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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

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5 Questions to Niloufar Talebi and Aleksandra Vrebalov about Abraham in Flames

My interview for I Care If You Listen.

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Best of 2014

John Adams, The Gospel According to the Other Mary – Los Angeles Philharmonic, LA Master Chorale, Gustavo Dudamel

John Luther Adams, Become Ocean – Seattle Symphony, Ludovic Morlot

D’Angelo and The Vanguard, Black Messiah

Morton Feldman, String Quartet No. 1 – FLUX Quartet

Flying Lotus, You’re Dead!

Philip Glass, The Complete Piano Etudes – Maki Namekawa

Meredith Monk, Piano Songs – Ursula Oppens, Bruce Brubaker

Laura Mvula, With Metropole Orkest Conducted by Jules Buckley at Abbey Road Studios

Steve Reich, Radio Rewrite – Jonny Greenwood, Vicky Chow, Alarm Will Sound, Alan Pierson

Ann Southam, Glass Houses Vol. 2 – Christina Petrowska Quilico

tuku, moonday sessions:the black

reissues

Herbie Hancock, The Complete Columbia Album Collection 1972-1988 (rel. late 2013)

Odyssey, Happy Together (Expanded Edition)

Sly Stone & various artists, I’m Just Like You: Sly’s Stone Flower 1969-1970

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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