Category Archives: Anniversary

1987+30: The Longing

“The Longing” (1987) was my dazed, departing glance at the battleground of adolescence. It was created at the beginning of my studies in electroacoustic composition—my first composition class of any kind—at York University, although not as part of my school work. Even by then, tonality was still a no. Then, as now, I didn’t fit neatly into any one musical box. Enter the DIY cassette: Earthtones, completed over several illicit late night sessions with a mix of school equipment and my own. I had the good fortune of being able to stroll from my dorm room indoors to the studio in the same college. An all-nighter that ended just as my floormates were leaving for their classes allowed for a period of undisturbed rest.

There are four musical lines: a percussive synth phrase on a reel-to-reel tape loop; the same tape loop manipulated and processed, eventually disintegrating in a wash of digital reverb; an improvised synth pad recorded backwards, i.e. the first notes heard were the last played and vice versa; and a piano part which was improvised in response to the retrograde harmonies of the synth.

As with other tracks on Earthtones (“The Longing” being the finale), I composed as I recorded, coasting on the nonrenewable fumes of naïveté. Considering I had taught myself piano and started to play in pop bands only three to four years before, this is a very early snapshot of me self-identifying as a composer.

Recorded November 1987
Four-track cassette, mixed to stereo cassette

Photo: December 25, 1987

Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce Russell 2017

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1997+20: Foyer

My excursion into cheesy, middle of the road, smooth jazz yacht was purely amusement, with no commercial purpose. The contemporary classical composer was thus along for the ride, speaking up now and then, casting a certain late century, “Saturn return” mannerist harmonic shadow. My R&B and pop influences are reflected in the palette of sounds, as is my own early history of parody as style. Despite the presence of a verse-chorus song structure, there are techniques similar to those I’ve used in my abstract pieces: in particular, harmonic variations on a limited set of repeated riffs. The bridge and outro feature a static funk groove, one which focuses on and extends one of the riffs. The phrase was probably grafted from Stevie Wonder’s song “I Can’t Help It” as sung by Michael Jackson (“running often through my mind”). The technology especially gives the whole thing a “your call is important to us” quality. Yet rather than programming in all the tracks with perfect timing and key volumes, everything was recorded by playing it in, with minor touching up of the timecode and velocity settings.

Composed and recorded 1997
Korg 01/WFD

Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce Russell 2017

Glass Reich 80 12 18

Audio counterpoint in recognition of two 80th birthday years.

How would the photograph below sound, if the composers were substituted with their music?

Glass Reich 80 12 18

Steve Reich and Musicians: Music for 18 Musicians (1974-1976), Sections VIII, II, IIIA, IIIB, X

simultaneously with

The Philip Glass Ensemble: Music in Twelve Parts (1971-1974), Part 1

All of the music heard here is in the key of F-sharp natural minor. By placing them in a chance situation, I’ve introduced an irrational element to two compositions which are each rigorously ordered, and yet the eddying combination of their shared pitches has an eerie, reinforcing, unifying effect. While Twelve is set at a slightly lower output level than 18 relative to the original Nonesuch recordings, there is no other mixing. All tracks are complete, at original pitch and otherwise unaltered.

I do not own the copyright of the works presented here. I am claiming fair use.

Photo credit: The Wall Street Journal

1997+20: urfunk etude

urfunk etude was premiered in February 1997. It presents two separate ideas simultaneously: two-part ostinato canons for solo piano, and harmonic progressions in a 5-limit, just intonation tuning. The piece may also be performed in 12-tone equal temperament with no special tuning. Some of the melodic patterns here were adapted for my string quartet Madra (1999). #microminimalism #PianoDay2017

Composed and recorded January 1997, Korg 01/WFD

Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce Russell 2017

1997+20: Storm

“Storm” is an excerpt from the 30-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. “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 in canon with each other—are also found in my Two Dances for Two Pianos (1996) and string quartet Madra (1999). Here they are 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.

Composed and recorded January 1997, Korg 01/WFD

Photo: detail from cassette cover, drawing by Carsten Knox

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

1996+20: Coupling

“Coupling” (1996) is a section from the score to Woo: Cases of Bloodletting and Natural Selection, a multimedia work by Liminal Zoo Theatre (Derek Mohamed and Tracy Renee Stafford, co-creators). It was heard as a live mix and provided the accompaniment to silent onstage action as well as prerecorded spoken word passages. It is a drone collage, restored here using three elements from the original version: a digital track created on the Korg 01W/FD with a custom just intonation tuning; portions of an older theatre score, “The Monster” (1992), for 4-track cassette and Yahama DX-27; and various excerpts or loops from other pieces of mine that were added in performance.

The original “Coupling” ran 30 minutes in performance; I have removed 10 minutes for this edition. The piece begins with a slow canon in G and from the two minute mark onward remains fixed on D. While the drone root does not change, many different upper pitches, sound colours, textures and moods are encountered along the way.

Composed July 1996
Restoration December 2016

Equipment: Tascam Portastudio cassette 4-track, sound sources Roland S-50 sampler and Sony home CD player with loop function, across several generations of tape and Yamaha DX-27 synthesizer, Roland reverb;

Photo: detail from NOW Magazine, August 1996, newsprint, low res scan December 2016

Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce A. Russell 2016

23, for piano

23 (2016) was composed as an homage to Steve Reich and is dedicated to him on the occasion of his 80th birthday. All of the material in this piano miniature derives from melodic patterns and sonorities in his music. (This is true to a lesser degree about some of my earlier pieces as I have pointed out elsewhere.) The starting point for this process was measure 23 from Piano Phase (1967) and Reich’s favoured key signature of D major/B minor. There are several other works and Reichian tonal centres referenced, sometimes in quick or overlapping succession.


I avoided transforming melodic or harmonic entities beyond recognition, emphasizing spontaneous musical flow over structured collage. Fans of the elder composer may enjoy listening for references however subtle they may appear. Others may note that 23 sounds similar to my other piano pieces, which reflects the great influence Reich has had on my work. A tribute seems only fitting.

Happy 80th, Steve!

Composed September 2016
Recorded live with no edits October 2016, Roland digital piano direct

Photo: Carolyn Cole

Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce A. Russell 2016