The Archiving of Arthur Russell

Arthur Russell’s archive co-curators Nicole Will, Jonathan Hiam and Tom Lee discuss the composer’s lasting legacy

Despite being somewhat of an unsung hero, cellist, composer, producer and vocalist Arthur Russell ranges amongst the most influential cultural figures of the second half of the 20th century. All throughout the 1980s, Russell engaged in various musical projects, such as the Loose Joints supergroup, the foundation of Sleeping Bag Records and an array of acclaimed solo albums.

For the first time since his passing in 1992, his extensive archive of previously unheard cassette and reel-to-reel tapes, performance and recording notes and music scores are on display to the public at Brooklyn multi-arts center BAM. Joining Red Bull Radio host Kindness for an Arthur Russell Archive Special, Russell’s partner Tom Lee, independent curator Nicole Will and Jonathan Hiam, curator at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, offered some insight into the unseen materials now on display.

Arthur Russell Tom Lee / Audika Records

Kindness

Jonathan, The New York Public Library has an incredible archive for different kinds of artists and public figures, and acquired Arthur’s archive in 2016. The performing arts archives have these immense stories, repositories for music whose legacy needs to be preserved, but when it comes to manuscripts and papers in someone’s archive, the ephemera of their lifetime, a member of the public [can] look at these items, pick them up and touch them and interact with them in a way that surprised me. You were saying that another collaborator came through today and was equally surprised that not only do you get to have a folder in front of you, on the desk in the reading room, but you get to take out a notebook or a lyric sheet or a piece of a score and interact with them in that way.

Jonathan Hiam

That’s right. One of the wonderful things about a collection like Arthur’s is it’s bringing in a new generation of people who are interested in the chance to interact with original materials. That being said, we take great care to protect them. We’ll make copies or digital surrogates of materials that get used with great frequency, but we’ll always make them available to people for handling and research when there’s a compelling reason.

Kindness

What we’re looking at with Arthur’s work is hundreds of cassette tapes, and you used a scary word, reformatting, the first time we spoke.

Jonathan Hiam

Reformatting is just a fancy term, just migrating signals off of one media format to a more current format with the idea of preserving that item longer. It’s digitized, then the original is returned to the best storage that we can make available and it’s there in great shape, in perpetuity. The notion is that at some point, technology may have developed [so] we could return to that original object, extract more of a signal off of it and also as we’ve discovered, as everyone knows with their own hard drives, digital stuff doesn’t automatically stick around forever. It takes a lot of work and resources to maintain your digital capacities, so we always keep the originals and there’s also artifactual values to those.

Our hope is that down the line we’ll be able to build a set of digital and curation tools so that people can sit down with this material and try to line it up or remix it or do whatever they need to do to understand it.

Jonathan Hiam

Kindness

Specific to the Arthur Russell acquisition, what formats and what kind of digitization is taking place at the moment?

Jonathan Hiam

At this point, Arthur’s legacy of tapes is vast. 1500, 1600 reel-to-reel tapes, then there’s cassette tapes as well. They take a while to actually physically go through and digitize, but in this particular case, because so much of Arthur’s working method is tied up with different versions of tapes, different mixdowns, we’re being extra conscientious about capturing information so that we can help trace a compositional technique over time. That’s only going to be possible by really spending some detailed time looking at those original objects. We’re past the middle of inventorying all of that, and then it’ll be organized so that we can begin to digitize it all. Once all of the tapes are digitized we will make those available to people via streaming technology on the library’s properties.

Our hope is that down the line we’ll be able to build out a set of digital and curation tools so that people can come into the library and sit down with this material and try to line it up or remix it or do whatever they need to do to understand it. Papers don’t necessarily get digitized off the bat and in full. It’s more of a targeted process, because paper tends to be a lot more stable. It’s resource-intensive to do digitization work, so we try and prioritize those elements.

Kindness

Tom, I’m curious to find out how the New York Public Library came to acquire these materials. Have they all been just in your apartment?

Tom Lee

For many years everything was in my apartment, and then it came to pass that after Point Music did the record Another Thought, they were moving and they wanted me to take back the tapes. That meant bringing them up to a sixth floor walkup and there were just boxes and boxes, but I already had boxes and boxes, shelves and shelves in my apartment, very neatly organized on these industrial metal shelves that Arthur and I had bought. The boxes had to be stored somewhere so I then got a storage space for everything, and spent just one day by myself up and down the stairs, getting all the stuff stored.

