By the time Arthur Russell died in 1992 he had, not counting a handful of 12” singles of underground dance music, very few releases to his name. Despite this, he had recorded hundreds of hours of music, captured on some 800 reels of analog tape, cassettes, DAT and more. Fortunately, the intervening years have yielded about a dozen releases from that archive, the lion’s share of them coming from Audika Records, a label devoted solely to issuing Russell’s work.
Instrumentals is another Audika release, the entirety of which already appeared on their 2-CD compilation First Thought Best Thought. That comp included the multi-part instrumental “Tower of Meaning,” which Audika isolated for a remastered, vinyl-only release under the same name. Now the remainder of First Thought has received the same treatment, appearing on this double-LP – 15 tracks all together, divided unevenly between “Volume 1” and “Volume 2” – that features remastered versions of the titular piece as well as two austere and enigmatic experiments, “Reach One” and “Sketch for ‘Face of Helen’.”
Before the latter-day expansion of his catalog, the general perception of Russell’s sound was defined by the album World of Echo. Originally released in 1986, Echo is a collection of Russell’s songs for voice and cello, rich territory in the wider landscape of his musical world. His voice, an indistinct semi-falsetto, often melts into the sound of the cello, which Russell plays rhythmically, lightly dragging the bow over the strings near the bridge so that it produces a glassy sound rich in overtones. Mixing in feedback and delay – not to mention Russell’s penchant for deceptively simplistic lyrics left open to interpretation – the conglomerate sound is uniquely transfixing.
In comparison, Russell’s dance music is, while distinct, still clearly related. If his songs for cello are like folk music from the aboriginal members of an alien culture, then his dance music is a more contemporary reinterpretation of that primitive style. In both instances, Russell seems to be recreating the conventional in his own unconventional way, as if he’s peering at American popular music from far away and trying to recreate it from scratch.
The same is true of Instrumentals. The piece itself comes from a time before his dance music, before Russell’s persona had become so closely aligned with the sound on World of Echo. Out of context, he may give the impression of being an outsider artist. But Russell was, in fact, classically trained. He studied composition with Charles Wuorinen and Christian Wolff. He was a friend and contemporary of Philip Glass and an active member of New York’s avant-garde downtown music scene in the ’70s and ’80s. The music on these discs comes from this particular era. Despite falling into the category of so-called “serious” contemporary classical music, “Instrumentals” is still colored by Russell’s impulse to recreate familiar forms in unfamiliar ways and to do so with the "bubblegum aesthetic" of popular music in mind.
“Instrumentals” is a modular piece in that there is no conventional score in which each part is explicitly fixed. Instead, Russell provided the performers with a number of standard chord progressions from which to choose, each then to be played in any order and used as a framework for improvisation. The selections in “Volume 1” include players from both sides of the pop/classical divide and notably feature a rhythm section. This addition helps make these tracks distinctly pop, at times more than obliquely resembling the groovy instrumental “Let’s Go Away For Awhile” on the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds.
Each track on “Volume 1” is a separate world with its own repetitive rhythm and changes, with one section of the ensemble vamping endlessly while a soloist (or soloists) embellish and explore. These tracks often feature rudimentary (even crude) rhythms and rough, unpolished sounds. The playing is loose and informal and the musicians seem unconcerned with conventional euphony. Despite these perceived faults, the music is no less bewitching. On the whole, these pieces are naive and disarming.
On “Volume 2” all but one of the selections does without the rhythm section and instead relies solely on a small wind and string ensemble. These performances are full of long tones and slow tempos. Though plaintive at times, they also wander toward a sunny melancholy that can suggest the sort of wide-open chords now synonymous with Aaron Copland and a sound perceived to be wholesome and distinctly American.
At the same time, the selections on “Volume 2” sound comparatively tentative and less assured. Because of this, listeners may find themselves losing interest, leaving all but the most ardent fans of Russell’s work finding it easier to gravitate toward the odd but more accessible sounds on World of Echo or Another Thought. Yet Instrumentals is a valuable piece in Russell’s puzzling musical legacy, shining an intriguing light on the other parts of his catalog with more immediate appeal.