Anniversary Journal Memoir

I. Pathology (Black Mood)

It’s the eve of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and MLK’s “I Have a Dream.” It is a media event but more importantly a reminder and celebration of the prime meridian on the map, so to speak, of our era. In an age of spectacular technological innovations and creative visions, these words still define us. We strive to define them.

It’s another anniversary for me, though not one I’ve ever made note of before. Thirty summers ago as a teen I had a suicidal episode (the most dramatic of several that year) that led to a series of stays in hospital wards, concluding in what was then called a sanitarium.

Admission Note

By swallowing 54 pain relief pills, I handily gained two numbers in the DSM: neurotic depression #300.4, and schizoid personality disorder of adolescence #301.2. An all too common trope, although I wouldn’t know about those now nearly meaningless numbers until many years later. I was lucky that I was a lightweight when it came to staring into the abyss. After subsequent precarious situations, I eventually admitted it wasn’t my time.

Is it trite, trivializing, for me to suggest a connection between my turbulent youth and one of history’s greatest scenes? Like King’s speech, my break was a singular event, the memory of which continues to provide focus for me. I had been the good son, a successful salvage by white society from a life of sure abjection among any potential black kin I might otherwise have been adopted by. An infant, only weeks after King’s death. I cannot but help see myself as a reflection or a result of that profound legacy; this is just personal experience. To say nothing of my biological parents’ experience, which will never be mine.

I frayed around the edges at puberty after an early career in scholastic excellence and socially isolated nerdery. Random anecdote: one teacher, despite me having been his top math and science student, saw me perform in a talent show and later proclaimed, “You’re bound to be the next Harry Belafonte!” That spoke to the visibility of lighter skin (mine), and the assumed invisibility of shadeism in Canada, a nuance I would miss then.

Every report card comment could have been summed up thusly: “a novel presence until becoming difficult,” though I wouldn’t necessarily let you know just when “difficult” had arrived. After a sheltered but sometimes sad childhood, I kept my observations largely to myself. I was fed up with the experience of constant scrutiny and sought to avoid it; when I couldn’t keep silent or “normal” any more I drew scrutiny and rumour in around me through catharsis.

There was a lot to sort out in my childhood that never really got sorted until much later, and which probably continues to get sorted. After my attempt and for months surrounding it, after I had headed both literally and figuratively for the belfry in our community church, adults and peers around me struggled to identify what had gone wrong.

Racism seemed obvious; one problem, no one had talked about race at all ever in my universe and I was not about to start talking on everyone’s behalf. Adoption issues as well seemed likely, though it was early in the process of understanding what those might be in the context, the great social experiment of closed transracial adoptions. And there was always just blaming my family for not being the Brady Bunch or the Drummonds of Diff’rent Strokes. Didn’t want to talk to that either.

The warm glow that the promise of King’s appeal and the March had created undoubtedly inspired my adoptive parents in their plan to have a multiracial family, but as with civil rights in the aftermath of King’s assassination, there was little momentum for sudden transformations of reality as it related to history. There was trauma written into my physical, psychic and cultural being, paradox as existence. A lineage of negation.

It was far easier to dismiss a few small town rednecks than to critique the “raised white with a tan” narrative I grew up in. Yes, some folks tried to kick my ass a few times, but it was mental and emotional aggression, the violence of being isolated and ostensibly deracialized, which did more damage than a sucker punch.

My suicide period spotlit but did not dominate my adolescence. Despite others’ attempts at compulsory pathologizing and guilt-based religious moralizing, I would learn my own coping/dealing strategies (as always, as the outsider) and move on from any potential career in institutionalization – at least of an expressly psychiatric designation.

I found music, something I knew I had some curiosity about and perhaps some small ability in, and then suddenly learned was something shared with my biological parents, both professional musicians. Perhaps it began as distraction, therapy; it became a core dimension of my person, an acknowledged gift even though I kept it somewhat protected from the world by not becoming a full-time musician myself.

Mine is the kind of story that people living with far more serious and overwhelming states of emotional and mental distress don’t need to hear, with its potentially dismissive “I got over that phase of ennui” quality. Yet I consider myself having survived my entire childhood as much as that interval of hyperbolic grief. In a lot of ways the latter woke me up to who I was, already that survivor. One year older than Emmett Till, with a responsibility to prevail and stay woke.

Life in these years is unquestionably, fully great, slowly built. I have struggled now and again with rumination especially around transition points or traumatic moments, it’s part of the expected landscape. I feel fortunate in that the initial deep depression resonates through the years like a tuning note; if it were clinical at all, it is not chronic nor overly present as the years pass. I can’t deny feeling more anchored than ever in a growing, loving family I am blessed to be a part of. I’ve lived to be able to share in the dream for our daughters, and there’s much more living to do, Insha’Allah.

“. . . We will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics [and Muslims, Hindus, Jainists, Sikhs, Buddhists, Shintoists, Yoruba, Rastas, Pagans, secular humanists…], will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!'”