I did finally move everything to a storage space, but for maybe ten years it was in my apartment and it was just part of the apartment. It was against the wall and it was a little awkward. I was aware of the fact that the idea of moving on after Arthur had died was challenging because I was caretaking all this material, and that’s why I tried to make it very neat and almost behind a curtain, so it wasn’t so there.

Then I moved it to another storage place in Queens, because it’s so expensive in Manhattan, and then more recently I moved it to another storage place in Brooklyn. Steve Knutson from Audika Records would often go to the storage place in Queens, and took all the material that he wanted to listen to in hopes of finding different songs that we were talking about.

Kindness

You mentioned how people had come prior to this and asked to listen to unreleased material and potentially discuss releasing things. There are a number of people who were always huge fans and very invested in hearing these things, but people perhaps hadn’t realized how much of a challenge that was going to be.

Arthur Russell - That’s Us / Wild Combination

Tom Lee

When people would visit the apartment after Arthur died, I would play them music from the cassettes. Michael Rowse originally archived the tapes, and put together cassettes through the days that he was working there to sort of give a semblance of an idea of what songs and what music was on the vast amount of quarter-inch tapes. Point Music then culled songs from that collection, and I felt I couldn’t allow them to put every great song on the album because I was in the hopes that other albums would come out in the future. I had an arrangement with Rough Trade Records in London and I was always expecting them to put a record out, which is why on Another Thought, you don’t hear songs like “Wild Combination.” I was able to hold back the songs that Steve Knutson then put on Calling Out of Context.

It was a little bit of manipulation of who was allowed to hear or play or put out certain songs. Prior to Steve Knutson coming, people would visit the apartment, I’d play them all these songs and they’d get really interested. I was promoting more the dance-oriented music and the World of Echo music because I knew that Arthur himself had put those songs kind of aside. They weren’t his current music, so I didn’t want to promote what wasn’t the most current, to be true to him. So Point Music put out Another Thought. I was very happy with it. It was a big celebration and I really felt that was in honor of our legacy. I hoped but I didn’t expect a lot more, and things with Rough Trade just kept dragging on. Jeff Travis offered that if I could find someone else to put out another record, I should go ahead and do that.

When people would visit the apartment, they were really in hopes that they could put out some more of Arthur’s music that people already knew, “Go Bang” and “Is It All Over My Face” specifically, and I don’t control that music, due to the arrangements that Arthur made at the time; usually arrangements that he made to get more money to create more music. It was [always] paramount for him to get onto the next project.

Kindness

What’s fascinating about going through the archive is that there is a disco business correspondence photo, where you see back and forth between people [at] West End Records, Sire Records, on the A&R side saying “I think I can get Mel Sheeran to give you another $500 for this if you can make it more disco over here.” It’s great to see this very humanizing factor where you realize that not only was this a prolific genius, there was also a frustrated musician who wanted people to hear these songs and needed to get paid and needed to fund more studio time.

Tom Lee

The correspondence that you see at the archive of course doesn’t encompass the disappointing phone calls and the hopeful phone calls, whether they were to Arthur’s parents in Iowa or to Sire Records. Arthur, often with Ernie Brooks or Steven Hall, would orchestrate this [plan] to go to the record company and be really prepared this time. “We’re going to have the very best of what we want them to listen to,” then they weren’t getting follow-up phone calls and it was so disappointing.

Music notebooks were strewn around our apartment in stacks. When Arthur got sick, he [was] maybe a little pre-dementia, he was starting to Xerox everything. It was confusing to me what to pass on. At the same time, I was surprised by a lot of the letters. We had this very, very large vertical file cabinet in the bedroom that we used to climb on top of to get to the loft bed. When Arthur was alive, I didn’t really go in that cabinet day to day. I knew there were old musty folders in there, but I wasn’t aware until after he died and sat on the floor and picked out one folder at a time and saw the scope of it. For me, it was always looking for some message from Arthur after he died, like “What little more can I learn about you?” and then I would just put the folders back.

That was so personal that at one point I wasn’t sure if I should pass on those notes.

Tom Lee

Kindness

The generosity of what you’re sharing is immense, because you do really get a sense of the person, including his frequent back and forth with his parents where he’s asking for money, they’re sending him money, he might be asking for more money. It was familiar to me as a musician and also just in New York, I mean, it was (and is) expensive.

