Arthur Russell (musician)  

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"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. --The A to Z of Dub (1994) by David Toop

"Arthur Russell was an avant-garde cellist active in the New York art scene of the late twentieth century. But next to his 'art music' activities, Russell was equally active in the New York club scene, writing dance music, after being introduced to it by Nicky Siano. As such he bridges the gap between art music and popular music. His compositions have been (re)mixed by such luminaries as Larry Levan, Walter Gibbons, Nicky Siano and François Kevorkian. His best tracks are Loose Joints' "Is It All Over My Face", Dinosaur L's "Go Bang!" and Lola's "Wax the Van"."--Sholem Stein

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Arthur Russell (1951 – 1992) was an American composer, cellist, producer, singer, and musician known for compositions as He is known for such musical compositions as "Kiss Me Again" (1978), "Is It All Over My Face" (1980), "Schoolbell/Treehouse" (1986) and "Let's Go Swimming" (1986).

Trained in contemporary experimental composition and Indian classical music, in the mid-1970s he relocated to New York, where he became associated with Lower Manhattan's avant-garde community as well as the city's disco scene. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Russell produced a considerable collection of material, including several underground dance hits under aliases such as Dinosaur L and Indian Ocean, but his difficulty in completing projects resulted in a limited amount of released output; World of Echo (1986) was his only solo pop album to be released during his life.

Over the course of his career, Russell collaborated with a wide variety of artists, including composers Steve Reich and Philip Glass, poet Allen Ginsberg, musicians such as Peter Gordon, David Van Tieghem, Peter Zummo and David Byrne, and DJs such as Walter Gibbons, Larry Levan, and Nicky Siano.

He died from AIDS-related illnesses in 1992, still in relative obscurity and nearly broke. Throughout the 2000s, a series of reissues, compilations, books, and a biographical documentary significantly raised his profile.

Following his death, several albums of his various unheard recordings were compiled and released, including The World of Arthur Russell (2004) and Calling Out of Context (2004). The documentary Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell was released in 2008.



1973–1975: Early years in New York and The Kitchen

In 1973, Russell moved to New York and enrolled in a formal degree program at the Manhattan School of Music, cross-registering in electronic music and linguistics classes at Columbia University. While studying at the conservatory, Russell repeatedly clashed with Pulitzer Prize-winning serialist composer and instructor Charles Wuorinen, who disparaged the composition "City Park" (a minimalist, non-narrative suite incorporating readings from the works of Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein) as "the most unattractive thing I've ever heard".

Embittered by his experience, Russell briefly considered transferring to Dartmouth College at the behest of experimental composer Christian Wolff, whom he had sought out and befriended upon arriving in the Northeast. But after a chance meeting at a Wolff concert in Manhattan, he became close with Rhys Chatham, who arranged for Russell to succeed him as music director of The Kitchen, a downtown avant-garde performance space. As a result, he abandoned his studies and remained in New York. Russell and Chatham later briefly roomed together in a sixth-story walkup apartment at 437 East 12th Street in the East Village; Ginsberg (who maintained his primary residence in the building from 1975 to 1996 and helped Russell secure the apartment) supplied electricity to the impoverished composers through an extension cord. Russell resided in the apartment for the rest of his life. During his tenure at The Kitchen (from the autumn of 1974 to the summer of 1975), he greatly expanded the breadth and purview of the venue's offerings, crafting a program that "support[ed] other local and relatively low profile composers rather than... accentuat[ing] the work of composers who were beginning to acquire an international reputation." This approach elicited controversy when Russell booked Boston-based proto-punk band The Modern Lovers for an engagement at the venue, widely regarded as a leading bastion of minimalism. Russell's booking of Fluxus stalwart Henry Flynt's "punkabilly" ensemble Nova'billy, concluding his season as director, was likewise unsettling to the avant-garde establishment. According to biographer Tim Lawrence, "the decision to program the Modern Lovers and Talking Heads was Russell’s way of demonstrating that minimalism could be found outside of compositional music, as well as his belief that pop music could be arty, energetic and fun at the same time."

