Category Archives: Compositions

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

1996+20: Two Dances

Two Dances for Two Pianos (1996) draws its inspiration specifically from Reich (I was a diligent student if only through scores and recordings) and more generally Glass. In the opening of the first dance, “animus,” each of the piano parts is based on the resulting overall pattern of a stacked fifth melodic loop phased against itself (two quarter notes apart in piano one, a dotted quarter in piano two). To this four-part canon a slow hocket is added, in a higher register. This idea recurs with variation throughout both dances. In the second dance, “modus,” chord density, interval variety and harmonic ambiguity are increased slightly. To the conventions of minimalism I add the concise structure, root chord progressions and riffing more common in pop music. Both dances feature a constant steady pulse with occasional changes of rhythmic profile. Both are diatonic, staying in a single key signature throughout (D major and D-flat major, respectively).

I. animus (quarter note = 168), June 1996
II. modus (quarter note = 112), July 1996

Some of the material here is developed further in the dance theatre score WhISH (1997), the string quartet Madra (1999), the theatre track “Word from Earth” (2000), the solo piano piece “Oh Seven” (2007) and others. While Two Dances is barely a mature piece, it is more polished than anything done up to that point and helped me to keep going with my writing.

Recorded July 1996, Korg 01/WFD
Playback without effects November 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

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

Linea Nigra, for string octet

Linea Nigra (2015) began as an orchestration of my piano piece Canon Chorale (2005). It is scored for string octet, in this case the same configuration as a double string quartet. Most of the structure and content of the earlier work are retained as a kind of continuo, to which newly devised material adds range and contrapuntal detail.

The general technique is a variation of first species counterpoint. A set of short melodies in each of the modes of C major are heard in two- to six-voice, note-on-note canons at the unison and octave, creating a sequence of block chords, a chorale. The resulting harmonic progressions may have a cloud-like feel to them especially as melodic lengths and part density increase, and chord roots become ambiguous. Towards the end, faster melodic lines develop out of a recurring a triplet pattern.

The title of the piece reflects my own quest for my biological and cultural roots. Linea nigra (“black line”) thus references the vertical line that appears on a woman’s belly in some pregnancies, while it also suggests Black lineage and survival. It could also stand in the sense of a melodic line, printed or otherwise.

My great thanks go to Ashil Mistry, who suggested the instrumentation and generously edited the score, as well as directing the performance heard here.

Recorded July 3, 2016, London, UK
Scheme Ensemble
Ashil Mistry, conductor

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