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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

Categories
Archive Compositions Piano Postclassical

aix

aix (“waters”), for two pianos, is a short study in rising and falling patterns, with alternating chordal and canonic textures. The primary melodic shape, an ascending seventh followed by a descending second, is heard in several of my piano pieces of this period.

Composed and recorded 2004, Korg 01/WFD
Restored from playback on the original device, 2019

Photo: breakwater, Marilyn Bell Park, Toronto

Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce A. Russell 2019

Categories
Anniversary Archive Collaborations Compositions Dance Electronic Memoir Postclassical

1994+25: Exoplanet

“Exoplanet” (1994) was commissioned by choreographer Dave Wilson for the student dance ensemble at McMaster University. Musically, it is a kind of postlude to the score for the dance suite “Land of the Living,” which I composed for a festival performance in Lyon several weeks before. I had intended to release both scores as part of a sci-fi instrumental concept album, After, but set the idea aside to work on what would become the album Uhuru.

The track is built on two alternating chords, the tonic and the supertonic, heard at first in the bassline and later in minimalist patterns of stacked fifths.

Rhythms were played manually, with light adjusting of individual MIDI events afterwards. This method of editing — as opposed to running the quantize function which I was not interested in doing — would often involve a discouraging number of clattering button clicks on the 01/W. Thus the light adjusting. It was my way of trying to avoid a fully programmed sound.

“Exoplanet” was a quick sketch for an industrial-themed dance (title unknown) which I didn’t see. I seem to recall it was performed in Boston alongside the suite; thus the complete After album concept enjoyed a single public outing.

Composed and recorded February 1994, Korg 01/WFD

Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce Russell 2019

Categories
Anniversary Archive Compositions Electronic Experimental Memoir Piano Postclassical Toronto Uncategorized

1987+30: The Longing

“The Longing” (1987) was my dazed, departing glance at the battleground of adolescence. It was created at the beginning of my studies in electroacoustic composition—my first composition class of any kind—at York University, although not as part of my school work. Even by then, tonality was still a no. Then, as now, I didn’t fit neatly into any one musical box. Enter the DIY cassette: Earthtones, completed over several illicit late night sessions with a mix of school equipment and my own. I had the good fortune of being able to stroll from my dorm room indoors to the studio in the same college. An all-nighter that ended just as my floormates were leaving for their classes allowed for a period of undisturbed rest.

There are four musical lines: a percussive synth phrase on a reel-to-reel tape loop; the same tape loop manipulated and processed, eventually disintegrating in a wash of digital reverb; an improvised synth pad recorded backwards, i.e. the first notes heard were the last played and vice versa; and a piano part which was improvised in response to the retrograde harmonies of the synth.

As with other tracks on Earthtones (“The Longing” being the finale), I composed as I recorded, coasting on the nonrenewable fumes of naïveté. Considering I had taught myself piano and started to play in pop bands only three to four years before, this is a very early snapshot of me self-identifying as a composer.

Recorded November 1987

Four-track cassette, mixed to stereo cassette

Photo: December 25, 1987

Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce A. Russell 2017

Categories
Archive Compositions Electronic Percussion Piano Postclassical Uncategorized

1996+21: limina

limina, for two pianos and percussion (1996), was created as an exploratory diversion between larger projects. The title, “threshold,” could suggest a point of transition or place between categories, although in retrospect the style and sound of the piece are clear. It is in the same extended musical family as Two Dances for Two Pianos, urfunk etudeMadra and Word from Earth. It ends on the same chord as it began, transposed down a semitone.

Composed and recorded August 1996, Korg 01/WFD
Remixed May 2017

Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce A. Russell 2017

Categories
Anniversary Archive Compositions Dance Electronic Experimental Memoir Postclassical Theatre Toronto Vocal

1997+20: WhISH

Below are excerpts from the thirty-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.

WhISH was an image and movement based work; there was no text, spoken or otherwise. It was suggested that I write melodic motifs for the characters appearing onstage. The closest I came to this was a set of contrapuntal, rhythmically interchangeable melodic patterns, with a different mode for each character. Quite often only fragments of these patterns are heard.

“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 also 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.

In “Fight,” the counterpoint reaches a dense, repetitive peak, fuelled by prominent electronic beats and distorted synth wails. The time signature changes between 4/4, 5/4 and 6/4 (3/2).

“Voices,” is the finale music. This 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 (for “Voices”)

Photo: detail from cassette cover, drawing by Carsten Knox

Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce A. Russell 2017

Categories
Anniversary Archive Choral Compositions Electronic Experimental Memoir Percussion Piano Pop Postclassical

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

Categories
Anniversary Archive Compositions Electronic Memoir Postclassical

Birthday Music

Today would have been the 85th birthday of my father Samuel Lawrence (Larry) Russell. He died two months short of his 65th, so this year is also the twentieth anniversary of his passing. Although as a transracial adoptee I have travelled on an outlying cultural path from that of my adoptive family, they are the original source of love in my life.

