The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

…and while I’m still, just about, on the subject, the definable missing link between the Mary Hopkin who sang “those were the days, my friends” and the Mary Visconti who do-do-doodoo’s on Bowie’s “Sound And Vision” is Philip Glass and Robert Anton Wilson’s Einstein On The Beach…among the first words which we hear on the latter are “these are the days, my friends,” repeated as a sort of chorus to buffer the sailboat, and what Phil and Bob did in the Greenwich Village of early 1976 had a direct impact on what Brian and Dave did in the West Berlin of late 1976…

…and it is therefore fitting that First Thought Best Thought, the latest chapter in the ongoing Arthur Russell reissue programme, bears on its cover sticker an endorsement from Philip Glass: “Arthur Russell remains for me one of the most gifted and enigmatic composers of the ‘70s/’80s…with recordings like the present one, a new generation of music lovers will have the opportunity to discover him for themselves.” If The World Of Arthur Russell compiled his “dance” work, Calling Out Of Context was his “pop” record and World Of Echo his divinely unclassifiable sui generis masterpiece, First Thought Best Thought collects the “classical” Russell. Half of this 2CD collection collates the albums Tower Of Meaning and “Instrumentals” Volume 2, absent from circulation for a generation, while the other half is taken up by two small-scale chamber pieces, and, most importantly, the never-released “Instrumentals” Volume 1.

This latter is the main point of interest, as it furnishes some much-needed additional perspective to the otherwise rather curious stasis of Volume 2 and Tower. Volume 1 consists of ten short pieces recorded by Russell’s ensemble in April 1975, which in themselves were extracted from what was originally intended as a 48-hour non-stop marathon of music, as accompaniment to “photographic wall projections” by the artist Yuko Nonomura. In this respect, evaluation of the music is considerably facilitated by the detailed and helpful commentary in the CD booklet by Ernie Brooks, then bassist in Russell’s group and also the outgoing bassist in the first edition of Jonathan Richman’s Modern Lovers. Rather than play 48 continuous hours of music, the ensemble selected “those bits that sounded best in rehearsal,” and these were in turn edited down to these short “events” of notated, and repeated, fragments of music over which the musicians were encouraged to improvise until each piece was felt to have reached its natural end.

The crucial factor here, however, was the inclusion of a discrete rhythm section of Brooks and future power pop specialist Andy Paley on drums, in order “to add some rock ‘authenticity’ to Arthur’s next recording session.” Thus these ten pieces sail along with comparative serenity, their comforting yet yearning melodic and harmonic constructs reminiscent of the Carla Bley Band playing some Bob James charts. The personnel mix in this performance would also prove to be important; among others, Rhys Chatham appears on flute, Garrett List (Musica Elettronica Viva, Anthony Braxton’s Creative Music Orchestra) on trombone, Jon Gibson (a Philip Glass regular) on reeds and woodwind, and keyboardist Peter Gordon, soon to be of the Love Of Life Orchestra but at the time also one of the French horn/synth players in Gil Evans’ loose-limbed big band of the period. Indeed, bearing in mind the free but controlled Evans Orchestra I saw at the Royal Festival Hall in early 1978 – and that performance was recorded and issued on two vinyl albums; someone please sort out the copyright and reissue on CD – the influence of the downtown loft music which Russell and others were pioneering at that time cannot be understated; a nexus which spreads out towards the Modern Lovers and Talking Heads, encompassing both Bley and Laurie Anderson, and eventually giving birth to John Zorn.

These “Instrumentals” are prevented from becoming placid Muzak by their immaculately lax details; the way in which Paley’s drums and David van Tiegham’s percussion are never quite in synchronisation with each other, the increasing use of overtones (intentional and otherwise) with each section, the gradual introduction of 12-tone rows, the systematically freer improvisation which occurs. Thus by section four, Gibson’s clarinet breaks loose into territory somewhere between Perry Robinson and birdsong, Russell applies feedback to his electric ‘cello, Jon Sholle’s guitar growls, List’s trombone quietly overblows – and yet melodically it is as graceful as its predecessors.

At times one is reminded of unused backing tracks for SMiLE (especially section six); but the sunny mood established early on gradually gives way to portents of autumn, extending to the sublime sigh of Paley’s ride cymbal on the very brief section eight. These pieces seem to have been recorded in one continuous (live?) take; each section gently glides to a halt and the musicians await Russell’s next count-in.

Track 11 is the first from “Instrumentals” Volume 2; recorded some two years after Volume 1, and this time without drums. It is still an arresting, if frustratingly short, piece (and even more reminiscent of Brian Wilson); still the feeling persists that, in abandoning drums, Russell is walking in precisely the opposite direction from the “movement and sequence that hints at the popular radio sound of the future” which he described in his own (1984) note to the original issue; even if, with his parallel dance music work of the period, he was very much drawing himself towards that desired end.

The remaining four tracks of Volume 2, recorded in May 1978, have no rhythmic or percussional input whatsoever; indeed my impression when listening to the original issue in 1984 was of a sour New York take on Gavin Bryars, specifically the delicately decaying orchestral lines of The Sinking Of The Titanic. But with this new benefit, the tracks can be observed as the base matter of Volume 1 – the harmonies and themes – slowed down to a point of suspended stasis. Although the “big country” vistas of the American classical tradition, specifically Copland, Barber and Walter Piston, are evoked (not so much Ives, and a little more Roy Harris), the listener is forced to ponder the material of each held chord, the visibility of each note, whether a vibrato played with sufficient slowness can resemble a tear (as happens, quite movingly, on track 14). We are asked to consider and reassess the substance of each specific atom of this piece of music.

