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Archive Compositions Dance Electronic Memoir Percussion Postclassical

Sequences

Sequences (2000, rev. 2020) is scored for percussion and two marimbas. The title refers to sequences both in the sense of a musical phrase that repeats with a variation in pitch each time (in this case, with a variation in rhythm as well), and in the sense of an arrangement programmed electronically using a sequencer (a device prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s during my early years in music).

Four chords are used exclusively: D dominant, C major, G major and A minor, i.e., V – IV – I – ii in the key of G, while there is a hint of the relative E minor in the bridge.

Parameters vary within a relatively narrow range: harmony, rhythmic phase, register (expanding or contracting symmetrically from pattern to pattern); and interval quality, i.e., one pattern may feature predominantly small intervals and another, widely spaced ones. In the latter half of the piece, new sets of patterns emerge on the same four chords.

Sequences shares some material in common with my string quartet Madra, as these compositions emerged during the same period (along with Kalimba Canon). My primary focus during this period was fusing a pop sensibility with minimalism derived from West African traditional structures, positing an everyday musical form through the cultural window I had at the time.

The piece is not unlike a pop song in terms of its structure, duration and harmonic character; however, a tension exists between this aspect and the almost statistical regularity of the material from beginning to end. The marimba parts require virtuoso players; the “beat” is a relatively straightforward alternation of kick and cross stick with constantly varying accents in 3/2 metre, in response to the marimba music.

The original version of the score, now lost, was for two marimbas and one unpitched percussion part. The kick drum in the demo recording of that version was a TR-808 type electronic pulse, and I had then hoped to expand the part into a bassline by assigning chord tones to its rhythms: another nod to popular music and a go-to technique. This was added as a new part in 2020, as I was recreating the score from the original demo and notebook sketches. This new demo is best heard on a sound source which has an emphasis on low end frequencies.

Composed August 2000, revised October 2020
Audio export from the notated score
Photo: the composer as a child, Sault Ste. Marie, early 1970s

Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce A. Russell 2020

Categories
Anniversary Archive Choral Compositions Electronic Experimental Memoir Percussion Photo Pop Postclassical Vocal

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

Categories
Anniversary Archive Compositions Electronic Funk Memoir Pop Postclassical Vocal

90/30: Eccentricities

Eccentricities is a six-song, self-released cassette EP which emerged in the fall of 1990. I recall having 100 copies made and being satisfied with that level of dispersion; it was all I could afford in any case. In honour of the 30th anniversary, I present two of the songs here (with a third linked below).

My recordings during this period were all effectively demos. Made with no budget, engineers, producers, retakes, final mixdowns, editing, mastering, label releases or promotion. They were an in the moment document, like the solo piano recordings I turned to focus on in later decades, created with a minimum of tools and preparation and on the raw side. There are many songs and pieces I’ve returned to for revision or reimagining, but the version 1.0s are always done quickly, very rarely seeing a live performance.

Track 1, side B. In its awkward, often corny way, “The Gardener” was about envisioning a sustainable, equitable and peaceful future. Musically, it looked back on the two decades which preceded it terms of tempo, rhythm and melodic style; and even further back in the century with the use of stacked-fifth chords as the main harmonic fabric. All the keyboard parts were performed live. The presence of the TR-808 marked the first time I incorporated a preprogrammed element into my music. I often wish I had seen fit to capture it on its own as a stem as it was so fun to make, and like the song itself, it expressed a unique side of my musical thought at a particular time.

Written and recorded July 1990
half-inch 8-track, unmastered mixdown to DAT
Roland S-50, Roland TR-808, Yahama DX-27, Fender bass, voice

Track 3, side B. “One Foot Firmly Planted” is the closing song of the EP, and like “The Gardener” which opens the side, it employs chords of stacked fifths in the organ as the harmonic material, sometimes doubled here by the voices. A piece which did not perhaps emerge from the ground as I boast in the liner notes, but formed spontaneously without a preplanned direction from a bare bones beat of conga, clapping and floor tom; coloured with organ and hailed by some strange, quasi-philosophical, quasi-choral voices. In an unconscious nod to the period of study of electroacoustic composition which I had just concluded, I randomly spliced and recombined the last few seconds of the multitrack tape, where the song disintegrates.

Written and recorded July 1990
half-inch 8-track, unmastered mixdown to DAT
percussion, Korg CX-3, voice

(Here’s one more piece from Eccentricities, “Quarter-Tone Study.”)

Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce A. Russell 2020

Categories
Afro-Caribbean Electronic Funk Hip Hop Mixtapes R&B Vocal

Twenty Tens

As a farewell to the decade when music collections and manual selection became niche, here’s an old-fashioned segue mix.

