If anyone wants it as a .doc file email me and I'll get it to you.
Echo Beach Melody Maker // April 11, 1987 By: Frank Owen
SIDEBAR: You may know Arthur Russell for his World Of Echo album. Then again, you may remember Dinosaur L or The Necessaries. Frank Owen takes us on a trip of cross fertilization and explains the appeal of the vernacular.
Lesson One: Before approaching the avant-garde, watch where you're putting your feet.
Within minutes of meeting Arthur Russell, disco stylist, cellist and avant-garde composer, I've closeted myself in the toilet of his East Village pad, trying to surreptitiously remove the remains of the doggy doo, a present from the streets of Alphabet City.
Look at me desperately trying to avoid messing up Arthur's carpet. Look at Arthur, paranoid and suspicious, convinced I've traveled 3,000 miles to stitch him up, contorting himself in the next room at the imminent horror of being interviewed by someone he thinks massively misinterpreted the contents of our last chat.
Arthur is plainly ill at ease, all the more so when I jokingly comment on the two cents CBS royalty cheque (part payment for a track called "That Hat" written for Peter Gordon of Love Of Life Orchestra fame, on his last album "Innocent"). Ooops!
What do I think of his new album, the magnificent "World Of Echo"? Do I think his voice is any good? How do I intend to transcribe the tape of our interview? But most of all, what has Will Socolov, co-founder of Sleeping Bag Records along with Arthur, been saying about him?
Arthur's main paranoia point was obviously my friendship with Will Socolov. Will had made no secret of his annoyance with Arthur over allowing Bob and Lola Blank, husband and wife producer and singer respectively, to be involved on Russell'ss latest dance track, "Wax The Van". Will has little respect for either Bob Blank's business or production skills or Lola Blank's singing abilities and as a consequence, Russell's long association with Sleeping Bag has been severed, at least temporarily. And it looks like Will's misgivings were well founded. Despite writing the lyrics, music and producing the track, Russell is credited on the record as being merely the keyboardist, along with Bob Blank's nine-year old kid, Kenny Blank.
Arthur shouldn't worry about Will, though. Socolov's not out for blood but talks of his former partner with exasperation and affection mixed equally.
Lesson Two: when interviewing Arthur Russell think fishy, and if you don't think fishy, think wet.
On the wall of Arthur Russell's bathroom there's a photo of a tropical fish which reads: ?g in the gentle undersea rhythms of a coral reef, the Blue Tang displays his dreamy colouration. Not a bad description of "World Of Echo", I muse, considering much of that album sounds like it was recorded underwater.
In the main room a tropical fish tank nestles in the corner and a picture of a surfacing whale rests on the mantlepiece. Which serves to remind me that water and thebeasts that dwell within are motifs that recur throughout Russell's work. His last Sleeping Bag single went under the name Indian Ocean. Another Sleeping Bag single, "You Can't Hold Me Down", under the name Felix, gives writing credits to Killer Whale, another pseudonym for Russell. And the music publishers on that song are listed as Beach House Music.
Arthur: There's something about water that does it to me. I have to live near water. I couldn't live in the centre of the continent. I go to see the Hudson River nearly every day. Later on, Arthur comments how he dislikes the dryness of contemporary dancefloor productions (i.e. their lack of echo). Dryness is not something that afflicts Russell's work.
Back at the beginning of the interview, Russell turns his acne-scarred cheek away from the light source and talks between lengthy pauses, his voice sometimes dropping sotto voce and tailing off; non-sequiturs and infuriating tangents litter the interview. But when it comes, it's well worth the trouble.
THE CRAZY WORLD OF ARTHUR RUSSELL
Think of a year, any year.
How about 1974, the year that Television first played CBGB's? In 1974, Arthur Russell was peddling a folk country act at a New York restaurant called Sobossek's. Sometimes using cello and vocals, but mainly guitar and vocals, Russell performed his own compositions like "Ballad Of The Lights Parts 1, 2 and 3", as well as traditional folk stuff like "Aunt Dinah's Quilting Party" and cowboy songs like "Goodbye Old Paint".