The seven sections of Tower Of Meaning – six short ones which inevitably call to mind, in motive if not in substance, the Six Bagatelles of Webern, and one final long section which sums up and develops its six predecessors – continue in a similar, and it has to be said not especially satisfying, vein. The point has already been made with “Instrumentals” Volume 2; here the individual sections sound merely “pretty” and “decorative” and in truth rather tedious. There is some hint of Oriental exoticism now and again – the harp which brings some much-needed air to section four, the hand percussion in section five – but the air of World Of Echo, into which Russell eventually flew, was naturally engendered and instinctively light and playful. Too often on Tower Of Meaning, the spectacle of the Portsmouth Sinfonia attempting Gorecki’s Third is brought to mind, only not quite as interesting as that. Their other constructional point of interest are the seemingly abrupt endings and pauses which many sections boast (cut off, as though in their prime; or stopping to get back their breath when the music has barely exerted itself). Cuttings from a random landscape? In his note compiler Steve Knutson talks about the impact of this music in connection with the gigantic, blue/green/gold nothingness of the landscape of the “big square states: eastern Colorado, Nebraska and Iowa,” and while I do not doubt the sense that such music must make there, the impact of Tower Of Meaning while listening to it, strolling through the less-than-blue streets of Islington of a Sunday morning, is notably less dramatic and affecting (Russell eventually succeeded in squaring this particular equation with “In The Cornbelt”).

Of the two chamber pieces, “Sketch For The Face Of Helen” dates from “sometime in the early 1980s” and is performed by Russell alone on “Keyboard, Tone Generator and Tugboat.” As you might expect, it’s a creaking, vaguely desolate seascape; and as you might expect me to say, this kind of thing has previously been done with considerably more wit and depth by both Mike Oldfield (side two of the original Tubular Bells) and OMD (Architecture And Morality passim). “Reach One (With Two Fender Rhodes),” is, however, a compelling piece to which I have returned repeatedly. As the title suggests, it is performed on two electric pianos; this 1975 recording begins as though Zawinul and Corea were warming up for Bitches Brew but soon develops into an unsettling hall of mirrors where serenely luxurious chordal exchanges alternate with abrupt dark, percussive mutters. The piece obviously predicates the “hung notes” work of Eno (Thursday Afternoon especially), but while there is tender beauty here there is also quietly aggrieved pain. The music modifies into bleak abstraction, not that far removed from the desolately bare soundscapes which Michael Mantler created for his Beckett adaptation, No Answer; and as with the latter piece of work, “Reach One” does not conjure up the mountains of Oklahoma but bereft, semi-derelict late 1970s Glasgow council estates; haunted corners, breaths of gasped fear. In its conduit from the oceanic to the steel cube, it could be said to act as the link between George Crumb’s Vox Balaenae and Autechre’s Tri Repeatae. Together with the sometimes mesmerisingly beautiful “Instrumentals” Volume 1 – the ideal soundtrack for a Sunday morning urban brunch in Toronto - “Reach One” is the main reason to purchase First Thought Best Thought, although it seems to me that Russell’s art was far better served by the playfulness he was able to breathe in other contexts.


The string parts on Massive Attack records are on occasion oddly reminiscent of Russell’s near non-movement; their clouds are stately, unhurried, vast and sometimes generous in their patient drift. “Live With Me” is about trying to extract a sliver of light from oppressively grey darkness. The layers of doubling and halving rhythm are important; the bass moves at four times the length of the strings, and Terry Callier’s vocal half the length of the strings. The video depicts a girl lost, somewhere in the labyrinthine monotone eternal night of south London. There is a home but she has to manfully remember that such a thing exists. Callier begins with the “Smokestack Lightning” lupine howl before crouching down in her virtual corner to persuade. “I’ve been thinking about you baby” is the song’s leitmotif; at first low and quiet. Then “Day and night I’ve been missing you” – where and why did she run, if it were she who did the running? “I’ve been thinking about you baby…Almost makes me crazy…come and live with me.” I missed that last part, too quiet; could you repeat?

The song draws back its intended breath and continues to whisper, for now. “Either way, win or lose/When you’re born (or borne?) into trouble/You live the blues.” The leitmotif is echoed a little more loudly. A croak of “child” is extracted from the singer’s throat. Then the strings rise to open his door of worry: “Nothing’s right if you ain’t here!/I’d give all that I have just to keep you near!/I wrote you a letter/And tried to make it clear (echoes of Leonard Cohen’s “The Letters”)/But you just don’t believe that I’m sincere.” That “sincere” writhes and struggles before atomising into the “I” of “I’ve been thinking about you baby,” and then the circle comes back to its “Smokestack Lightning” point of origin.

Callier becomes bolder – that exquisite up-hill-and-down-dale underlining of the word “hopes” in the line “hopes and fears” which seems to require a lifetime of rejection to allow its expression, the near-holler of “Dreams I deny/For all these years” which in turn again collapses into a gargantuan, grotesque extended “I” before the leitmotif “I’ve been thinking about you baby” is expanded by its subjunctive: “living with me”…succeeded by Callier’s jaw-droppingly carnal “Well…” And then the carnal outweighs the charitable as Callier soars in impending rains of passion – “Makes me wanna WHOOOOH! WHOOOO-HOO-HOOOOH!” just as the strings snatch open the sunrise to eclipse the demise and Callier stands at the top of Parliament Hill Fields declaiming love and WHOOOOH knows what else. “I want you to live with me”…and then a second “Well,” but this time phrased as a question, just as the final monophonic string line erects its own suspended question mark. It’s an extraordinary performance of what, without Callier’s words and voice, could well have been yet another unremarkable Massive Attack album filler; what Callier does, as only he can do, is to turn the skyscraper of musical grey into a kaleidoscope of primary coloured expectations and a devotion as fiery and red as the corners of his anticipatory eyes.

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