Journal Memoir

Up on Garrison Creek

July 2001, early morning. I pass through an intersection in a quiet neighbourhood and walk along a street that appears impossibly green, even for Toronto. As I look in all four directions I see no one else. The light is golden, the air still cool and I have a rare unobstructed view into the distances. I am about to begin a new chapter. There’s a lot of fear but this moment is breaking it up. This corner of stolen land or what is built upon it seems briefly mine.

November 2011, mid morning. I reach that same intersection in a busy neighbourhood, to view the apartment home that my wife, children and I will live in. The corner is bustling. Much has changed here in a decade, in my own life to an almost unfathomable degree. Spiritually it feels like coming home; mentally the years are a discarded anchor; physically this is only a brief resting place.

July 2013, late evening. I stand on our balcony, staring out at the intersection. Always that. The year is barely half over, and already it has seen almost as much change as the dozen just passed. Change that flows out of the natural course of things, and sudden, surprising change. It’s not all good, it just is. Love is more difficult, but deeper. Ideals are more firmly grounded, less rosy. But dreams don’t die.

Halfway mark, insha’Allah.

Anniversary Archive Compositions Electronic Memoir Postclassical

Birthday Music

Today would have been the 85th birthday of my father Samuel Lawrence (Larry) Russell. He died two months short of his 65th, so this year is also the twentieth anniversary of his passing. Although as a transracial adoptee I have travelled on an outlying cultural path from that of my adoptive family, they are the original source of love in my life.

If my father was a little out of his era and his element in following what I did as a young musician—his natural musical heroes were Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra and Buddy Holly—he always had time to listen to whatever seemingly strange, novice piece I was working on and the even stranger theory behind it. He would encourage me and then gently mention “making it accessible.”

I don’t know what he would have made of Birthday Music, one of a number of pieces I composed and dedicated to him in the year after his death. Created for my demo reel as a composer for dance, it’s an admittedly bizarre concoction incorporating just intonation tuning, drones, my quirky programming style and the strongest evidence of Steve Reich’s influence on my work. With all that in the mix, I still relied on good-old, I-VI-I-V-I blues structure in the bassline, and a snare-kick backbeat, albeit in 3/2 time.

For Larry, with love

Composed and recorded on a Korg M1 workstation, May 31, 1993

Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce Russell 2013

Archive Compositions Experimental Memoir Postclassical

Quarter-Tone Study

This piece was composed and recorded when I was a student at York University, most likely a partial result of attending the late James Tenney’s course on the music of Charles Ives and hearing the latter composer’s Three Quarter-Tone Pieces. Although I took the time to prepare a neat modular score (see below), my involvement with the piece was minor – it wasn’t submitted for coursework or student performances. It was a study, just that, albeit one less concerned with exploring the possibilities of the quarter-tone pitch universe than with superimposing that tonality on the minimalist aesthetic.

Quarter-Tone Study score 1990 pg1 text resize

Quarter-Tone Study score 1990 pg2 text resize

It is scored for two pianos tuned a quarter tone apart (like the Ives) and four-part chorus; where the soprano and alto tune a quarter tone higher than standard along with piano 2; and bass, tenor and piano 1 remain in standard pitch. Each harmony sounds for 77 eighth notes (quavers), with the chorus singing drones and the pianos playing two different rhythmic loops of 11 and 7 respectively. I played the piano parts on the Roland S-50 sampler which had one of the first decent digital piano sounds.

Quarter-Tone Study was also my contribution to “annoying phone greetings” history: recorded onto my answering machine tape as an outgoing message, it sealed my reputation as a creepy student composer – at least with the administrative staff at the university. The fact that I sang all the vocal parts no doubt helped. I later included the piece on my cassette album “Eccentricities.”

Composed and recorded on half-inch, 8-track analog tape April 1990, mixed to DAT August 1990

All parts performed live. No sampling, metronome, programming or computer editing used at any point.

Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce Russell 2013

Anniversary Compositions Memoir Postclassical

Queen Peace

Today is Philip Glass’ birthday, my birthday and also the birthday of my first child, Aderemi. In honour of the last celebrant, I’m posting a piece from a suite I wrote for her in the year of her birth. Aderemi is a Yoruba name and translates “the crown brings peace.”

This is a very simple, diatonic waltz based on four five-note chords in A minor, with the bassline D, G, A, C.  The main melody is somewhat uncharacteristic for me, though it seemed to flow logically from the chords. The middle section echoes some of the kalimba music I have written; I’ve ignored my own pedalling markings here for a drier sound.

I will post the entire suite at a later date.

Happy birthday, Queen Peace!

Composed September 2007
Recorded January 2013

Photo by Nehal El-Hadi

Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce Russell 2013

Anniversary Dream Memoir

Dream Decade

Tuesday, September 11, 1991

(Journal entry)

My late grandfather was actually Igor Stravinsky with a changed identity. He did not die in 1971 but continued on in a secret life. When he did eventually pass away in 1986 (as my grandfather did in real life), I was shocked to learn his true identity and was angry at my mother and grandmother for keeping it from me. I was disappointed that I had missed out on a great musical legacy but felt that it somehow explained my influences and habits as a composer.

