Arthur Russell’s music was far ahead of its time and his output is extraordinary, ranging from folk songs to dance, disco and the avant-garde. He was inventive in the studio and absolutely painstaking, taking years on some tracks. I best love the material from Another Thought, with acoustic rhythms built through delayed cello and his other-worldly vocals a sound of pure beauty.
Sadly he passed away in 1992 at the age of 40. If you’re unfamiliar with his works, I encourage starting with the Wild Combination documentary from 2008, and listen to Another Thought, World Of Echo, Calling Out Of Context, The World Of Arthur Russell and First Thought Best Thought.
Peter Gordon is a composer and musician from New York City, who’s the director of a performance of Arthur Russell’s Instrumentals at City Recital Hall tomorrow night, January 16, as part of Sydney Festival. There are still tickets available! It would be most wise to attend this performance of Arthur’s brilliant early work from 1975, likely to be the only time it’s ever played in Sydney.
I spoke to Peter just before Christmas, ahead of his first visit to Australia.
I understand that you met Arthur in 1975. What was your relationship like from that initial point?
Well we were both in our early 20s. I had just moved to New York. I was born in New York but I’d since been moving around and went to college in California. So I was sort of moving to New York as an adult and artist. Arthur had moved to the city a year or so before and we both had arrived from California.
When we first met, which was around the East Village, downtown art scene, we found that we shared an interest in both experimental music as well as popular forms or vernacular music. At the time there were big splits between sort of high music and low music. The classical, avant-garde and pop music – nothing ever mixed. We were bound to share an interest in breaking down those boundaries.
How would you describe the music scene in New York at that time? What was it like being there?
New York was at the low point economically. Which allowed us to live cheaply. The rents were almost nothing. For the avant-garde, it’s not like it was prominent at all in a public sense. It was initially almost more of a neighbourhood or regional thing that was going on. It was kind of underground.
In the neighbourhood of Soho, which of course now is this playground for the rich, it was a bunch of empty industrial buildings. And it was a place where artists, musicians, visual artists, filmmakers and writers could find places to give performances and readings. It was a community where we all pitched in working on other people’s pieces. And you might have people from all different genres and disciplines working and performing together.
The stakes weren’t very high in terms of financially. No-one thought they were going to get rich or anything. But there was sort of this feeling that through art one could change the world. Through perception of society and ourselves. I mean it sounds kind of grandiose and everyone was kind of scruffing and trying to make ends meet, but there was this passion to create work. This was the early days of punk rock. This was the early days of clubs and dance music. There was a real sense of artistic freedom.
How soon after your meeting with Arthur did the Instrumentals project come about? What was the writing process like?
Well clearly Instrumentals is Arthur’s project. I really had just moved to town and Arthur was working on it and he asked as he needed some help in basically preparing the score. Copying and getting the piece ready for rehearsals. And I had literally just hit town and had the skills to help him out.
But then in the rehearsals I met a lot of musicians. Many of whom became longtime friends and collaborators. We rehearsed in a basement actually in Philip Glass’s house. And this is when I first met Ernie Brooks who was still living in Boston, and he drove down for the rehearsals. And other musicians, Rhys Chatham, Jon Gibson, Garrett List, who were a part of this scene.
But the nature of the score was very interesting because it was originally written out as one long continuous piece. And it was Arthur’s idea that as we were rehearsing this continuous piece, there would be different sections which the musicians were asked to choose that could then be looped and repeated. And so different songs would come out of these segments of this continuous work. This was the first enactment of Instrumentals.
Then as the piece evolved, these repeated sections became more fixed. The scores that we’re working from today have to do with these repeated instrumental sections which will be melodies and chord changes, and they would begin taking the form of these instrumental songs.
How would you describe the sound and spirit of the music beyond the conceptual side of those repeating sections? I’ve listened to it and can draw a link to something like Pet Sounds, which is pop but using the instrumentation provided by The Wrecking Crew. Instrumentals has similar feelings in terms of instrumentation, but it’s coming from a different place.
