PRINT April 2009


Arthur Russell

The increasing presence of intermedia and cross-disciplinary performance in New York in recent years has been accompanied by renewed interest in its historical legacy, as well as in a number of its central figures—among whom Arthur Russell (1951–1992) must now be counted. Arriving in Manhattan in 1973 to study cello and classical composition, Russell soon became musical director of the Kitchen, where—as an important sponsor of music from Stockhausen to Bootsy Collins—he was instrumental in the downtown scene’s intermingling of genres as diverse as folk, funk, punk, jazz, classical, Minimalism, and disco. For perspective on the person and the place, Artforum invited composers Rhys Chatham and Christian Wolff to reflect on the milieu and the role that Russell—currently the subject of an ongoing series of CD releases from Audika Records—played within it. Chatham’s reflections appear below, along with four musical tracks selected from the Audika series; for Wolff’s contribution, pick up the April issue of Artforum.

Arthur Russell, New York, ca. 1985.

I FIRST MET ARTHUR RUSSELL in New York in 1973, after a concert of Jackson Mac Low’s sound poetry at the WBAI Free Music Store. As Arthur was studying uptown at the Manhattan School of Music (MSM), and I had recently founded the music program at the Kitchen (still at its original Mercer Street address in SoHo), our conversation soon turned to the contemporary music then emerging from classical traditions. I immediately noticed that Arthur’s interest included not only the highly cerebral and atonal postserialist composers of MSM, such as Charles Wuorinen and Milton Babbitt, but also the new tonality that was being explored downtown by La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Tony Conrad, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich.

Like many of us making music in the early 1970s, Arthur and I felt that “art” music had become something that only other composers could appreciate, and we were therefore interested in moving away from serialism and toward tonality. It can’t be emphasized enough what an important issue this was at the time, and establishing a music program at the Kitchen in 1971 had everything to do with giving these younger composers a place to play.

After I had served as the Kitchen’s music director for its first two years, a composer named Jim Burton took over, followed by Arthur in 1974. Arthur’s programming resonated with that of the previous years, but occasionally rock appeared in the mix—notably with Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers.

Perhaps the roots of this endeavor lay in the European groups of the late ’60s such as Musica Elettronica Viva (MEV) in Italy, which included a number of expatriate Americans living in Europe—Alvin Curran, Frederic Rzewski, Richard Teitelbaum—and AMM in London, which counted among its members Cornelius Cardew and Keith Rowe, as well as Christian Wolff. After John Cage’s use of indeterminacy and Karlheinz Stockhausen’s early attempts at introducing random elements into his scores, this seemed like the next logical step. The musicians of MEV and AMM thus began working within very loose structures, or no structure at all, to produce a free, immediate music made on the spot.

Taking note of America’s own great tradition of improvisation—namely, African-American composers coming out of the jazz tradition, such as Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry—Rzewski returned to the States and started the markedly influential New York version of MEV. The city’s free jazz loft scene was at its height then, and people such as Rzewski, Anthony Braxton, Garrett List, Muhal Richard Abrams, and Karl Berger were breaking down the hierarchical barriers between jazz and the Western European classical mode.

In 1975, a number of musicians in their early twenties, such as Peter Gordon, Jill Kroesen, Ned Sublette, and Peter Zummo, arrived in New York from the West Coast and elsewhere. Gordon, in particular, was doing something that I had never heard before: making compositions that worked perfectly well in an avant-garde context, yet using a vocabulary overtly drawn from rock. Shocked, I was hesitant to support this mix. But before long, I ended up playing in Gordon’s Love of Life Orchestra, which consisted of his friends drawing variously on rock, dance, Minimalist, experimental, and even disco music. That year, List took over from Arthur as music director of the Kitchen, giving more than a quarter of his program over to improvisation, a clear influence of MEV and AMM. In addition to booking downtowners such as Arthur and Gordon, List also invited jazz musicians/composers to the venue—and not just a few. (Many in the community couldn’t understand his reasoning for this, feeling that jazz composers already had places to play.)

In the meantime, Arthur was living on East Twelfth Street between Avenues A and B; he had an extra room and needed someone to help pay his rent. As it happened, I was looking for a place, so we became roommates for about a year. Allen Ginsberg and Richard Hell lived there as well. I’d get up in the morning to go out for coffee and sometimes see these weird guys all dressed in black with shades—they turned out to be members of Television.