From 1975 to 1979, Russell was a member of The Flying Hearts, recorded by John Hammond, which consisted of Russell (keyboards/vocals), ex-Modern Lovers member Ernie Brooks (bass/vocals), Larry Saltzman (guitar), and David Van Tieghem (drums, vocals); a later incarnation in the 1980s included Joyce Bowden (vocals) and Jesse Chamberlain (drums). This ensemble was frequently augmented in live and studio performances by the likes of Chatham, David Byrne, Jon Gibson, Peter Gordon, Jerry Harrison, Garrett List (who succeeded Russell as musical director of The Kitchen), Andy Paley, Lenny Pickett and Peter Zummo. During the same period, various permutations of this ensemble, together with Glenn Iamaro, Bill Ruyle and Jon Sholle, performed & recorded excerpts from Instrumentals, a 48-hour-long orchestral work that constituted Russell's first major work in the idiom. Selections from the Instrumentals sessions were eventually collected on an eponymously titled album, released by Belgian label Disques du Crepuscule in 1984. The collaboration among Russell (once again as a keyboardist), Brooks, and Chamberlain extended into The Necessaries, a power pop quartet fronted by guitarist Ed Tomney. Their lone 1981 album on Sire Records (initially released as Big Sky before being tweaked and re-released as Event Horizon) featured few songwriting contributions from Russell, who abruptly left the band at the approach to the Holland Tunnel before an important concert in Washington, D.C.

1976–1980: Discovery of disco and early singles

Around 1976, Russell became a habitue of New York's nascent underground disco scene, namely Nicky Siano's Gallery on Houston Street in SoHo. In a 2007 interview with Wax Poetics magazine, Siano downplayed the popular myth that Russell's interest in the genre solidified over the course of a single night, noting that "Louis [Aquilone, Siano's best friend and Russell's then-lover] was at the Gallery every single Saturday night. After spending a few Saturday nights without Louis, Arthur decided to come. After the third or fourth time there, he started to come without Louis". Though an eager dancer, Siano has described Russell's style as "strange... outrageous, weird... he was definitely a 'white-boy' dancer."

By the time Russell was involved with Tom Lee in the 1980s, his nightlife activities had subsided to a large extent. "It wasn't like Arthur and I were in some gay disco world, getting dressed to go out to the club and dancing the night away," Lee has said. "We’d go to CBGB, we'd go to Max's Kansas City, we'd go to Tier 3 but we'd listen to the group and then go home. For him it was about the daily grind of actually playing music."

In 1977, trenchantly attracted to the minimalist rhythms of disco and funded by Siano's "Gallery war chest", Russell wrote and co-produced "Kiss Me Again" in collaboration with a diverse array of musicians—Flynt, Zummo, Byrne (on rhythm guitar) and Gloria Gaynor veterans Wilbur Bascomb (bass) and Alan Schwartzberg (drums)—under the moniker of Dinosaur L. The first disco single to be released by Sire Records, it was a fairly large club hit. Despite the modicum of commercial success and reactionin the New York underground, according to Siano, "Ray Caviano [head of Warner/Sire's disco division] never really pushed it," and the record failed to cross over into the mainstream. The song's main hook was interpolated by Desmond Child (who was acquainted with Russell via Larry Salzman) on his minor 1979 hit "Our Love Is Insane," leading Russell to accuse the musician of infringement among his friends. Although the duo was signed to Sire to produce a follow-up single featuring Gerri Griffin of the Voices of East Harlem, the sessions stalled because of Siano's burgeoning drug habit (leading him to take temporary refuge in California) and Russell's myopic approach to recording.

In 1980, Loose Joints (initially known as the Little All-Stars) was formed with Russell, onetime DJ Steve D'Aquisto, Columbia student and Russell confidante Steven Hall, three singers found on The Loft's dancefloor, miscellaneous other musicians, and the Ingram Brothers rhythm section (best known for later backing Patti LaBelle). With a stated ambition to create "the disco White Album", the group—under contract to leading underground disco label West End Records—recorded hours of music but only released three songs: "Is It All Over My Face", "Pop Your Funk" (in two disparate arrangements, including a no wave-influenced single edit), and "Tell You Today". D'Aquisto, a non-musician who favored such extemporaneous touches as off-key singing and the input of street buskers, repeatedly clashed with the perfectionist Russell throughout the sessions.

