Died: April 4, 1992, New York City, New York
Key Albums: World of Echo (1986), Another Thought (1994)
Arthur Russell was a New York-based musician, whose twin studies of classical cello and downtown disco resulted in multi-faceted music that, in combining elements of folk, avant-gardism, and pop seems both accessible and difficult at once. Though largely ignored in his day, following his AIDS-related death in 1992, Russell's output has become increasingly influential over the years.
BackgroundBorn Charles Arthur Russell in Oskaloosa, Russell began in music learning the piano by ear. Joining the middle-school orchestra, he picked up the cello, the same instrument played by his mother.
In 1970, Russell moved to San Francisco, to formally study at the city's musical Conservatory. Later, he lived in a Buddhist commune and studied North Indian music at the Ali Akbar College of Music. There, he met beat poet Allen Ginsberg, with whom Russell would collaborate, offering a live musical backing at Ginsberg's recitations.
In 1973, Russell moved to New York to study composition at the Manhattan School Of Music, and linguistics at the University of Columbia. At this time, Russell's musical output swayed towards two musical camps: folksong and modern composition. In studying the latter, he came across a young Philip Glass, who was then just gaining a reputation as a titan of minimalism. Glass would later offer, of Russell's playing: "this was a guy who could sit down with a cello and sing with it in a way that no one on this earth has ever done before, or will do again."
BeginningsIn 1974, through Glass, Russell met David Byrne, who tried to recruit Russell for his budding project: a band that would come to be named Talking Heads. "When they started out, they were just a trio and they were looking for a fourth member," Russell said, in a 1987 interview with Melody Maker. "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."
Hanging out at New York's underground gay clubs, Russell harbored a growing obsession with disco, making a connection that few at the time had: that its repetitive rhythms echoed both the minimalism of modern composition and Indian ragas.
Going further, Russell saw disco as more liberating than these heavily-structured forms. "Dance music is more improvisatory," Russell said. "It uses an extendable strucure which on the one hand is recognizable, and on the other, improvisatory."
From the late '70s to the late '80s, Russell was incredibly prolific, but not always in the most public manner. As producer, Russell was a workaholic, but had a streak of perfectionism that caused him to abandon unfinished tracks constantly, or to spend months and months making an infinite array of edits on a single song.
In that way, the budding industry of white-label disco singles catered to his whims; Russell often issuing different versions of the same tracks in small pressings.
Using a ridiculous array of monikers —Dinosaur L, Loose Joints, Indian Ocean— Russell presided over a scattershot discography. In that time, he released three 'proper' albums: 1982's Dinosaur L LP 24-24 Music, a collation of meditative disco repetition; 1983's Tower of Meaning, a wholly orchestral worked pressed only as 320 copies; and 1986's World of Echo, in which Russell's varying schools of influence finally collided in an intimate, frail setting. It was that album that finally won Russell acclaim: named in Melody Maker's Top 30 Albums of 1986.
"World of Echo isn't a complete version of echo, it's a sketch version of echo," Russell told the English weekly, cryptically, in that 1987 interview. Typically, Russell saw, in what would turn out to be his defining album, only flaws. "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."
In the late '80s, Russell, already an insular and obsessive musician, grew more and more precious about his recordings. Working on what he hoped would be a definitive album of pop-songs —one that he never finished— Russell fastidiously fashioned dozens of different edits, mixes, and takes of different tracks.
Having been infected with HIV, Russell retreated, increasingly, into his work, and rarely left home. Always guarded about making his music publicly available, he essentially closed off his musical output, knowing that any releases this late in his life would be definitive statements of a hoped-for legacy.
Russell died of AIDS-related illness in April of 1992. He left behind thousands upon thousands of recordings, notations, sketchbooks, and lyrics. These would, eventually, grant Russell's music a life well beyond his own.
In 1994, two years after his death, Russell's first posthumously-released collection of recordings, Another Thought, was issued. Curated by Philip Glass, the compile —Russell's first widely-available, pressed-on-CD release— served to introduce Russell to a whole new generation.
In 2004, a confluence of Russell re-releases cemented his reputation as an obscure outsider figure unjustly ignored in his day. That year found a re-issue of World of Echo, the pop-song-centric compilation Calling Out of Context, and the 'best of' The World of Arthur Russell all released.
Since then, an ever-increasing array of artists have cited Russell as a key influence; from modern disco-ish outfits like !!!, The Rapture, and Hercules and Love Affair, to sorrowed songsmiths like Jens Lekman, Grizzly Bear, and Owen Pallett.
In 2008, Matt Wolf's documentary movie Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell and the country compilation Love is Overtaking Me were released, further cementing Arthur Russell's posthumous reputation as a key figure of cross-genre experimentation.