Ghost Story

Ghost Story

Arthur Russell, cellist and composer, was born in 1951. In 1973, he moved to New York City and lived in the same East Village apartment for almost twenty years. A recent revival of interest in his music has manifested itself in several recordings, a film documentary and a biography entitled Hold On To Your Dreams: Arthur Russell and the Downtown Music Scene, 1973–1992 by Tim Lawrence. Here, Lawrence tells the story of the composer’s final work, World of Echo. Russell died of AIDS on 4 April 1992.


The Lama Ngawang Kalzang had been meditating for twelve years in various caves and retreats in the wilderness of the mountains of Southern Tibet. Nobody knew him, nobody had heard of him. He was one of the many thousands of unknown monks who had received his higher education in one of the great monastic universities in the vicinity of Lhasa, and though he had acquired the title of Géshé (Doctor of Divinity), he had come to the conclusion that realisation can only be found in the stillness and solitude of nature, as far away from the noisy crowds of market-places as from the monkish routine of big monasteries and the intellectual atmosphere of famous colleges. The world had forgotten him, and he had forgotten the world. – Lama Anagarika Govinda, The Way of the White Clouds

Having filmed jazz musician sun ra in the late 1960s, Phill Niblock decided he didn’t want to repeat the exercise with anyone else, but Russell’s not-quite-of-this-world persona gave Niblock second thoughts. He ended up filming Russell performing a selection of his voice-cello World of Echo songs at the Experimental Intermedia Foundation, Niblock’s loft cum venue in New York. Russell played there on two separate occasions in the autumn of 1985 – both times without an audience. ‘Arthur had this strange lighting setup with a bunch of cheap lamps and filters and a dimmer board that Steven Hall was manipulating,’ Niblock recalls. ‘The lighting changed dramatically from moment to moment, so it was all quite interesting.’ Shot on a single camera and without breaks, the first video was marred by interference while the second ran smoothly. As far as Niblock knew, Russell was planning to release the second performance, provisionally titled Terrace of Unintelligibility, in a video-only format, but the filmmaker had come to appreciate there was little point asking Russell what he was going to do with the tapes.

Russell continued to perform songs from his solo World of Echo project during 1985, more often than not at the Experimental Intermedia Foundation, where cheap wine could normally be found in a corner. ‘Phill’s loft was a much more relaxed hangout than the Kitchen,’ notes the composer Arnold Dreyblatt. ‘Phill may have been less critically curatorial than some of the directors of the Kitchen, and it’s true that he did not present some of the more provocative acts that appeared at the Kitchen [where Russell had been director for a year], but it is not an accident that Arthur became friends with Phill and ended up performing at this very off-the-mainstream space.’ Russell also liked the audio tracks of Niblock’s videos so much he resolved to release a World of Echo album. ‘We would start at eight or nine in the evening and go on at least until three a.m.,’ recalls Eric Liljestrand, who confirms the songs were recorded almost always at night. ‘Arthur always tried to maximize the time, so we did everything in a rush. It’s not like Arthur did endless takes of the same thing, but the tape was continually running and the sessions were pretty blurry to me.’

Because he was the only instrumentalist in the sessions, Russell realised he could break with the standard practice of playing in a quiet, isolated room, and so he set himself up in the control booth in order to hear exactly what the engineer was hearing and tweak the sound according to his own taste as he played directly into the mixing board. Then, when he was done with singing or playing, he would cut, re-equalize and manipulate the recordings, weaving them together as if he were a time-traveling tapestry artist. During these sessions it became standard for Russell to splice together separate tapes, and he would regularly grab a track from one tape and fly it into the multitrack of another while his onlooking engineer tried to stay calm. ‘We would be mixing on a piece of tape, and I would see a splice go by,’ recalls Liljestrand. ‘It was all very confusing. I could never really tell what we were working on until it was done.’ The ghostly accidents that arose from Russell’s insistence that they re-record over old tape became an integral part of the sonic fabric. ‘There would be leakage of an old track into a new track, which drove me bonkers,’ explains the engineer. ‘But it didn’t seem to bother Arthur.’ Russell was more concerned with Liljestrand’s habit of double-checking every time he was instructed to record over an old multitrack, and on one occasion Russell ‘got really mad, remembers the engineer. But as their working relationship deepened, Russell relaxed and took to standing over Liljestrand’s shoulder, clenching his fists and rocking backwards and forwards in a virtually imperceptible motion as the material was played back to him. ‘It was almost like he was dancing inside, and only a little bit was coming out.’

