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Composer Spotlight: Bruce A. Russell, Part 2

We’re pleased to be featuring composer Bruce A. Russell this February as part of Black History Month. Check in for deep dives on works specially chosen by him.

Composer Bruce A. Russell, seated.
Composer Bruce A. Russell.

Piece: Companion, for two pianos (2019)

Watch: Companion, Bruce A. Russell from Arraymusic on Vimeo.

From the Composer:

Companion (2019) is written for two pianos and is dedicated to my two youngest children. The first pencil sketches—just patterns of black dots (note heads)—were made in late 2011 and set aside, with composition being resumed and completed in late 2018 and early 2019. That bookends the first period of the children’s life journeys from the anticipation of their arrivals through their toddlerhoods. As well as representing their close sibling bond by way of instrumentation and title, the work is about building and transitions in the music itself and in my family life. I use purely technical means to arrive at something that appeals hopefully on a non-technical level. 

The music consists almost entirely of canons, musical passages in which a melodic loop is played simultaneously with copies of itself starting at different points in time. In this case, the melodies are seven-note rows: orderings of the notes of the major scale (the opening row is one from my string quartet Madra played in reverse). The notes of the rows proceed most often by the interval of a fourth or fifth. The canons are built up using a technique I call canon chorale, which creates increasingly dense block chords in a manner similar to what some may recognize as first species counterpoint—ignoring most of the actual rules of counterpoint! 

The high and low notes heard in addition to the block chords are a separate canon that moves more slowly and uses the same rows as the chords. They act to imply changes of mode, the specific flavour of the scale, if you will. The piece is in four sections, divided by key signature: F major, A-flat major, B major and D major. The harmony of the piece resembles traditional tonality filtered through the process described above, creating a unique, somewhat arbitrary chordal syntax. This relates to the technique of pandiatonicism found in early 20th century classical music and late 20th century minimalism. 

Almost every sound in Companion is the result of a basic serial process, one exception being the brief, meditative call and response between the two pianos at the transition of the third and fourth sections. Form at the local and vertical levels is highly rationalized, while global and horizontal form—rhythmic structure and phrasing—is loosely associative. In this way, there is a balance of logic and intuition. 

I’m indebted to Stephen Clarke and Wesley Shen for their fine premiere performance. Thanks to Arraymusic for making the video available.