Category Archives: Archive

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

Word from Earth

Word from Earth (Century Closing) (2000) was originally the finale of a theatre score. This post washes up a no filter, exploded view of the piece, replayed on the same 1993 Korg workstation on which it was produced, i.e. there is no reverb, no mastering software and no attempt to create a polished mix. The sound is low res, dark, vintage, basic—as one might expect our early radio signals to appear to our interstellar neighbours. Most of the melodic content from the “theatrical” version of the track is retained in the two electric piano parts, as are the bassline and some of the percussion. The music is in three sections: a slow crab canon; hocketing patterns with chordal accents; and fast, interlocking canons.


Recorded July 2000, Korg 01/WFD (aka the way back playback machine)
Remixed June 2016

Photo: The Design Exchange, Toronto, September 2016

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

Kindred Pieces

This is a series of piano works composed between 2001 and 2006 which share material in some way. These mutual resemblances reflect my own compositional journey, rather than any intention to create an overarching form. I have grouped the pieces together years after writing them. The opening six notes of Oxford & Augusta determine the content of that piece, return in Trinity and in different variations are the generative cells of both Ardour and Sleepsong. The idea of descending parallel progressions recurs throughout the series.

I. Oxford & Augusta
II. In Another Life
III. Trinity
IV. Ardour (Barefoot Across the Sun)
V. Peripeteia (Impromptu)
VI. Osun Light
VII. Sleepsong

Oxford & Augusta (2001) is one of my simplest pieces. It consists entirely of three- and six-note melodic patterns layered in note-on-note canons. The entire piece is generated from the opening six notes, three ascending followed by three descending. Durations are uniform; the first section is all in quarter notes, followed by a section in eighth notes and one in half notes. The monochrome, binary nature of the material brought to mind a crossroads. That image could have described my life at the time; thus, the title is the intersection at which I was living, near the heart of Kensington Market. Recorded April 2016, Roland digital piano direct to file.

In Another Life (2002) was originally a song. I also found its repeated figure, ascending sevenths alternating with descending seconds, interesting enough to make the accompaniment its own piece. The music oscillates, descends and eventually ascends in progressions of parallel chords. Harmonic ambiguity is created through the use of voicing, register and pedal notes. Recorded October 2015, Roland digital piano direct to file.

Trinity (2003, dated 03 03 03) is a dark piece with a brooding, melodramatic feel. Figures from Oxford & Augusta and In Another Life appear in a mode that mixes natural and harmonic minor, with some altered tonality toward the end. There is a recurring motif consisting of six-note chords which return in varied, symmetrical voicings later in the set Kindred Pieces, in which this work is included. Recorded May 2003, Korg 01/WFD.

Ardour (Barefoot Across the Sun) (2004) consists of seven short variations using the six notes of the opening (an iteration of the cell from Oxford & Augusta) as a ground bass. The first variation uses a repeated figure similar to the one from In Another Life, slightly more developed. The third variation features a Reich-style canon at the octave between the two hands. The next two variations fuse elements of Reich and Glass. This is followed by a variation with ascending arpeggi, then one with six-note chords. The final, very brief variation is a note-on-note canon on the six-note cell. Recorded October 2004, Korg 01/WFD. Photo: Krista Ellis.

Peripeteia (Impromptu) (2006) was recorded the evening of Whitney Houston’s tragic passing in February 2012. It is a single, live take with no edits. The title refers to a turning point moment in my own life at the time this piano miniature was composed. The piece uses only six pitches throughout – A, B, C, D, E, F# – i.e. G major, with no G. I like the tint of this hexatonic, quasi-Dorian mode and explore it in a naively spectralist, faintly gospel chorale in the first section. The six notes are heard clearly as pedal points in the bass once the ictus (pulse) doubles for the second section. The influence in the second section is the Prelude No. 1 in C major from Book 1 of The Well-Tempered Clavier by J. S. Bach, in the sense that the music is expressed as a succession of melodic patterns with identical rhythm and similar shape but changing harmony and intervals — a classic baroque sequence. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, sort of thing. Roland digital piano direct to file.

