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Composer Spotlight: Bruce A. Russell

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: Kalimba Canon, for two alto kalimbas (1999)

From the Composer:

Kalimba Canon (1999) is written for two alto kalimbas. It began as a shorthand sketch in a notebook, followed by a homemade demo recording. At the time I had no intention of it being heard by an audience and I had no public presence as a concert composer. (I referred to this optimistically as my “chrysalis period.”) Two decades later I uploaded the demo to SoundCloud, which led to the first performances by two groups: Second Note Duo (prerecorded) and Prism Percussion (livestreamed). Prism Percussion also released a separate performance video which is shared here. 

The piece consists entirely of short melodic loops, outlining harmonies in the key of G major. The focus is on the first two loops, which alternate between the low and high ends of the kalimba’s short register; subsequent melodies fill out the musical space. Both kalimbas always play the same loops simultaneously, but each with a different starting point, creating an interlocking, composite musical line (i.e., a canon). Similarly, every loop uses the same West African rhythmic pattern, but begun on a different note of the pattern. In an optimal performance, the players have near-identical sounding instruments and play in an unaccented fashion in order to create a unified sound. 

I began studying Ghanaian social dance music and the music of Steve Reich and other minimalists in the late 1980s, and noted many commonalities between these two things, as well as with other music of the African diaspora. I purchased a Hugh Tracey kalimba after hearing Earth, Wind & Fire bandleader Maurice White play electrified kalimba on their early recordings. While the instrument is modelled after the mbira of the Shona people of Zimbabwe, it is a Western imitation. I showed it to one of my professors who was an elder from Ghana, and after a few seconds of playing it he pronounced, “This is a toy.” I decided later that it indeed might have a potential similar to the toy piano in terms of musical scope. 

It’s a perennial composer cliché: by this point in my development, I’d grown disillusioned with the contemporary music covenant to make pieces as difficult, thorny and arcane as possible and somehow still radically new. More importantly, I’d given up trying to get a start in new music since my work didn’t seem to fit in with the Toronto scene. I was spoiled by my training yet unwilling to abandon my lived experience of identity to become a neo-European modernist. I admired John Cage’s naïve period and Arvo Pärt’s tintinnabuli style, and those were also influential for me, if I wasn’t looking to make a breakthrough in technique so much as to enjoy the music I was making. Neither was I looking to exploit my Blackness in creating “African-inspired” music. 

What was clear to me was that the influence of popular music was just as important as that of the music of my ancestors, and that of the celebrated concert composers I had as role models. The diatonic scale—the notes of the medieval European church modes which are analogous to those found in the popular, sacred and traditional music of many cultures—was a rich medium in which I could combine complex microstructures with old-fashioned chord progressions. As Stravinsky wrote, “My freedom thus consists in my moving about within the narrow frame that I have assigned myself for each one of my undertakings. 

Some listeners may hear similarities between Kalimba Canon and my string quartet Madra (1999) and my percussion piece Sequences (2000). In those years, my daily practice involved writing short canons with the same structure described above, and my notebooks were filled with them. They became somewhat interchangeable modules that found their way into many of my works. Without realizing it, I was finding my voice and language as a composer.