World of Echo—a 30th anniversary love letter (guest article by Jake Bellissimo)
World of Echo—a 30th anniversary love letter
by Jake Bellissimo
“I’m so happy that I met you and came to find/
This evening you gave me good advice
And more and then, oh…”
The awkwardly rhythmic intro to “Tone Bone Kone” greets me as I drowsily open my eyes and let out a huge yawn. I realize that I accidentally fell asleep with my phone on shuffle, but unlock my phone to turn off shuffle and listen to the rest of the album.
This is how I usually end up listening to World of Echo*, Arthur Russell’s groundbreaking 1986 collection of solo pieces: it starts off as an accident, which turns into a thought, and then becomes an action. A fitting description of my listening habit, this perspective also serves as a great outline of the album itself. Sourced from a collection of recordings developed via live performance that Russell gave around New York City in the 80s, World of Echo occupies a sound world that appears (at first glance) almost alien in the context of NYC minimalism. Consisting of 18 pieces that center around amplified cello, amplified voice, and touches of percussion/electronics, the album takes listeners on a journey from the mind of a man who couldn’t (or just didn’t want to) tell Ravi Shankar apart from the Velvet Underground and the Bee Gees apart from Steve Reich.
The pieces on this album have a variety of sources, but to understand the meditative quality of the music it is important to keep in mind Russell’s background in disco. Despite having studied with Charles Wuorinen, putting out ensemble pieces through Philip Glass’ record label, and recording some very far-out country music, most of Arthur’s pioneering can be traced back to his underground disco sensibility. Unfortunately his name was rarely spoken due to his multiple monickers, but the concept of repetition and pulsating rhythm was always of utmost importance to his compositional style, regardless of the music. Given that some songs are even renditions of previously recorded songs (“Let’s Go Swimming” on World of Echo is particularly jaw-dropping when compared to the disco version), it is easy to see this thread throughout the record.
However, Russell was never the one to be completely straightforward. With the clear influence of disco via bow-slapping techniques and pulsating rhythm is layered with harmony coming straight from a La Monte Young sense of progression. Pieces like “Soon-To-Be Innocent Fun/Let’s See” give a feeling of weightlessness, moving through AB form at a pace akin to molasses. This serves as a good introduction to another asset of this music: the influence of ragas, improvisation, and Indian classical music. The cello playing represents a very stream-of-consciousness form of composition, although this improvisation appears to be applied very strictly. Because there is no sheet music available, I have always assumed that the pieces are very composed, but in sections. It often seems like Russell structured the pieces in multiple parts and let himself fill in the gaps during performance. Because these pieces are very uniform and meditative, this technique also serves the organic compositional process and the listening process.
One of my favorite aspects of the album comes up quickly in “Soon-To-Be Innocent Fun/Let’s See”: Russell’s ability to play with the production and effects, pulling the soundworld in and out with little preparation or indication. This produces a really surreal effect—he will highlight some words with a booming resonance, only to pull it in for an absurd amount of dry intimacy. No matter how many times I listen to it, the effortlessness with which he plays with the environment always has me hooked.
On World of Echo, Arthur Russell has a fluid language that spans many extended techniques and performance practices, but he navigates it with the ease of a folk songwriter playing I—IV—V progressions. Throughout the rest of the album (two favorites are the aforementioned “Let’s Go Swimming” and the eternal tease “The Name of the Next Song”) Russell makes use of various extended techniques, quarter tones, and a heavy sense of bow control. While listening to this it is clear that Russell was well-trained (otherwise he wouldn’t have had the consistency that he did) but was not afraid to throw that aside. This is a compositional move that can really make or break a project, but thankfully it worked out to Russell’s favor. Heavily planned decisions and sections are mixed with moments of improvisation and relativity, not unlike many of his American minimalist colleagues.
Another highlight are the lyrics, which ride the line between childish and divinatory. In simple observations from his old Iowan past, songs like “Lucky Cloud” and “Treehouse” deliver a poignancy masked with innocence. These moments of juvenile delinquence are juxtaposed with harsh reality (“Our Last Night Together”) to provide a delicate balance of insight and humility.
Clocking in at just over an hour, World of Echo is a minimalist sprawl that has accompanied me at many highs and lows ranging from when I graduated high school (and afterwards drove as far away as possible) to when I was depressed in upstate New York watching snow fall and now in 2016 on this Megabus (where I am writing this now).
However, no matter how many times I listen, my mind always goes back to the release date: 1986.
To think this came out 30 years ago is jarring; even in 2016 I can’t help but label it futuristic. Over the years it has become an essential influence on me as both a listener and composer, forcing me to redefine my definitions of, well, everything. I’m labeling this as a 30th anniversary tribute because there is little information about the actual day/month the album was released. But, this vagueness follows with the appeal: like the available footage of Russell’s performances during this era, with World of Echo we see a blurry, dimly-lit view into a unique project—perhaps it’s better that the lights never fully come on.
*I should note the edition of the album I am talking about is technically a deluxe version from the 2004 (the original only had 14 tracks). I speak about this version because of the nostalgic significance of all 18 tracks.