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, an app on a personal genetics site pointed to Haïti and Jamaica as my countries of ancestral origin. The plot only seemed to thicken during 2013. [2015 update: Cuba, the Bahamas, Italy and Nigeria are listed, too, in addition to my birth and parental roots in Canada, the UK and the USA. 2018 update: France, Germany, Ghana, Liberia and Sierra Leone.]

With this theme 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 minor 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 these developments. Some sense of mystery is present.

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

Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce Russell 2013

Not the Gospel According to John Adams

I’m not sure what art does. I know that it’s possible to imagine life without it. Anyone’s life would be horribly impoverished without art. Yet, it seems to me that if you really want to help people and improve their lives, the most efficient thing to do is to go right to the real issues, which are economic. And I think for artists to believe that their musical compositions, or their plays, or their poems or novels can have a really potent political effect is probably a bit overly optimistic.

– John Adams, interview for the Classical KUSC streaming broadcast of The Gospel According to the Other Mary performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, June 2013

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

Steve Reich Keys, a Mixtape, Vol. 2

Steve Reich has often described the role of keys and chord cycles in his compositions. This retrospective treats Reich’s oeuvre as a meta-cycle of chords, using harmonic mixing to match tracks whose endpoints share a common key or subset of pitches.

Vol. 2 focuses on Reich’s earlier, longer pieces, and includes most of his major works not appearing in Vol. 1, with several being reprised. Vols. 1 and 2 are linked harmonically by the dyad F#-B, heard at the end of Proverb and the beginning of the second movement of Electric Counterpoint. Also, the dyad E-A at the end of Four Organs is found in the first chord of the third movement of Mallet Quartet. Thus, both volumes may be heard back-to-back as a 5 1/2 hour cycle.

Vol. 2 features several dominant-tonic transitions, a natural result given that Reich’s pieces often end on the dominant chord.

No alteration of the pitch of the original tracks was made.

Tracklist & Artists
(keys and/or harmonies at endpoints)

0:00:00-0:03:01
Electric Counterpoint, II. Slow (1987)
Pat Metheny
(F#-B dyad, A Lydian or B11/A in C# minor)

0:02:55-0:09:02
The Four Sections, IV. Full orchestra (♩ = 180) (1987)
The London Symphony Orchestra, Michael Tilson Thomas
(A Lydian or B11/A in C# minor; C# dominant, C#-F# dyad in F# major)

0:09:02-0:18:48
Drumming, Part IV (1970-71)
Ictus, Synergy Vocals
(C#-F# dyad in G# Dorian or C# dominant)

0:18:45-0:21:13
Sextet, III. (1984)
Steve Reich and Musicians with members of Nexus and the Manhattan Marimba Quartet
(C# altered dominant)

0:21:10-0:30:31
Three Tales: Dolly, VI. Robots/Cyborgs/Immortality (1998-2002)
The Steve Reich Ensemble, Synergy Vocals, Bradley Lubman
(C# altered dominant; Gsus7 in C minor)

0:30:07-0:36:42
Three Movements, I. ♩ = c. 176-184 (1986)
Chorus sine nomine, Tonkünstler-Orchester, Kristjan Järvi
(E altered dominant, includes Gsus7; Csus7 in A-flat)

0:36:38-0:52:04
Music for a Large Ensemble (1978)
Steve Reich and Musicians
(F minor; A-flat major)

0:52:02-1:07:13
Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ (1973)
Alarm Will Sound
(F minor; A-flat dominant in D-flat)

1:07:12-1:24:32
Eight Lines (Octet) (1979/1983)
Bang on a Can/Bradley Lubman
(C# Dorian; A-flat dominant in D-flat)

1:24:32-1:40:54
Six Marimbas Counterpoint (1973/1986)
Kuniko Kato
(D-flat; B-flat Aeolian)

1:40:54-1:46:56
Dance Patterns (2002)
James Preiss, Thad Wheeler, Frank Cassara, Garry Kvistad, Edmund Niemann, Nurit Tilles
(B-flat dominant; C minor)

1:46:53-1:58:20
Cello Counterpoint (2003)
Maya Beiser
(G Phrygian dominant, C minor)

1:58:21-2:19:55
Variations for Winds, Strings and Keyboards (1979)
San Francisco Symphony, Edo de Waart
(C minor, C Dorian)

2:19:55-2:24:35
The Cave, Act 3: New York City/Austin (April-May 1992), III. Who Is Hagar? (1990-93)
The Steve Reich Ensemble, Paul Hillier
(F dominant in G minor; D minor)

2:24:35-2:31:03
Tehillim, Part IV (1981)
Steve Reich and Musicians, George Manahan
(C dominant in D minor, A dominant in D)

2:30:42-2:38:28
It’s Gonna Rain, Part I (1965)
Steve Reich
(D major)

2:38:15-2:58:40
Piano Phase (1967)
Double Edge
(B minor; Esus7)

2:58:37-3:14:23
Four Organs (1970)
Bang on a Can
(E dominant; E-A dyad)

Compiled and mixed April 2013

Creative Consultant: Ashil Mistry

As it is intended for the study and analysis of the music of Steve Reich, this post falls under fair use. The copyrights for these recordings are owned by record companies Chandos, Cyprès, Denon, ECM, Linn, Nonesuch, Sweetspot and UMG. The copyrights for the music are owned by Boosey & Hawkes and Universal Edition. Please contact me directly regarding any copyright claim.

If you enjoy this music, please purchase the original recordings.

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