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Anniversary Archive Choral Compositions Electronic Experimental Memoir Percussion Photo Pop Postclassical Vocal

95/25: Uhuru

Uhuru is a self-released album which was completed during the winter of 1995 and released in the fall. I had originally hoped to release it on CD but was unable to secure sufficient funds, so it arrived in a run of 100 cassettes. The program was over 70 minutes long, comprising mainly songs and instrumentals I had composed in the preceding two years, much of it dedicated to my adoptive father who had passed away at the beginning of that period. In honour of the 25th anniversary, I present three selections from the album.

The recordings were a bit more developed than demos, though with a very minimal budget for studio hours, it was still well in the realm of bare bones production. All of the solo vocal tracks were sung live to master in a single take, over a backing track created on my keyboard workstation (a Korg 01/WFD which sits beside me now, waiting for archiving assignments). I called this method “guerrilla karaoke.” Several tracks involved overdubbing my voice to create a chorus, and benefitted from a mixdown, usually on the spot after recording.

While I had sung in a church choir, community musical theatre and in bands through high school and university, some years had passed without me singing anywhere at all, thus my voice on Uhuru often has a plain, hushed or tentative quality. It suited the part of me that embraces the imperfect in art, often in an uneasy relationship with the part that tends to want structure and precision. I seemed to enjoy rediscovering and exploring my voice, all the same.

There was no preplanned theme to the album, and it was highly eclectic in sound and style on purpose. In retrospect, it appears to focus on discovering and exploring my own identity and personal myths, often letting these remain fragmented and obscure.

In terms of its strange audio, “Fermentia (Apple of My Eye)” was my response to trip hop. It was a gesture towards a quiet inner music, with my noisier tendencies surfacing at points in seeming opposition to the precious bits. The lyrics wander through some personal images from childhood, and in an abstract way are processing my questions and feelings around being a transracial adoptee, from the perspective of a young fine arts grad. I rode the distortion and delay effects on the Korg workstation during the instrumental sections while doing the vocals. I performed this song live several times during that period, with the same setup. The ascending and descending melodic line near the end (“you are eros in my life”) is the opening row of “Uhuru” transposed.

Written and recorded January 1995
Korg 01/WFD, voice live to DAT
Engineered by Scott Collings
Photo: Uhuru cassette and layout

“The Farthest Shore” incorporates voices, penny whistles, floor tom and ocean drum (beaten, shaken and tilted for the ocean sound). The harmonies were roughed out beforehand, based in part on the augmented scale, while some notes are improvised. Everything else was created during recording. The title is from the book by Ursula K. Le Guin, the third in her Earthsea Cycle. I met the late literary icon five years later at a reading and book signing, and she was encouraging to me as a composer in any potential attempt to set her work. It’s neither an attempt at world music nor at conveying a particular narrative concept.

Composed and recorded February 1995
Half-inch 16-track mixed to DAT
Engineered by Scott Collings
Photo: near Sunnybrook Park, spring 1994

“Uhuru” —or, as I like to joke, life before autotune—emerged spontaneously from my vocal explorations, and was my first notated choral piece. The text was chosen somewhat randomly, sometimes more for sound than meaning. Key words and phrases suggest a lament for something lost in a hidden past, and a prayer for the end of violence against Black bodies. There is also a comforting hint of the ever-present pop ballads of my childhood, offset by angular sonorities. Except for one brief moment of chromaticism, the music uses only the seven pitches of the diatonic scale in C major as spelled out in the opening row, employing a variety of symmetrical chord structures (lots of stacked fourths and fifths) and featuring a short canonic break.

Composed November 1994, recorded February 1995
8 voices (sung by the composer, 2 per part), half-inch 16-track mixed to DAT
Engineered by Scott Collings
Photo: handwritten score excerpt, 1995

Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce A. Russell 2020

Categories
Anniversary Archive Compositions Electronic Funk Memoir Pop Postclassical Vocal

90/30: Eccentricities

Eccentricities is a six-song, self-released cassette EP which emerged in the fall of 1990. I recall having 100 copies made and being satisfied with that level of dispersion; it was all I could afford in any case. In honour of the 30th anniversary, I present two of the songs here (with a third linked below).

My recordings during this period were all effectively demos. Made with no budget, engineers, producers, retakes, final mixdowns, editing, mastering, label releases or promotion. They were an in the moment document, like the solo piano recordings I turned to focus on in later decades, created with a minimum of tools and preparation and on the raw side. There are many songs and pieces I’ve returned to for revision or reimagining, but the version 1.0s are always done quickly, very rarely seeing a live performance.

