MEMOS FROM A MUSIC FIEND
BY ALEJANDRO MAGAÑA
Arthur Russell: World of Echo
The only proper solo studio album that cellist Arthur Russell released during his lifetime is a stunningly beautiful collection of ethereal hymnal incantations and minimalist blown-out atmospheric skronk.
Russell was a cellist, composer, and producer, originally from the midwest, who had studied at the Ali Akbar College of Music in San Francisco, and at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. In San Francisco he met Allen Ginsberg, the famous former Beat poet, and began accompanying him while he read poetry. Eventually he moved to New York where he became part of the East Village avant garde, somewhat associated with minimalists such as Philip Glass, but also early punk, post-punk and No Wave artists. He became music director of The Kitchen, a downtown avant garde performance space where he ruffled feathers by booking nascent ‘rockist’ acts like The Modern Lovers and Talking Heads, which he thought proved pop music could be arty, minimalist, and fun. He also made a name for himself composing and recording dance music with some of these musical associates, creating a kind of no wave mutant disco, that made him a star in the Downtown NY scene. He worked tirelessly until his early death in 1992 due to AIDS-related illness, leaving behind more than 800 2” and ¼” tapes and cassettes and hundreds of pages of lyrics, notes and poetry.
This album, a double LP, composed of Russell’s delicate vocals and cello processed through simple echo and delay pedals, is an amalgamation of all of these accomplishments, as it manages to be experimental but melodic, minimalist avant garde yet folk-pop, ambient yet skeletal in structure. In his own words, he hoped to “redefine ‘songs’ from the point of view of instrumental music, in the hopes of liquefying a raw material where concert music and popular song can criss cross.” I’ve been deeply ensconced, after reading a Nick Drake biography last week, in some of the more comforting, warm music in my collection, usually created by folks with no other choice than to follow their idiosyncratic, sometimes anachronistic, means to their inevitably unique and glorious ends, reminders that when one follows one’s own distinct muse, the listener is more likely to find more that they themselves can connect with, what the poet William Carlos Williams called “The universal in the particular.” There is absolutely sublime beauty here that makes all my commentary make sense as soon as you hear it.
(*You can also check out a documentary on him on Amazon Prime called “Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell.”)