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

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

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.

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.

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.”

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.