Anniversary Archive Composers Journal Memoir

Cage Centenary

August 12, 1992

(Journal entry. Transcription by Nehal El-Hadi, September 4, 2012)

John Cage died today at 79. I have somehow been expecting this news, as if it were confirmation that a certain era of progressiveness or revolution was truly now over. Cage, more than any other single figure in the arts, was one to bring about change in Western culture. And I wonder what effect his passing will have on art and music, if there is one to be felt.

He was a person who was mysterious to me, and I knew only some of his music and writings, but what I felt for him was something approaching worship. His ideas on music and life were some of the most profound I have yet encountered. I am sure that it will be many more years before I can really appreciate or understand the person or at least his ideas.

The music, however, has always communicated to me almost instantaneously. I am affected not merely on a cerebral or spiritual level, but on a highly instinctualized one. His prepared piano pieces give a feeling which is new and alien and perfectly “logical” at the same time. His reaffirmation of rhythm was so much more thorough and fundamental than either Stravinsky’s or Bartók’s. Through the innovation of prepared piano (even if it wasn’t his) and his writing for unique grouping of percussion, he reasserted the primitive in our music. This was long before rock ‘n’ roll or minimalism or new age; these genres owe a lot to him even if it has never been acknowledged.

His willingness to accept the total sound spectrum, including noise, as full of musical potential – not just tempered pitches and orchestral timbres – put Cage (along with Varése and Ives) at the forefront of musical innovation in this century. This was his gift to us: the whole world of sound.

The man who gave us “Music of Changes” realized there was inner music in outer silence, and inspired a whole community of performers to explore it. He legitimized his non-conformity.

I find it interesting that he eschewed conventional temporal and harmonic structures early on, and spent the rest of his life rediscovering the role of time in music, and later, the context of non-music.

I can think of no better goal than searching for the same answers that he was through his music – to learn about this world through art (not to exploit art for shallow ends). When we are confronted with silence in the not-too-distant future, after the media maelstrom, we will find Cage waiting, listening.

Composers Memoir

Li’l Minimalist

(written in March 2010)

One sunny late winter evening, I pick up Queen Peace after work. Nattily attired and chipper, she skips just ahead and then whirls around to ask, “Do you want to see my favourite dance?”

Of course, I answer. Her skip turns into a side to side stride, her arms swinging wide, as she sings an amalgam of various nursery rhymes, laughing herself off balance and half-crashing into some bushes. Then, she stands up straight and walks by my side. Quietly thoughtful for a moment, she looks up and says, “Daddy, I’m actually very interested in Steve Reich.”

This is a three year-old, who, every few days when I see her, seems to have advanced to a complete new level of understanding and expression of her world. And level of memory – it was a while ago I told her I had tickets to the Cool Drummings concert in Toronto, featuring the composer and his music.

“Can I go to the concert with you?”

It will be past your bedtime honey, and it might be a little loud for you. But we can listen to a Steve Reich concert when we get home if you like.

Later, I put on the Reich at the Roxy album.

“It’s skipping.”

“It sounds like soldiers.” Break in music from pulsing rhythm to pillars of sounds and shift of tempo; return to steady rhythm. We count together, dividing the bar by three, then four. This loses most adults. The bass drum and bass end of the piano pound out accents. “More soldiers,” she says. “Marching. March! March!” I begin to worry she’ll confuse this Reich with a more infamous one when her schooling begins.

I leave the room briefly. A fast movement begins. “Daddy, daddy, she calls out, “It’s playing very fast now! I call him Steve Rush!”

Voices. “Oh, I like opera.” Steve Reich doesn’t. “Does he like goblins and faeries in his opera?”

The music stops on a dime. “It’s over, I think.” [Applause.] “The concert ended. Daddy, it was good. I like Steve Reich.”

Journal Memoir

There is no past, only palimpsest

I once asked Madra, then in her late 80s and living in a retirement home, to tell me stories of her early days. She told me, “I’m too tired.” After she passed away, I cherished the short memoir she had written earlier in her life, and I typed it up. It was about nine pages in all.

I spend a lot of time archiving and documenting my own life and especially existing musical output. It is ultimately of no value to anyone but me. And yet, I do want to have stories to leave, even non-narrative, experimental music stories. All of this is for my daughter, hopefully less self-revision than continuity reaffirmed.

I’m documenting a past I’ll soon forget, if I haven’t already. I have a lot of newer pieces and unexplored ideas to attend to.

At the same time, I don’t believe in discarding, in “moving on” as though time is so linear, nor do I want to create work that is just a rewriting, colouring in over old lines. So I pay close attention to the layers underneath. It’s a personal approach, privileged by the luxury of a relatively quiet life. I’ve been lucky so far in not finding the need to stage my own creative auto-da-fé.

My wife said, memory is an unreliable narrator.

In a sense, all memories are falseI think only the sounds themselves speak with any feeling of truth about a time and place. The thing about musical sound is that no matter the vintage of its origins it is always created in the present, if it is music we are hearing at all.

Compositions Memoir


“Sequence, symmetry & simplicity”–my composer’s motto, 1996. 15 years later, inspiration strikes and the same schemes still seem sparkly.