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In the late 1980’s, with the invaluable assistance of Don Gillespie, I established contact with New Orleans composer William Russell, who had been part of the avant-garde scene in New York in the 1930’s. Apart from isolated performances led by Charles Amrikhanian at the 1984 Cabrillo Festival, Russell’s music was unknown, and some of his works were still unperformed. With my new music ensemble Essential Music, we brought Russell to New York in February, 1990, for a concert celebrating his 85th birthday, with performances of all his known works.

The following essay on William Russell is adapted from this program, and also appears in excerpted version in the Mode Records CD #34, “William Russell – Made in America”.

William Russell was born in Canton, Missouri on February 26, 1905.  His complete name was Russell William Wagner, but when he became involved in music he dropped his family name because of its associations, and adopted his first name as a surname. He played violin from the age of 10, graduated from the Quincy (Illinois) Conservatory, and continued his violin study in New York under Max Pilzer in 1927.  He attended Columbia Teachers College, where he took up composition, and taught music in New York during the Depression.  It was during this period that he made the acquaintance of experimental composers such as Henry Cowell and John Cage, and composed his complete output of eight compositions. From 1934 to 1940, Russell toured with the Red Gate Shadow Players, a group that performed Chinese shadow puppet plays, playing Chinese percussion instruments as part of their musical accompaniment. He began collecting early jazz records in the 1930’s, and resold many of them through the Hot Record Exchange that he ran from 1935 with the painter Steve Smith. He contributed articles to the magazine “Jazz hot”, and in 1939, as a co-author of the volume “Jazzmen”, began writing about New Orleans jazz.

Russell first visited New Orleans on February 26, 1937, and eventually moved there in the early 1940’s to hear and record local jazz musicians. He played a major role in rediscovering and resurrecting the career of trumpeter Bunk Johnson. In 1944, he founded the “American Music” record label, and personally recorded an historic series of over 60 jazz recordings, some of which are now re-released on CD. In 1958, Russell became curator of the jazz archive at Tulane University. In his later years, he authored a yet to be published book on Jelly Roll Morton, and from 1967 to 1991, he played and recorded extensively with the New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra, and maintained an almost nightly presence at Preservation Hall. He died in New Orleans on August 9, 1992.

William Russell – An American Original

Though almost completely unknown, William Russell’s modest compositional output of eight pieces for percussion ensemble stand as pivotal works in the history of the genre. While Varese’s Ionisationwas composed in 1931 and is generally considered to be the first chamber music for percussion alone, few are aware that Russell’s Fugue was premiered on the same concert as was Ionisation .

Russell’s early works pre-dated and deeply influenced the percussion works of Cage, Cowell, Harrison, and their lesser-known contemporaries. He is the first composer in the western tradition to integrate African, Caribbean, and Asian instruments with western instruments and found objects. His experimentation with choice of sticks and mallets, multiple-percussion set-ups for one player, innovative playing techniques, and the use of the piano as a percussion instrument, were a part of his work from the beginning, and at an extremely innovative yet functional level of sophistication.

The primary characteristic of Russell’s music, the feature that gives it its joy and energy, is that it speaks in the American vernacular, with stylistic influences from popular music and jazz. Where Copland and others became noted for this by writing for European-styled orchestras and ensembles, Russell’s choice of genre as the percussion ensemble, assembled in a collage of western and non-western instruments with found objects, qualifies his work as perhaps the first truly avant-garde American music. In his appropriation of classical, European forms (such as the “Prelude, Chorale and Fugue”), there is both the delightful aspect of the sudden dignity of percussion instruments, that is on another level, an explosive parody of traditional style.

Indeed, it was this aspect of a revolution in aesthetics that characterized the percussion movement Russell helped foster. In the 1930’s, percussion was for Varese and Cage the first step towards the liberation of sound, and what would become an explosion of the parameters of musical aesthetics. The creation of and sudden popularity of percussion music helped demarcate the primary shift of western music in this century, from the realm of harmony to the realm of rhythm and time. It stated loudly the need for new instruments and musical resources with which to express the Modern Age. As the years continue to pass, these percussion works will be seen not in the context of the death of European traditions and dominance, but will rather be viewed as among the very first seeds of emerging global, pan-cultural artforms.

