This Week in Posivibes: Arthur Russell

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A new treatise on the importance of the genre-melting artist has been published by the New York Times, inspired by the New York Public Library’s acquisition of Arthur Russell’s archives.

The acquisition itself is massive, sprawling, and difficult to catalogue, according to the NYT piece:

[It] includes a thousand-or-so reels, cassettes, DATs, Beta and VHS tapes with hundreds of hours of unreleased and probably unreleasable material, representing how Russell made his work—laying down individual tracks, or practicing, or jamming—often in long sessions, and with musicians who may have had little idea what they were working on at the time. He kept many versions of songs. One example in the collection, recorded on a TDK-90 cassette tape over remixes of Salsoul-label disco by Walter Gibbons, contains a version of Russell’s song “My Tiger My Timing” sung with Jennifer Warnes. It becomes a long mantra of blissful pop hooks: practice becoming ritual, extended over a whole side of a tape.

Part of the immensity of the acquisition is due to the fact that Russell was very interested with process, with simultaneously breaking and building structure, and part is simply because the work refuses to be labeled—“pop,” “classical,” and “disco” can be thrown around but none quite fit, and certainly none sum anything up. Matthew Marble, a scholar of Russell’s work, describes the artist’s process as a kind of complexity-generating system:

Arthur never worked… So he had nothing but time to work on music, which most people assume means honing cello skills or playing concerts—but the archive shows that he spent a lot of time working mental alterations on music. He got fixated in this kind of Rube Goldbergian way: His mind functioned like that. He craved complexity.

The library is expecting it will take a year to archive the work, after which all of it will be available for public view (and listening). Listen to Arthur Russell’s song “Answers Me” below, which was most recently sampled by Kanye West in his album The Life of Pablo.


Liz Wood is a freelance editor, fiction writer, and current student in the NYU MFA program. More from this author →