The experimental recordings bemused many of downtown New York's disco cognoscenti, including West End head Mel Cheren and Loft proprietor David Mancuso, a predicament that led Larry Levan to remix "Is It All Over My Face" for club play; the ensuing track, based around a female vocal wiped from the original mix (and recorded on stolen studio time with Francois Kevorkian as an uncredited co-mixer) was an enduring staple of Levan's sets at the Paradise Garage and a formative influence on Chicago house, in addition to becoming a bona fide commercial hit in the New York area via airplay on WBLS.

In 1981, Russell and entrepreneur Will Socolov (who partially financed the Loose Joints sessions) founded Sleeping Bag Records. Their first release was a recording of 24→24 Music, a controversial disco-influenced composition (with rhythmic shifts every 24 bars, hence the title) that had been commissioned by and first performed at The Kitchen in 1979. The first limited pressing of this record had a hand made silk-screened cover. Steven Hall later described its debut as "the best performance of Arthur's work that I ever attended... it was like really hot dance music and no one got it. The idea that Arthur would turn around and bring that [dance] music into their venue and present it as serious music was really very challenging to them, and very threatening to them." "Go Bang," originally released on this album but recorded three years earlier by an ensemble that included Zummo, Peter Gordon, academic/composer Julius Eastman, Bascomb, and John and Jimmy Ingram was remixed as a 12" single by Francois Kevorkian. Kevorkian's remix of "Go Bang" and Levan's remix of "In the Cornbelt" (another track from the 24→24 suite) were frequently played at the Paradise Garage.

1983–1986: Further collaborations and World of Echo

Russell continued to release dance singles such as "Tell You Today" (4th and Broadway, 1983), an upbeat dance groove and Loose Joints holdover featuring the vocals of Joyce Bowden. Additional releases that followed included "Wax the Van" (Jump Street, 1987) and "I Need More" (Vinylmania, 1988), which paired Russell with erstwhile James Brown foil Lola Blank (then married to Bob Blank, Russell's preferred studio engineer); the Peter Zummo collaboration "Schoolbell/Treehouse" (Sleeping Bag, 1986); and "Let's Go Swimming" (Upside/Rough Trade, 1986), which anticipated later developments in tech house and was Russell's only dance single to be released under his own name. The latter two records were remixed by legendary 70s-era DJ Walter Gibbons, who had renounced his career for evangelical Christianity and was employed as a buyer at Rock and Soul Records in Midtown. Despite Gibbons's religious predilections, the two forged a dependable (if occasionally tempestuous) working relationship. Further Gibbons/Russell collaborations include "C-Thru" (a dance version of "See Through" on World of Echo that remained unreleased until 2010) and a remix of Russell's "Calling All Kids" (eventually released on the 2004 compilation Calling out of Context).

At the same time, the album Tower of Meaning (Chatham Square) was released in a limited pressing on Philip Glass's private label. The recording was made up of incidental music intended to accompany director Robert Wilson's staging of Medea, a partnership arranged by Glass. Although widely perceived as an important breakthrough for Russell in the compositional world, creative squabbling between the downtown luminaries culminated in Wilson barring the composer from attending rehearsals and eventually ousting Russell from the project altogether in favor of British composer Gavin Bryars. The "compelling and meditative recording", conducted by Julius Eastman, represents just a fragment of Russell's score, which includes voices along with its instrumentation.

While Russell tangentially remained affiliated with the new music sphere in New York until his death, continuing to perform in solo and group configurations at The Kitchen and Experimental Intermedia Foundation, Tower of Meaning was his final orchestral effort.

The rejection of Russell's Corn album (a suite of hip-hop-infused electropop including material later released on Calling Out of Context) by Socolov in 1985, coupled with creative disagreements between the two over "Wax the Van", resulted in Russell divesting himself from Sleeping Bag Records shortly after the release of "Schoolbell/Treehouse" in 1986. According to Bob Blank in a followup to an Internet reposting of the (purportedly fallacious) 1986 article that detailed the subterfuge, Socolov "wanted to take the label to 'another level".