Russell’s music led the way in that regard, for the assimilation of jazz styles in his works betray not just his personal musical inclinations, but also his keen understanding of what was truly revolutionary at that point in time. Jazz was America’s primary cultural gift to the rest of the world, and percussion had become a method of revolution in music of European heritage. The integration of jazz with the liberation of sound movement was a natural union. Though codified differently, hot jazz was at a level of musical sophistication every bit as daring as the work of Schoenberg and other Europeans. Russell also seemed to understand that the development of a truly independent American art form needs to draw from the multi-ethnic community that is the real America.  Indeed, the pursuit of America’s African American musical heritage eventually became more important to Russell than composing.

In rejecting composing and his life in the avant garde in favor of a jazz life in New Orleans, Russell became a poor advocate of his own work. Those who sought him out in the 1980’s found Russell living a reclusive, frugal life in a small apartment jammed tight with musical memorabilia but with no telephone. It was to Don Gillespie that Russell presented scores from the 1930’s that had yet to be performed.

With that, the resurrection of his work was underway. Essential Music organized an 85th birthday concert for February 24, 1990, that would premiere the unknown works and be the first concert to present his entire compositional output. John Cage provided significant financial support and enthusiasm, and Sandra Jaffe of Preservation Hall and Russell’s brother William Wagner saw to it that Russell made his first return to New York, the city where his composing life had started.

That week in rehearsal, Russell was like a Rip Van Winkle, his concepts of instruments and techniques unchanged from the 1930’s. For the performers, it meant the opportunity to hear things from the source, as cantankerous and sometimes unimpressed as he was. A vociferous storyteller with a tremendous memory, Russell seemed intent on making sure we understood the eclectic sources that inform his music.

He told us that he stopped composing because after hearing the jazz musicians of New Orleans, he decided people could make up music that was much more interesting than what he could write. At times in our work with him, he would cast a disparaging opinion for certain passages in his pieces, letting us know that we could probably come up with something more interesting if we wanted, and that the general traditions of classical music making were not appropriate. There was a lassitude about right and wrong notes, and a suspicion of the authority of the written notes. With this freedom, we gathered a stylistic sensibility for his work in which time and feel are flexible, fat and sloppy beats sound lovely, conductors should be avoided whenever possible, and that there can be lots of ways to do something right.

Like so much of the jazz Bill Russell loved and devoted his life to, Russell’s music has no intellectual pretensions. It is what it is, and by any musical or cultural analysis, stands rich with meaning, at once dignified and humorous. Upon his reacquaintance with it in 1990, a very happy John Cage financed and advocated further performances. He seemed to take great pleasure with the sense of closure in once again hearing the music that he performed with frequency at the start of his musical career. By chance, that closure became very sudden when in August, 1992, John Cage learned of William Russell’s death the morning of the day he suffered his own fatal stroke.

The Works
The Fugue was written during the winter of 1931-32, and premiered March 6, 1933, at Steinway Hall as the finale to a concert by the Pan American Association of Composers that also featured the premiere of Varese’s Ionisation. Nicolas Slonimsky conducted an ensemble of amateur percussionists that included such young rascals as Russell, Carlos Salzedo, Paul Creston, Wallingford Riegger, Henry Cowell, Henry Brant, and William Schuman. (Roy Harris ran the tape recorder.) ThePrelude and Chorale were not composed until 1985, and were premiered that year by Jan Williams and the SUNY/Buffalo percussion ensemble.

The rhythmic subject of the Fugue is simply a series of accelerated time values (from 1 to 8). The countersubject, in contrast, is a persistent, regularly accented cross-rhythm of 2 against 3. Many of the usual contrapuntal devices of the ordinary fugue form are used in the course of the rhythmic development.

The Fugue was published by Henry Cowell’s New Music Edition in 1933, and its dissemination no doubt influenced many composers in how they thought of percussion. The work introduces many innovative playing techniques for percussion and piano, not as novelty, but as orchestration and the development of sound and color. It is Russell’s most classical composition, and perhaps because of its elegance and the compositional skill exhibited, the work Russell claimed to be his favorite.

