The iconoclastic genius, Arthur Russell adorns our shelf this week through “Instrumentals”. It’s a work that finds Russell in sweet repose, and is yet again resolute in its pursuit in finding that fulcrum point between a populists appeal and an avant garde musical philosophy. Recorded in New York between 1975 -78, Instrumentals feature a collection of suites created from 73 modular thematic sketches, that like in similar fashion to Terry Riley’s “in C”, could be played in any order in an improving ensemble.
A performance piece initially intended for a photograph series by Russell’s Buddhist’s teacher, these pieces stand on their own today as an example of Russell’s compositional craft entombed in a series of unique recordings. Originally released as “First Thought Best Thought” the tracks receive a little digital sprucing in the mastering studio, with many critics believing it’s enhanced the audio quality tenfold. Without getting bogged down in Sterophillia, there is something crisp in these editions that allow the individual instruments more prominence and space, with the muddling of frequencies and that 70’s tape hiss erased.
It lends more of that haunting quality to the music, as the individual instruments are given the breadth to enunciate more accurately in the minimalist landscapes of the compositions. Delicate and nuanced and arranged with some reticence, it’s hard to believe these were recorded from live performances. They were recorded at a time that coincides with a spiritual awakening for Arthur Russell and through the slow movement of each melodic line there’s a serenity you could almost touch through the speaker as these melodic lines entangle themselves around each other. It’s remarkable what the small chamber ensemble manage to lay down in texture from these sparse melodic lines, often disappearing into a dense tone cloud, where there’s little to no distinction between them.
Arthur Russell’s eccentric flair for traversing the popular and the serious give these pieces their appeal, and even in “Reach One” one of the later recordings with its jaunty serial rhythms, there’s something soothing an calming for the uninformed listener. These recordings are from a time before Russell moved into the world of Disco, but they harness that very same uncompromising and idiosyncratic conviction that we later hear on World of Echo, showcasing yet another side to Russll’s extensive talent, as a musician, an artists and a composer.