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

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.

Archive Compositions

Madra, for string quartet

This work has had two incarnations. It began as Gram, a modular short score for variable instrumentation. It consisted mostly of single measures with repeat signs and a suggested number of repetitions shown just above. The title page indicated the score could be played by two percussionists and/or piano/synthesizer and/or string quartet. Performers were essentially invited to arrange the music themselves.

When Gram was workshopped by the Madawaska String Quartet, leading to an eventual premiere and recording, I was obliged to create a traditional score and set of parts. I gave the piece a new title, Madra.

It was at that point a fully realized, collaborative work. After several live performances it was recorded for commercial release. The recording plays below, followed by my notes from Madawaska’s CD prefab (available from the Canadian Music Centre and on iTunes).

Madra was composed in 1999 and revised in 2002, immediately after I participated in Madawaska’s composer workshop. Its title is also the first name of my maternal grandmother, to whom the work is dedicated. She was a farmer and schoolteacher in the Canadian West. I recall she would play hymns on the piano in Sunday school when I was very young and perhaps there is an echo of that here.

The quartet is in one movement with five sections: slow, fast, slow, fast, very slow. There are a number of audible influences on the piece: the repeating canons and modularity of minimalism; the polyrhythms and hocketing of Central and West African traditional music; and root-chord progressions from popular music. The harmony is diatonic, and there are measured amounts of harmonic stasis as found in some medieval vocal music and modal jazz.

With these influences in mind, all of the rhythmic, melodic and harmonic content is derived from the three-note cell repeated at the beginning. Symmetry is employed in a general way throughout, especially in the vertical construction of intervals.

When I presented the piece to the Madawaska Quartet, it had very few dynamic or expressive indications – in a naive way it was an “Art of the Fugue” approach to scoring. More than merely realizing and interpreting it, Madawaska has infused Madra with tonal colour and kinetic direction beyond what I could have imagined while composing. They have given the music a voice, and a sense of light and weightlessness.

performed by The Madawaska String Quartet
Rebecca van der Post, violin
Sarah Fraser-Raff, violin
Anna Redekop, viola
Amber Ghent, cello

Recorded by Garnet Willis, St. Andrew-by-the-Lake Church, Toronto Islands, 2009
Mixed at Noisetree Digital
All rights reserved

Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce Russell 2012