Osun Light (2006, dated 06 06 06) was composed during a critical time; in this case upon learning I was to become a parent for the first time. The piece is based on a seven-note circle of fourths (or fifths), a set of intervals which has provided the harmonic foundation for a great deal of Western music, from the Baroque through 20th century jazz and pop. I employ the series throughout – sometimes as a bassline, sometimes as a melodic ostinato, sometimes both simultaneously. Near the beginning there are seven block chords, each consisting of seven notes, that form the vertical basis for what follows. Recorded April 2013, Roland digital piano direct to file.

Sleepsong (2006) is the first music I wrote for my older daughter. The title reflects my interest in the dream world and its relation to waking life. At close to twelve minutes long, the piece begins as a lullaby and passes frequently through different moods, energy states and types of motion. It consists of sixteen short modules which flow together; the ordering of these modules was part of the compositional process. The complexity of design is offset by an aesthetic of audible simplicity. The music remains in rhythmically regular 3/4 time and uses only the notes of the G major scale throughout. Once again, the opening six notes are the basic generative cell for everything that follows. Recorded November 2008, Korg 01/WFD.

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

Good News

Absurdist techno funk. A version of this song appeared on my cassette album Eccentricities (1990). Days before making the recording I’d had my first encounter with a Roland TR-808 drum machine, and spent hours learning how to program it (considering this was before internet).

The time signature is 4/4 parallel with 12/8. To achieve this, I created a grid of 24 sixteenths, which was a bit of a slog considering the front panel of the 808 only has 16 buttons. The effect is not unlike the programmed rhythmic patterns in new jack swing, a genre which was popular at the time. The resulting beat here is quirky, however, with a march-like snare dominating towards the end. There is a Reichian finale with multiple pianos and voices in a phasing soup.

Eccentricities was a project done in my student years, though not a part of my sanctioned studies. I was leaving my  “no-perfectionism” period, wanting my music to be more precise. The vocal and pitched instrumental parts are in the Lydian dominant mode in E-flat, with bluesy colourations. The original vocal lines have been substantially edited out or shuffled here. I will note the lyrics had an environmentalist theme. With that in mind, the title is evermore sardonic.

Note : Extreme nerds may enjoy knowing that I sampled the orchestral stab used on this track from the opening of the John Williams score to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” The source recording was a cassette dub of a worn vinyl LP.

#quartercentury

Composed, recorded and mixed July 1990
Analog 8-track 1/2 inch reel-to-reel tape, mixed to DAT
Instrumentation: Roland TR-808 (programmed), Roland S-50 (played manually)
Re-edited December 2015

Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce A. Russell 2015

Like It’s 1994/95: Uhuru

A recurring introspective retrospective of my music as it sounded twenty years earlier. In early 1994, I took my first trip to Europe, spending a week in Lyon where my music was heard at a university dance festival as well as in the subway for a pop up freestyle contemporary dance event. I spent the latter part of the year working on the indie cassette release Uhuru, which would come out the following spring, and playing keyboards and percussion in a post-punk band. In early 1995, another dance score was heard in London. In late 1995, I began graduate studies at York University, returning nine years after I had first arrived as an undergraduate.

Throughout this period, I continued to hold down a full time retail job selling classical and jazz CDs in Yorkville, as well as freelancing as a composer for dance and theatre. I also got my first taste of hosting college radio. It was my most active period being involved in music in general.

November 1994 rec. February 1995. 8 voices (2 per part), 8 track reel-to-reel. Begins with a row on the seven pitches of the diatonic scale. The pronunciation of uhuru was conflated with “yoo hoo” although I now prefer the proper initial “u” sound. This is life before autotune, for better or worse. Photo: handwritten score excerpt, 1995

Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce A. Russell 2014

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