Inside the Trove of the Genre-Buster Arthur Russell
By BEN RATLIFF
MAY 27, 2016
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A sampling of Arthur Russell’s tapes, scores, letters and photographs included in the archives given to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
Krista Schlueter for The New York Times
The public assessment of Arthur Russell, from near-footnote to new-paradigm master, is one of the most curious stories in music of the last half-century.
Russell, a singer-songwriter-cellist-composer, was born in Iowa, dropped out of high school, lived for a time in a Buddhist commune in Northern California and moved to New York City in 1973, settling in the East Village. He died from complications of AIDS in 1992
, at 40. During his New York period, he was known in various not-very-overlapping circles: the avant-garde music scene around the Kitchen and Experimental Intermedia; the D.J.s, producers and dancers who gathered in the Paradise Garage to hear his disco tracks like “Go Bang!
#5,” recorded under the name Dinosaur L; the Danceteria-going, new-wave types interested in the guitar-pop band the Necessaries
, in which Mr. Russell had a short and rocky tenure. Philip Glass, Allen Ginsberg and David Byrne all championed Russell in various ways. The New York Times published reviews of several of his performances, as well as a short obituary
after his death.
He was noted; to say more would be pushing it.
But Russell was ahead of his time: genre-agnostic in a way that we are perhaps only now getting accustomed to, and preoccupied with process. He was a pop and dance-music songwriter and a constructor of musical systems based on pitch-matrices and linguistics. He composed works for hybrid chamber ensembles, like “Instrumentals,” which was performed at Moogfest this month
by a group led by his old friend Peter Gordon. And in 1986, he released “World of Echo,” an album of mantra-like, free-ranging songs for voice, cello and digital echo effects, which has become a kind of secret handshake among musicheads.
Since his death, he has been the subject of tribute records, scholarly works, a film documentary
and repertory ensembles. Kanye West recently sampled the “World of Echo” track “Answers Me
” for “30 Hours,” on his new album, “The Life of Pablo.”
Russell’s song “A Little Lost” appeared in Aziz Ansari’s Netflix series, “Master of None.”
And especially since 2004, when Steve Knutson’s Audika label started issuing carefully prepared releases of Russell’s known and unknown music
, he has become central to the education of young pop bands and musicians looking toward pop’s center from the outside. Those include Grizzly Bear, Julianna Barwick, James Blake, Cate Le Bon, Mica Levi and Devonté Hynes of Blood Orange
. And the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts will announce shortly that it has acquired Russell’s archives, giving a new generation an unusual opportunity to try to decipher the work of a musician The Times called
“the kind of genre-busting artist who defined downtown New York City in the 1970s and ’80s.”
Concerning the archive, Ms. Barwick wrote in an email recently that “it will be like a look into his mind,” adding: “I want to know more about his process. With such varied works, were the processes similar? Or were they different every time?”
She’ll soon be able to find out.
The library acquired the archive — 166 linear feet — from Russell’s estate, which is shepherded by Tom Lee
, Russell’s partner. (The library doesn’t comment on the terms of its acquisitions.) It includes a thousand-or-so reels, cassettes, DATs, Beta and VHS tapes with hundreds of hours of unreleased and probably unreleasable material, representing how Russell made his work — laying down individual tracks, or practicing, or jamming — often in long sessions, and with musicians who may have had little idea what they were working on at the time. He kept many versions of songs. One example in the collection, recorded on a TDK-90 cassette tape over remixes of Salsoul-label disco by Walter Gibbons, contains a version of Russell’s song “My Tiger My Timing” sung with Jennifer Warnes. It becomes a long mantra of blissful pop hooks: practice becoming ritual, extended over a whole side of a tape.
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These sorts of items may be crucial to understanding Russell. After the paper material is assessed and cataloged with the proper metadata some months from now, anyone interested will be able to come to the library’s division of music and recorded sound to look through it. All the tapes will be digitized and cataloged as well — a process that may take as long as a year, according to Jonathan Hiam, the library’s curator for the project — but then will be available for onsite listening. (While the library has been collecting broad amounts of American-music material back to the 1930s, including the papers of John Cage, Henry Cowell, Benny Goodman and Pauline Oliveros, Mr. Hiam said that its next major focus is music of the late 1970s and beyond, both popular and classical; the Russell archive may be a test case for how to do it right.)
