Another Arthur Russell Summer: The deep, blissful thrills of ‘Picture of Bunny Rabbit’

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Randall Roberts
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There’s a new collection of previously unreleased Arthur Russell music out now…

Last year marked the 30th anniversary of Arthur Russell’s passing, a melancholy milestone that served as a reminder of all the ideas he couldn’t realize, the unuttered sounds and tones that only he could have made, the absent avenues of exploration singular to the Iowa-born, New York-forged musician.

Thankfully, Russell’s archives are safe: his writings, papers, and ephemera are housed at the New York Public Library, and his recorded archives are managed by Russell’s longtime partner Tom Lee and curated by Steve Knutson. Since his death from the effects of the HIV virus in 1992, the composer’s estate has dipped into the archives every few years, each time offering a new hue to Russell’s kaleidoscopic output: Calling Out of Context, Corn, First Thought Best Thought, Iowa Dream, and more.

Which brings us to Picture of Bunny Rabbit. Compiled by Knutson, the album came out in May and has been on the turntable daily ever since. A stunningly cohesive selection of previously unreleased material from the mid-1980s — the same period in which he was both making the brilliant World of Echo and learning of his HIV diagnosis — its nine songs move from pensive, minimalist cello and synth meditations (“Fuzzbuster #10”) to pieces that highlight Russell’s singular vocal sighs and moans. Much of it was recorded with engineer Eric Liljestrand at Battery Sound Studios, which at the time was composer David Van Tieghem’s go-to room. Other tracks were captured at Russell’s East Village home studio.

“Arthur had found his voice and a fresh direction with a set of new, transformative material, unlike anything he or anyone else had previously released,” read the release notes to Bunny Rabbit. “His illness ensured that the artistic growth and sense of exploration encapsulated in World of Echo would be tragically curtailed.”

“Arthur would just vamp for however long the tape was,” Knutson told writer Philip Sherburne in a fascinating interview for Pitchfork. “There might be 30 minutes of him just playing a song over and over again.”

You can hear that simmering repetition, the mesmerizing use of echo, reverb, and mysterious hum-tones that only Russell could bring to life. At the time this work was recorded, Russell was also collaborating with modern dancers and choreographers; you could spy him side-stage working his gear and conjuring. In the 1970s, he booked the talent at the Kitchen, the crucial arts space then located at the Mercer Arts Center in Chelsea. Along the way, he collaborated with artists including 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.

In the early ’80s, Russell was an active participant in a thriving scene that propelled Sonic Youth, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Keith Haring into the public consciousness; just across the river in the Bronx and Brooklyn, rap was overwhelming the entire region. (Those in New York should know that In Sheep’s Clothing NYC just opened at the corner of Hudson and King, a block from Russell’s home-away-from-home, the Paradise Garage.)

Knutson says that Russell’s solitary nature as a composer and performer has become part of his story, but it ignores his active presence on the scene and in real life.

“Arthur wasn’t ignored,” Knutson told Sherburne. “He was difficult, but he was connected. He had lots of opportunities, and lots of important people—Allen Ginsberg, Seymour Stein, Philip Glass—looked at him. He wasn’t an obscure figure, he was a known entity. Was he a commercial one? Not really, except for a couple disco records. Also, there’s this idea that he was this sad, depressed character, and he wasn’t that at all. He was very funny, kind of silly. And he took his work very, very seriously.”

That’s apparent throughout the new record. A work to get lost in — listen loud and with intention — Picture of Bunny Rabbit proves that, 31 years after he was stolen from us, Russell retains the power to upend your season — be it summer, fall, winter, or spring — and remake it in his image.

Details, via Audika:

Picture of Bunny Rabbit features nine previously unreleased performances from this era compiled from completed masters culled from two unique test pressings, including one, dated 9/15/85 by Arthur, provided by his mother and sister. A further four tracks were discovered in his tape archive. The track listing includes an exceptional and dramatic solo recording of ‘In The Light of a Miracle’ and the enigmatic title instrumental ‘Picture of Bunny Rabbit’, written especially for a friends pet rabbit.

And while Arthur Russell’s on your brain, use this opportunity to grab a copy of Buddhist Bubblegum: Esotericism in the Creative Process of Arthur Russell, the brilliant tome by writer, researcher and podcaster Matt Marble.

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