Track 1, side B. In its awkward, often corny way, “The Gardener” was about envisioning a sustainable, equitable and peaceful future. Musically, it looked back on the two decades which preceded it terms of tempo, rhythm and melodic style; and even further back in the century with the use of stacked-fifth chords as the main harmonic fabric. All the keyboard parts were performed live. The presence of the TR-808 marked the first time I incorporated a preprogrammed element into my music. I often wish I had seen fit to capture it on its own as a stem as it was so fun to make, and like the song itself, it expressed a unique side of my musical thought at a particular time.

Written and recorded July 1990
half-inch 8-track, unmastered mixdown to DAT
Roland S-50, Roland TR-808, Yahama DX-27, Fender bass, voice

Track 3, side B. “One Foot Firmly Planted” is the closing song of the EP, and like “The Gardener” which opens the side, it employs chords of stacked fifths in the organ as the harmonic material, sometimes doubled here by the voices. A piece which did not perhaps emerge from the ground as I boast in the liner notes, but formed spontaneously without a preplanned direction from a bare bones beat of conga, clapping and floor tom; coloured with organ and hailed by some strange, quasi-philosophical, quasi-choral voices. In an unconscious nod to the period of study of electroacoustic composition which I had just concluded, I randomly spliced and recombined the last few seconds of the multitrack tape, where the song disintegrates.

Written and recorded July 1990
half-inch 8-track, unmastered mixdown to DAT
percussion, Korg CX-3, voice

(Here’s one more piece from Eccentricities, “Quarter-Tone Study.”)

Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce A. Russell 2020

Categories
5 Questions Afro-Caribbean Classical Composers Dance Experimental I Care If You Listen Interview Journalism Media Music Journalism Percussion Performers Postclassical Vocal

5 Questions to Anaïs Maviel

My interview for I Care If You Listen.

Categories
Afro-Caribbean Electronic Funk Hip Hop Mixtapes R&B Vocal

Twenty Tens

As a farewell to the decade when music collections and manual selection became niche, here’s an old-fashioned segue mix.

Ìfé | Bangah (Pico y Palo)

Georgia Anne Muldrow | Overload

Ibeyi | River

D’Angelo and The Vanguard | Really Love

King | Red Eye

Thundercat | Them Changes

Erykah Badu | Gone Baby, Don’t Be Long

Childish Gambino | Boogieman

The Internet | Wanna Be

Esperanza Spalding | Touch in Mine

Snarky Puppy with Lalah Hathaway | Something

Solange | Junie

Shafiq Husayn feat. Jimetta Rose & Fatima | May I Assume

Flying Lotus feat. Kendrick Lamar | Never Catch Me

Brandon Coleman feat. Patrice Quinn & Techdizzle | Giant Feelings

Anderson .Paak | King James

Kamasi Washington | Show Us the Way

Kaytranada feat. Little Dragon | Bullets

Laura Mvula | Phenomenal Woman

Moses Sumney | Self-Help Tape

Ibrahim El Mahboob

December 2019

Categories
Anniversary Archive Compositions Dance Electronic Experimental Memoir Postclassical Theatre Toronto Vocal

1997+20: WhISH

Below are excerpts from the thirty-minute score for WhISH, an interdisciplinary fairy tale performed by Liminal Gryphon Theatre (director Derek Mohamed, choreographer Tracy Renee Stafford). WhISH premiered in February 1997 as part of the Rhubarb! Festival at Buddies in Bad Times in Toronto. The score was also released on cassette.

WhISH was an image and movement based work; there was no text, spoken or otherwise. It was suggested that I write melodic motifs for the characters appearing onstage. The closest I came to this was a set of contrapuntal, rhythmically interchangeable melodic patterns, with a different mode for each character. Quite often only fragments of these patterns are heard.

“Storm” was the accompaniment to an ensemble dance, and is of a piece with my lo-fi, distorted MIDI 90s work. The double-layer canons—one high, one low and also in canon with each other—are also found in my Two Dances for Two Pianos (1996) and string quartet Madra (1999). Here this material is heard in a just intonation tuning.

The time signature is a slow 3/2. There are two kick drum parts; one heartbeat-like, one with low bass notes doubling accents in the canons. The echo/reverb effects and lazy beat are inspired by dub and trip hop.

In “Fight,” the counterpoint reaches a dense, repetitive peak, fuelled by prominent electronic beats and distorted synth wails. The time signature changes between 4/4, 5/4 and 6/4 (3/2).

“Voices,” is the finale music. This is a short, cloudlike piece, scored for workstation and multiple voices overdubbed, and uses the same just intonation tuning as above. It passes through a series of dominant-like harmonies by gradually expanding the register of the voices, while the bassline moves generally by leaps; with a bit of tritone-itis toward the peak. The tuning would ideally involve a properly workshopped, practice-based acoustic ensemble and chorus.

Composed and recorded January 1997
Korg 01/WFD and Yahama cassette 4-track (for “Voices”)

Photo: detail from cassette cover, drawing by Carsten Knox

Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce A. Russell 2017