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
Anniversary Boogie Dance Electronic Experimental Funk Memoir Photo Pop R&B

1988+30: Rhythm So New (Asymptotic Urbanites)

“Rhythm So New” began as a song on my demo-style album Suburbanite (1988). In 2008, it was made into an experimental DJ-style remix using CD transfers of the original song mixes as well as the aged 4-track cassette stems. I used looping and filtering to focus on small, rough-edged details and enhance the saturated colours of the vintage medium. The remix was 22 minutes long; this 2018 edit reduces that by half. The original recording featured a Hohner Clavinet, Korg CX-3 organ, Roland S-50 sampler, Yahama DX-27 synthesizer, bass guitar (direct) and overdubbed vocals, all recorded in a single overnight session with no programming.

Composed and recorded November 1988, cassette 4-track

Remixed August 2008, Pioneer CDJs, Allen & Heath mixer

Edited December 2018

Top: The Monarch Tavern, July 2007 (Petri Glad)

Below: detail of Pioneer CDJ-1000 MK2, December 2018 (Bruce Russell)

Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce A. Russell 2018

Categories
Anniversary Archive Collaborations Compositions Dance Electronic Experimental Memoir Postclassical

1993+25: The Turret

The Turret (1993) was commissioned by choreographer Dave Wilson for a dance solo performed by Viv Moore. It uses a non-equal temperament tuning. It was quickly sketched and left in raw form; however, I had been developing my palette and techniques on the M1 for several years by this point. I titled it for the recessed area where I would compose in the apartment I lived in at the time. 

Composed and recorded February 1993, Korg M1

Photo: Ancient Theatre of Fourvière, Lyon

Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce A. Russell 2018

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).

Categories
Anniversary Archive Compositions Electronic Experimental Memoir Piano Postclassical Toronto Uncategorized

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 A. Russell 2017

Categories
Anniversary Compositions Dance Electronic Experimental Memoir Theatre Uncategorized

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

Categories
Memoir Performers Toronto

Come Through

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.
IMG_5208
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.”

Categories
Anniversary Archive Choral Compositions Electronic Experimental Memoir Percussion Piano Pop Postclassical

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

Categories
Compositions Journal Memoir Piano Postclassical

I Am Somewhere

For most of my life, I have been someone who was for the most part visibly, identifiably mixed race black, but lacking any other evidence of my ethnicity — biological relatives, genealogy, language, cultural items or history — beyond an adoption file that listed me as “Negroid.” I had no roots.

I knew that my white heritage was English and Irish. Unlike black peers who have often been asked where they were really from and to protect their dignity might simply answer “here,” I didn’t even have somewhere to refer back to had I chosen to disclose. Beyond being racialized, I was/from nowhere.

This year, I made contact with a birth relative, learning more about my background in the process. At the same time, joining a personal genetics site revealed numerous possible points of origin in the Global South.

With this in mind, the title of the piece is a reference to the poem “I Am – Somebody” written in the 1950s by Reverend William H. Borders, Sr. and widely popularized by Jesse Jackson.

There is a procedural approach to harmony, with root-progression clusters moving in parallel, alternating diatonic, harmonic major and melodic minor scales. The music has nothing to do with the subject per se, but seems to fit with it terms of weight, density and tone. It is a reflection of my frame of mind during developments at this point in time.

Composed August 2013, recorded October
Roland digital piano direct to file

Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce Russell 2013

Categories
Journal Memoir

II. Sociology (Negroid)

This is my order, redacted. Me in a page, outlines obscured.

Adoption Order redacted 24Dec13
I have written before about being inside white culture, and outside black, as a young transracial adoptee. About feelings of isolation leading to a suicidally depressed period. About seeing myself identified on generalized adoption records as “Negroid.”

I’ve written about the joy I feel now many years later, reflecting back on earlier struggles with some wisdom of experience (albeit self-proclaimed), and gratitude.

I don’t know if I feel like I’ve ever actually entered black culture, if I belong to it, after twenty-seven years in the city, but to know it was here and to know something of what it might be in relation to me is enough. I will always feel parenthetical, which is a kind of belonging. And more recently, the identity revision of personal genomics is yet another kind: now I can say with some conviction that I have island roots.

My early childhood is sometimes stored more in memories of moods and sensations than anything else. My mother says at Christmas I would get depressed, and wonder aloud why my biological mother had not sent me anything, not even a card or letter. It was a time of closed adoptions so such a thing was highly unlikely. There are a few square-frame, long-faced holiday photos which survive, along with photos of adopted nuclear contentment.

It was somehow anticlimactic when, after forty years of generally not expecting anything, a letter arrived. From her. Last week. It added a geographical connection with Ethiopia to these narratives. It spoke to how there is always a return.

After all that time, this year I was suddenly adoptee, full circle. And suddenly something of an immigrant in all but birth. The letter wasn’t the first one, but it arrived around the time of my second daughter’s first birthday and near Christmas. I don’t connect with the holiday the way I did in my youth but the significance, coincidental, wasn’t lost.

Over a decade ago, I received non-identifying information including an oral history from my birth mother. Not just a narrative but a story. Five years ago, new legislation allowed me to obtain the long form birth certificate containing my biological parents names. Or one, at least. Two years ago a search angel, herself an adoptee, found my profile in an adoption group on social media and offered to help. My life had been so busy I missed her email for over a year. Within days of putting that one name forward, a person came back.

Being a parent, to at last be in the presence of beings whose biological continuity I shared, is somewhat magical. Add to that a new sense of fulfillment through the potential to extend our shared line further back in time, locate ourselves elsewhere on the map.

Thanks to my wife Nehal El-Hadi for helping me put this post together.