Boomkat Product Review:
Arthur Russell’s prized Instrumentals [1975-1980] suite is served in full on newly remastered platters also including the absorbing noise excursion Sketch For ‘Face of Helen’ and the liminal, minimalist jazz gesture of Reach One along with some of the late, great composer’s finest avant-chamber-pop pieces and sections performed by the CETA Orchestra and conducted by Julius Eastman, claimed by the artist as some of his personal favourite work.
Taking cues from his studies in Buddhism, and Indian and Western classical and folk music in San Francisco, combined with a growing awareness of the American pop consciousness and the wide-open possibilities of minimalist composition, Instrumentals forms an early and timeless testament to Russell’s syncretic consolidation of myriad styles which would have been considered mutually exclusive back then, but which are now thought of as malleable components of a whole thanks to his pioneering, border-crossing principles and refusal of the putative distinctions between ‘low’ and ‘high’ art in music.
To start at the beginning, the rare Instrumentals, 1974 Vol. 1 was written by a then 23 year old composer in response to photos of landscapes and cloudy skies taken by his West Coast pal, a Shingon Buddhist priest named Yuko Nonomura, shortly after Russell’s move to New York City, where he was staying on the sofa of Allen Ginsburg and curating important downtown hub, The Kitchen.
It was there, at The Kitchen where he recorded Instrumentals with an ensemble of legendary luminaries - Ernie Brooks (electric bass), Rhys Chatham (flute), Jon Gibson (alto and soprano saxophone, flute and clarinet), Peter Gordon (piano and organ), Garrett List (trombone), Andy Paley (drums) and David Tiegham (percussion) - all working to his loose commands and gestures, leaving lots of room for aleatoric happenstance and improvisation in a way that blurred the lines between avant orchestral, communal (folk), easy listening and disco/dance ensembles in a way that pretty much nobody else had tried before, perhaps predictably leading some audience members to claim he was diluting proper serious music with pop (groan).
However time has honoured the results as just magic; eternally optimistic in that big-skied Iowan farm boy manner, but with an underlying sense of melancholy to match, while also betraying a rhythmelodic suss rooted in his all-encompassing studies of world musics, much like Reich was doing with African music around that era. It’s heart-melting stuff. Open the windows and let it in!
Likewise, Instrumentals - 1974,Volume 2 holds some of his most sublime, quietly yearning works, which were issued on an unsatisfactory edition on Another Side in 1984, and features here in all its languorous glory.
The other two pieces, meanwhile, play into Russell’s more experimental side, making a noisier, textured departure from the bittersweetness of Instrumentals with the fusion of tone generators and field recordings made on a tugboat in Sketch for ‘Face Of Helen’ - predating and recalling to an extent, Ingram Marshall’s Fog Tropes - before Reach One completes the set with a meditatively cool, playfully lower case, side-long piece for pianists and stethoscopes rendering one of the quietest compositions in Russell’s canon in the process.
As with most everything to do with Arthur, context is key to fully understanding these works in light of musical history, but no prior knowledge is required to sit with and immerse yourself in the iconoclast genius’s presence.