbas. The title refers to sequences both in the sense of a musical phrase that repeats with a variation in pitch each time (in this case, with a variation in rhythm as well), and in the sense of an arrangement programmed electronically using a sequencer (a device prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s during my early years in music).

Four chords are used exclusively: D dominant, C major, G major and A minor, i.e., V – IV – I – ii in the key of G, while there is a hint of the relative E minor in the bridge.

Parameters vary within a relatively narrow range: harmony, rhythmic phase, register (expanding or contracting symmetrically from pattern to pattern); and interval quality, i.e., one pattern may feature predominantly small intervals and another, widely spaced ones. In the latter half of the piece, new sets of patterns emerge on the same four chords.

Sequences shares some material in common with my string quartet Madra, as these compositions emerged during the same period (along with Kalimba Canon). My primary focus during this period was fusing a pop sensibility with minimalism derived from West African traditional structures, positing an everyday musical form through the cultural window I had at the time.

The piece is not unlike a pop song in terms of its structure, duration and harmonic character; however, a tension exists between this aspect and the almost statistical regularity of the material from beginning to end. The marimba parts require virtuoso players; the “beat” is a relatively straightforward alternation of kick and cross stick with constantly varying accents in 3/2 metre, in response to the marimba music.

The original version of the score, now lost, was for two marimbas and one unpitched percussion part. The kick drum in the demo recording of that version was a TR-808 type electronic pulse, and I had then hoped to expand the part into a bassline by assigning chord tones to its rhythms: another nod to popular music and a go-to technique. This was added as a new part in 2020, as I was recreating the score from the original demo and notebook sketches. This new demo is best heard on a sound source which has an emphasis on low end frequencies.

Composed August 2000, revised October 2020
Audio export from the notated score
Photo: the composer as a child, Sault Ste. Marie, early 1970s

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

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.

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

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 and tickets are by donation (or free). The performers are legends: Stephen Clarke and Wesley Shen on pianos, and Rick Sacks on percussion.


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.

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.

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.”

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

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.”

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.