Arthur Russell died in obscurity of AIDS in 1992. Yet this New York composer was a true visionary, traversing dub, disco and minimalism and anticipating the 90s obsession with musical hybrids. David Toop pays tribute. This article was originally published in The Wire 134 (April 1995).
Watching the electronic press kit which accompanies the release on Point Music of Arthur Russell's Another Thought album, I felt the genuine care devoted to a thorny PR problem: how to sell the music of a true iconoclast who died in obscurity? Philip Glass, David Byrne and Allen Ginsberg discuss, on camera, their relationships with Russell and their views on his importance. Yet here are three thoughtful, creative men who seem to lack any inside knowledge of the world in which Russell placed his art. So they measure his work by degrees of astonishment - Russell loved trashy pop music, he wanted to be a pop star, he moved through genre boundaries with uncommon fluidity. "This ain't no disco" Byrne once wrote, and Russell interpreted the line as a personal snub. For Arthur, the disco was a legitimate arena for discovery. Symptomatic of an intellectual disdain for disco, the name of the New York DJ Walter Gibbons, a regular and crucial collaborator with Russell, is absent from the Glass, Byrne, Ginsberg trialogue. My first impulse, then, on being asked to write about Arthur and his music, is to offer a latent, parallel view to the well-meaning posthumous image creation that accompanies Another Thought.
Some facts: Arthur Russell and Walter Gibbons both died in recent time with little to signal their passing. Alongside the dub masters of Jamaica and disco's reedit king, Tom Moulton, Gibbons could be described as a pioneer of reconstructive dance mixes. His remixes were raw and daring. When he collaborated with Arthur Russell, each seemed to push the other into impossible corners, jumping rather than gliding, exposing the bones of the music, emphasising physicality and intuitive agility in preference to dance imperatives or financial lures. The singles they made together are unique: "Let's Go Swimming", "Schoolbell/Treehouse" and "Go Bang #5" (mixed by Francois Kervorkian) are the three which still sound revolutionary. Russell really improvises on these tracks, playing cello, percussion, keyboards and singing in that high, wistful, amoebic voice of his, while Gibbons chops the flow, treating atmospheres as mobile environments rather than virtual locations.
Russell produced a small number of records. Some of them were minimal compositions played by such New York luminaries as Jon Gibson, Rhys Chatham, Garrett List and David Van Tieghem; others were early Garage disco landmarks played by The Ingram Brothers and similar unsung backroom technicians of dance. But those three 12" singles, plus a serene, spacious album from 1986 entitled World Of Echo, alone represented his mercurial talent. Another Thought has been compiled from a stockpile of uncompleted tapes. The songs reveal a move towards music that may have been more easily grasped by a wider public, but perhaps this is illusory, since the album sounds like unfinished work. Arthur struggled against time and the awful power of AIDS. Where he might have taken his music is unguessable. I interviewed him once, by telephone, for The Face.
Speaking with a halting, nervous delivery, Arthur began by telling me that he had studied Indian classical music at the Ali Akbar Khan school in San Francisco. "Cello is Ali Akbar Khan's favourite instrument," he said. Talk turned to a Russell composition called Instrumentals, started in 1973. "I spent most of my time working on that one piece," he told me. "If it was performed completely it would be 48 hours long. So I had decided that I was going to do that for the rest of my life. When you're a composer and you just do the same piece over and over, people get tired of it – 'I heard that one already, I don't have to go again'."
So what happened to this single-minded devotion? He laughed: "I went to a disco one night. It made a big impression on me." Which one? "Gallery. Nicky Siano was the DJ. He was one of the first. I had made a tape with Nicky Siano, eventually called "Kiss Me Again", and Steve D'Aquisto had somehow acquired a tape of that. He liked it a lot." Russell went on to record with D'Aquisto on "Is It All Over My Face". Then he met Walter Gibbons at West End Records. I asked if he saw the dance mixes as extensions of compositions he might perform at The Kitchen, the NYC performance art space. "Unfortunately yeah, I do," he responded. "It tends to scare off record companies. The first Instrumentals piece had drums and I remember I had set the drum kit up at The Kitchen. A lot of people turned off. They thought that was a sign of some new unsophistication – a sign of increasing commercialisation. Then if you try and do something different in dance music, you just get branded as an eccentric. Maybe I am an eccentric, I don't know, but it's basically a very simple idea."
He spoke with regret concealed by laughter of "a
damaging conflict between me and the record business", and then
continued with this theme of drums: "I like music with no drums,
too, partly, I guess, from listening to drums so much. When you
hear something with no drums it seems very exciting. I always
thought that music with no drums is successive to music with drums.
New music with no drums is like this future where they don't have
drums any more. In outer space you can't take your drums – you take
your mind." That future has arrived, and Arthur had the vision to
foresee many of its aspects. "A lot of DJs take the tapes I make
and try to make them into something more ordinary," he concluded.
""Let's Go Swimming" was supposed to
be a futuristic summer record. Some DJs said that nobody would ever, ever play that. I think eventually that kind of thing will be commonplace." Common perhaps; commonplace never.