1997+20: Storm + Voices

“Storm” is an excerpt from the 30-minute score for WhISH, an interdisciplinary fairy tale performed by Liminal Gryphon Theatre (director Derek Mohamed, choreographer Tracy Renee Stafford). WhISH premiered in February 1997 as part of the Rhubarb! Festival at Buddies in Bad Times in Toronto. The score was also released on cassette. “Storm” was the accompaniment to an ensemble dance, and is of a piece with my lo-fi, distorted MIDI 90s work. The double-layer canons—one high, one low and in canon with each other—are also found in my Two Dances for Two Pianos (1996) and string quartet Madra (1999). Here this material is heard in a just intonation tuning.

The time signature is a slow 3/2. There are two kick drum parts; one heartbeat-like, one with low bass notes doubling accents in the canons. The echo/reverb effects and lazy beat are inspired by dub and trip hop.

(Edit – February 21, 2018)

“Voices” is the finale music from WhISH. It is a short, cloudlike piece, scored for workstation and multiple voices overdubbed, and uses the same just intonation tuning as above. It passes through a series of dominant-like harmonies by gradually expanding the register of the voices, while the bassline moves generally by leaps; with a bit of tritone-itis toward the peak. The tuning would ideally involve a properly workshopped, practice-based acoustic ensemble and chorus.

Composed and recorded January 1997
Korg 01/WFD and Yahama cassette 4-track (on “Voices”)

Photo: detail from cassette cover, drawing by Carsten Knox

Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce A. Russell 2018

1996+20: Coupling

“Coupling” (1996) is a section from the score to Woo: Cases of Bloodletting and Natural Selection, a multimedia work by Liminal Zoo Theatre (Derek Mohamed and Tracy Renee Stafford, co-creators). It was heard as a live mix and provided the accompaniment to silent onstage action as well as prerecorded spoken word passages. It is a drone collage, restored here using three elements from the original version: a digital track created on the Korg 01W/FD with a custom just intonation tuning; portions of an older theatre score, “The Monster” (1992), for 4-track cassette and Yahama DX-27; and various excerpts or loops from other pieces of mine that were added in performance.

The original “Coupling” ran 30 minutes in performance; I have removed 10 minutes for this edition. The piece begins with a slow canon in G and from the two minute mark onward remains fixed on D. While the drone root does not change, many different upper pitches, sound colours, textures and moods are encountered along the way.

Composed July 1996
Restoration December 2016

Equipment: Tascam Portastudio cassette 4-track, sound sources Roland S-50 sampler and Sony home CD player with loop function, across several generations of tape and Yamaha DX-27 synthesizer, Roland reverb;

Photo: detail from NOW Magazine, August 1996, newsprint, low res scan December 2016

Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce A. Russell 2016

23, for piano

23 (2016) was composed as an homage to Steve Reich and is dedicated to him on the occasion of his 80th birthday. All of the material in this piano miniature derives from melodic patterns and sonorities in his music. (This is true to a lesser degree about some of my earlier pieces as I have pointed out elsewhere.) The starting point for this process was measure 23 from Piano Phase (1967) and Reich’s favoured key signature of D major/B minor. There are several other works and Reichian tonal centres referenced, sometimes in quick or overlapping succession.


I avoided transforming melodic or harmonic entities beyond recognition, emphasizing spontaneous musical flow over structured collage. Fans of the elder composer may enjoy listening for references however subtle they may appear. Others may note that 23 sounds similar to my other piano pieces, which reflects the great influence Reich has had on my work. A tribute seems only fitting.

Happy 80th, Steve!

Composed September 2016
Recorded live with no edits October 2016, Roland digital piano direct

Photo: Carolyn Cole

Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce A. Russell 2016

Oxford & Augusta

Oxford & Augusta (2001) is one of my simplest pieces. It consists entirely of three- and six-note melodic patterns layered in note-on-note canons. The entire piece is generated from the opening six notes, three ascending followed by three descending.

