Categories
Chamber Classical Compositions Concert Performers Personal Postclassical

Emergence: Linea Nigra in Concert

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 very 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.

Categories
Collaborations Compositions Percussion Performers Postclassical

Kalimba Canon premiere

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 composers’s notes copyright Bruce A. Russell 2020

Categories
Compositions Piano Postclassical

76

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

Categories
Compositions Family Photo Postclassical

Companion

Companion, for two pianos, was composed through late 2018 and early 2019, while the first notehead pencil sketches date to 2011. It is dedicated to my two youngest children. All of the material derives from seven-note rows: orderings of the pitches of the diatonic scale. The harmony resembles traditional tonality heard through a pandiatonic filter. There are four sections, divided by key signature: F major, A-flat major, B major and D major.

Each section is constructed from one or two unique, quasi-symmetrical rows that move generally by fourths and fifths. Each row is layered against itself in homorhythmic canons of up to six voices, often accompanied by high and low pedals tones which form an additional canon in augmentation. Almost every chord in Companion is the result of a basic serial process, one exception being the transition between the third and fourth sections, which features chords built from nested fifths. Ultimately, such chords result from the canons as well.

The final chord is arrived at through symmetrical voice leading from the penultimate chord, and is also the initial row spelled vertically from bottom to top. Form at the local and vertical levels is highly rationalized, while global and horizontal form—rhythmic structure and phrasing—is loosely associative.

Composed 2018-2019
Audio export from the notated score, April 2019

Photo: Centre Island Beach, August 2019

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

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 Compositions Dance Electronic Experimental Memoir Theatre Uncategorized

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