Profiles: Arthur Russell

Arthur Russell

Arthur Russell (1951-1992) was a midwestern boy who made his way to New York in his 20s and remained there for the rest of his life.  A classically-trained cellist, New York avant-garde composer, and disco artist, the broad range of labels applied to him are equally eclectic as the musical figures he was associated with (Philip Glass, David Byrne of The Talking Heads, and Studio 54 DJ Nicky Siano) and the venues he frequented (The Kitchen (avant-garde playground), The Gallery (SoHo discotheque), and the legendary rock club CBGB’s).

With a handful of recordings compiled posthumously over the last decade, Russell has elevated to become a significant musical figure to many current artists: including Jens Lekman, Caribou, Dirty Projectors (examples that I’d previously pondered in my funk mix).  But while some have been influenced directly by Russell’s distinct vocal and musical style, I see his true lasting impression as an archetype of musical amalgamation. In a century facing the recent effects of the Internet and globalization, it is his ‘wild combination’ that appeals more and more to our ever cross-pollinating culture.

That’s Us / Wild Combination

Picking apart the amalgamation, Russell’s music reflects a departure from the dance music, Top 40 Pop/R&B radio, and the minimalism movement, with characteristics of optimism, pulse, freedom, weightlessness, incessancy, hook, a rich voice and unassuming lyricism – qualities that his friend Allen Ginsberg summed up when Russell was described, “like William Carlos Williams, only he sings.”

In his composition City Park (1973) he placed repetitive music in a ‘non-narrative’ structure that included readings by Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein.  After sharing the piece with his composition teacher Charles Wuorinen at the Manhattan School of Music, Russell remembers,

“I said to him the thing that excited me about the piece was that you could pick up the needle anywhere and put it down and it always sounded the same. Not exactly the same, but you could plug into it for as long as you liked, then plug out and then plug back in again without losing anything essential unlike narrative music where your attention is required from beginning to end. He turned to me and said , ‘That’s the most unattractive thing I’ve ever heard.”

When listening to That’s Us / Wild Combination it is a sense of improvisation that is very singular to Russell.  This term ‘improvisation’ can be a notion of losing yourself and finding a way out, but as applied to Russell it was something else. With the nuanced inflections and melismas of his voice he steers the track freely, but not at the expense of structure.  “I think the kind of repetition that comes out of me and is in dance music is somewhat different to the repetition of minimalist works of the sixties and seventies… Dance music is more improvisatory…It’s based on hearing what you do while you do it.”

Arthur Russell communicated in music through a pure-form connection to his soul.  For this, although Russell has been gone for nearly 20 years now, a listener can still be right there with him.

Last week at LIVEWIRE the inevitable discussion came up on whether or not a specific composer’s music is “good” and/or “valuable.”  Sure, I enjoy the conversation that these arguments draw, but I’m beginning to believe that judging creative value is a moot point. In my understanding of Arthur Russell, this was a man who didn’t approach creativity in a sense that he asked “how can I be clever/interesting/accessible so that I can be cool/have an audience/sell records?” but instead “is what I’m doing what I want to do?”

Thank you Arthur.

Music credit: That’s Us / Wild Combination by Arthur Russell from Calling Out Of Context [Audika, 2004]

Further investigation:

“Connecting with the Cosmic: Arthur Russell, Rhizomatic Musicianship, and the Downtown Music Scene, 1973-92” by Tim Lawrence

A Long Lost Arthur Russell Interview by Frank Owen

Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell a film by Matt Wolf

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One Response to Profiles: Arthur Russell

  1. lauren says:

    just wanted to say that i truly enjoyed that entry. read it a couple times & the companion music really elucidated your points and his aesthetic. keep up the awesome work. 🙂

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