New York Times music critics discuss Mr. Russell’s wide-angle, slow-release significance. 24:35
The New York Times
It has been said by those who knew him that Russell had a resistance toward finishing things. (He might have been very interested in how Mr. West continued to revise “The Life of Pablo.”
) But what the paper archives make clear, through Russell’s personal notes — often written in small music-composition notebooks — is how much he sought to incorporate a conscious sense of openness and flexibility into his work. Some of his most useful notes, probably from the early 1980s, deal with “World of Echo.” Here he wrestled with the idea of form and completeness in fascinating ways, often using the notation “p Idea” (the p may have stood for parenthetical). Such as:
(p Idea: the construction of structure which can be abandoned at any moment, and that is transparent — W.O.E.)
(p. Idea: the use of W.O.E. to demystify the process of presentation, packaging and glamor of the music at the same time as mystifying it)
The papers and notebooks include scores, personal correspondence, grant proposals, gig fliers and lyrics to hundreds of songs. Among those are some from “World of Echo,” which are hardest to decipher — including the extraordinary “Soon to Be Innocent Fun/Let’s See,” as well as “Answers Me,” the song Mr. West used. The handwritten material shows Russell as a mixture of things: abstracted, articulate, ambitious, very serious and very funny. Next to the notes about presentation and packaging, he wrote: “send nude photos to critics.”
Since the early ’90s, the papers have been divided among Mr. Lee, Mr. Knutson of Audika and a storage space in Queens. “I think the notebooks show his daily life,” Mr. Lee said in a recent telephone interview. Russell always carried a pen and paper; a lot of lyrics and melodies that eventually found their way to a song are hastily notated, as if subject to change.
“For me, it’s fascinating to look at those books,” Mr. Lee continued. “I’m always seeing the germ of something that became a song. Because I’m so attached to him, after he died I wanted to get inside his head so badly. When you’re living with someone you’re not thinking, how are you creating your work? But after he died, I thought, who is this guy I lived side by side with? That could be revealed through the books and tapes.”
Other than Mr. Lee and Mr. Knutson, one of the few people to have seen this material is the composer and scholar Matthew Marble, who just a couple of months ago defended his dissertation on Russell (“Buddhist Bubblegum: Esoteric Buddhism in the Creative Process of Arthur Russell”) for a doctorate in philosophy at Princeton. It was a considerable labor: In focusing on Russell’s shift from esoteric systems to the relative freedom of his later work, Mr. Marble had to try to decode Russell’s methods of musical and numerical notation.
“Arthur never worked,” Mr. Marble said in an interview. “So he had nothing but time to work on music, which most people assume means honing cello skills or playing concerts — but the archive shows that he spent a lot of time working mental alterations on music. He got fixated in this kind of Rube Goldbergian way: His mind functioned like that. He craved complexity.”
But later he seemed to crave uncertainty. The percussionist Mustafa Ahmed told Mr. Marble that Russell used a mantric alphabet to come up with sung melodies; that could be a key to the flexible construction of the “World of Echo” lyrics, which were often written down with three possibilities for a single word, and mumbled all the same. (“NON-VERBAL/POP FEEL,” says another note to self in the composition books.)
One of the library’s interesting challenges may be in how to catalog Russell’s work. For starters, neither the terms “popular” or “classical” really describe him. A group of his lyrics on a notebook page might apply to more than one known and recorded piece of work; a tape of a practice session might or might not be leading toward a finished take. (Mr. Hiam, the curator, said that this was the first time the library has had such a large number of recorded materials demonstrating a composer’s creative process.) He revised and rerecorded and wrote new material in old notebooks. Traditional modes of definition may only help to show the ways that Russell resisted them.
A version of this article appears in print on May 29, 2016, on page AR15 of the New York edition with the headline: Inside the Trove of a Genre-Buster. Order Reprints
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