The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts Acquires Collection of Cellist, Composer, and Producer Arthur Russell

Vast Archive Includes of Unreleased Recordings, Notebooks, and More  

May 31, 2016 -- The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center has acquired the archives of visionary American composer, cellist and producer Arthur Russell. 

Amounting to more than 166 linear feet, the Arthur Russell Archive is a collection of manuscripts, documents, ephemera, and sound recordings representing Russell's lifework in music. It contains thousands of pages of handwritten compositions, lyrics and song ideas, detailed project notes, graphic art, performance documentation, rare and unique vinyl LPs, and a trove of more than 1000 studio masters, alternate mixes and Russell's personal audio cassette listening copies of works from his genre-defying oeuvre.

Arthur Russell was a cellist, vocalist and composer known for his fusion of classical and popular music. Originally from Oskaloosa, Iowa, he traveled to the west coast in 1970 joining a Buddhist commune, and studying Indian classical composition at the Ali Akbar Khan College in Marin County. In 1971 Russell met and performed with Allen Ginsberg who brought him to New York for a recording session produced by John Hammond that also included Bob Dylan, Perry Robinson, and Happy Traum. Russell moved to New York in 1973 to study at the Manhattan School of Music. Quickly gravitating to the then burgeoning downtown music scene, he wrote and performed his minimal compositions, was music director at the Kitchen in 1974, and recorded his own songs for Hammond. Throughout his life, Russell collaborated with a who’s who of some of New York’s most influential artists including Christian Wolff, John Cage, Peter Gordon, Peter Zummo, Ernie Brooks, Jon Gibson, Rhys Chatham, Jill Kroesen, David Byrne, Laurie Anderson, Larry Levan, Philip Glass, Robert Wilson, Julius Eastman, Arnold Dreyblatt, Walter Gibbons and Phill Niblock. Russell’s music shifted dramatically in 1977 after an unexpected visit to a disco. He wrote and recorded some of the most influential records of the disco era including "Kiss Me Again," "Is It All Over My Face," "Let’s Go Swimming," and "Go Bang." Stretching the boundaries of disco and composition, and building off his childhood fascinations with oceanography and astronomy, Russell became entranced with incorporating echo into his own songwriting. When Arthur Russell died in 1992, he left an overwhelming archive of unreleased material that revealed the genius of one of the most important musicians of the last 40 years. Since Steve Knutson began excavating and curating Russell’s vast archive and formed Audika Records in 2004, Russell's music has found a wider audience of contemporary musicians fascinated by his minimalist and evocative compositions.

The Arthur Russell Archive includes:

  • More than 76 boxes, with over more than 1000 audio tapes in various formats encompassing the complete original studio and home sound recordings of Russell
  • More than 10,000 leaves of manuscript and typescript materials, including original musical compositions, song lyrics, private journals and other texts, comprising the complete collection of Russell's creative working papers at the time of his death
  • More than 400 items of personal correspondence addressed to Russell by family members, dozens of friends and colleagues, including Allen Ginsberg, Christian Wolff, Robert Wilson, Jackson MacLow, Steven Hall and Rhys Chatham
  • More than 90 different sound recordings on 12-inch vinyl LP records and metal masters, including various Russell test pressings and white-label promo copies, as well as a complete catalog of the commercially released output, ca. 1970s-2000s
  • Audio-visual recordings on electromagnetic videotape in various formats, ca. 1970s-1990s

"Arthur Russell's archive is filled with treasures waiting to be discovered by artists and researchers alike, and is a thrilling documentation of his life and artistic process" said Jacqueline Z. Davis, Barbara G. and Lawrence A. Fleishman Executive Director of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. "The Arthur Russell Archive is a wonderful addition to The Library for the Performing Arts' holdings, and will complement, enhance, and expand so many of our existing offerings in the Music Division, Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound." 

"The NYPL acquisition of the Arthur Russell archive rightly places him in the cannon of America’s most influential musicians," said Audika Records' Steve Knutson. "Disco visionary, avant-garde composer, singer songwriter, and avatar of a world of echo. Arthur Russell transcended genres, and the expectations of what music could be. A new generation of artists and listeners have finally discovered Arthur, immune to the market restrictions that kept his music from reaching the audience he long imagined. This new home and access to Arthur’s archive continues the discovery and solidifies his legacy in American music."

"During our years together," said Tom Lee, "I always championed Arthur’s music because it was the music of the person I loved. It was his daily work, as the breadth of this collection attests. After his death I took up his cause in a more personal but no less insistent way. I was a crusader armed with cassette mixes that I foisted upon friends, family, even casual acquaintances, listening alongside of them, pointing out his echoing cello sounds, the sweetness of his voice, and explaining the words, phrases and stories behind his lyrics from my perspective, because Arthur was no longer here to do it. My persistence caused me to save and treasure all of his materials, which is why his archive is so comprehensive. Arthur’s family and I are eternally grateful for the praise and attention his music receives, in large part thanks to Steve Knutson's work to release his music. While Arthur’s fame in his time was perhaps slight it will only grow as more and more people have the privilege of access that this great library offers. Arthur’s inclusion in The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts is a very shared honor for him and his wonderful collaborators. Those ideas, voices and musical accompaniment also join Arthur among this collection and I am pleased for them as well."

Highlights from the Russell Archive include:

  • An orchestral score commissioned by Robert Wilson to accompany the director's 1984 production of Medea
  • Collaborative recordings with poet Allen Ginsberg
  • Progressive rock and new wave ensemble work with The Flying Hearts and The Necessaries
  • Pioneering underground dance records released under various monikers (i.e., Loose Joints, Dinosaur, Indian Ocean, etc.)
  • The full matrix of recorded material and project notes related to Russell's 1986 magnum opus The World of Echo
  • Independent solo and ensemble recordings that have formed the basis for posthumous releases including Love is Overtaking Me, Calling Out of Context, First Thought Best Thought (Audika Records) and The World of Arthur Russell (Soul Jazz)

The Arthur Russell Archive will be processed at NYPL's Library Services Center in Long Island City, and then made available for research at The Library for the Performing Arts's Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound

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About The New York Public Library For The Performing Arts, Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center

The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts houses one of the world’s most extensive combinations of circulating, reference, and rare archival collections in its field. These materials are available free of charge, along with a wide range of special programs, including exhibitions, seminars, and performances. An essential resource for everyone with an interest in the arts — whether professional or amateur — the Library is known particularly for its prodigious collections of non-book materials such as historic recordings, videotapes, autograph manuscripts, correspondence, sheet music, stage designs, press clippings, programs, posters, and photographs. The Library is part of The New York Public Library system, which has more than 90 locations in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island, and is a lead provider of free education for all.