Bruce A. Russell, aka Ibrahim El Mahboob, is a composer and self-taught pianist. He studied composition with James Tenney and Phillip Werren at York University, as well as ethnomusicology. He has composed music for the Madawaska String Quartet, McMaster Dancers and Modern Times Stage Company. He was host of Radio Music Gallery, and has written for Musicworks. His interests are in contemporary concert music, especially postminimalism; music of the African diaspora; and the intersections of technology, media, popular culture and critical race theory. He lives in Toronto.
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.”
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
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.”
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.
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
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