The Wild Combination of Arthur Russell

An avant icon gets another look

Arthur Russell
Arthur Russell

A friend of mine recently made me a mixtape for my birthday that included a song by Arthur Russell. I wasn’t familiar with Russell, but “That’s Us/Wild Combination” immediately caught my ear and hasn’t since let go. Russell’s voice moans in melodic reverb, sounding almost disjointed from the bed of electronic beats like a remix of a minimalist composition. It’s beautifully unsettling.

I have since dove into as much of Russell’s work as I can find and, thanks to recent reissues of his albums, there is a wealth of amazing material available. Russell passed away from AIDS in 1992, but gets a second look via Matt Wolf's recent documentary, Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell, and the new tribute vinyl EP, Four Songs by Arthur Russell, which features Jens Lekman, Taken by Trees (Victoria Bergsman of the Concretes), Vera November, and Joel Gibb of the Hidden Cameras.

Though he remained relatively obscure during his lifetime, Russell is recognized an innovator of New York House music, though the complexity of his songs and distinctively haunted vocals seem in contradiction to the dancefloor singles that often fell under the disco umbrella, mostly because they were so far ahead of their time. Born in Iowa in 1952, Russell first garnered attention as a cellist and composer in San Francisco, collaborating with beat poet Allen Ginsberg. After moving to New York in the mid-1970s, Russell became an important fixture in the avant scene, teaming with Philip Glass and David Byrne and serving as musical director of The Kitchen.

Fascinated by the liberation of disco, Russell began composing more dance-based music, but his background in the minimalist tradition of John Cage and training in classical Eastern music set his work apart. These various elements of influence came together most extraordinarily in his 1986 album World of Echo. Though it's largely just Russell and his cello, his voice plodding in patient ache above eerie distortions and effects, the explorations of sound are mesmerizing.

In the liner notes for the album, Russell wrote, “As I considered echo in various meanings, as reverberation or electronically as a single delay, it seemed that in it, concepts of time and space were expressed sonically, and the later case projected dynamically into a theoretical ‘world,’ with a more practical application.”

Wolf’s film on Russell portrays him as seeking a utopia embedded in his stylistic innovation of merging genres as he dissolved himself into his music. Always on the outside, socially and musically, Russell seems to have sought to break through defined boundaries through sound.

Or, as he wrote in World of Echo: “As the intention is not determined by genre, nor meaning by dialect, thresholds of musical understanding can occupy any threshold defined within a style and musical structure, or outside. Breakthroughs can occur at any point in the chain.”

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