Music

The Infinite Worlds of Arthur Russell

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At first, Charles Arthur Russell was just Charley. Growing up in Iowa during the Fifties and Sixties, Charley vacationed in the Midwest and Mexico with his parents and two sisters. As a teenager, Charley decided he wanted to be called Arthur. When he moved to Northern California in 1968 and found his way into a Buddhist commune, he was renamed Jigmé. It didn’t last. But he settled on Arthur when he moved to New York in 1973 at twenty-two, bringing all his places and names with him.

Before dying of AIDS-related illnesses in 1992, at forty, Russell checked off many boxes, usually at the same time. But his vision of small and large ensemble work with the unspecified duration of a Buddhist mantra and the hubcap glow of a Beach Boys single was no easy sell — at least, not until his records were reissued in the early 21st century. Now people move to New York because of Arthur.

Russell played in rock bands, wrote folk songs, produced rubbery disco epics, and inverted most of the forms he participated in. First, though, he was a cellist studying both Indian and Western classical music. Once in New York, Russell worked on a hybrid of notation and improvisation he had begun developing in San Francisco. In 1973, he finished an open-ended piece called “City Park,” which used bits of poems by Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein. Russell’s professor at the Manhattan School of Music, serialist composer Charles Wuorinen, reacted by saying, “That’s the most unattractive thing I’ve ever heard.” (There is no recording of “City Park,” so we cannot replay this match.)

By April of 1979, Russell was concentrating on dance tracks. Though he had put out a single on Sire Records, he was no more at home inside the pop industry than he had been at an uptown college. After hearing Russell’s submission to Warner Brothers, a&r man Michael Ostin submitted a handwritten note. He described Russell’s “instrumental performance” as “uneventful”; the “vocal performance” prompted Ostin to write, “This guys [sic] in trouble.” His summary: “Who knows what this guy is up to — you figure it out — give me a break.”

Russell was up to many things. Another of his inventions was a form of pop using the tools of modern classical, sort of. With little more than a cello, a fuzz pedal, and very quiet vocals, Russell created a body of songs that were economical, sweet, and pop-smart, with a slippery tonality that suggested neither Top 40 nor lieder. The first album in this style, World of Echo, came out in 1986 on a label called Upside that was also releasing records by Jonathan Richman and the Woodentops. The reaction from critics was almost uniformly positive, but the first pressing of World of Echo sold fewer than a thousand copies. This time, Russell didn’t wait for someone else to characterize the project. He asked the label to attach a sticker to the remaining three hundred copies of World of Echo, one black word on a white oval: “UNINTELLIGIBLE.” “It was Arthur’s way of saying to people, ‘Don’t expect to get it the first time, or the second time. Don’t listen to it that way,’ ” Upside boss Barry Feldman says in Tim Lawrence’s Russell biography, Hold On to Your Dreams.

“I had never seen the rejection notes from the record companies until the exhibit,” says bassist Ernie Brooks, Russell’s collaborator on many projects, including the Necessaries and the Flying Hearts. “Over the last several years, people have started understanding what was great about how Arthur sang and wrote songs. His singing seemed so effortless — he was never striving for drama. But that’s not what was going on at the time. It was the punk moment at CBGB, and here was Arthur doing these quiet pop songs. He conveyed so much affect in an affectless way.”

The strongest album of the voice-and-cello songs didn’t come out during his lifetime — Another Thought was compiled and issued on Philip Glass’s label, Point, in 1994. Russell’s bigger career has been the posthumous one, and began in earnest when Steve Knutson’s Audika label launched in 2004. Dedicated to Russell’s work, Audika has steadily released unheard recordings, as well as those that have fallen out of print. Audika and the 2009 publication of Hold On to Your Dreams have helped move Russell’s work into a pop canon that has become (almost) as accepting as he was.

The origins of the Russell exhibit currently showing at BAM, “Do What I Want: Selections From the Arthur Russell Papers,” lie in two 2015 concerts (featuring Devonté Hynes, Sam Amidon, and others) that followed a tribute album released by the Red Hot organization, Master Mix: Red Hot + Arthur Russell. At one show, BAM’s curator of visual arts, Holly Shen, started talking about Russell’s work with independent curator Nicole Will. At that fall’s Editions and Artists book fair, Will and Shen heard from rare-book collector Arthur Fournier that the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts was about to acquire Russell’s papers, and the planning began.

“Russell’s music feels important to me because it never seems nostalgic,” Will said while we toured the exhibit. “It doesn’t seem to be tied to any particular era. Steve [Knutson] has told me about hearing Arthur playlists in cafés. Young people hear it and say, ‘Great. Where is he playing next?’ ”

“Do What I Want” is split into two parts, the larger section in the Natman Room on the ground floor of the Peter Jay Sharp Building, with a sidecar upstairs in the Diker Gallery. Some pieces on display are reproductions from the archives at the NYPL, which will open to public view later this year. The majority of the material, though, comes from Russell’s partner, Tom Lee; Knutson; and former collaborators such as Peter Zummo, Peter Gordon, Brooks, and Steven Hall: flyers, photographs, records, snarky notes from label executives, lyrics, and Russell’s Yamaha KM802 Mixer, a fat black box striped with green and salmon.

All of Russell’s various styles involve references to natural phenomena common to both the landscape of the Midwest and the symbols of Buddhism. Check the song titles: “Lucky Cloud,” “Corn,” “Hollow Tree,” “Tree House” — even “This Is How We Walk on the Moon” makes more sense as a song written by an Iowa kid, who would have seen that moon more clearly than his New York counterpart. To this point, one corner of the Natman Room is wallpapered with a blown-out blue-and-white image of a cloud, a photograph taken by Russell’s San Francisco Buddhism teacher, Yuko Nonomura.

