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

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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

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

Best of 2015

Some great new discoveries and otherwise the usual company in abundance.

John Adams Absolute Jest · Grand Pianola Music San Francisco Symphony · Michael Tilson Thomas · John Adams (SFS Media)

Bang on a Can All Stars Field Recordings (Cantaloupe)

eighth blackbird Filament (Cedille)

Mahan Esfahani Time Present and Time Past (Archiv)

Morton Feldman · Erik Satie · John Cage Rothko Chapel [Gnossiennes, In a Landscape, etc.] Kim Kashkashian · Sarah Rothenberg · Steven Schick · Houston Chamber Choir · Robert Simpson (ECM)

Floating Points Elaenia (Luaka Bop/Pluto)

Kendrick Lamar To Pimp a Butterfly (Top Dawg · Aftermath · Interscope)

Steve Martland Band Martland (NMC)

Steve Reich Music for 18 Musicians Ensemble Signal · Third Coast Percussion · Brad Lubman (Harmonia Mundi)

Max Richter Sleep (Deutsche Grammophon)

Linda Catlin Smith Thought and Desire Eve Egoyan (Earwitness Editions)

Stephen Sondheim Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim from the Piano Anthony de Mare (ECM)

Ann Southam Glass Houses for Marimba Taktus (Centrediscs)

Tennyson Like What EP (self-released)

Kamasi Washington The Epic (Brainfeeder)

John Williams Star Wars: The Force Awakens Gustavo Dudamel · William Ross · John Williams (Walt Disney)

reissues · remasters

Bernard Herrmann Obsession Special Archival Edition (Music Box)

The Spinners Spinners (BBR)

John Williams A.I. Artificial Intelligence Expanded Archival Collection (La-La Land)

John Williams Jaws and Jaws 2 (Intrada)

John Williams, Herman Stein, Hans J. Salter, Joseph Mullendore, Alexander Courage, Cyril J. Mockridge, Gerald Fried, Leith Stevens, Robert Drasnin, Fred Steiner and others Lost in Space 50th Anniversary Soundtrack Collection (La-La Land)

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