Well yeah especially if you’ve heard the rough working tracks and mixes of Pet Sounds before they put the vocals on it. I think it has a lot of those qualities. At times a driving rhythmic sense and these melodies which become hypnotic in a certain way. So there’s a certain trance-like aspect. There’s kind of a playful almost jam-band like feel to the performance.
Every performance of the piece is different. We discover different things each time we play. The basic structure is there. The form, the chords, the melodies, but then within that there’s a lot of room for us to explore different sounds and articulating the piece in different ways.
When talking about Arthur’s work with Instrumentals, was that coming before, after or at the same time as he was producing his dance and disco music?
Well initially it was before I think. This was in 1975. Disco was just hitting and Arthur was focusing more on certainly instrumental concert music, but also the popular song. The disco tracks that he’s sort of known for, those came a few years later. But I think that some of the processes that went into Instrumentals, he then really translated to multi-track recording in the studio.
So even though the result is different, I think the initial processes that went into Instrumentals also went into his disco tracks.
For example, Instrumentals has its initial source that was then looped and generated the different sections. In the same way in his dance music he would have one version of the song, but then through what we now know as remixing, it generates all sorts of different sonic possibilities. Which would then be edited together into the disco records.
Sure absolutely. For instance, a song like Wild Combination is a good example of a long track that moves through lots of different movements, essentially around a central theme.
Right, I think so. Or if you look at the different extended versions of Tell You (Today) as well. And with many composers, like Arthur and myself, we tend to use musical materials which might show up in different songs, instrumental things or tracks. So it’s not like there’s these really clean lines. Where this is “this” and this is “that”. Those borders sort of bleed from one thing into the other.
How would you describe the initial performances of Instrumentals back in 1975?
It was performed at The Kitchen which was sort of an avant-garde music and art performance space. Maybe there might have been 30 or 40 people there. Probably sitting on the floor and we would just go and play the piece. Then Arthur went back and listened to the tapes and would make some revisions. But it’s not like it was a big event at the time.
Even when we first did a tour of Europe in May (2015), the first night we performed in London which was sold out, there were probably more people there than had ever heard Instrumentals live, like collectively ever before. It did get released by Crepuscule in like ’80, ’81. I forget the date of the release. (1984). Which wasn’t really meant to be a definitive version. I forget the stories with Arthur and Crepuscule (Disques du Crepuscule), the record company. But I know that whatever reels of tape got mixed up and confused, and it didn’t appear on record as it had been intended at that moment.
Sometimes with these pieces, they need to find their own time. And perhaps when we first did Instrumentals, it didn’t click into the musical zeitgeist. I mean it was the recipient of it, but it’s not like people at the time really understood or were advocating for it.
But now I think some of the musical language that Arthur created and used, and that I’ve been working with as well, there’s a different perspective on it. Subsequent new generations of listeners bring a different viewpoint to the piece. It’s been really exciting to see the response and it’s an audience that crosses both generations and a wide range of musical interests.
Speaking of new audiences finding this work and finding Arthur’s work more broadly, what did you think of the response to the Wild Combination documentary that came out in 2008 and the renewed interest in his records with re-releases happening and all that kind of stuff?
Well it’s funny, I actually ran into Philip Glass a few weeks ago. And we were talking about Arthur. Philip was very close to Arthur. And I was filling him in on all this. And Philip says “Well this is what Arthur said would happen. But no-one believed him.” And Arthur really believed that his music was going to reach a wide audience. It’s just a pity that he didn’t live to see this happen.
But you know he really was on a musical mission and never let it drop. And yes the audiences have really sort of come around. I mean some people are connecting to the songs. Some connect to the dance music. Some connect to the more avant-garde thing. Some are connecting to Arthur’s story, his journey, of sexual identity. Some people connect to the Buddhist aspect of the piece.
But what it all shares is just that it’s good music. And when you strip all that stuff away, I think that when one listens to it and experiences the music, one changes. Good music will change your life. I’ve always felt that and I still do.