Arthur Russell – Tower Of Meaning (1983)
For Arthur Russell fans, there are plenty of rare records which elevate themselves to holy grail status. Few are as sought after as Arthur’s first album under his own name – 1983’s Tower Of Meaning. Originally released in an edition of 320 on Philip Glass’ private imprint Chatham Square, it’s about as scarce as they come. Though rumors of a reissue have been floating around for the last few months, I was overjoyed yesterday to see a formal announcement that Audika would be returning it to the world on April 8th.
Arthur Russell – Tower Of Meaning (1983)
Tower Of Meaning has an interesting place in Russell’s incredibly diverse cannon of recordings. It’s comprised of instrumental works which were drawn from a much larger composition. It made up the third LP in Audika’s wonderful box set from 2006 – First Thought Best Thought, so you may have already encountered it there. Despite owning that edition, propelled by my love of Russell, and the fact that it’s the only release on Chatham Square I don’t have, I’ve continued to hunt for a copy through the years. I’ve yet to be so lucky, and pre-ordered a copy the second Audika made it available.
The album offers an incredibly important insight into Russell, as well as into the state of avant-garde music during the early 80’s. That it was originally released by Philip Glass should open the window, particularly when regarding that it is the last release on Chatham Square, and came a decade after most of its catalog was issued. Tower Of Meaning represents a passing of the baton from one generation of composers to the next. Given the diversity of sonic territories to which he applied his hand, and how much ground he broke, Russell’s connection to avant-garde classical music is often overshadowed. Not only did he study composition at the Manhattan School of Music and Columbia University, and contribute to ensembles that included luminaries such as Steven Hall, Ernie Brooks, Peter Zummo, and Elodie Lauten, among many others, but he was also the director of The Kitchen during the middle 70’s, programming some of the most adventurous outings in its fabled history. Russell was an incredibly talented polymath. Had he applied himself to only one of the individual tenants of his musical practice, his place in history would have been ensured. The fact that he was able to achieve such high standards (and success) in so many disciplines is nothing short of astounding. Beyond my own selfish desire to own own it, this is why I’m so glad to see the album return. It’s an important work in the cannon of the second wave Minimalism, as well as in the larger body of avant-garde composition of the era. Its sheer quality goes a long way towards understanding the breadth of Russell’s talents and what he was trying to achieve.
Tower Of Meaning was recorded in 1981 by an ensemble led by the wonderful (and often sinfully neglected) composer and musician Julius Eastman. It’s a slow, somber work which gives insight into the concerns of Minimalism as they transitioned from one era to the next. Where the first generation was often drawn to ecstatic rhythms and usually constrained to a single key, Russell’s work shifts the focus. The draw toward a reductive simplicity and repetition remains, but the work is built from a more complex structure of tonal relationships, allowing a depth of emotion that few other Minimalist works reach. He slows the tempo to the point of uncomfortable deconstruction, bearing the composition’s skeleton, and forcing the notes to grind against each other. It’s beautiful and challenging. After thirty three years on the planet, it remains incredibly relevant and rewarding.
I recently expressed my feelings about Russell, and the importance I apply to his music, in my introduction to the Phil Niblock films which feature him. What I failed to do was offer context into his evolving presence in our world. I first encountered Russell’s music during the mid 90’s. Time hadn’t been kind to his legacy. His music had fallen from view after his death in 1992. His discography was long out of print and impossible to find. The only thing available was a CD called Another Thought which had been released in 1994 by Philip Glass’s second imprint Point Music (it was lovingly issued on vinyl for the first time in 2013 by Arc Light Editions). It’s an astounding piece of work which knocked the wind out of me. It elevated Russell to the status of saint in my mind, and for many years remained the sole fragment of this remarkable man I had. Though it took another decade for it to gather steam, Another Thought was the beginning of Arthur’s accent to his rightful place in public consciousness. In 2004 two seminal compilations appeared. The first was The World Of Arthur Russell. Issued by Soul Jazz, it offered a broad overview of Russell’s output and found its way onto the shelves of almost everyone I knew. The second – Calling Out Of Context, was far more significant. Drawing from previously unreleased recordings from Russell’s archive, it was the first release by a new label called Audika who were to make Russell’s vast catalog of recordings its sole charge. I bought the album the day it hit the shelves. In all the years I have owned it, it has remained among the most treasured in my collection. It is absolutely stunning.
Arthur working at home.
One of the most fascinating things about Russell was his obsessive dedication to his own work. He held himself to impossibly high standards. When he passed away, he left behind a vast trove of unreleased work. He would approach a single song with rigorous intensity, refining and recording it again and again. The versions we know are only one of many. He spent countless hours wandering the streets, Walkman in hand, listening to his own work, trying to find the path to perfection before returning to the microphone.
Arthur and Tom.
Arthur’s estate and recordings were left to his partner Tom Lee. For all the years I have been aware of him, Tom has retained a symbolic significance. He is the beacon for the power of love, the importance of art, and proof that no mater how great an artist is, the journey to our ears is not taken alone. Since Arthur’s death, Tom has been the force behind his memory, our knowing him, and his remarkable body of work joining our world. The dedication to his lost love is nothing short of astounding and deeply moving. He has applied an artist’s hand in choosing the recordings for release, and a talented curator’s for the company that they keep. Those of us who love Arthur’s music owe him a profound debt. Without Tom, it is likely that his music would still be lost (and much of it unheard) – as it was when I first encountered it. In those days the world was a far less beautiful place.
It’s astounding to think that Arthur has become a household name. That his music is celebrated by millions across the globe. The place in culture he now occupies was once unimaginable. This incredible ascent has had everything to do with the efforts of Tom and Steve. Over the years their care for his music has brought endless joy to my life. For this I can not thank them enough. In their hands we now see the reemergence of another treasure – Tower of Meaning. It is an album that I have longed to own for many years, and one that I can not recommend enough. You can pre-order it from Audika, and I recommend that you do.