Durations are uniform; the first section is all in quarter notes, followed by a section in eighth notes and one in half notes. The gothic, monochrome and binary nature of the material brought to mind a crossroads. This image could have described my life at the time; thus, the title is the intersection at which I was living, near the heart of Kensington Market.

Recorded April 2016, Roland digital piano direct to file

Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce A. Russell 2016

Tijani, for piano

Today marks one year on earth for my youngest, our son Tijani. In the year of his birth I wrote a three-movement work for piano. The first two movements are presented here; the third will be posted at a later date (update: third movement).

As with the pieces written for Tijani’s older sisters Remi and Kenza, the music here is diatonic, in the key of C major/A minor throughout. I work with simple forms and materials to create something that is childlike, quotidian and yet abstract; composed systematically with a sensibility that wanders between intuitive and arbitrary.

“Son’s Light” is in two sections, the first built around a melodic idea in quintuple metre, and the second in triple metre. Both ideas are expressed as a sequence of changing harmonies on constant rhythmic patterns, punctuated with added tones and metric variations. The harmonies descend stepwise or move by fourths. It is the most triadic piece I’ve written since my pop song days.

“Lullaby” is a canon of overlapping broken chords in a set of progressions. Each voice in the canon has the range of a fourth. The chord voicings are slightly more sophisticated than in the previous movement, though still based on diatonic roots.

Happy birthday, dear Tijani!

Composed 2014
Recorded 2015, Roland digital piano direct to file

Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce A. Russell 2015

Like It’s 1994/95: Uhuru

A recurring introspective retrospective of my music as it sounded twenty years earlier. In early 1994, I took my first trip to Europe, spending a week in Lyon where my music was heard at a university dance festival as well as in the subway for a pop up freestyle contemporary dance event. I spent the latter part of the year working on the indie cassette release Uhuru, which would come out the following spring, and playing keyboards and percussion in a post-punk band. In early 1995, another dance score was heard in London. In late 1995, I began graduate studies at York University, returning nine years after I had first arrived as an undergraduate.

Throughout this period, I continued to hold down a full time retail job selling classical and jazz CDs in Yorkville, as well as freelancing as a composer for dance and theatre. I also got my first taste of hosting college radio. It was my most active period being involved in music in general.

November 1994 rec. February 1995. 8 voices (2 per part), 8 track reel-to-reel. Begins with a row on the seven pitches of the diatonic scale. The pronunciation of uhuru was conflated with “yoo hoo” although I now prefer the proper initial “u” sound. This is life before autotune, for better or worse. Photo: handwritten score excerpt, 1995

Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce A. Russell 2014

Kenza, for piano

Today is the second birthday of my second child Kenza, firstborn to my wife Nehal El-Hadi. Just before her birth, I wrote a short three-movement work for piano dedicated to her.

Like the work written for her older sister Remi, the music here is diatonic, in the key of C major/A minor throughout. I work with simple forms and materials to create something that is both childlike and abstract.

“Fourths + Fifths” is structured around a sequence of six diatonic modes, each associated with a melodic pattern. Each pattern is built up from a single arpeggio into a homophonic canon by layering the pattern against copies of itself with different starting points or octaves, although this process is only made clear with the first pattern. The intervals of the fourth and fifth predominate both melodically and harmonically throughout.

“Moon” builds the texture once again from a single line to homophony, harmonizing a melodic fragment with chord clusters and a descending bassline. The second section expands the bassline by one note and replaces the earlier chords with arpeggios. The title refers to Kenza’s favourite single-word expression of wonderment.

“Golden” is dated “12 12 12” and like the first movement features a sequence of six modes. Here, a twelve-note pattern is played against pedal notes in the bass and treble, varying with each change of harmony. The pattern comes from my kalimba piece Lonely Little Boat, and is in this way an expression of continuity. The title refers to my wife’s nickname for me, as well as my daughter’s first and middle names Kenza Aurélie, which translate in Arabic and French respectively as “treasure” and “golden.”

Happy birthday, dear Za!

Composed 2012
Recorded 2013-2014, Roland digital piano direct to file

Photos by Nehal El-Hadi

Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce A. Russell 2014