- Hold On to Your Dreams: Arthur Russell and the Downtown Music Scene, 1973-1992
In his essay "Music and Musical Practices in Postmodernity," Timothy D. Taylor takes stock of several attempts to schematize the differences between modernism and postmodernism, and finds them all wanting. [End Page 774] (The essay appears as the fifth chapter of Postmodern Music/Postmodern Thought, ed. Judy Lochhead and Joseph Auner [New York: Garland, 2002], 93-117.) Particularly questionable are attempts to periodize on the basis of style, and for reasons that most readers of this review will have already surmised by now: the "appropriation of 'low' cultural forms into 'high' " as an attempt to breach the "great divide" between the two levels (Taylor, p. 94, borrowing Andreas Huyssen's terms) is, in terms of style, about as old as the musical art itself, and therefore not characteristic or constitutive of postmodernism in any meaningful sense. What is new, Taylor argues, are the "(re)pre sentation, marketing, and consumption" (p. 103) of musical forms. Postmodernism is therefore best regarded as "ways of cultural production linked to political and economic realities" (p. 102), and postmodern music largely a product of composers "playing with juxtaposed sounds and fragmented identities in ways that we might be able to call postmodern in terms of style, but at the end of the day, safe as moderns in their stable subject positions" (p. 112).
Taylor may be right, but there is a blind spot in his argument: is the history of postmodern music composition really reducible to so many classically trained composers—Mikel Rouse is Taylor's Exhibit A—slumming around in the pop world? One may or may not learn anything new about postmodern style (or styles) by broadening one's horizons, but surely it merits consideration that the "great divide" has been breached from the opposite direction, and from other planes, as well. Glenn Branca, for instance, went from being a punk-inspired No Waver to a "composer" and "conductor" of "symphonies," primarily for masses of electric guitars, to a composer of bona fide symphonies for bona fide orchestras and professionally trained conductors as well. (In retrospect, the irony quotes may have been appropriate only with regard to Branca's conducting.) Laurie Anderson, whom Taylor mentions only in passing, approached (and still approaches) music through performance art, and has staked out a position of her own that is resolutely non-"classical" but far removed from traditional pop and rock conventions. Then there are such composers who, acutely aware of genre boundaries and the levels of style (or at least pretension) associated with musical genres, set to infiltrating, mixing, and even reconciling them at every turn. In this last category is Arthur Russell, and Tim Lawrence's biography, the first devoted to him, significantly enhances our understanding of the hit-and-miss but endlessly productive and varied music scene in New York City during the 1970s and 1980s—and introduces us to a musician of genuine substance and partially realized promise as well.
(Charles) Arthur Russell was born in Oskaloosa, Iowa, in 1951 and first learned to love music from his father's record collection and his mother's cello playing. In the fourth grade he began to play the cello himself, and the instrument was his most constant companion for the rest of his life. A certain moodiness and a disfiguring case of acne contributed to a more than usually rebellious adolescence, and he ran away, first to Iowa City and then to San Francisco, all without breaking contact with home. In San Francisco he fell in with a Buddhist cult, which he left for better Buddhist mentors when it became clear to him that he would have to choose between the cult and his cello. There he also met Allen Ginsberg, whom he eventually followed to New York, where he would live and work from 1973 until his death from AIDS-related complications in...