Tom Lee

That was so personal that at one point I wasn’t sure if I should pass on those notes, but it gives the bigger picture, where he was very specific about spending the money that he got from them on a new piece of equipment or on studio time.

Kindness

Nicole, how were the pieces selected?

Arthur Russell - A Little Lost & Home Away From Home

Nicole Will

I’ve been obsessed with Arthur Russell for a number of years and I first came to his music on a mixtape that someone I was dating gave me. One of Arthur’s best love songs is “A Little Lost,” and that was on there. The visual director at BAM and I were talking about doing a program, and I just blurted out Arthur Russell. From there, it was [just a matter of] how to make it happen. We were at the Edition / Artists’ Book Fair and we came across Arthur Fournier, who is a rare book dealer and he had some screen prints by Tom on view. We started talking to him about what was coming up and he hinted to us that a major institution was about to acquire the archive. So we just kept on it until it happened. Then we were introduced to Jonathan, and through Jonathan introduced to Tom.

The conversations were about accessing the archive, but then Tom also had pages ripped out from these beautiful composition notebooks, and we just knew that there was something about Arthur’s process in there that would be really exciting for an Arthur Russell fan. Looking at that stream of consciousness and focusing on process was where we started. We really wanted to focus on visually compelling material, and we knew that Instrumentals [would soon be] re-released by Audika, so that was a nice visual element to the exhibition with the Yuko Nonomura slides. We also blew up one of the cloud images in a corner of the exhibition, as clouds are a common lyric and subject in Arthur’s music.

[Another] important part of what we were thinking about when we were putting together the show is of collaboration, and [Tom] called everyone. He involved the collaborator and I really believe there is this special conduit energy that we’re all a part of. We spent quite a bit of real estate on those collaborations and also noting that [Dinosaur L’s] 24 → 24 and the disco jams were really collaborative and relied on remixes on all of the sounds. It’s all part of his music-making and it was almost like an endless composition, all of it.

Bill Ruyle, who has been replaying and performing Tower of Meaning, told me that through the archive he was able to find new moments in that composition.

Nicole Will

Kindness

You were talking about how the archive is already trying out new and unexpected interactions.

Nicole Will

Definitely. Bill Ruyle, who has been focusing on replaying and performing Arthur’s album Tower of Meaning is doing performances continuously, and he was telling me at a rehearsal for the performance at BAM [with] a lot of musicians that worked with Arthur during his lifetime, that through going to the archive, he was able to find new moments in that composition that he can play. One of the things that he recently found was this gorgeous cello moment on Tower of Meaning, a solo. It’s interesting because that particular composition is really also about seriality and extension of these repetitive forms and how the ensemble takes them to the next level, and Bill was actually able to really find that in the archive.

Arthur Russell - Tower of Meaning

Jonathan Hiam

It’s a testament to the fact that, one of the ways in which we collect, the values that inform the Performing Arts Library, are that we’d like to support new creation, new works, and this case is an ideal of sort, a new creation based on one that we thought we knew. It’s just exactly what we hope happens with these things.

Kindness

Tom, you also mentioned that there’s a huge amount of dance and theater and film in the archive, whether it’s uniquely relating to music or not, and that this is just another aspect of what can be seen.

Tom Lee

Besides the vast collection at the Lincoln Center Library in dance and theater and music, there were a few dancers that Arthur worked with, specifically Diane Madden who was originally a dancer with the Trisha Brown Company, and Alison Salzinger. If I remember correctly, Arthur would [play] solo in a corner of the dance theater workshop or the St. Mark’s Church dance space, just playing in the background, but the attention that he got after the performances was quite nice and the people would come up to him and want to talk to him about. It was encouraging. It will be great to see the tapes of their performances that use Arthur’s music

Jonathan Hiam

One of the things that I like to point out since having [had] the opportunity to go through these materials is Arthur was awarded a Bessie, which is the equivalent of a Tony award. It’s the highest honor that the New York dance community bestows. When we were really starting to work on the acquisition and started to research in our own holdings, he starts to pop up in all these places. In little bits of video at the end of some of the dance performances you can see him come up and take a fairly awkward bow. I think this will open up a lot of new windows into the world that he was working in that was much larger than himself.

