In his too-short life, perhaps Arthur Russell's greatest proclivity was for pulling together apparently unreconcilable musical genres. In the almost tribal New York scene of the Eighties he worked as music director for experimental venue the Kitchen, but also frequented disco clubs like the Gallery or punk places such as CBGBs. Perfectionist and somewhat fractious, forever starting new projects and rarely finishing old ones, little of his music was released during his life. And he was still almost entirely unknown when becoming a victim to AIDS in 1992, when only Forty. 'Tower of Meaning' was one of those few releases, but in an edition of 320 copies.
Happily, our times are less hamstrung by genre and things seem to be changing, with not only the UK premiere of this piece but a Guardian retrospective written to accompany the concert.
If Russell is known for one thing, it's finding common ground between minimalist music and disco. Ironic then that, not using the repetitive phrases of Reich or Glass, 'Tower of Meaning' seems less related to disco than minimalism in general! Brass-dominated and composed of long, slow melodic lines, instruments dropping out and re-joining give it a sense of momentum, even though there's nothing you could call musical progression. In a way it's more installation piece than composition. (It was originally conceived of as a soundtrack.)
There's an almost stately feel to it that makes it strangely calming, like a kind of second cousin to Bryan's 'Sinking of The Titanic', making for ideal Sunday night fare, arriving after the business of the week was done. (The tempo on the original recording was achieved by artificially slowing the session tape, meaning for live versions it needed to be re-transcribed.) There's an underlying assumption that it doesn't need to travel anywhere, that it's precisely where it wants to be, and so can just trace elegant circles – regatta rather than journey.
Slightly eccentrically, the running order of the supporting programme wasn't written up anywhere. I just about guessed that none was by Russell himself, and that the opening solo cello piece was yer actual classical. (It turned out to be Bach.) A string quartet was later revealed to be by Mica Levi (of whom the record shows Lucid Frenzy to be a fan), 'You Belong To Me'. the violins constantly pulling ahead while the cello acts as a brake.
But my favourite from the first half was 'Wolff Tone E-Tude' by Mary Jane Leach, a composer previously unknown to me. Her work, it says here, “reveals a fascination with the physicality of sound, its acoustic properties and how they interact with space”. A description which, perhaps against the odds, her piece lived up to. It built up steadily from a drone, with each instrument slowly and steadily finding it's own voice, yet rather than breaking away still contributing to the whole. Certainly a name to look out for.
Two longstanding collaborators of Russell's, Bill Ruye and Peter Zummo, stood out against the much younger London Contemporary Orchestra and Oliver Coates of the recent Deep Minimalism mini-festival. The audience alike were overwhelmingly young, plus plentiful, despite this being an overspill from a sold out Saturday night. In fact, performed in the round while punters sat or laid casually around, it had a much similar feel to Deep Minimalism. Further evidence a thriving scene is building around this music.