Arthur Russell was a brilliant and indecisive composer


AArthur Russell was a perfectionist. He could never decide when something was over. When the musician died of AIDS-related illnesses in 1992, at the age of 40, he had released only three solo albums and was barely known beyond New York’s experimental art scene. But his apartment was overflowing with piles of boxes containing notebooks, letters, handwritten sheet music and nearly 1,000 tapes of recorded material. His music spanned genres as disparate as disco (under the pseudonyms “Dinosaur L”, “Indian Ocean” and “Loose Joints”), folk, pop and country.

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As a teenager, he ran away from his home in Oskaloosa, a small town in Iowa, after his father found drug paraphernalia in his bedroom and the youngster ended up in a Buddhist township in San Francisco. There he found peace for a while. He quit drugs, enrolled in community college to finish high school, and participated in firewalking rituals. At the commune, he also studied North Indian classical music, received lessons from a member of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, and between chores practiced his cello in a closet. (He liked the way the sound reverberated through a tiny space.)

He had had enough with time and moved to New York to focus on his music, but the mantras he learned in the commune never left him. He was more interested in the meditative process of making music than the finished product. Repetition and echo are recurring themes in his songs. Listen to “This Is How We Walk on the Moon” for an introduction to his work.

Incompleteness is desirable, wrote Yoshida Kenko, a 14th century Japanese monk: “He is only an uncomprehending person who wishes to arrange things into complete sets.” Musical procrastination was where Russell found his happiness. Never satisfied with his output – when praised for a song he immediately declared it to be terrible – the composer was always changing the beat, fiddling with the arrangements, seeing what would happen if he did things slightly differently. Sound was everything to him, and his music has a limitless feel.

In a documentary about the musician’s life released in 2008, Russell’s boyfriend Tom Lee described how the composer liked to set up his keyboard in front of a huge fish tank in their apartment so he could hear the sound of water during that he tinkered with with his work. He also enjoyed jogging with his walkman, the music blaring as the city buzzed around him. Russell developed throat cancer but every night he would sing one of his songs, “Love Comes Back”, to Mr. Lee. Philip Glass, a fellow composer, believed that Russell could “sit down with a cello and play and sing in a way that no one else on this earth has ever done”.

When the melancholy strikes, put on some headphones and listen to Russell’s soft, sweet, looping songs as you stroll the streets like he once did. Start with “That’s Us/Wild Combination” and gently remind yourself that “It’s a big old world/With nothing in it”. Your to-do list will never be complete. Everything is impermanent. But you might as well “push and be part of it all.”

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