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Chamber Collaborations Compositions Concert Family Percussion Performers Personal Piano Postclassical

Livestream and Programme for “The Music of Bruce A. Russell”

Here is the link for tonight’s first-ever concert of my music by The Array Ensemble. Viewing is free or by optional donation. You may be asked to create a free account in order to access the livestream. Please consider donating to Arraymusic as they are a historic and vital part of Toronto’s new music scene, and an important venue for providing access to underrepresented artist communities.

Programme and Notes

Companion, for two pianos (2019) 12′
Stephen Clarke, Wesley Shen; pianos


Children’s Suite, nine pieces for piano (2007-2014) 30′
Stephen Clarke, piano


aix, for two pianos (2004) 2′
Stephen Clarke, Wesley Shen; pianos


limina, for two pianos and percussion (1996) 5′
Stephen Clarke, Wesley Shen; pianos
Rick Sacks, percussion

Companion was composed through late 2018 and early 2019, while the first 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 proceed most often by the interval of a fourth or fifth. Each row is layered against itself in a homorhythmic canon of up to six voices, often accompanied by high and low pedals tones that present 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.

Children’s Suite (2007-2014) is a cycle of 3 three-movement pieces for piano which I composed for my children in the respective years of their births. All nine movements are written in diatonic C major/A minor. The cycle opens and closes with fast movements; otherwise, the music is in a slow to moderate tempo. All the pieces employ steady rhythmic motion, sometimes in triple or quadruple metre and sometimes in patterns of five, seven or nine beats. While there is a limited amount of complexity and abstraction in the tonal and rhythmic details, forms and structures are for the most part simple and pop-song like. 

To varying degrees in each piece, I take inspiration from Bach’s Prelude in C Major, in the idea of a repeating pattern with changing harmonies. Some other ideas recur from one piece to another as well, such as a texture of broken chords which overlap in multi-voice canons (“A New Day,” “Fourths + Fifths,” “Lullaby”); a texture of bassline and suspended chords (“Oh Seven,” the latter sections of “Young Afro Future”); a harmonic structure of six diatonic modes in sequence (“Fourths + Fifths,” “Golden”) and the use of patterns from my kalimba music (the middle section of “Queen Peace,” “Golden,” the second section of “Son’s Light”). 

The texture is often developed from a single line into homophony, with “Moon” being the clearest example. Here, a melodic fragment is harmonized with chord clusters and a descending bassline. The interval of the perfect fifth figures heavily throughout the suite, both melodically and harmonically; especially in “Oh Seven.” The opening section of “Son’s Light” has a traditional circle-of-fifths harmonic structure and includes the most triadic music I’ve composed since my early days writing pop songs.

“Queen Peace” is a simple waltz based on 4 four-note chords in A minor, with the bassline D, G, A, C. The melody flows out of the chords. While most of the suite was composed using a systematic approach, this movement grew more spontaneously from a pop sensibility.

The titles and ordering are as follows:

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

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 the early to mid 2000s, which I later grouped together as a cycle under the title “Kindred Pieces.” The piece is written in diatonic A-flat major, with a harmonic progression on the scale degrees 4-3-2-1-5-6.

limina (1996), was composed as an exploratory diversion between larger projects. The title, “thresholds,” is meant to suggest points of transition or spaces between categories.

There are two sections; the longer and more eventful first is in duple metre and features a pop-like, four-chord progression in A major. The second is in triple metre and A-flat major, with an outro-like quality. The transition between sections introduces more complex harmonies and a percussion break.

All of the music is built around the initial melodic pattern, a loop that descends in fifths and ascends back to its starting point in fourths (a pattern also heard in “Fourth + Fifths”). This line is in fact the opening chord unfolded horizontally, and it becomes the rhythmic motor, layered against itself in canon. The final chord is the same as the opening one, though transposed down a semitone.

Categories
Afro-Caribbean Family Memoir Personal

A Juneteenth Musing

The northern Great Lakes steel town took a big fat eraser to my Blackness. The adults had no way to acknowledge it because it exposed the cognitive dissonance of my existence in their world, and thus had no way to deal with the bullies, the rednecks and the N-wordage that swarmed around me like black flies at the beginning of camping season. They would say to me, in 1970s Canadian news voices, “Look, you have only good things here. If you had been left with your poor brethren you would suffer urban blight.” They would say, “You are accepted because… you are here.”