Arthur: A lot of people weren't there to see me. They were just there to have dinner. So I used to tell jokes to liven things up. Sometimes it wasn't too funny but it would really pick up when I got drunk. I had one song called "The Ballad Of The Lights, Part Three" and in the middle of the song I would say "Wait a minute" and I go off stage and change into a pair of overalls. That used to go down well. I think comedy is the highest form of art."
Or what about 1981, the year of the New York Noise Festival, at White Columns Art Gallery with PiL, DNA, Live Skull, Glenn Branca etc. In 1981, Arthur Russell was moonlighting as the keyboardist in a wistful, urban folk group called The Necessaries who were strongly akin to The Urban Verbs. Imagine a Metropolitan Neil Young and you've got the idea. Russell also appeared in a solo capacity with a track called "Face Of Helen"; a washed out, wide open synthesized soundscape; on a Crepuscule compilation called "Fruit Of The Original Sin".
Let's look at 1975, the year that Eno discovered ambient music. In 1975, Arthur Russell went into the fashion business: "I needed some money so I bought up 300 used t-shirts. I really liked used clothing which is a very sort of east Village thing. So I went out on the streets and sold these used t-shirts at 50 cents a piece. It wasn't very successful. I think I was ahead of my time because a few years later all the boutiques round here were selling the same thing only much more expensive."
And then there's 1982, the year that Lauri Anderson got to Number One in Britain with "O Superman". In 1982, Arthur Russell and Will Socolov founded Sleeping Bag Records whose first release was "Go Bang Number 5", by Russell under the name Dinosaur L, a segment from an album called "24-24 Music" a fluid constantly shifting piece of music that's intensely danceable and spacially disorientating at the same time. The B-side of "Go Bang" featured avant-garde saxophonist Peter Gordon and two acrobat-cum-rappers called Andre and Abel from the Big Apple Circus which Gordon which Gordon wrote music for at the time.
And what about 1976, the year in which Philip Glass's first opera, "Einstein On The Beach", was premiered at New York'ss Metropolitan Opera House and the most visible example yet of avant-garde composition crossing over to a pop crowd? In 1976, Arthur Russell was drumming for Laurie Anderson. 1976 was also the year he nearly became the fourth member of Talking Heads: "When they started out, they were just a trio and they were looking for a fourth member. We became friends but I ended up not joining the band. They were all from art school and into looking severe and cool. I was never into that. I was from music and I had long hair at the time. I think I maybe had a strong influence on one Talking Heads song, "I Zimbra" on Life During Wartime. On that same album there's a line "This ain't no disco which, at the time, I took as david saying "Disco sucks". I took that very personally."
Here comes 1977, the year in which Peter Gordon founded the Love Of Life Orchestra.
In 1977 Arthur Russell recorded his first record, "Kiss Me Again", on Sire, under the name Dinosaur featuring David Byrne on guitar, even at this stage (as opposed to Dinosaur L) Russell's passion for extended groove formats was well in evidence, the single clocking in at 18 minutes. An ecstatic, out of control slice of disco that features Russell's marvelously jokey cello and probably the most conventional song format he's ever been involved with.
Forward to 1986, and the year that Philip Glass was commissioned to write the music for the adverts in the great British Gas share sell-off. In 1986 Arthur Russell released "Schoolbells" under the name Indian Ocean and "Let's Go Swimming" under his own name. Both dance records of outstanding if warped pedigree. "Schoolbells" was the follow up to "Go Bang" and features similar jazz-inflected texture while "Let's Go Swimming" was more song-orientated with unidentified sonic objects flitting in and out of the mix and an accumulating sense of kinetics that threatens to collapse in upon itself.
Back in 1983, the year of Meredith Monk's "The Games", an avant-garde theatrical musical happening. In 1983, Arthur Russell released Tower Of Meaning, definitely a non-dance album, full of richly romantic textures and conducted by Julius Eastman.
1980 was the year in which ambient music composer Max Neuhaus installed 64 little loudspeakers around the base of the glass domo of the Como Park Observatory in St. Paul, Minnesota, so that visitors could supplement their appreciation of exotic vegetable forms below with relaxing, sustained electronic tones. In 1980 Arthur Russell released "Is It All Over My Face" under the name Loose Joints on the West End label. The A-side, with the female vocal and mixed by Larry Levan, became a classic of "garage" dance music and was played to death at the Paradise Garage.
