Category Archives: Memoir

Larger in the Past

Grateful for so much as my history unfolds in reverse. Summer’s first journey to my birth mother’s home, with a family whom I’m so proud of with me. Upon our return my paternal side manifested. A grandfather in the Jim Crow South. Voice on the line who shared this family’s history of migration to the north, who invited me to holiday gatherings and told me, “You’re not alone in this.” Music and accomplishment has flowed through both sides. My genetically aspirational test results confirming Bahamas, Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica as ancestral places. And out of the sky, my long-failed career as a recording artist is suddenly not quite so failed (recall: history in reverse).

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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

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

Oxford & Augusta

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 gothic, monochrome and binary nature of the material brought to mind a crossroads. This 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

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

Come Through

I created a playlist a couple of years ago, to collect a series of 70s and 80s re-edits emailed to me in draft form for my feedback. One of the tracks arrived by way of reply to an email I’d sent with a gift of remastered music files, the source material for the re-edit. This was how it was with me and Masimba Kadzirange, Grandmaster DJ Son Of S.O.U.L., Source of Undying Love. For me it was an acknowledgement: among circles which intersected and didn’t in our brief friendship, we had this. A man of extraordinary musical gifts, recollection, insight, technique and experience, he included me among those trusted folks from whom he sought an opinion and whose musical values were understood and shared. I’m honoured by that fact.
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It’s been one month since he left us suddenly. I’m grateful to have shared in the wonderful human being he was, while part of me remembers not taking up his invitation to “come through one time” to a recent series of club nights he was putting on only a ten-minute walk from my home. I was too tired from my job or busy tending to the bedtimes and wakeups of our small children. Every time I did get to hear him spin and cut — always with turntables, music on vinyl and no software — I was astounded by his musicality and brought to my feet to dance and sing along.

Masimba made a tremendous impact in his community. He was loved. He will be missed in person, though his memory will continue to be celebrated by those who knew him, and through the music that was a central part of his own celebration of life.

“Pardon the delayed response my brother. You all will see me soon.”

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

Love and the Troubles

The five-part piano cycle Gimme Some Modes was composed from 2005 to 2009. Each piece uses a different seven-note, non-diatonic mode as a basis to explore ambiguous, scalar tonal schemes. The texture evolves by way of interleaved patterns of pitch rows, arpeggios, progressions of parallel chord shapes, note-on-note canons/chorales, and high and low pedals. The result is a set of meditations on harmony.


The fifth piece, “Love and the Troubles” (2009), begins with a mode spelled C-flat, D, E-flat, F, G-flat, A, B-flat (i.e. B-flat double harmonic major or E-flat double harmonic minor). After a seven-note row on this mode is woven into an extended chordal canon, a second mode is introduced with the substitution of one pitch. This mode is spelled C-flat, D, E-flat, F-sharp, G, A, B-flat (i.e. C-flat augmented with an added flat seventh degree).

The final passage modulates through several keys, always on the pitches of the mode but highlighting its tonal ambiguity. The row appearing just before the very loud chord at the three-quarter point of the piece spells out the chord, the mode, and the bass pedal tones of the ending: C-flat, D, E-flat, G, B-flat, A, F-sharp.

The score is dated 09 09 09.

Recorded February 2014, Roland digital piano direct to file

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