So was the caricature Black lawn jockey across the street from the schoolyard sandbox I played in everyday. It was in a front yard next door to my aunt’s house, on the same street as ours, and I don’t remember anything about the people who lived in that house. Or if people actually lived there. Who would do stuff like that. The sandbox was beside the basketball court.

Every time I tried to play basketball I kept seeing that damned lawn jockey. I don’t remember now when exactly it was removed, somewhere in the 1980s perhaps, but anyway I discovered performance sports felt like too much exposure for my body, a body that had no guarantees of its protection.

They who were in those days more bookish would tell me I was biracial. I realized much later that it meant: white… and something else. I would forever be expected to be a model of racial harmony, and spend a lifetime listening to white people ring that front desk bell in my consciousness.

Getting kicked out of the lobby of a Howard Johnson in Biloxi, Mississippi in 1978 was the most surreal moment of my childhood. If not the most traumatic, because my white family claimed me and I got to go back to our room. (In fact, my parents were out of state for the night and one of my older siblings rescued me, as they often did). It was the coldest water I ever felt seize my body, and I grew up jumping in freezing lakes. That was my introduction to the American South. My ancestral homeland.

Being an early transracial adoptee was traumatic in many ways. If you are a white person reading this, I am not recounting or performing this trauma for you. I am not your James Baldwin. This is a Juneteenth musing. As I get older, I start to understand more my own sense of my relationship with my Black biological history in Alabama, the Caribbean and West Africa. My white heritage, settler North America, the United Kingdom and Western Europe, was virtually handed to me on a plate.

I never ever have to celebrate my white history—as the historical narrative underpinning systemic racism it was used to temporarily but effectively obliterate my Blackness—but I am always aware of my economic and cultural privilege through my proximity to whiteness, and shade privilege through my light skin.

Two summers ago I briefly visited the steel town again, for the first time in two decades. I had a few spare, early morning minutes to walk down my old street and see my old house and also the schoolyard where I’d spent nine school years and summer breaks interacting with other children in the community, almost all white.

There was one critical exception: my closest friend was of Indo-Caribbean descent. It didn’t hurt that we lived a few doors away from one another. He had a large family with whom he shared a heritage. I loved hanging out with him and getting up to many things, including a two-man, lo-fi 80s band and much later, a theatre/music partnership.

In front of my old house, the one where all the good, ecstatic, formative and traumatic episodes occurred, at around seven in the morning, a grey dawn, I paused with a calmness I wish I had had more at the ready back then. Our old home was there, and I took in all the little changes to its appearance, feeling the coziness of the street again. A man emerged next door, with an infant.

I never thought about being the feared other upon returning home. Because it was a given, a constant value like n always equals, at any hour of the day, in any setting. A trip to a Mike’s Milk in 1986, home for a visit after a few weeks away for my first year of university, saw me sucker-punched and bloodied, glasses knocked to the ground and damaged over my garish clothing: a five-dollar sixties leather mosaic vest from Courage My Love in Kensington Market. It certainly wasn’t about anything but the clothing… and my uppitiness in wearing it and inevitably challenging the manhood of a frustrated young white man. It wasn’t the worst thing that ever went down there, but it was the one that reminded me once again who I was beyond the protection of white family proximity.

I chatted with the father, as it turned out, of the infant. I knew the history of families who had lived in all the houses on the street, almost. He seemed less interested in clocking my presence right about then. Mine was a very old house built in about 1905; it wasn’t a stretch to add me to its history in a border town.

That morning I discovered that there were townhomes being built over where the sandbox, the basketball court and the view of that racist front yard had been, leaving me without any familiar visual to trigger memories. I was OK with that. You can’t go home again, and sometimes you don’t want to.

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
Family Journal Memoir Personal

Larger in the Past

Grateful for so much as my history unfolds in reverse. Summer’s first journey to my birth mother’s home, with a family whom I’m so proud of with me. Upon our return my paternal side manifested. A grandfather in the Jim Crow South. Voice on the line who shared this family’s history of migration to the north, who invited me to holiday gatherings and told me, “You’re not alone in this.” Music and accomplishment has flowed through both sides. My genetically aspirational test results confirming Bahamas, Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica as ancestral places. And out of the sky, my long-failed career as a recording artist is suddenly not quite so failed (recall: history in reverse).