Ìfé | Bangah (Pico y Palo)

Georgia Anne Muldrow | Overload

Ibeyi | River

D’Angelo and The Vanguard | Really Love

King | Red Eye

Thundercat | Them Changes

Erykah Badu | Gone Baby, Don’t Be Long

Childish Gambino | Boogieman

The Internet | Wanna Be

Esperanza Spalding | Touch in Mine

Snarky Puppy with Lalah Hathaway | Something

Solange | Junie

Shafiq Husayn feat. Jimetta Rose & Fatima | May I Assume

Flying Lotus feat. Kendrick Lamar | Never Catch Me

Brandon Coleman feat. Patrice Quinn & Techdizzle | Giant Feelings

Anderson .Paak | King James

Kamasi Washington | Show Us the Way

Kaytranada feat. Little Dragon | Bullets

Laura Mvula | Phenomenal Woman

Moses Sumney | Self-Help Tape

Ibrahim El Mahboob

December 2019

Categories
Boogie Chamber Classical Collaborations Composers Electronic Experimental Hip Hop Jazz Lists Orchestral Performers Postclassical R&B Soundtrack Toronto

Best of 2019

Layale Chaker & Sarafand Inner Rhyme

Flying Lotus Flamagra

Shafiq Husayn The Loop

Kaytranada Bubba

Anne-Sophie Mutter / John Williams Across the Stars

Anderson .Paak Ventura

Caroline Shaw / Attacca Quartet Orange

Solange When I Get Home

James Tenney Changes: 64 Studies for 6 Harps

Dwight Trible Mothership

Honourable mention: Marvin Gaye You’re the Man

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
Classical Composers Electronic Experimental Hip Hop Jazz Lists Orchestral Piano Pop Postclassical R&B Soundtrack Toronto

Best of 2018

Brandon Coleman Resistance

Tigran Hamasyan For Gyumri

Zaki Ibrahim The Secret Life of Planets

The Internet Hive Mind

JACK Quartet Everything That Rises (John Luther Adams)

Kuniko Drumming (Steve Reich)

Kukuruz Quartet Julius Eastman Piano Interpretations

Kendrick Lamar/Various Artists Black Panther: The Album

Kelly Moran Ultraviolet

Georgia Anne Muldrow Overload

Steve Reich/International Contemporary Ensemble/Colin Currie Group Pulse/Quartet

Esperanza Spalding 12 Little Spells

Kali Uchis Isolation

Kamasi Washington Heaven and Earth

Tierra Whack Whack World

Aretha Franklin The Atlantic Singles Collection 1967-1970

Categories
Electronic Funk Hip Hop Jazz Mixtapes Pop R&B

Otherwhere

British responses to Black diasporic music, and other sounds from formative walks in SSM and Toronto, via a recollection of refrains, harmonic worlds visited and the journeys between

Omar | You’ve Got to Move
Working Week | Inner City Blues
The Brand New Heavies | Dream On Dreamer
Colourbox | Philip Glass
Young Disciples | Get Yourself Together
Massive Attack | Daydreaming
Level 42 | Coup d’etat
Soul II Soul | Fairplay
Mica Paris | Contribution ft. Rakim
Ronny Jordan | See the New ft. IG Culture
Jamiroquai | Blow Your Mind
Matt Bianco | Half a Minute
Prefab Sprout | Enchanted
Sade | Hang on to Your Love
Incognito | Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing
Caron Wheeler | Kama Yo
Swing Out Sister | Twilight World
Loose Ends | Hangin’ on a String (Contemplating)

Otherwhere: UK 84-94

Ibrahim El Mahboob
March 2018

Categories
Anniversary Composers Electronic Jazz Lists Orchestral Piano Postclassical R&B Uncategorized

Best of 2017

Alarm Will Sound with Meet the Composer Splitting Adams (Cantaloupe)

Sarah Cahill with Regina Myers and Samuel Adams Eighty Trips Around the Sun: Music by and for Terry Riley (Irritable Hedgehog)

Ars Nova Copenhagen First Drop (Cantaloupe)

Julius Eastman The Zürich Concert (New World)

ÌFÉ IIII+IIII (Discos Ifá)

Kelly Moran Bloodroot (Telegraph Harp)

Sampha Process (Young Turks)

Tyshawn Sorey Verisimilitude (Pi)

Moses Sumney Aromanticism (Jagjaguwar)

SZA Ctrl (Top Dawg/RCA)

Thundercat Drunk (Brainfeeder)

John Williams Close Encounters of the Third Kind · 40th Anniversary Remastered Edition (La-La Land)

Music by Linda Catlin Smith, Martin Arnold, Isaiah Ceccarelli, Chiyoko Szlavnics, Marc Sabat Canadian Composer Series (Another Timbre)

Various Artists Spiritual Jazz 7: Islam (Jazzman)

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