Category Archives: Postclassical

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

Best of 2016

Childish Gambino “Awaken, My Love!” (Glassnote)

Vicky Chow A O R T A (New Amsterdam)

King We Are King (King Creative)

Laura Mvula The Dreaming Room (Sony · RCA)

Holly Roadfeldt The Preludes Project (Ravello)

Solange A Seat at the Table (Saint · Columbia)

Esperanza Spalding Emily’s D+Evolution (Concord)

reissues · remasters · box sets

Wally Badarou Back to Scales To-Night (Barclay · Expansion)

The Emotions Blessed: The Emotions Anthology 1969-1985 (BBR)

Philip Glass The Complete Sony Recordings (Sony)

Bernard Herrmann Twisted Nerve (Stylotone)

Kleeer Get Tough: The Kleeer Anthology (1978-1985) (BBR)

John Williams Jurassic Park · The Lost World: Jurassic Park (La-La Land)

Various Artists Star Trek: 50th Anniversary Collection (La-La Land)

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

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

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