Arthur Russell’s music wasn’t meant to be heard — or the vast majority of it wasn’t, at least. Russell, a notorious perfectionist, released only two studio albums. The rest of his sprawling canon comes from posthumous releases stitched from unfinished sketches.
The tension between Russell’s ambition and reality resonates with Brian Oblivion of New York indie pop group Cults, who will perform alongside numerous musical talents and luminaries at “Master Mix: Red Hot + Arthur Russell,” Red Bull Music Academy and Red Hot’s tribute to the electronic composer and musician May 29 and May 30.
“It’s inspiring as a musician to experience someone re-emerging with their perfectionism obliterated, and their stuff just shown,” Oblivion explains. “It makes you re-evaluate the way you criticize yourself, and the way you manicure things for days and hours and weeks. There’s a raw emotionality in everything he did. That’s what we’re all chasing, is the freedom of being yourself, and that’s a tough thing to do. He really nailed it.”
Freedom lies at the center of Arthur Russell’s journey. He struggled against convention, whether that meant collaborating with Allen Ginsberg on spoken-word and cello suites or challenging New York’s avant-garde scene with disco experiments. “He seems like a fearless guy who was willing to show every side of his personality on record,” Oblivion adds.
If there’s any American musician as unbound as Russell in his quest for truth and self-exploration, it’s Lonnie Holley, a 65-year-old musician and sculptor from Alabama with a searing vision of art as self-ideation, born of monumental pain and solitude.
The seventh of twenty-seven children, his mother sold him to an abusive foster home when he was a toddler. He ran away at five years old and spent much of his childhood hiding alone in a movie theater. He ate scraps from the floor and watched movies instead of going to school. As a teenager he spent a year chained to a pile of rocks in a brutal detention facility. Years later, when a niece and nephew died in a fire, he began making sculpture and music. His work looms large over twentieth-century American folk art.
“I think Arthur’s music is more like my life as a little boy, living at the drive-in theater and hearing all the music that comes along with the movie,” Holley reveals. “Part of it was born in him; a lot of it he inherited as he grew into the musician that he was, and then he put it all together. It’s a mixture. People say we have a sixth sense — is that our hearing, our capability, our way of doing music?”
“The instrument itself can be destroyed, busted, tore up, and the music that has been recorded from it can go on and outlive this material existence”
In his song “All Rendered Truth,” Holley articulates his creative universe: “Art is to me, the A is for all, the R is for render, and the T is the truth, and the I is for internal and the S is for self looking for all.”
Holley echoes a process you can hear throughout Russell’s multifaceted oeuvre: music as divination, locating one’s self through the unconscious coupling of sound and vision.
“A lot of this intimate scratchy vibe we get from the music is not an effect — it’s him spilling out whatever he was working on,” explains Oblivion. “For the song that we covered, ‘Being It,’ we asked the people who run his estate what the lyrics are. They said, ‘Honestly, we don’t know, and we will probably never know. They might not have meant anything. He might have just been emoting.’ ”
Holley and Cults both face the challenge of interpretation when it comes to reimagining Russell’s material. How do you both respect and innovate atop some of the most personal music ever made?
“In 1996, I did a piece called ‘The Music Lives on After the Instrument Is Destroyed,’ ” Holley responds when I ask how he’ll engage with Russell’s legacy. “What I meant is the instrument itself can be destroyed, busted, tore up, and the music that has been recorded from it can go on and outlive this material existence. This is how we can appreciate not only Arthur’s music — for generations yet to come, there will be music, and how will we treat this music and appreciate the artists? We are all using, like a makeover or makeup, parts of something to do our creating out of. Everything has a bit of service to the human brain. I want to celebrate the continuation of these possibilities.”
Oblivion is excited to explore Russell’s ambiguous textures. “His cello is so soft and sweet. But there is an edge, a rawness. I want to bring that out. On some of these songs, the way he’s playing could be kind of metal.
“The house band is full of amazing players who are so high above my level,” he adds. “We’re psyched to play a song called ‘Planet of Thought’ with Stuart Matthewman of Sade. He’s gonna play sax with us. It’s always been my dream to play while someone’s ripping an awesome sax solo.”
Master Mix: Red Hot + Arthur Russell will take place at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Howard Gilman Opera House on May 29 and May 30. For ticket information, click here.