If my father was a little out of his era and his element in following what I did as a young musician—his natural musical heroes were Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra and Buddy Holly—he always had time to listen to whatever seemingly strange, novice piece I was working on and the even stranger theory behind it. He would encourage me and then gently mention “making it accessible.”


I don’t know what he would have made of Birthday Music, one of a number of pieces I composed and dedicated to him in the year after his death. Created for my demo reel as a composer for dance, it’s an admittedly bizarre concoction incorporating just intonation tuning, drones, my quirky programming style and the strongest evidence of Steve Reich’s influence on my work. With all that in the mix, I still relied on good-old, I-VI-I-V-I blues structure in the bassline, and a snare-kick backbeat, albeit in 3/2 time.

For Larry, with love

Composed and recorded on a Korg M1 workstation, May 31, 1993

Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce Russell 2013

Categories
Archive Compositions Experimental Memoir Postclassical

Quarter-Tone Study

This piece was composed and recorded when I was a student at York University, most likely a partial result of attending the late James Tenney’s course on the music of Charles Ives and hearing the latter composer’s Three Quarter-Tone Pieces. Although I took the time to prepare a neat modular score (see below), my involvement with the piece was minor – it wasn’t submitted for coursework or student performances. It was a study, just that, albeit one less concerned with exploring the possibilities of the quarter-tone pitch universe than with superimposing that tonality on the minimalist aesthetic.

Quarter-Tone Study score 1990 pg1 text resize

Quarter-Tone Study score 1990 pg2 text resize

It is scored for two pianos tuned a quarter tone apart (like the Ives) and four-part chorus; where the soprano and alto tune a quarter tone higher than standard along with piano 2; and bass, tenor and piano 1 remain in standard pitch. Each harmony sounds for 77 eighth notes (quavers), with the chorus singing drones and the pianos playing two different rhythmic loops of 11 and 7 respectively. I played the piano parts on the Roland S-50 sampler which had one of the first decent digital piano sounds.


Quarter-Tone Study was also my contribution to “annoying phone greetings” history: recorded onto my answering machine tape as an outgoing message, it sealed my reputation as a creepy student composer – at least with the administrative staff at the university. The fact that I sang all the vocal parts no doubt helped. I later included the piece on my cassette album “Eccentricities.”

Composed and recorded on half-inch, 8-track analog tape April 1990, mixed to DAT August 1990

All parts performed live. No sampling, metronome, programming or computer editing used at any point.

Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce Russell 2013

Categories
Anniversary Archive Composers Journal Memoir

Cage Centenary

August 12, 1992

(Journal entry. Transcription by Nehal El-Hadi, September 4, 2012)

John Cage died today at 79. I have somehow been expecting this news, as if it were confirmation that a certain era of progressiveness or revolution was truly now over. Cage, more than any other single figure in the arts, was one to bring about change in Western culture. And I wonder what effect his passing will have on art and music, if there is one to be felt.

He was a person who was mysterious to me, and I knew only some of his music and writings, but what I felt for him was something approaching worship. His ideas on music and life were some of the most profound I have yet encountered. I am sure that it will be many more years before I can really appreciate or understand the person or at least his ideas.

The music, however, has always communicated to me almost instantaneously. I am affected not merely on a cerebral or spiritual level, but on a highly instinctualized one. His prepared piano pieces give a feeling which is new and alien and perfectly “logical” at the same time. His reaffirmation of rhythm was so much more thorough and fundamental than either Stravinsky’s or Bartók’s. Through the innovation of prepared piano (even if it wasn’t his) and his writing for unique grouping of percussion, he reasserted the primitive in our music. This was long before rock ‘n’ roll or minimalism or new age; these genres owe a lot to him even if it has never been acknowledged.

His willingness to accept the total sound spectrum, including noise, as full of musical potential – not just tempered pitches and orchestral timbres – put Cage (along with Varése and Ives) at the forefront of musical innovation in this century. This was his gift to us: the whole world of sound.

The man who gave us “Music of Changes” realized there was inner music in outer silence, and inspired a whole community of performers to explore it. He legitimized his non-conformity.

I find it interesting that he eschewed conventional temporal and harmonic structures early on, and spent the rest of his life rediscovering the role of time in music, and later, the context of non-music.

I can think of no better goal than searching for the same answers that he was through his music – to learn about this world through art (not to exploit art for shallow ends). When we are confronted with silence in the not-too-distant future, after the media maelstrom, we will find Cage waiting, listening.