And in 1987? "Wax The Van" and the album World Of Echo, the latter containing versions of previous Russell songs like "Schoolbells", "Wax The Van", "Let's Go Swimming", but warped into a completely different dimension with only Russell's voice, cello, a smattering of percussion and huge washes of echo for comfort. Mournful, mysterious, intimate, understated, indeterminate and altogether beautiful. Aworld of music beyond notes.
THE CULTIVATED AND THE VERNACULAR
One way of looking at the history of American music is to see it as a dialogue between the cultivated and the vernacular. For much of that history, the upholders of so-called "serious" American music sought to suppress the vernacular side in deference to European-derived models what music should be. In the Sixties that separation between serious and vernacular music started to break down with composers like Cage and Reich who looked to Oriental and African musics for inspiration. This Euro-centrism was further broken down with the rediscovery of indigenous American folk music by the classical avant-garde contingent.
Though from a contemporary classical background, Arthur Russell cites folk musicians like Estil C. Ball, who played a sort of west Virginia backwoods hillbilly music, Malvina Reynolds, who wrote "Morning Town Ride" and "Little Boxes" which was later made famous by Pete Seeger, and Fred McDowell as key influences. This folk influence can be heard on World Of Echo, especially in Russell's vocal style that has been compared to both joni Mitchell and John Martyn. Though exhibiting a folk influence World Of Echo is unlikely to appeal to Hedgehog Pie fans, being a music with its roots in the ether rather than in some romanticised peasant-tilled earth. Russell tells a story which perfectly illustrates the reason for his interest in the vernacular. While at the Manhattan School Of Music, he took classes in linguisyics at the University of Columbia next door.
Arthur: "At school the courses I liked most were the linguistics courses. The professors spoke so many languages and were so articulate. They fought these fierce battles among themselves.
"I remember one day saying to one of the professors: 'Don't you think it matters what it is you're trying to say' He replied 'That's the tritest thing I've ever heard.' But I wasn't sorry I said it. It seems to me that what you mean informs a change in the structure of language. The intention of communication is the formative force in language."
What Russell is getting at is that linguistics is more interested in establishing the structure of language that makes speech possible rather than investigating what people actually say.
Russell, on the other hand, sees language in terms of a practice rather than an object as a movement in time rather than an object in space. Since music is a language, the same thing applies. Hence Russell's interest in the vernacular music(the way people actually speak music whether it's through folk or the dancefloor) rather than the formal rules of making music that classical music is taken up with.
As Russell well knows, the musical language that people speak has little to do with the language taught in the music academies.
REPETITION IN OUR MUSIC AND WE?fRE NEVER GONNA LOSE IT
"Disco music was strongly influenced by repetitive music. The appearance of the minimalists like myself in the pop circles contributed to this trend. Although pop musicians based themselves on us, they still created their own forms. Their musical language was expanded." - Philip Glass.
"The Sixties were characterised by a tremendous gap between the classically trained avant-garde composer and the pop musician. The Sixties seem to be fusing them. While Bob Dylan at the time had nothing to do with John Cage, there is now a thread running through the work of John Cage, Talking Heads, Laurie Anderson and my own that used to be inconceivable." Philip Glass again.
For centuries, repetition was regarded as taboo in "serious" music circles. In the Sixties and Seventies, minimalist composers like Philip Glass, Steve reich and Terry Riley overturned this taboo and opened up the possibility of a dialogue with more popular forms of music that had always used repetition as a key element.
Even today, though, repetition still gets a bad rap. Chicago House music is most often criticised by rock writers for its monotony, its use of endlessly repeated synth lines for its base.
