23, for piano

23 (2016) was composed as an homage to Steve Reich and is dedicated to him on the occasion of his 80th birthday. All of the material in this piano miniature derives from melodic patterns and sonorities in his music. (This is true to a lesser degree about some of my earlier pieces as I have pointed out elsewhere.) The starting point for this process was measure 23 from Piano Phase (1967) and Reich’s favoured key signature of D major/B minor. There are several other works and Reichian tonal centres referenced, sometimes in quick or overlapping succession.

I avoided transforming melodic or harmonic entities beyond recognition, emphasizing spontaneous musical flow over structured collage. Fans of the elder composer may enjoy listening for references however subtle they may appear. Others may note that 23 sounds similar to my other piano pieces, which reflects the great influence Reich has had on my work. A tribute seems only fitting.

Happy 80th, Steve!

Composed September 2016
Recorded live with no edits October 2016, Roland digital piano direct

Photo: Carolyn Cole

Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce A. Russell 2016

Linea Nigra, for string octet

Linea Nigra (2015) began as an orchestration of my piano piece Canon Chorale (2005). It is scored for string octet, in this case the same configuration as a double string quartet. Most of the structure and content of the earlier work are retained as a kind of continuo, to which newly devised material adds range and contrapuntal detail.

The general technique is a variation of first species counterpoint. A set of short melodies in each of the modes of C major are heard in two- to six-voice, note-on-note canons at the unison and octave, creating a sequence of block chords, or a chorale. The resulting harmonic progressions may have a cloud-like feel to them especially as melodic lengths and part density increase, and chord roots become ambiguous. Towards the end, faster melodic lines develop out of a recurring a triplet pattern.

The title of the piece reflects my own quest for my biological and cultural roots. Linea nigra (“black line”) thus references the vertical line that appears on a woman’s belly in some pregnancies, while it also suggests Black lineage and survival. It could also stand in the sense of a melodic line, printed or otherwise.

My great thanks go to Ashil Mistry, who suggested the instrumentation and generously edited the score, as well as directing the performance heard here.

Recorded July 3, 2016, London, UK
Scheme Ensemble
Ashil Mistry, conductor

Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce A. Russell 2016

Oxford & Augusta

Oxford & Augusta (2001) is one of my simplest pieces. It consists entirely of three- and six-note melodic patterns layered in note-on-note canons. The entire piece is generated from the opening six notes, three ascending followed by three descending.

Durations are uniform; the first section is all in quarter notes, followed by a section in eighth notes and one in half notes. The gothic, monochrome and binary nature of the material brought to mind a crossroads. This image could have described my life at the time; thus, the title is the intersection at which I was living, near the heart of Kensington Market.

Recorded April 2016, Roland digital piano direct to file

Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce A. Russell 2016

Children’s Suite

This is a cycle of three, three-movement works for piano I composed for my children Remi, Kenza and Tijani in the respective years of their birth. All nine movements are written in diatonic C major/A minor. The cycle opens and closes with fast movements, otherwise the music is slow to moderate. Forms and structures are for the most part simple and pop-song like, with a limited amount of complexity and abstraction in the details. In several instances, I take inspiration from Bach’s Prelude in C major, in the idea of a repeating pattern with changing harmonies.

Remi (2007)
I. Oh Seven
II. Queen Peace
III. A New Day

Kenza (2012)
I. Fourths + Fifths
II. Moon
III. Golden

Tijani (2014)
I. Son’s Light
II. Lullaby
III. Young Afro Future

Recorded 2013-2015, Roland digital piano direct to file

Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce A. Russell 2015

Tijani, for piano: Young Afro Future

This is the last movement from my piano work Tijani, and the closing part in a cycle of three, three-movement works for piano I’ve composed for my children (which include Remi and Kenza). All nine movements are written in diatonic C major/A minor. Like the opening movement of the cycle, “Oh Seven,” this is a fast piece. The title is based on a combination of my wife’s nickname for our son and the cultural realm of Afrofuturism.

There are three main melodic ideas; the first, a pattern of ascending fourths in the right hand which goes through changes in pitch and harmony; the second, a bassline of staggered octaves which becomes a root-fifth-octave pattern in the second section. The first section of the piece is based on a rhythmic pattern of nine beats; the second, fours alternating with threes. The third idea arrives in this section: progressions of four-note chords, moving in half notes (minims) alternating with dotted quarters (crotchets) and later, dotted half notes (minims).

As with the rest of the cycle, the form and structure here are simple, almost pop-song like. There is a limited amount of complexity and abstraction present in the harmonies and rhythms. Once again I take inspiration from Bach’s Prelude in C major, in the idea of repeating a musical pattern over and over but substituting new harmonies each time.

Composed November 2014
Recorded June 2015, Roland digital piano direct to file

Photo by Remi

Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce A. Russell 2015

Tijani, for piano

Today marks one year on earth for my youngest, our son Tijani. In the year of his birth I wrote a three-movement work for piano. The first two movements are presented here; the third will be posted at a later date (update: third movement).

As with the pieces written for Tijani’s older sisters Remi and Kenza, the music here is diatonic, in the key of C major/A minor throughout. I work with simple forms and materials to create something that is childlike, quotidian and yet abstract; composed systematically with a sensibility that wanders between intuitive and arbitrary.

“Son’s Light” is in two sections, the first built around a melodic idea in quintuple metre, and the second in triple metre. Both ideas are expressed as a sequence of changing harmonies on constant rhythmic patterns, punctuated with added tones and metric variations. The harmonies descend stepwise or move by fourths. It is the most triadic piece I’ve written since my pop song days.

“Lullaby” is a canon of overlapping broken chords in a set of progressions. Each voice in the canon has the range of a fourth. The chord voicings are slightly more sophisticated than in the previous movement, though still based on diatonic roots.

Happy birthday, dear Tijani!

Composed 2014
Recorded 2015, Roland digital piano direct to file

Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce A. Russell 2015

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