Working into the early hours, Russell and Liljestrand studied a series of recordings that showcased the startling complexity of Russell’s amplified cello – an instrument that, in terms of his releases, had been restricted to playing orchestral scores and making cameo appearances on twelve-inch singles. Russell had started to amplify the instrument in San Francisco, but it was only when he combined an MXR Graphic Equalizer with the Mutron Biphase box (a hundred-dollar piece of equipment that generated resonance by combining the technology of phase modulation with the wahwah pedal) that the electric cello sounded (as he put it) ‘really beautiful’. ‘The result is that a very new road is opened to me with the cello bringing it a long way from its traditional orchestral role,’ Russell wrote to his parents, Chuck and Emily, in 1977. ‘I don’t think anyone plays this instrument this way, amplified with such a clear sound.’ Russell went on to acquire a bewildering number of other effects boxes, which he would combine as he searched for a ‘deep and shifting feeling’ that resembled an ‘undertow current’ (in the words of his guitarist, Steven Hall). ‘He took his cues from heavy-metal guitars, and was looking for the same depth of sound and impact,’ notes Hall. ‘He was fascinated by their huge, monolithic soundprints and studied various metal guitarists in his quest.’

Russell’s playing was directed toward sonic range rather than virtuosic skill. When his fingers flew up and down his cello’s neck in darting, athletic movements the instrument twanged like a funk bass, yet when he bounced his bow on its strings or tapped out rhythms on its wooden body, the sound was percussive. On some songs Russell’s cello reverberated with electrostatic intensity as the bow screeched over the instrument’s strings, while on others it rumbled deep and threatening, or generated a modulated bleeplike signal, or even shifted between a series of affects. ‘Echoing the chance operations of John Cage and Jackson Mac Low, he loved constant, random modulation,’ adds Hall. Indeed the cello only sounded like a cello when Russell played pizzicato, sending off gentle, acoustic sounds of such subtle detail that even the movement of the air around the strings seemed to be audible. And although feedback was an ongoing curse that could result in chaos, by the time of the World of Echo recordings, Russell had come to describe these untameable waves as ‘feedback harmonies’. Russell’s voice discovered a similar freedom during these insomniac sessions. Having taken vocal lessons at the Ali Akbar College of Music, where he let go of the objective of clear pronunciation and started to slur his vowels, he continued his studies in New York with the vocalist and composer Joan La Barbara, who taught him how to utilise the bones in his nose to get a droning, nasal sound. ‘Arthur was a dedicated musician with lots of ideas,’ recalls La Barbara. As with all her students, La Barbara went through her basic physical warm-up exercises with Russell, ‘because a good singer is like an athlete and sings with the entire body.’ Then she ran through tongue exercises, because, as La Barbara notes, the back of the tongue is connected to the vocal cords, and the exercises help bring blood directly into the area and warm it up in preparation for singing. Finally, La Barbara moved on to working with vocal sound. ‘I always do a lot with resonance and with placement of the sound in specific areas in the face and head, focusing on specific bones such as cheek bones, the fore head, and, of course, the wonderful nasal resonances where one can make extreme sounds.’

On the World of Echo recordings, Russell’s languid voice discovered a freedom of movement that had not been available in the comparatively formal settings occupied by his other projects – the Flying Hearts, Loose Joints, Dinosaur L and the Necessaries. Suspended between the musical traditions of India, Brazil and North America, Russell whispered and moaned, glided between notes, and explored unexpected directions as he moved through a series of seemingly impossible manoeuvres. Like a kite, he combined tension with darting movement as he switched across a range of barely fathomable time signatures, yet the energy expended on maintaining his poise and flow didn’t result in a loss of range and evocativeness. At times he sounded as though he was about to swallow his mike, while on other occasions he might as well have been singing on a ferry bound for Staten Island. And as his words blurred into each other to the point of being indistinguishable, Russell edged away from the obligation of verbal communication and relaxed into an economy of phantasmagorical sounds. ‘After listening to tapes of World of Echo as well as foreign language singing,’ Russell wrote in a later set of programme notes, ‘I’ve enjoyed the musical effect of words as sounds, but where the meaning is not totally withdrawn.’