Even when such critics rightly isolate the hypnotic, trance-inducing momentum of repetitive pop, they wrongly ascribe to this an escapist function; the out-of-head, out-of-body experience that such music engenders being a form of flight from reality and politics. Arthur Russell, much of whose work is repetitive and who is often asked "Why can't you have a beginning, middle and an end??h remembers playing a Hamilton Bohannon record to an Italian friend. His friend was unimpressed by the enchanted sound of Bohannon's undulating, sinuous and fiercely repetitive groove format, a sound that I regard as the foundling moment of the nation of disco whose influence can be heard most explicitly in Talking Heads as well as dozens of other dance acts who've probably never even heard of the great man. Arthur: "When the track had finished he turned to me and said 'This is second-rate music.' That was such a weird thing to say. I'd never thought of it n those hierarchical terms. It always seems important to meto avoid such value judgments."
Arthur also remembers one time while at the Manhattan School Of Music, when he played his latest composition "City Park" ( a repetitive piece that included readings by Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein and was intended for Columbia University's highly repected WKCR radio station),to his composition teacher, Charles Wuorinen (a leading exponent of sophisticated European-derived classical music "the type of music that had beginnings, middles and ends in abundance" according to Arthur).
Arthur: "I said to him the thing that excited me about the piece was that you could pick up the needle anywhere and put it down and it always sounded the same. Not exactly the same, but you could plug into it for as long as you liked, then plug out and then plug back in again without losing anything essential unlike narrative music where your attention is required from beginning to end. He turned to me and said , 'That's the most unattractive thing I've ever heard."
Russell makes an apology with the work of filmmaker Phil Niblock, for whom Arthur recorded "Answer Me" on the World Of Echo album.
"His films are very long. They go on for eight hours at a time. He makes a point of encouraging people to get up and move around during his films. It's very exciting."
Another more obvious analogy is with club music, where the seamless beat context created by the DJ is there to be dipped in and out of at will, rather than demanding the rapt and constant attention that a rock performance demands. What we're talking about here is the distinction between music as process (most dance music as well as Glass, Reich,etc.) and music as object (U2, The smiths, Simple Minds, etc.). But Russell is wary of making the fit between the contemporary avant-garde and the dancefloor too neat.
Arthur: "I think the kind of repetition that comes out of me and is in dance music is somewhat different to the repetition of minimalist works of the sixties and seventies.
"Dance music is more improvisatory. It uses an extendable strucure which on the one hand is recognizable, and on the other, improvisatory. It's based on hearing what you do while you do it. In most compositions, it's based on hearing things in a much more distanced sense.
"Indian music is a different form of repetition again. You sit down and listen to it all the way through, and it goes into you and builds up into a total effect. African music is different again. You get the sense that the repetition is a social thing that expresses not an individual consciousness but a community."
ANOTHER WORLD OF ECHO
ARTHUR: World Of Echo isn't a complete version of echo, it's a sketch version of echo. I want to do the full version which will have brass bands and orchestras playing outdoors in parks with those band-stands that project echo. I also want to have Casio keyboards on sailboats. Have you ever been on a sailboat? It's so quiet, all you hear is wind and sea."
― Jay Vee (Manon_70), Friday, 19 August 2005 23:43 (fourteen years ago) link
Thank you so much for that. I feel like going round to Conor Mcnicholas' house right now to show him what you can do in a music weekly.
The fact that we'll never hear these casio on a sailboat makes me want to cry a little
― weekendsteve, Saturday, 20 August 2005 00:03 (fourteen years ago) link
― amon (eman), Saturday, 20 August 2005 01:25 (fourteen years ago) link
― Susan Douglas (Susan Douglas), Saturday, 20 August 2005 01:35 (fourteen years ago) link
― willem (willem), Saturday, 20 August 2005 08:57 (fourteen years ago) link
― LRJP! (LRJP!), Saturday, 20 August 2005 09:43 (fourteen years ago) link
― m coleman (lovebug starski), Saturday, 20 August 2005 10:58 (fourteen years ago) link
― sleeve (sleeve), Saturday, 20 August 2005 14:53 (fourteen years ago) link
― jed_ (jed), Saturday, 20 August 2005 15:02 (fourteen years ago) link
I typed this up in MS Word on my Mac. If anyone's unable to read it as posted here -- it looks fine to me, btw -- I'll be glad to send you the original Word file. Not sure if that'll help but ...
