Eclec­tic, elec­tric

‘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

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - MUSIC - Arthur Rus­sell’s In­stru­men­tals, di­rected by Peter Gor­don, is at Triskel, Cork on May 22nd and But­ton Fac­tory, Dublin on May 23rd

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.”

Grat­i­fy­ing recog­ni­tion

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.”

Arthur Rus­sell

“It was about shared in­ter­ests and vi­sions”

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