Evoking textures in infinite detail as they helped each other to discover their full expressive range, Russell’s voice and cello moved with a subtle dexterity as they headed into a Delta Lab 2 delay box, which generated echo and reinforced the illusion of disappearing sound. Yet whereas most dub producers sought out murkiness, Russell hoped to create an echo that was scintillating rather than muted. ‘I like the bright sound, I like compression,’ Russell wrote in a letter to the mastering engineer of the tapes – ‘Please make it as loud as possible.’ Russell asked friends if they thought he was using too much reverb, and Ernie Brooks, who placed a high value on hearing the words of a song, told him that he was. Persevering, Russell created a chorus of voices that combined in a flickering, spectral harmony. A shimmering, mystical celebration of vowel sounds, ‘Tone Bone Kone’, which would become the opening song on the album, expressed itself as textural sensation rather than textual meaning, while other songs evolved in meandering, mesmerising threads, fluttering about in tender butterfly movements that were impossible to predict and would have been terrible to contain or discipline. ‘When I have written songs, the functions of verse and chorus seem to be reversed for some unknown reason,’ Russell wrote in a set of accompanying, unpublished notes. ‘The idiomatic style I ended up using is not immediately referenceable.’

Russell’s decision to blend all of the songs into one continuous track contributed to the unraveling of structure, while his acoustic reworkings of ‘Let’s Go Swimming’, ‘School Bell/Treehouse’, and ‘Wax the Van’ illustrated the way his songs could discover an even greater degree of elasticity when they weren’t required to follow the pulse of a drum. ‘It’s the same song just different instrumentation,’ Russell said of ‘Tree House’ (as it was renamed on the album) in an interview with Frank Owen published in September 1986. ‘I think, ultimately, you’ll be able to make dance records without using any drums at all.’ Songs without beats, Russell added, would be the source of ‘the most vivid rhythmic reality’. In his unpublished jottings, Russell also noted that his aim was to ‘redefine “songs” from the point of view of instrumental music, in the hope of liquefying a raw material where concert music and popular song can criss-cross’. That made World of Echo the song-oriented successor to Instrumentals (1974–Vol. 2), which introduced popular forms into compositional music, and 24−24 Music, which channeled orchestral improvisations through disco.

Along with the music’s hushed, late-night atmosphere, the re-recording of older songs in an acoustic/dub format suggested that songs contain their own echoes – their own ability to discover a reincarnated form that’s both the same and different. The self-referential twist suggested an introspective mind-set, and the use of sonic space, in which Russell’s voice and cello bounced around the three-dimensional contours of the mix, bolstered the impression that the recordings amounted to an internal, multidimensional play area that could be explored ad infinitum. At times Russell appeared to be playing a game of existential hide-and-seek with his own shadow: his schizophrenic edits resulted in the multitrack tapes shifting between contrasting sonic environments – flat or hissy, spacious or closed, muffled or clear, dry or wet, populated or empty – in rapid succession; and because the voice-cello setup was so sparse, disappearance and loss were continually evoked as Russell’s feathery voice floated away, or a scratchy strike on his cello reverberated into thin air, and nothingness was met by the next word or note. Sounds moved across the multitrack tape like the gentle, recurrent movement of the seashore, where a receding wave would begin to reveal the sand underneath, only for the next wave to fold over the escaping undercurrent.

Channeling the jams of the Mantric Sun Band, the drones of the Ali Akbar College, and the meditative chanting of Ginsberg through the deserted downtown space of the Battery Sound studios, World of Echo was Russell’s latest attempt to blend West Coast spirituality with the East Coast avant-garde. Devotional and ethereal, the songs were delivered as twilight prayers as Russell, like the Lama following twelve years of cave the mountain, lost track of the distinction between himself and the world.

Visit Tim Lawrence’s Arthur Russell book blog: 

Extract © University of Alberta Press 


Published on 1 February 2010

Tim Lawrence is the author of Hold On to Your Dreams: Arthur Russell and the Downtown Music Scene, 1973–92 and Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970–79.

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