Kindness

Tom, you said something in the documentary about how you’d been here in New York as young people and now as time goes by, you’re not so interested in being constantly in the city environment. Do you think it’s appropriate that this archive ends up with the New York Public Library?

Tom Lee

Absolutely. I retired two years ago from teaching and I’ve run away to my house in the woods in Maine, on my desert island where Arthur’s sisters and his mom live. I have a community of friends there, but [this is] the right place for Arthur’s archives. I’m proud that Jonathan agreed to nurture this relationship.

Kindness

Jonathan, you talked at the screening of the documentary how something called The Estate Project had somewhat unfortunately initiated this many years ago when a number of artists were passing through the AIDS crisis, because of the peak in sudden premature deaths that created a need for their estates and legacies to be protected somehow.

Jonathan Hiam

To my understanding, The Estate Project had worked closely to identify artists whose lives were threatened by the epidemic. Arthur’s name was on there and I knew at some point in the past the music division had reached out directly to Tom. They wanted to initiate discussions about how to protect the legacy of Arthur’s music, and for lots of reasons that particular contact didn’t pan out. What’s interesting about that project, from my perspective of looking at some of the collections that did materialize, is The Estate Project really did succeed in collecting and protecting the legacies of musicians who had passed away prematurely, but there’s also this wonderful victory of that project because of how many artists did survive the epidemic and continue to thrive today.

Tom Lee

Some of Arthur’s acquaintances encouraged me to do something at that time, but I was teaching school and I never felt I had the energy or the capacity to put out music on my own, so when Steve [Knutson] entered the picture he took a great burden off of me. He tends to be the first person people contact now in relation to Arthur’s music, then he’ll contact me and [ask], “Do you want to talk to this person?” As much as I want to be in the loop at all times and not give anything up, Steve has been a great asset to this archive, to this whole collection.

It is hard because the people who are associated with this go on with their lives and I’ll be going back to listening to more tapes. But that’s my life.

Tom Lee

Kindness

He’s the gatekeeper.

Tom Lee

In terms of having a conversation like this or going to meetings, it does bring up an emotional aspect that I do process more privately, so it may send me to go listen to his favorite music or just put me in a little bit of a funk for a little while. It is hard at times because the people who are associated with this, like even today, people would go on with their lives and I’ll be going back to listening to more tapes, but that’s my life. I feel like I have moved on in many ways after Arthur died. I taught school for 20 years. I am deeply connected to his family and that remains and I’m forever thankful for that. I didn’t know them that well when he was alive because they were in Iowam but there were phone calls, and the longer I lived with Arthur, the phone calls from his parents would kind of eventually come to me more than to Arthur, because I think they relied on me to give them the straight dope on where all this money was really going to and what was the process and when would they hear the next version of another song that Arthur was working on.

Kindness

You also mentioned in the talk that kind of responsibility of having to represent all these different musical signs even if some of them weren’t necessarily your favorite thing. I could understand how perhaps you found the pop/folk stuff more appealing than the thudding drum machines, as you put it.

Tom Lee

Also, one awkward aspect of this is that I become the spokesperson, and then in turn Steve becomes the spokesperson. Steve is secondary to the process in that he didn’t know Arthur, but I also was not a musician. There were so many recording sessions in the middle of the night or while I was at work, so I rarely went to the studio with Arthur. I did at times, but as any musician knows, you sit there and it’s quite a long process.

Arthur Russell - Arm Around You

Kindness

I really was fascinated to hear when we were talking about the track “Arm Around You” that you were involved in editing the different tapes and elements together.

Tom Lee

I did, yes. The cassette tapes tend to represent what is on the quarter-inch tapes but they’re just more accessible, so that’s what I’m most familiar with. Arthur had basically a basket of dozens of cassettes for any song he was working on. “Arm Around You” had 30 tapes in a bin while “[Wild] Combination” had 20 tapes. Because I’m a bookmaker and a box maker, for the first few years I made boxes. I put all these cassettes in, and then as time went on and I had to move on and put things in storage, I started culling the best representations that I thought of the songs. When different projects got discussed, I was aware of what was on nearly every cassette, so I could tell what the best versions of songs were.

Kindness

It sounds like, again, we’re indebted to you on another level of somehow processing all of this musical information for all of us. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be listening to anything.

By Kindness on May 19, 2017

On a different note