Category Archives: Compositions

1998+20: in a name

in a name (1998) mixes naïveté and rigour; it was one of my earliest pieces where this was an intentional approach, at least. It is based on a musical cipher of the name of the recipient in a gift exchange. A three-note cell of B – E – A is derived from this, generating all the melodic and harmonic content for the piece by forming hexachords with other three-note cells that are symmetrical to the first: G-sharp – C-sharp – F-sharp; G – C – F and D – G – C, resulting in the keys of E major, A minor and G major respectively. As an example, a two-voice canon on the notes G-sharp – C-sharp – F-sharp – B – E – A is heard near the beginning, immediately after which it becomes the accompaniment to the repeating melodic pattern of the cipher.

The focus is always on one group of six notes or another, voiced predominantly in symmetrical patterns of fourths, fifths and sevenths and seconds, sometimes stacked, sometimes nested. The main three-note cell remains a constant.

This recording features a digital approximation of a just intonation tuning of the piano, while the score specifies the option of performing in this tuning or in equal temperament. The piece was also heard as part of the musical program (which also included my piece for solo kalimba For Findley, also 1998) for an evening-length improv by Dave Wilson’s Dream Dancers, at Dancemakers in October 1999.

Composed and recorded January 1998, Korg 01WFD

Photo: impromptu dinosaur by Kenza Russell, age 4

Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce Russell 2018

1997+20: No More Sundays

This is a remix of my song “No More Sundays” (1997). The original version was created without notation, while it is inspired by the notated compositions of Steve Reich, especially in this case, Proverb (1995). In my variation on the aforementioned work, I composed a text with plenty of vowels sounds, first singing it as a melody, and then as a series of lengthening four-part canons against a repeating two-part piano canon. I played an electronic drum part that recalled Stewart Copeland’s 6/4 backbeat on the Police song “Synchronicity I” (a track that to my ears also sounds inspired by Reich).

For the remix, which does not alter the pitches or tunings (intended and otherwise) themselves, I digitized the original 4-track cassette elements. Tracks 3 and 4 (voices, keyboards/cymbals) copied in reverse, as I transferred them using a standard cassette player which plays two tracks in one direction as side A, and the other two in the opposite direction as side B. I then aligned the reverse tracks against the forward playing tracks 1 and 2 (snare/kick, voices). This resulted in the song’s harmonic and formal structure being layered upon itself in a quasi-palindromic crab canon. It also broke up the syllable structure of the canons. I did some further breaking up and relayering of voices, especially in the introduction which was originally a vocal solo, and here now includes a set of timed echoes (digital canons).

Written and recorded February 1997, Korg 01/WFD, Yamaha 4-track cassette
Cassette transfer and remix December 2017

Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce Russell 2017

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 Russell 2017

1997+20: Foyer

My excursion into cheesy, middle of the road, smooth jazz yacht was purely amusement, with no commercial purpose. The contemporary classical composer was thus along for the ride, speaking up now and then, casting a certain late century, “Saturn return” mannerist harmonic shadow. My R&B and pop influences are reflected in the palette of sounds, as is my own early history of parody as style. Despite the presence of a verse-chorus song structure, there are techniques similar to those I’ve used in my abstract pieces: in particular, harmonic variations on a limited set of repeated riffs. The bridge and outro feature a static funk groove, one which focuses on and extends one of the riffs. The phrase was probably grafted from Stevie Wonder’s song “I Can’t Help It” as sung by Michael Jackson (“running often through my mind”). The technology especially gives the whole thing a “your call is important to us” quality. Yet rather than programming in all the tracks with perfect timing and key volumes, everything was recorded by playing it in, with minor touching up of the timecode and velocity settings.

Composed and recorded 1997
Korg 01/WFD

Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce Russell 2017

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 Russell 2017

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