During the mid-1980s, Russell gave many performances, either accompanying himself on cello with a myriad of effects, or working with a small ensemble consisting of Steven Hall, Ernie Brooks, Peter Zummo, percussionist Mustafa Ahmed, and composer Elodie Lauten.

September 1986 saw the release of World of Echo (Upside/Rough Trade, 1986). Heralded as "a magnum opus of sorts" by contemporary critics, it incorporated many of his ideas for pop, dance and classical music for both solo and cello format. The album was well-reviewed in Britain and included in Melody Maker's "Top Thirty Releases of 1986", but a complete failure commercially.

Russell also collaborated with a number of choreographers, including John Bernd, Diane Madden, Alison Salzinger and Stephanie Woodard.

1986–1992: Later work, illness, and death

Shortly after the release of World of Echo, Russell was diagnosed as HIV-positive. Though the disease caused throat cancer (forcing Russell to undergo chemotherapy), he remained prolific, working on voice-and-cello songs for an album to be released by Philip Glass's Point Music (some of which surfaced on the posthumous Another Thought in 1994) and an electronic pop album (influenced by the likes of 808 State and William Orbit and provisionally titled 1-800-Dinosaur) for Rough Trade Records. Much of the material intended for this project was included on 2004's Calling Out of Context. Although Russell reportedly planned to submit the album in the summer of 1987, he continued tinkering with potential songs for another four years. According to Rough Trade founder Geoff Travis, "It was frustrating, but I knew he needed my support to keep financing his music."

Russell died of AIDS-related illnesses on April 4, 1992, at the age of 40. In an April 28 column, Kyle Gann of The Village Voice wrote: "His recent performances had been so infrequent due to illness, his songs were so personal, that it seems as though he simply vanished into his music."

Russell was prolific, but was also notorious for leaving songs unfinished and continually revising his music. Ernie Brooks said Russell "never arrived at a completed version of anything." Peter Gordon stated, "his quest wasn't really to do a finished product but more to do with exploring his different ways of working musically." He left behind more than 1,000 tapes when he died, 40 of them different mixes of one song. According to Russell archivist Steve Knutson, the musician's estate consists of around 800 reels of 2" and ¼" tape, "another few hundred cassettes, several dozen DAT tapes, hundreds and hundreds of pages of song lyrics and poetry".


Studio albums

Solo albums

With The Necessaries

Compilation albums and EPs


  • Dinosaur: "Kiss Me Again" (1978). Sire Records. Vocals by Myriam Valle. Produced by Arthur Russell & Nicky Siano.
  • Loose Joints: "Is It All Over My Face" / "Pop Your Funk" (1980). West End Records. Produced by Arthur Russell & Steve D'Aquisto.
  • Loose Joints: "Is It All Over My Face (Female version)" (1980). West End Records. Produced by Arthur Russell & Steve D'Aquisto.
  • Dinosaur L: "Go Bang" (1982), from 24→24 Music. Sleeping Bag Records. Vocals by Lola Blank, Arthur Russell, and Julius Eastman.
  • Loose Joints: "Tell You Today" (1983). 4th and Broadway. Vocals by Joyce Bowden. Produced by Killer Whale (Russell) & Steve D'Aquisto.
  • Felix: "Tiger Stripes" (1984). Sleeping Bag Records. Vocals by Maxine Bell. Produced by Killer Whale & Nicky Siano.
  • Indian Ocean: "Schoolbell/Treehouse" (1986). Sleeping Bag Records (US) / 4th and Broadway (UK). Produced by Arthur Russell & Peter Zummo.
  • Arthur Russell: "Let's Go Swimming" (1986). Logarythm (US) / Rough Trade (UK). Produced by Arthur Russell & Mark Freedman. Edited by Killer Whale.
  • Lola (Lola Blank): "Wax the Van" (1987). Jump Street Records. Vocals by Lola Blank. Produced by Bob and Lola Blank.
  • Lola (Lola Blank): "I Need More" (1988). Vinylmania. Vocals by Lola Blank. Produced by Bob and Lola Blank.
  • Arthur Russell: "Springfield" (2006). Audika Records. Includes a remix by The DFA.

