A week of activities dedicated to Iowa expat musician Arthur Russell

Arthur Russell Week

various venues — Tuesday, April 25 through Friday, April 28

A week of events celebrating Oskaloosa native Arthur Russell kicks off at FilmScene with a screening on Tuesday, April 25. — screencap from the ‘Wild Combination‘ trailer

When Arthur Russell was a teenager, he ran away from his home in Oskaloosa, Iowa. A pioneer in cross-genre composition during the 1970s and ’80s, Russell released just one solo album during his lifetime: World of Echo in 1986. He collaborated with notable avant-garde musicians Rhys Chatham, Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Yet, Russell’s musical output went largely unnoticed before his death in 1992 from AIDS. Following several posthumous albums of previously unreleased music, Russell’s catalog has now been rediscovered — Kanye West sampled a Russell track in his latest album, Life of Pablo.

Over the course of this week University of Iowa professor Kembrew McLeod has coordinated several events regarding the life and legacy of the late Iowa musician, beginning at FilmScene on Tuesday, April 25. See full schedule below.

“Despite being a part of so many über-hip music scenes, Russell didn’t hide his corny Iowa roots,” wrote McLeod via email. “On the cover of his album Calling Out of Context, Russell is wearing a hat that says “Master Mix,” which [filmmaker Matt Wolf] notes is a reference not only to the brand of feed mix for animals, but also to DJing. You could say that Russell pioneered trucker hat fashion years before Ashton Kutcher was even born, though this was not the only Iowan influence that worked its way into his music.”

Classically trained in cello and piano during his formative years in Iowa, he landed himself in San Francisco, where he studied Northern Indian music at the Ali Akbar College of Music. Living in the a Buddhist commune, Russell befriended poet Allen Ginsberg, going on to provide backing instrumentation while Ginsberg performed (akin to the Grateful Dead a few years prior during Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests).

Russell hopped over to the other coast in 1973, moving to New York City to attend the conservatory at the Manhattan School of Music. His first couple of years in the city were spent surrounded by minimalist musical groups, including Boston rock group the Modern Lovers, as well as helming operations at venue and gallery the Kitchen for a couple years. During the mid to late 1970s, Russell’s ear shifted towards the burgeoning disco scene. He became close to legends Nicky Siano and Luis Aquilone. In the ’80s Russell’s musical scope widened, incorporating sounds from Chicago house to dub to R&B — all within his penchant for classical music. He co-founded the hip hop and dance-centric label Sleeping Bag Records in 1981.

In a New Yorker piece by Lucy Schiller, Russell was described as introverted by Steve Knutson of Audika Records, who worked with his partner of 12 years, Tom Lee, to release those posthumus albums. In the spaces of his East Village flat — against the cacophony of Lower Manhattan — he sedulously tinkered and amalgamated disparate genres of music. But he was also a wallflower of the city. Rather than focus on the music playing at nightclubs, Russell would eye the social fauna and how the music accompanied their movements, says Schiller in her piece on Russell’s two-decade rise to the lips of musicians, critics and fans alike. Beyond music, he independently studied everything from fishing to the I Ching.

If it sounds like a lot of name-dropping on his curriculum vitae, it’s to contextualize the vast tentacles of New York City’s art scenes Russell dabbled within. He might have passed away in relative obscurity to the outside world, but his influence within New York City’s avant-garde had wide reach, which has inevitably — and justifiably — aggrandized his reputation following his posthumous albums. Now Russell’s name flutters beyond New York City and Iowa.

List of Arthur Russell Week events

• Tuesday April 25, 6 p.m. FilmScene will screen the 2008 documentary Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell, followed by a Q&A held by UI filmmaking instructor Jason Livingston. Tickets are $5 general admission, free for UI students.

• Thursday April 27, 7:30 p.m. McLeod is moderating the symposium “Straight Outta Oskaloosa: The Music, Life and Times of Arthur Russell, from Iowa to Downtown New York City” at 140 Schaeffer Hall. Panelists Tim Lawrence, Geeta Dayal and Lucy Schiller will discuss Russell’s birthplace and the ways in which his Iowa roots informed his musical creation. Free, open to the public.

• Friday April 28, 12 p.m. a lunchtime listening party of Russell’s catalog, presented by first cousin Rip Russell, in the FilmScene screening room. Free, open to the public.


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• Friday April 28, 7 p.m. Tim Lawrence will read at Prairie Lights from his book Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor, 1980-1983, which chronicles the Manhattan disco scene of the time. Free, open to the public.

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