BUDDHIST BUBBLEGUM: Esoteric Buddhism in the Creative Process of Arthur Russell
PhD dissertation, Princeton University • April 2016
Buddhist Bubblegum is a study on the role of esoteric Buddhism in the creative process of singer, cellist, composer, and producer, Arthur Russell (1951-1992). Largely ignored during his lifetime, Russell’s work has aroused mass interest in the 21st century. Tim Lawrence’s biography (Hold On to Your Dreams) and Matt Wolff’s documentary (Wild Combination) offer significant and well-researched insight into the artist’s life and work. Little attention, however, has been given to Russell’s actual compositions and musical notations, while his creative process is often reduced to allusion and mystery. After spending several years with the scores and notebooks in Russell’s archive, as well as interviewing many of his friends and collaborators, I discovered a large body of work strategically guided by Vajrayana Buddhism. From his teenage years on a Buddhist commune until his last performances in New York, Russell sought to directly apply Vajrayana techniques--mantra, meditation, visualization, sadhana rituals--to his music, which he called “Buddhist bubblegum.”
The initial chapters outline the esoteric spiritual influences that guided Russell’s music. I explore his life-long practice of Shingon Buddhism, his later engagement with Tibetan Buddhism, his study of traditional North Indian music, as well as his use of numerology and astrology. The next chapters explore Russell’s early scores and the maturation of his compositional style. This development culminates with Russell’s largest work, Instrumentals, which was inspired by his Buddhist teacher, Yuko Nonomura. This leads us into an in-depth look at the making of Instrumentals, where we outline the unique “matrix” system of composition that Russell devised to compose the work. Next we see how Russell’s “matrix” system continued to inform his later works--his “mutant disco” opus, 24>24 Music, his orchestral collaboration with Robert Wilson, Tower of Meaning, and his work with the Singing Tractors. Finally, we explore the unique conceptual process which Russell used in composing his final full-length work, World of Echo. Buddhist Bubblegum outlines the creative process of an American artist whose unprecedentedly cross-genre work uniquely fused spiritual and musical disciplines.
I wanna give it up one more time to Matt Marble, the scholar who I think has done some groundbreaking work. Because other than Tom Lee, Arthur Russell’s partner, and Steve Knutson, who’s been putting out all these issues of Arthur Russell records—I think Matt Marble is maybe the only person who has heard as much as there is to hear (or that he’s able to hear), and who’s gone through the archives so finely—like, he really knows the papers. And actually, talking to him, he brought up the concept of intuition. He said to me that in music—I’m gonna just quote from our conversation:
"In music we don’t really talk about intuition, even though everybody knows its a core part of music. When we’re talking about intuition we tend to reduce it to jazz [by genre]—to improvisation [by method]. What Arthur Russell’s music shows is that he developed his own discipline of intuition."
-- Ben Ratliff, New York Times • May 27, 2016
"Elsewhere in the Everyday" ----------- > by Matthew Singer, printed in Willamette Week, Vol. 43, Issue 29 • May 17, 2017 • Portland, Oregon
An interview with Matt Marble on Arthur Russell's archives and Buddhist influences
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