TOWER OF MEANING

Arthur Russell

In 1980, after considering hiring Philip Glass (finally too busy working on his own opera Satyagraha), Robert Wilson asks Arthur Russell to write the music for his new opera Medea. Glass himself advised Wilson to choose Russell. Arthur Russell is really happy, but also nervous about this proposal. Collaborating with Robert Wilson on Einstein on the Beach had changed Philip Glass' life. Russell can expect a similar effect. But as the writing and the recording are quite advanced, the relation between Wilson and Russell deteriorates. The director blames the composer for not listening to his suggestions and for working too slowly.
Julius Eastman conducts the 70 minute recording of this music almost entirely made out of sustained clusters, tempoless. Something medieval, nearly unchanging, evoking games of power, paranoia, violence and decline - all notions in the core of Euripides' play. An outstanding composition in Arthur Russell's repertoire, in which secrets hide within the gaps, with no narrative, no highlight, no pulse inherited from pop music, contrary to the rest of his work. Like a damaged patchwork, this piece suggests that Russell would have excelled in the field of minimalist new music.

According to Wilson, what will later become Tower of Meaning doesn't work. But probably, more than a musical question, tensions and misunderstandings come from the unmatching personalities. Robert Wilson finally calls Gavin Bryars to create the final soundtrack, claiming that he can't get what he needs from Russell. In the end, Philip Glass decides to publish the Tower of Meaning tracks in 1983 on his own imprint Chatham Square.

Full of regrets, Arthur Russell writes a letter to Robert Wilson, saying approximately this:

 

« Last night I dreamed that we were breaking the ice and becoming friends. Everybody's angry. I know you'll probably tear this letter. I really didn't want to undermine your show, I was just struggling against this helplessness to work faster. I always believed that in the end you'd be happy with the music, but today I feel sorry, and you angry. »

But this letter was never sent...

Arthur Russell's unwavering eclecticism shows us that he should be seen on the same level as Captain Beefheart, John Cage, Charles Ives, Harry Partch, Steve Reich, La Monte Young, Frank Zappa and others who have contributed to the strong North-American tradition of the maverick composer.

Maybe because he was too open-minded, Russell lacked of this singularity and this ambition owned by other mavericks of his time. And he paid the price of his discrete personality. "What Philip Glass and Steve Reich did in particular, and La Monte Young too in its own way, it's making sense with the concept of a brand in music" comments Peter Gordon. "Glass or Reich's sounds were and will always remain identifiable. Their own progress was made inside an ensemble of parameters that they imposed to themselves quite early". John Gibson adds that Glass and Reich had developed "a sort of stiffness in what they were doing" to establish their reputation. "Terry Riley was doing the same, and La Monte Young, the ultimate possessive, took over the field of drone and tuning", he says. "All of them were protecting their land. Rather, Russell shown so few interest in doing the same thing twice that his rigorous eclecticism remained until the end of his life".

Donald Murk : "Everything he touched was absorbed in his global vision. He could have been more successful if he had focused this vision on precise things". Everytime he could, Russell used to work without hierarchy, interconnected, horizontally, exploring orchestral composition, pop/folk/rock music, disco/dance - always working these fields simultaneously. He favored cultures of involvement rather than those of exclusion, and preferred non-dominant ones (feminine, black, gay). Russell and his peers' focus on producing good music by establishing relationships based on collaboration and non-exploitation appears like a guide for an ethic and creative life.
 

Ensemble 0 joins forces with Aum Grand Ensemble to perform Arthur Russell's Tower of Meaning (1983).

 

Total Duration: 60'

 

Personnel: Sophie Bernado (bassoon), Cyprien Busolini (viola), Melaine Dalibert (piano), Jozef Dumoulin (Fender Rodhes, synthesizer), Céline Flamen (cello), Stéphane Garin (percussion, artistic co-direction), Ellen Giacone (voice), Jean-Brice Godet (bass clarinet), Amélie Grould (vibraphone), Alexandre Herer (electronics), Tomoko Katsura (violin), Julien Pontvianne (saxophones, orchestration, artistic co-direction), Christian Pruvost (trumpet)
Production: ensemble 0 / AUM grand ensemble / Variations festival - Le Lieu Unique, scène nationale de Nantes
Past performances: Variations festival (Lieu unique, Nantes)

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