William Russell


mode 34

Complete Works



mode 34 William RUSSELL: “Made in America” – the complete works for percussion orchestra performed by Essential Music

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Complete Works

1. Prelude, Chorale and Fugue  (1932, revised 1985)  6:12  First recording

2. Four Dance Movements  (1933, revised 1990)  6:48  First recording

3. Three Cuban Pieces  (1935)  3:20

4. Trumpet Concerto  (1937, revised 1990)  6:06  First recording

5. Chicago Sketches  (1940)  3:34  First recording

Laurie Frink, trumpet

6. March Suite  (1936, revised 1984)  5:38  First recording

7. Ogou Badagri  (1933)  17:03  First recording

A ballet based on the Voodoo Rites of Haiti

8. Made in America  (1936, revised 1990)  2:48  First recording

Performed by Essential Music

John Kennedy & Charles Wood, artistic directors

William Russell was, along with his friends John Cage, Henry Cowell and Lou Harrison, one of the seminal figures in modern percussion music. Russell composed his landmark percussion during the 1930s, eventually abandoning composition to work in jazz and settle in New Orleans. He was the first composer in the western tradition to integrate African, Caribbean and Asian instruments along with found objects and the influence of jazz into his work, all the while maintaining  a distinctly exuberant “American” sound.

Cage was so fond of Russell and his music that he kept the idea of reviving Russell’s neglected music alive. He offered assistance towards a retrospective concert of Russell’s complete works in New York in 1990– a gala event attended by many leading figures in new music and jazz. Russell came to New York to work with Essential Music in the preparation of these works; some of which had their world premiere there, others had not been heard in almost 50 years.

Subsequently, Essential Music toured the U.S. and Europe with Russell’s works to great acclaim. This CD marks the first complete recording of Russell’s joyful compositions for percussion ensemble.

“***** …a captivating slice of American-music history.”
—Art Lange, Classical Pulse!

“…a wonderfully noisy finish to a quiet career, a proper New Orleans send-off for a composer who blurred the boundaries between new music and jazz.”
—Damon Krukowski, Fanfare

“…everyone interested in American avant-garde history needs this”
—Kyle Gann, The Village Voice

“The members of Essential Music are great players, with a unique expertise in this repertoire.”
—Elliot S. Hurwitt, Fanfare

Released in 1993

Language : English.


William Russell
The Complete Works
Essential Music

Mode 34

William Russell’s artistic importance stands in inverse ratio to the size of his output. His eight pieces for percussion – most of them recorded here for the first time – are milestones in the history of the genre. Russell predated Cage in imaginatively combining African, Caribbean, Asian, and Western instruments, and in using the piano primarily as a percussion instrument. Consistently disparaging about the quality of his own music. Russell stopped composing in 1940, having decided that New Orleans jazz was infinitely superior to anything he could create. His importance in the history of percussion music has gone largely unrecognized, and his contribution has been eclipsed by the more prolific outputs of Cage, Cowell, Varèse and Lou Harrison. He died in 1992.

Only two of the works featured here have been previously recorded. Three Cuban Pieces (1939) and Three Dance Movements (1933) appeared on the LP Concert Percussion (Time TLP 5800), by the Paul Price Ensemble. Three Dance Movements is typically compelling in its rhythmic style. The first is a foxtrot in 7/4, the second a march in 3/4, and the last a foxtrot in 5/4. In all three movements the basic rhythms are obscured by jazz-like syncopations and clouded in ethereal timbres. The pianist sweeps the strings and plays massive tone clusters throughout. The climatic sequence is punctuated by smashing a ginger ale bottle with a hammer – precisely at sFFz.

The Three Cuban Pieces are a havenera, a rhumba and a son. The instrumentation comprising cencerro, maracas, guiro, bongos, claves, and quijda (the jawbone of an ass, the teeth of which rattle when struck). The rhythmic patterns are typically complicated, bearing only a nominal resemblance to the Cuban models which inspired them.

The Trumpet Concerto (1937) sounds like a real fusion of jazz and Balinese Gamelan. Its central motif is a descending three-note figure (E-flat, D, C) borrowed from Louis Armstrong’s 1929 version of Fats Waller’s That Rhythm Man. In that original, the motive was repeated three times in different octaves as the band sustained its final chord. Here the motive is repeated 300 times, shrouded in trance-like ostinato patterns which prefigure the minimalism of Reich and Riley.

Made in America (1936) is a similarly eclectic fusion of ideas. In its celebrative use of found objects, borrowed rhythms (modelled on those of trains and concrete mixers), and swing rhythms, one can hear the advent or the American avant-garde. Made in America is a joyful, mechanistic cacophony, a hymn to industrialism. Its spiky metallic counterpoint evokes the noise of a railway under construction, its angular rhythms tellingly underscored by the melancholy wail of a lion’s roar.

These recordings are clearly a labour of love by Essential Music who are ardent champions of Russell’s work, and although few recordings are available for comparison, one may confidently regard these performances as definitive. A crucial release, highly recommended.
— Roger Sutherland, MusicWorks, Summer 2000

William Russell
The Complete Works
Essential Music

Mode 34

William Russell: New Orleans Dream

It’s rare American composer whose total output can fit on a single CD, but William Russell was a rare avis. Born in 1905, he managed a degree of fame on tow different fronts: as an avant-garde composer and compatriot of John Cage, and as a collector/producer/historian of traditional New Orleans jazz. His own work employed firecrackers and sheet metal as percussion instruments. His “American Music” label did much to make commercially available some of the best sessions by Bunk Johnson, George Lewis, and others of their generation during the ’40s and ’50s. It’s a tribute to the peculiarity of Russell’s creative life that two CDs have recently surfaced that offer ample views of its two sides.

…Evidence suggests that Russell renounced composing at the point when he discovered the glories of New Orleans jazz, sometimes in the ’40s. He apparently felt that jazz fulfilled his musical vision more comprehensively than he could himself. The sense or nonsense of that claim you can decide for yourself now that Mode Records has released Made In America: The Complete Works for Percussion by William Russell, boisterously performed by Essential Music, an aptly named percussion ensemble.

Essential Music? You bet. This was the first concert music to showcase non-Western instruments playing non-Western musical ideas. “Ogou Badagri: A Ballet Based on the Voodoo Rites of Haiti,” uses Afro-Caribbean drums along with two pianos sounding tone clusters. Russell also pioneered the use of “found” instruments. “Made In America” calls for the use of brake drums, a suitcase (which is ludly thumped), a washboard, sheet metal, and firecrackers (ignited during the closing measures).

If this instrumentation suggests Spike Jones and John Cage, you’re on the right track. But not only did Russell predated by years their exotic instrumentation and humor through surprising juxtapositions of sonic texts, he also had a focus they lacked. It was ritualized public music that caught his ears, the sweet/sour sounds of unschooled musicians. His voodoo ballet sounds like no authentic Caribbean field recording, but it does echo what partygoers in New Orleans, or Port au Prince, sound like when they want to jam and have only a lot of metallic junk to do it with. And as if anticipating his future career as a New Orleans music producer, Russell composed “March Suite,” in which five varieties (school, wedding, military, hunger, and funeral) offer such enticing sounds that you wish you could join them all.
— Norman Weinstein, The Boston Phoenix, November 25, 1994


John Cage on Mode:
John Cage Profile/Discography