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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.