Experimental Music
Travels Over Feeling Sasha Frere-Jones

A new book captures the vibes of visionary composer
and cellist Arthur Russell.

Travels Over Feeling: Arthur Russell, A Life, by Richard King,
Anthology Editions, 296 pages, $50

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Richard King’s Travels Over Feeling represents and reframes composer Arthur Russell’s life through photos and flyers and receipts and conversations with friends and all shapes and sizes of golden archival confetti. My deep affection for it stems from how accurately it reflects Russell’s character. Russell was a sweet and spacey visionary who was equal parts Iowa hippie, disco x-ray technician, notational composer, and cello improviser. All of this must be held in your hands at the same time if you are going to vibrate with Russell. In the twenty years since I first wrote about him, Russell has gone from being a beloved New York figure with a faithful sect to a vector for several generations of poets and artists and musicians who can hear the humble prophecy in his work that paymasters and hitmakers could not.

Spread from Travels Over Feeling: Arthur Russell, A Life, pages 128–9. Courtesy Anthology Editions.

King was granted access to Russell’s archive at the New York Public Library in November of 2021 and has assembled a bright bouquet from that material. So little of the cellist and producer’s work came out during his lifetime, and much of what he is now known for did not. Russell died at the age of forty in 1992 from complications related to AIDS, having made his mark with a perfect album of cello and voice (World of Echo, 1986) and a handful of singles that are woven into the history of New York City dance culture (“Go Bang,” “Kiss Me Again,” “Is It All Over My Face?”). Those who know the work can see that many of his shortest pieces are as full and considered as poems. His pace was constant and as Steve Knutson, custodian and archivist of Russell’s archive, points out, his period of greatest productivity began in 1986, when he got sick. “I think what gets lost in Arthur’s story is that once he was diagnosed with HIV, he just worked incessantly,” Knutson told me. “The work kept him alive. Part of him wanted to put things out, but that was not really the point. He had to get this work done, so he recorded incessantly.”

Spread from Travels Over Feeling: Arthur Russell, A Life, pages 122–3. Courtesy Anthology Editions.

To walk with Russell is to perform a cycle of replanting and replaying, a loving gluing-together that accepts his vault of echoes as is. Nobody has done more accepting than Knutson, who began the Audika label in part to release Russell’s music, much of it selected in cooperation with Russell’s partner, Tom Lee. Audika has released over a dozen albums since the project launched in 2004 with Calling Out of Context, a primer on Russell’s various approaches to rhythm and dance. Similarly accepting is King’s book, which splits the difference between photo album and oral history. If it’s his dance productions you want to know about, you can go to testimony from his friend, Steven Hall, about Russell finding “amazing drummers and falling in love with them.” (One in particular was Rob Shepperson, the drummer for New York dance band Tirez Tirez.)

Russell focused on music to the exclusion of everything else. King includes this note from a collaborator, bassist Ernie Brooks: “He could be so laid back, but at the same time he had very strong aesthetic ideas about everything. In some ways he was shy, physically shy and retiring but at the same time he could be so insistent and obsessive.” That tendency found him correcting other musicians during studio sessions, pointing out fluctuations of pitch and tempo (almost always correctly). Russell allegedly even told Bob Dylan what to do during a session with Russell’s friend and mentor, Allen Ginsberg.

Spread from Travels Over Feeling: Arthur Russell, A Life, pages 138–9. Courtesy Anthology Editions.

One of the more revealing moments King helps illuminate is when Robert Wilson enlisted Russell in 1980 to write music for his production MEDEA. Wilson’s opera, based on the Euripides play, followed his unexpectedly huge success with EINSTEIN ON THE BEACH, created with composer Philip Glass, another friend and mentor to Russell. For MEDEA, Russell collaborated with Julius Eastman, the departed and iconoclastic composer whose legacy has grown much larger than it was during his life.

The two worked in earnest, converting Russell’s idiosyncratic scores (sometimes lacking indication for tempo and note duration) to render the music. Lee reports that Russell “had built shelves in the apartment so each instrument had their own individual score that could be housed in their own compartment.” Wilson was frustrated with delays, and parted ways with Russell before the opera premiered. (The flyer for a workshop performance is here in King’s book.) Some of the music for MEDEA became Tower of Meaning (1983), another gem in Russell’s catalog with more than a little of the distilled melancholy that has made William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops so important to so many in the last two decades. It is worth noting Tower of Meaning is among the many islands in Russell’s oeuvre, as the “classical” side has gotten less notice. Tower is sublime stuff, legato horn phrases wafting in a sort of loose meter, breaking away from the European lockstep of the staff paper. Russell and Eastman are now crucially important to a younger set of composers who are largely indifferent to the establishment march of Glass and his typewriter-paced buddies.

Pictured, left to right: Jack Majewski, Arthur Russell, Laurie Anderson, Scott Johnson, and Peter Gordon—an ensemble in which Arthur played drums. From Travels Over Feeling: Arthur Russell, A Life, page 49. Courtesy Laurie Anderson.

Composer and cellist Ethan Philbrick described Russell to me as “this hovering figure of lost lineages,” and King’s book proves that he was generally ten to twenty years ahead of the crowd. Hall points out here that Russell was interested in “editing and sampling,” processes that are now common, partly due to the work that Russell and others in the dance and rap community did. Knutson told me that if Russell had lived, “he would’ve loved Ableton or whatever, where you just have a home studio on your computer and work on that.”

Spread from Travels Over Feeling: Arthur Russell, A Life, pages 126–7. Courtesy Anthology Editions.

Poet charles theonia assumed at first that Russell was, in fact, still living. “I didn’t know anything about him when I was listening to his music, but it sounded like it was coming from right now,” theonia told me. “And I was like, ‘Oh, wait, this is actually much cooler than I even guessed.’ ” What theonia made was their own version of Russell’s work, woven through the titular poem of their new collection, Gay Heaven Is a Dance Floor but I Can’t Relax. There are bits and pieces of titles and little curlicues of text that can be read in any direction, like snippets of recording tape waiting to be spliced.

Russell’s wholesomeness is another of the many attributes that seem to have been sent back into time from today’s softer, gentler youth. “I Wish I Had A Brother” is about wanting to play basketball on the playground with his (imaginary) brother, a guitar song that could be a Willie Nelson demo. In King’s book, Lee speaks of Russell, an actual runaway who nonetheless stayed in touch with his parents and “couched everything in terms of what they might want to hear,” some of it true, some of it hopeful distortion: “I’m taking the cello to get it fixed,” “I’ve met someone at a record company; he seems like a good guy,” “I’m taking classes at Columbia.”’

Spread from Travels Over Feeling: Arthur Russell, A Life, pages 240–1. Courtesy Anthology Editions.

Other books on Russell have adopted more specific approaches. Tim Lawrence’s Hold On to Your Dreams perceives Russell as a dance-floor visionary, while Matt Marble’s Buddhist Bubblegum looks at Russell’s work through his religious practice. King doesn’t have to decide, partly because Travels Over Feeling is a variation on the coffee table book, hanging in that happy valley between genres, where the margins are looser. This is where Russell lived, and may be related to what Knutson reports as “Arthur being embraced, particularly by young, queer and trans kids.” More Russells will sprout, each as high as the corn in Iowa.

Sasha Frere-Jones is a musician and writer from New York. His memoir, Earlier, was recently published by Semiotext(e).

A new book captures the vibes of visionary composer and cellist Arthur Russell.
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