Around the corner on Houston Street, Arthur had a rehearsal studio that we shared with Gordon. It was there that Arthur developed his composition Instrumentals (1974). Maybe I only noticed because I was studying jazz and tenor saxophone at the time, but the piece made heavy use of the chord progression ii⁷-V⁷–I (two minor seven, dominant seven, one) found in many jazz standards. The way Arthur put these chords together was highly idiosyncratic and produced a sound not normally associated with the genre. This approach to composition—the mixing of varying separate traditions—felt transgressive and fresh to us, yet occasionally may have been too much for a regular concert audience. In those days, I was bartending in the East Village and couldn’t resist asking my friends to play. I invited Jill Kroesen to perform and gave Arthur a regular gig, but I was used to thinking of Arthur as a classical composer, and here he was, singing what sounded suspiciously like folk music. He played there every week and definitely raised some eyebrows.

Watching Arthur, Peter, and Jill mixing all of these elements in their music, I finally went to see the Ramones in 1976 at CBGB’s, the month after they released their first album. I was twenty-four at the time and had never been to a rock concert. Until then, I had considered myself a hard-core Minimalist, having studied with La Monte Young in the early ’70s, tuning his piano in just intonation in exchange for lessons and playing in his group, as well as performing with Tony Conrad’s Dream Syndicate. Hearing the Ramones changed my life. I thought, Wow, I may be playing only one chord in my music, and these guys may be playing three, but I can really relate to this stuff. I reasoned that if Glass could use jazz instrumentation in Music in 12 Parts (1971–74), and Reich could use elements of Ghanaian music in Drumming (1970–71), why couldn’t I use rock instrumentation for my work?

What came about was a piece I composed in 1977 called Guitar Trio (G3), for three electric guitars, electric bass, and drums. While its melodic content used the musical vocabulary of New York’s downtown avant-garde scene—consisting entirely of the overtone series generated by the E string of the electric guitar—its rhythmic thrust and the way the musicians played together came out of rock. In 1979, we included the visual artist Robert Longo as one of the guitarists, and he created a set of handsome slides to be projected during the performance, titling them Pictures for Music, 1979. Just as Longo used preexisting images as the subject matter of his visual work, it felt perfectly natural for me to use sounds commonly found in electronic media as subject matter for musical compositions. Though I began to think of G3 more as a representation of rock than actually rock itself, I went on to play the piece in places like CBGB’s, Max’s Kansas City, the Mudd Club, Danceteria, and Tier 3. But where was Arthur?

One evening in the late ’70s, we ran into each other at the Kitchen. It was then that he told me about his interest in disco; about the huge subwoofer speakers they had in these clubs, and how the disco composers were making compositions especially for these frequencies. He encouraged me to check this out, saying, “They’re like temples for music, Rhys!” Though I didn’t tell Arthur at the time, I remember thinking, I’ve heard of composers coming out of a classical tradition being influenced by jazz or rock as a primary compositional direction, but disco? To this day I’ve never understood why Arthur took up disco the way a number of us had taken on rock and punk. However I once asked Peter Gordon and he suggested,

Disco was joyous, fun, and social. Arthur never embraced the nihilism and negativity of punk rock. He never felt comfortable with the darkness and angry dissonance of (what was later called) “No Wave.” Note that when Arthur brought rock to the Kitchen, it was with the Modern Lovers, and with Jonathan Richman’s unabashed positivism and innocence. Arthur was drawn to the bacchanalian aspect of the dance clubs—initially at the Loft and later at Paradise Garage. He was also beginning to openly embrace his gay identity and there was a feeling of communality on the dance floor. In contrast to the punk/rock scene (typically angry, white, and heterosexual), disco was a culturally diverse party.

With the generation immediately preceding ours, the various camps of composers—whether conservatory, jazz, or rock—kept to themselves, maintaining barriers between forms. By the ’70s there were many people attempting to dissolve these lines, yet it is the sheer number of areas in which Arthur did significant work during that era that remains amazing.

Rhys Chatham is a musician and composer from Manhattan residing in Paris since 1987.

Below are four musical tracks selected from Audika Records’s library of Arthur Russell recordings:

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(All tracks courtesy of Audika Records.)