‘Arthur Russell’s Instrumentals’ is getting a fresh airing thanks to Peter Gordon, one of the greatman’s closest friends and collaborators. The composer talks to Jim Carroll
Peter Gordon remembers the first time he met Arthur Russell. It was New York in 1975, and Gordon was new in town.
“I was looking for places to crash and Arthur had a studio,” says Gordon. “We got talking and found we shared musical interests and a friendship grew out of that. No one had any individual reputation, it was about shared interests and visions.”
Russell died in 1992, leaving behind a rich and diverse backcatalogue, and Gordon is still working on those shared interests and visions. Apart from his own work with the Love of Life Orchestra and compositions for theatre and film, Gordon is directing new readings of Arthur
Russell’s Instrumentals, originally performed 40 years ago.
He will perform these pieces this month in Dublin and Cork as part of an European tour, with a band featuring players from both Russell’s original Instrumentals ensemble and new additions, such as guitarist Gerry O’Beirne and LCD Soundsystem’s Gavin Russom.
All of this activity serves to remind us of just how influential Russell was. The wide-eyed composer from Iowa became a leading figure in New York’s downtown experimental and disco scenes and worked with Talking Heads, Philip Glass, Allen Ginsberg and many more.
What makes him so fascinating is that his work crossed so many boundaries, from early house and disco to folk and avant-garde classical.
Gordon puts this spread down to Russell’s personality. “We think and talk about scenes and genres, but on a street level, it’s about individuals, it’s about people, and it all starts with that social interaction. When you’re in some sort of ensemble you’re communicating musically, but you also have this personal history and personal interaction as well.
“Arthur really believed in this. You create an environment where that player can feel most comfortable, and that expands the possibilities. With the Instrumentals band we’re still in the discovery process, but there are so many different possible outcomes from these musical interactions.”
Gordon’s own background made him just as open to different influences.
“Initially, I had a very austere, modern, avant-garde classical schooling in San Diego and I rebelled against that,” he says. “As a saxophone player, I’d always been in rock bands and soul bands and had an interest in funky music. As I became more interested in music conceptually as an idea, a whole other type of music came along, the surreal 20th-century John Cage music, and this was very exciting to me. I always had a mission to create music which integrated the head and the body.”
For a time Gordon had an in- formal mentor in Captain Beefheart’s Don Van Vliet. “Don and the band had a house in Panoche Hills [California] and they were living there at the time rehearsing for Trout Mask Replica. My friend Richard met one of the
I’ve always believed in Arthur and his music. I miss him as a friend, I miss him as a collaborator. His music is timeless, and sometimes it takes a while for certain kinds of music to define themselves and hit
band at a local record store and we used to go over there and hang out. Richard had a girlfriend, so they would go and do whatever they’d do and I’d hang out with Don. I think I got the better end of that deal.”
The pair would talk and play records.
“He’d talk about Howlin’ Wolf or the 50/50 method, where you’d do whatever you want and half of it was bound to come out right. He was quite dic- tatorial with the band – if they didn’t play their parts right, he’d send them off to practice by themselves for two hours or get them to play instruments they weren’t necessarily comfortable with to eliminate their stylistic habits.
“What made an impact on me,” Gordon says, “was that his music was about ideas rather than entertainment. He came to music as a visual artist and thought about music in terms of gestures and brushstrokes. His music, his visual art, really is the sonic equivalent of what you see on the canvas.”
In the case of Arthur Russell, Gordon says that seeing the recognition his friend’s work now receives is gratifying.
“I’ve always believed in him and his music, both at the time and posthumously. I miss him as a friend, I miss him as a collaborator. His music is timeless, and sometimes it takes a while for certain kinds of music to define themselves and hit.
“Arthur’s dance music at the time was recognised, but a lot of his music is only getting the appreciation it deserves years later. The world is ready for the music now. I’m always pleasantly surprised when I see billboards with Arthur’s picture on them in downtown New York.”
Gordon’s first collaboration with Russell was on Instrumen
tals, so this tour brings things full circle for him. “It’s what Arthur was working on at the time,” he says, “and one of my first gigs in New York was to help him prepare the score and organise the piece for performance. So it’s funny to be doing it now.
“All of Arthur’s music connects to a number of different sets of listeners in different ways. What I love about playing this music is finding new possibil- ities in the tracks. If the framework is open enough, it allows these new worlds to enter and form and yet remain true to the piece.
“The piece is about process and a social process between musicians. You’ve a community of eight or nine musicians coming together to play the piece, but there’s that opportunity to go in so many different ways.”
“It was about shared interests and visions”