This year, Audika released an hour of live recordings of Instrumentals, taken from three different New York performances staged between 1975 and 1978. Even for those already converted to Russell’s benevolent sprawl, the range is immense. Track two on Volume 1, Part I — all are untitled — could be an easy-listening version of a Seventies Bacharach ballad. The legato horn parts on track two of Volume 2, Part II, conducted by Julius Eastman, sound like a Michael Nyman soundtrack from the early Nineties. Track one of Volume 2 evokes the placid, unevenly spaced, evenly delivered motifs of Tortoise; another instrumental the optimistic swells of Copland. As important as the ambition is the tentative quality of these performances. Russell’s desire to make trained players work in an accessible but skewed language is audible in dropped cues and occasional misalignment between instruments. Instrumentals is a document of an ensemble looking for a footing, a process Russell often said was more important than the result.

Typewritten notes included in the exhibit show how Russell’s path could be as confusing for collaborators as it was for suits. Russell wrote: “Since January of 1975 I have been working…on music designed specially for a series of color slides by Yuko Nonomuro [sic]….I was awakened, or re-awakened to the bright-sound and magical qualities of the bubblegum and easy-listening currents in American popular music….Since in most popular music a lyric is the focus of a song, and since in popular music a song without words, in order to be a commercial success, must have a special quality of its own, and since the music for the color slides was not structured on speech patterns, I ended up calling the piece ‘Instrumentals.’ ” Flautist and saxophonist Jon Gibson had a different take: “One of the difficulties (or should I say challenges?) in learning Arthur Russell’s new work involved trying to improvise with unfamiliar chord sequences placed upon asymmetrical (at times) time lengths.” Though Russell imagined it would be performed as one 48-hour cycle, Instrumentals was only ever played in smaller chunks, not all of which were recorded.

Richard Reed Parry, composer and member of Arcade Fire, found Arthur in 2005. “Rough Trade put out the Arcade Fire and the first two Audika releases, Calling Out of Context and World of Echo,” Parry recalled. “Neil Young’s Decade, those two Arthur CDs, and a Discman was all the music I had with me for while we were touring nonstop for about four months. I loved being immersed in these fragmentary bits of poetry and musical ideas. Exploring them seemed more important to Russell than finishing a record. The irony is that he did make some perfect pop songs, fully realized things, but he was happy being in the process of finding an idea that could reiterate itself across different songs.”

In the Diker Gallery, you see evidence of the (slightly) more commercial side of Russell, dance music producer. Sealed copies of Dinosaur L’s “Go Bang!” and Loose Joints’ “Is It All Over My Face,” both New York City club hits, hang on the wall, as does an enlarged copy of Russell’s membership card to the Paradise Garage, the club where New York dance music was legislated: If something went over at the Garage, it had impressed both dancers and DJs.

One record that connects all of Arthur’s worlds is his very first commercial release, the 1978 single “Kiss Me Again,” credited to Dinosaur and present in the Diker Gallery as a bright red vinyl twelve-inch. A disco track with a modest chart life but a robust presence in downtown clubs, “Kiss Me Again” had nine different physical releases and five remixes, at a time when releasing even one remix was still unusual. Sire, new to the disco market, was grappling with a thirteen-minute song and looking for the version that might break it on radio. Russell wasn’t interested in shortening the song, and the remixes didn’t help sell it. So Russell got the variation he loved, but for the wrong reasons.

A recent signing to Sire, David Byrne, played guitar on “Kiss Me Again”; r&b designated hitter Bob Babbitt played bass; studio heavy Allan Schwartzberg was the drummer; and friends of Russell’s including Peters Zummo and Gordon played horns. Though there is a topline vocal, the length and vagueness of the song make it both glorious and impossible to reduce. Find the version that clocks in at 12:42 and you’ll hear Byrne’s rhythm guitar work itself into a blur around the ten-minute mark, moving from a clean chicken-scratch to a fuzzy German chug. The main hook seems to be the horn line, until Russell’s cello part comes in; both are more memorable than the vocal melody. While sounding absolutely nothing like Instrumentals, “Kiss Me Again” presents the same sense of indeterminacy: equally strong sections that could be arranged in any order without depleting the vibrancy or masking the voice.

On April 20, Matt Wolf’s elegant documentary on Russell, Wild Combination, will be shown at BAM, as will Phill Niblock’s short movie from 1988, Terrace of Unintelligibility, a twenty-minute close-up of Russell’s mouth near a microphone, filmed while he played cello and sang. Two days later, on the 22nd, BAM will host a free tribute concert led by a clutch of Russell’s original collaborators. Go to both — but in the meantime, go to the Natman Room and look at my favorite of the seeds on display.

Russell always carried a piece of composition paper, folded into quarters, in his front shirt pocket. Some of these sheets were used for compositions, but many were just notes (or phone numbers). These were ideas, not lyrics, sometimes put into parentheses; some are works yet to be finished, others predictions that came true. “Exploit fact that amorphous material is always in sync when greeted by a drumbeat.” “Speaker cabinets that are paraplegics.” “Nature documentary on radio with crunching sound effects only.”

One of them reads like a sticker Russell might have printed up for this exhibit. He just didn’t get around to it. “(p Idea: its clear that any style can be heard [in] the recording, yet critics continue to put a ‘price’ on the trappings of form, really in the imagination) (sometimes very clearly).”

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