― Jay Vee (Manon_70), Saturday, 20 August 2005 15:35 (fourteen years ago) link
― don, Saturday, 20 August 2005 16:10 (fourteen years ago) link
Not that this adds anything, but below is a review I did for a local magazine (the only review I've ever written of any music for publication) that apparently caused the sale of a large number of copies of 'World of Echo' at the best local record shop. That's all I could've asked for--that more people hear Mr. Russell.
Arthur Russell'World of Echo'[1986; reissued Audika Records, 2004]
I am a proactive humanist; I don't believe in religion or science as anything more than means to an end. If I have a concept of ritual, of efficacious religious activity, it's listening to and making music. By this understanding, listening to 'World of Echo' is a genuinely religious experience.
Instead of trying to explain its power to friends, over the last few years I've copied it a dozen times and let it do its own proselytizing. Miraculously, it's been rescued from the land of hopelessly-out-of-print and reissued by Audika Records (who also released the nearly-as-brilliant record of unheard avant-Casio-hip-hop-pop, 'Calling Out of Context,' in early 2004) after a year of growing interest spurned in part by Soul Jazz's 'World of Arthur Russell' compilation. If you've only heard that disc, then you know Arthur Russell as an underground New York disco maestro via Dinosaur L, Loose Joints, Sleeping Bag Records, and his work with the likes of David Byrne and Jerry Harrison. But Arthur was also a quiet gay kid from Iowa; a renowned classical and avant-garde cellist; an adherent at a Buddhist monastery in California; Ginsberg's musical accompanyist; and a compatriot of Phillip Glass. But beyond all that, he also recorded hundreds of hours of practically secret music that transcends any of his public personae, most of which he never felt the need to share with the world. Of that more private Arthur Russell, 'World of Echo' is the central expression.
Elements of Arthur's roles as disco auteur and composer-poet are apparent on 'World of Echo'. The record consists almost entirely of intimately microphoned voice and cello treated with dub echoes and twists that enhance the album's feeling of being in the blood, wholly organic. The melodies recall Russell's serenely joyous keyboard lines from "Is It All Over My Face," but most of the beats are implied rather than pronounced. The cello sounds more like a living voice than a refined classical instrument, providing the heartbeat as much as the melody. The album is meditative, but in a way that recalls West African kora playing; a classical raga; evensong at St. Paul's; or a Javanese Gamelan piece played at quarter speed; more than any singer/songwriter confessional. The interplay between Russell's voice, his cello, and the expertly applied dub effects reminds me of nothing so much as Bill Evans, Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian on "Jade Visions". ‘World of Echo’ consists of identifiable "songs," but Russell clearly thought more in terms of motifs and textures than traditional verse/chorus/verse arrangements. Lyrics and melodies cycle through, but the pattern of how and when they appear is more akin to jazz than pop. It may be Russell's unassuming, full voice, sounding corporal and spiritual—somewhere between Curtis Mayfield, Percy Sledge, and Nick Drake—that gives the music such transcendent warmth and vitality.
There is the intoxication of a party: the dancing, the drugs, the flirting, the sex. And then there is the more sobering intoxication which comes after all of that, if you're lucky enough to be sleeping next to the one you love. 'World of Echo' is intoxicating like the moments when you awake to find that she's still there, when you realize she will be again tomorrow and after ten thousand tomorrows. It is in this moment that life is clearest, when you know you are blessed. In this moment of safety, you understand what could be lost if you take life for granted, and so you resolve to live fully rather than passively. 'World of Echo' is an experience of an active peace, not a sterile absence of discord. You can let it wash over you, and it is beautiful enough to simply soothe. But if you can listen actively, it will reaffirm your faith that music is integral to being successfully human, and that the beauty of being human is worth all the trouble. For me, that's the hope music-as-religion can offer.
― I.M. (I.M.), Saturday, 20 August 2005 16:21 (fourteen years ago) link
ah, no prob; kept me concentrating just a little, like Arthur's music always does (to say the least), no matter how ambient.
I was going to say the same thing! Treat the odd Mac-PC grammer artefacts and stray consonant intrusions as typographical echoplex and tape shimmer ;)
Nice stuff I.M.
