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

Kenza’s 40 Days

Our daughter has been with us 40 days, which is a significant milestone in Islam. The number 40 appears a great deal in the literature of all the Abrahamic religions.

“Fourths + Fifths” is the first movement of the three-movement work Kenza (2012). It is structured around a sequence of six diatonic modes, each associated with a melodic pattern. Each pattern builds from a single arpeggio to block chords by layering in canon (superimposing several phased copies of the pattern, i.e. the same pattern with different starting points and/or octaves), although this process is only made clear with the first pattern. The intervals of the fourth and fifth predominate both melodically and harmonically throughout.

This recording was made on the date of the post. I will post the entire suite at a later date.

Composed December 2012
Recorded January 2013

Photo by Nehal El-Hadi

Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce Russell 2013

Best of 2011/2012

The past 24 months have been full of wonderful blessings and have witnessed the happiest period of my life so far. Alhamdulillah, for all that has been given.

It thus seems fitting to me, in doing a best of list, to look at the last two years as a whole. Here’s what has brought (re)new(ed)ness to the personal soundtrack, in no particular order (other than stream of consciousness)…

Returnings: Music of Ann Southam – Eve Egoyan, piano (Centrediscs, 2011)

Glass Houses Revisited – music of Ann Southam; Christina Petrowska Quilico, piano (Centrediscs, 2011)

Soundings for a New Piano – music of Ann Southam; R. Andrew Lee, piano (Irritable Hedgehog, 2011)

Jürg Frey: Piano Music – R. Andrew Lee, piano (Irritable Hedgehog, 2012)

The Northern Shore – music of Barbara Monk Feldman; Sabat/Clarke and Aki Takahashi (Mode, 2012)

Undercurrents: CONTACT Performs the Music of Jordan Nobles – CONTACT Contemporary Music (Redshift, 2011)

Until the Quiet Comes – Flying Lotus (Warp, 2012)

Seeds – Georgia Anne Muldrow (Someothaship CONNECT, 2012)

Radio Music Society – Esperanza Spalding (Heads Up International, 2012)

Black Radio – Robert Glasper Experiment (Blue Note, 2012)

Brand New Wayo: Funk, Fast Times & Nigerian Boogie Madness 1979-1983 – Various Artists (Comb & Razor, 2011)

Music of Vladimir Martynov – Kronos Quartet (Nonesuch, 2012)

WTC 9/11, Mallet Quartet, Dance Patterns – music of Steve Reich; Kronos Quartet, Sō Percussion, Steve Reich & Musicians (Nonesuch, 2011)

Symphony No. 9 – music of Philip Glass; Bruckner Orchester Linz, Dennis Russell Davies, conductor (Orange Mountain, 2012)

Seeing is Believing – music of Nico Muhly, William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons; Thomas Gould, violin; Aurora Orchestra, Nicholas Collon, conductor (Decca, 2011)

Adam’s Lament – music of Arvo Pärt; Latvian Radio Choir, Vox Clamantis, Sinfonietta Riga, Tõnu Kaljuste, conductor (ECM, 2012)

Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima / Popcorn Superhet Receiver / Polymorphia / 48 Responses to Polymorphia – music of Krzysztof Penderecki and Jonny Greenwood; AUKSO Orchestra, Krzysztof Penderecki and Marek Moś, conductors (Nonesuch, 2012)

Son of Chamber Symphony / String Quartet – music of John Adams; International Contemporary Ensemble, John Adams, conductor and St. Lawrence String Quartet (Nonesuch, 2011)

January edits:

Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi, The Four Seasons – Daniel Hope, violin; Konzerthaus Kammerorchester Berlin, André de Ridder, conductor (Deutsche Grammophon, 2012)

Pour une âme souveraine – a Dedication to Nina Simone – Meshell Ndegeocello (naïve, 2012)

Pink – Four Tet (Text, 2012)

Happy New Year to all the readers and followers of El Mahboob, and all my best to you for 2013.