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
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
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
Iconic composer Steve Reich turns 84 today. He was recently alleged to have made some pointedly anti-Black racist remarks in the early 70s.
Today is also a kind of late emergence for me; my first performance on a symphony orchestra program (albeit of a chamber work). As a child, I first heard the n-word, directed at me, in the early 70s.
I don’t need to imagine how white people were back then. I was there. Neither am I shocked to the point of sudden offence by recollections of it today. It was normative then; now it is “partisan.”
The two events above are unrelated, and yet as a simultaneity they’re cause for some reflection in my world. I’ve been a huge admirer of Reich’s music for decades, and have spoken with him numerous times after his concerts. His work has influenced my own as it has generations of other musicians, except that as someone from the African diaspora, I once saw that influence as my own reclaiming of the African diasporic musical ideas in minimalism.
I studied the music of Ghana—the predominant source of Reich’s structural ideas and sound—as well as that of other African nations, at the same time I was discovering his music and minimalism in general. I remember as a student observing his defensive spin on appropriation and bristling at the “mechanized Africans” joke that he wrote in his early 70s book. He was still making that joke in the 2010s. I’ve always loved his music but remained mindful of its composer’s positionality and increasing conservatism.
It would be wrong for me to actually claim Ghanaian musical traditions as my own, though in fact my distant and not-so-distant ancestors came from there and other places in West Africa, and notwithstanding my eternal quest for the roots of my Black identity. Reich got around the problem of appropriating another culture the way white people have for centuries: entitlement.
I can think of a lot of examples of bald-faced Orientalism in my early music, as embarrassing for my lack of originality as for their crassness. I’ve long noted how the lack of performative Blackness in my person and my music creates a distance between me and the Black communities I’ve interacted with. It is what it is. At the same time, I’ve sought to be authentic for who I really am rather than what I might aspire to.
A longstanding power struggle within Black diasporas is over whom among us is truly Black, in terms of cultural heritage and especially skin tone and lineage. Blackness is not monolithic, and neither is that conflict. But we didn’t create it; colonialism did.
Reich, an artist who built their career through exploiting Black voices, was outed as a racist by a white journalist, Val Wilmer, who made their career by exclusively covering Black voices and photographing Black faces. This bears examination. From the get, Black folks aren’t party to the discussion.
Cancelling Reich or anyone else of his generation is disingenuous in this context, especially when led by the white classical music world who’ve generally kept us Black people off the concert stage and out of the canon. And I can tell you, after many years of attending new music concerts, it’s usually been pretty darn awkward being in the audience too, or the post-concert mingle: “Who are you, again?”
Honestly, go cancel Handel for buying shares in the companies that transported and traded Africans into slavery. See how well that will work out.
Conversations on race aren’t going to address anti-Black oppression. Sharing the power is, and that does mean white folks getting out of their comfort zones, taking up way less space and not enacting white gaze. Reconsider your obsession with Black culture and Black pain, profiting from it, if you’re not Black. Are you supporting or dominating?
Conversations are still necessary, but they have to reflect equitable power structures.
I’m not really sure if I have a coherent, fully-formed take on what is happening with my music right now. For one thing, it depends on whether it continues to happen. But I do know that, as with how silence and empty space operate in tandem with musical sound, what is not happening, what can’t be heard or isn’t being noticed, is just as important as that which is.
I’m here. I’ve always been here. As with minimalism in music, what is changing depends upon your vantage point. If change is in fact constant, the answer to when change will happen can never be, “Give it time.”
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.
“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
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).
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
“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
I created a playlist a couple of years ago, to collect a series of 70s and 80s re-edits emailed to me in draft form for my feedback. One of the tracks arrived by way of reply to an email I’d sent with a gift of remastered music files, the source material for the re-edit. This was how it was with me and Masimba Kadzirange, Grandmaster DJ Son Of S.O.U.L., Source of Undying Love. For me it was an acknowledgement: among circles which intersected and didn’t in our brief friendship, we had this. A man of extraordinary musical gifts, recollection, insight, technique and experience, he included me among those trusted folks from whom he sought an opinion and whose musical values were understood and shared. I’m honoured by that fact.
It’s been one month since he left us suddenly. I’m grateful to have shared in the wonderful human being he was, while part of me remembers not taking up his invitation to “come through one time” to a recent series of club nights he was putting on only a ten-minute walk from my home. I was too tired from my job or busy tending to the bedtimes and wakeups of our small children. Every time I did get to hear him spin and cut — always with turntables, music on vinyl and no software — I was astounded by his musicality and brought to my feet to dance and sing along.
Masimba made a tremendous impact in his community. He was loved. He will be missed in person, though his memory will continue to be celebrated by those who knew him, and through the music that was a central part of his own celebration of life.
“Pardon the delayed response my brother. You all will see me soon.”