― LRJP! (LRJP!), Saturday, 20 August 2005 16:37 (fourteen years ago) link
― jess (dubplatestyle), Saturday, 20 August 2005 17:03 (fourteen years ago) link
Next week I'll post the MM review of world Of Echo that was in the same issue. I think some of it was quoted in the reissue liner notes.
― Jay Vee (Manon_70), Saturday, 20 August 2005 17:54 (fourteen years ago) link
― don, Saturday, 20 August 2005 18:28 (fourteen years ago) link
― Susan Douglas (Susan Douglas), Tuesday, 23 August 2005 19:09 (fourteen years ago) link
― Susan Douglas (Susan Douglas), Wednesday, 24 August 2005 23:05 (thirteen years ago) link
The article I just read contained conjecture and innacuracies that need to be mentioned.
I worked with Arthur for years before the creation of "Wax The Van'; I did literally hundreds of recording sessions with Arthur as engineer and as producer (I produced Arthur and group for Sire Records as The Necessaries). Lola (my wife) was one of the vocalists on "Go Bang" which I also remixed - Arthur was interested in working with Lola on a record and worked out 'Wax The Van' as one of 5 titles we recorded for an album (another title from this album came out on Jump Street Records). I had produced Sleeping Bag's first #1 title - 'Weekend', and Will Socolov was very happy about our producing a song for Lola - we both assumed it would be a good product, and it was.
I created the rhythm track, playing the drum machine (!) and of course guitar (as I had done on our other #1 NY record, 'Over Like A Fat Rat')and Arthur played piano and sang a chrous part. Ken Smith was brought in to play bass, and of course Lola sang it. My six year old son Kenny sang the 'why why' parts - another great part contributed by Arthur - and Arthur got all the credit and $$ compensation that we agreed to and was entitled to. He was to continue to work with me for another few years until his death, at my home studio in Connecticut, after I sold Blank Tapes Studio in 1987.
The reason for Arthur's departure from Sleeping Bag was simple, and it was not, as the author imples, due to a disagreement over the record 'Wax The Van'. Quite simply, Will wanted to take the label to 'another level', and he and Arthur had many artistic disagreements. Will wnet on to achieve great success without Arthur (effectively screwing him out of his part of the company, which Arthur was co-owner with Juggy Gayles and Will) and of course, Arthur went on doing projects. 'World Of Echo' was one - I worked on this as I had done on many of the projects he did.
I think the original article, written at the time of great upheaval in Arthur's life and from a perspective of the times, has a sweetly innocent quality that belies it's ignorance. For instance, the cute 'fishy' metaphors conclude by naming the publishing company's name, Beach House Music. Cute tie in, but in reality, it was Will's family's restaurant, the Beach House, on the West Vilage, that gave the publishing company it's moniker, not any relation to Arthur.
Another title is still "in the Can' from the last few years of working with Arthur; many memories remain, like the 1951 Chevy that Arthur drove east to trade for payment of studio time (I eventually gave it away) and the times spent in my attic studios in Stamford.
Hey, the article was 20 years ago, right?
Anyway, thanks for letting me set the record straight. Email me....
― Bob Blank, Friday, 16 September 2005 02:03 (thirteen years ago) link
― andrew m. (andrewmorgan), Friday, 16 September 2005 02:29 (thirteen years ago) link
Russell's passion for extended groove formats was well in evidence, the single clocking in at 18 minutes
― vahid (vahid), Friday, 16 September 2005 02:35 (thirteen years ago) link
Thanks for the Aural Exciters as well!
― Dan Selzer (Dan Selzer), Friday, 16 September 2005 04:06 (thirteen years ago) link
what an egotistical fuck.
― hstencil (hstencil), Friday, 16 September 2005 04:13 (thirteen years ago) link
― willem (willem), Friday, 16 September 2005 06:19 (thirteen years ago) link
If there's a demand I'll scan and YSI it or something.
― Jeff W (zebedee), Thursday, 28 September 2006 10:13 (twelve years ago) link
― stirmonster (stirmonster), Thursday, 28 September 2006 10:32 (twelve years ago) link
― Gerard (Gerard), Thursday, 28 September 2006 10:40 (twelve years ago) link
― Raw Patrick (Raw Patrick), Thursday, 28 September 2006 10:52 (twelve years ago) link