Mixes and edits

  • Sounds of JHS 126 Brooklyn: "Chill Pill" (1984). Sleeping Bag Records. "Under Water Mix" by Killer Whale.
  • Clandestine featuring Ned Sublette: "Radio Rhythm (Signalsmart)" (1984). Sleeping Bag Records. "Extra Cheese" and "Dub" mixes by Killer Whale & Nicky Siano.
  • Bonzo Goes to Washington (Bootsy Collins and Jerry Harrison): "Five Minutes" (1984). Sleeping Bag Records. "R-R-R Radio" and "B-B-B Bombing" mixes "chopped and channeled" by Arthur Russell.


Linking in in 2023

24→24 Music, 30 Hours, 69 (album), Adebisi Shank, Albert Oehlen, Ali Akbar College of Music, Allen Ginsberg, Allie X, Amber Coffman, Ants from Up There, Après le Déluge, April 4, Avant-funk, Bad Boys of the Arctic, Blonded Radio, Calling Out of Context, Casual Gods, Catherine Christer Hennix, Charles Wuorinen, Charlotte Cornfield, Chris Taylor (Grizzly Bear musician), Dan Hartman, Dance-rock, David Van Tieghem, Deee-Lite, Devendra Banhart, DFA Records, Disco Not Disco 2, Disco Not Disco, Disco, DJ-Kicks: Henrik Schwarz, Drake discography, East Village, Manhattan, El mal querer, English Graffiti, Foals (band), Four Songs by Arthur Russell, François Kevorkian, Garrett List, Gary Lucas, Geographer (band), Go Bang, Grapetooth, Guerilla Toss, Hecuba (band), Henry Flynt, Hot Chip, If I Had a Hi-Fi, It's All True (song), Jackson Mac Low, James Duncan (musician), Joel Gibb, Jófríður Ákadóttir, John Hammond (record producer), Jon Gibson (minimalist musician), Julius Eastman, Keep the Lights On, Kelly Lee Owens, Kiss Me Again, Last Night on Earth (Noah and the Whale album), Late Night Tales: Snow Patrol, List of art pop musicians, List of avant-garde artists, List of cellists, List of cult music artists, List of minimalist composers, List of post-disco artists and songs, List of Rough Trade artists, List of Sire Records artists, List of songs recorded by Kanye West, Love Is Free (EP), Love of Life Orchestra, Matt Wolf (filmmaker), Mister Saturday Night, Moogfest, Music of Iowa, My Tiger My Timing, Naked (Talking Heads album), Neville G. Pemchekov Warwick, New York Noise (album), Nicky Siano, No wave, NTS Radio, One Life Stand, Òran Mór Session, Orgelbüchlein, Oskaloosa, Iowa, Out of the Woods (Tracey Thorn album), Paradise Garage, Paul Heck, Person Pitch, Peter Gordon (composer), Peter Zummo, Philip Glass, Phill Niblock, Planningtorock, Plexifilm, Point Music, Post-disco, Post-punk, Psycho Killer, Queer Songbook Orchestra, Robyn & La Bagatelle Magique, Sasha Frere-Jones, Shannon Lay, Shitdisco, Shore (album), Sleeping Bag Records, Snake Charmer (EP), Soul Jazz Records, Steve D'Aquisto, Talking Heads: 77, Tenci, Terrible (label), The Getaway World Tour, The Kitchen (art institution), The Life of Pablo, The Marble Index, The Modern Lovers, The Pitchfork 500, The World of Arthur Russell, To the Batmobile Let's Go, Tom Odell, Top Ranking: A Diplo Dub, Tower of Meaning, Verity Susman, Vondelpark (band), W (Planningtorock album), Walk on Water (Jerry Harrison album), Walter Gibbons, Warm Ghost, West End Records, Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell, World of Echo, You Lost Me, Zachary Cole Smith

See also

downtown music

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