The Three Dance Movements (now the Four Dance Movements ) were completed in April of 1933, and premiered November 22, 1933, at the New School with Henry Cowell on piano. The original three movements were published by Henry Cowell’s New Music Orchestra Quarterly in 1936 in an edition devoted to works for percussion. The Three Dance Movements received many performances as Russell’s best known work. In each movement, Russell skewed the dance style by writing theWaltz in 7, the March in 3, and the Foxtrot in 5. Among the more noteworthy sounds in the work are a saw drawn across a cymbal (a threaded rod is used in this recording), a board used to play all the notes of the piano at once, and, at the climax of the Foxtrot , the breaking of a bottle. The extra movement, Tango , was composed in February, 1990, for Essential Music’s 85th birthday retrospective concert of his work. At his preference, it now takes its place as the third movement.

The Three Cuban Pieces , or “Percussion Studies on Cuban Rhythms”, as they are sometimes called, are dated September 27, 1935, and were composed by Russell after a visit to Cuba. He obtained the instruments used at a Cuban music store in Spanish Harlem. While each movement is named for a specific dance rhythm, Russell admitted his resulting composition bears just casual resemblance to the namesake styles. The instruments include a marimbula, an instrument of West African descent described as a “suitcase-sized wooden box with a sound hole in it and strips of metal approximately two inches wide and of varying lengths”, and the “quijada”, or jawbone of an ass, the teeth of which rattle when it is struck. The piece received many performances as a staple of John Cage’s percussion concerts in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. According to Russell, the marimbula used by Cage’s ensemble had been made from scratch by Merce Cunningham.

The Trumpet Concerto was an unfinished work from the mid-1930’s that Russell lost, but which was rediscovered by John Kennedy in its original manuscript at the American Music Center. Russell completed the work in 1990 for its premiere at his retrospective concert with Laurie Frink as the soloist. The entire concerto was developed from a descending 3-note motive (E-flat, D, C) that was taken from a Louis Armstrong 1929 Okeh record of the Fats Waller tune “That Rhythm Man”. Armstrong repeated the motive three times at different pitches as the band held its final chord. This motive and its variants are repeated over 300 times in the Concerto . The second of the two movements (played without pause) is a Passacaglia. The work is a stunning assimilation of classical form, jazz style and rhythm, and percussion writing, and is probably the work in which Russell achieved the finest union of his sensibilities.

The Chicago Sketches were written especially for a concert that John Cage presented at Mills College on July 18, 1940, and were performed by the trio of John Cage, Xenia Cage, and Russell. In the fall and winter of 1938-39, Russell spent a few weeks in Chicago, where he heard a great deal of music in clubs and homes. The sketches are impressions of the music he heard at various addresses he visited. “3525 S. Dearborn” was the home of Jimmy Yancey, an early blues pianist who was also at that time a groundskeeper at the Chicago White Sox’ Comiskey Park. “5507 S. Michigan” was a club where Richard M. Jones took Russell one evening. There, outside the club, Russell heard what he describes as “a very good washboard band with a bunch of kids”. “4726 S. State” was a hunky tunkwhere the eccentric blues pianist Cripple Clarence Cotton played. It calls for fingersnaps and footstomps that inspired a Time magazine review of the Mills concert to be titled “Fingersnaps and Footstomps”. Wrote critic Alfred Frankenstein in the San Francisco Chronicle: “There was something epical…in seeing William Russell pound on a suitcase in his ‘Chicago Sketches’ for the delicious thud that only a suitcase can provide.”  The work originally had an additional movement, “222 N. State”, that at Russell’s behest has been dropped.

The March Suite was composed in 1936 and also was performed several times by Cage’s group. In 1984, the work was resurrected after 44 years for a performance at the Cabrillo Festival in California, for which Russell made some revisions. The five brief movements are a real social commentary from a time of facism, in which Russell uses the notion of march style to express his distaste for institutions and socially conditioned behavior. The “School March” is noteworthy for the bass drum part, which moves independently of the other parts in a constant ritardando (cued by an independent metronome part), parting ways with the alarm bell. The “Hunger March” involves the musically picturesque groans of the lion’s roar. Russell has written of the Suite, “One of the ideas of the ‘School March’ is to show how someone full of life can be beaten down by the school establishment to the lowest common denominator…The ‘Hunger March’ is not satirical, but is a real Depression product. A dejected, desperate atmosphere is required.”

Ogou Badagri , subtitled “A ballet based on the voodoo rites of Haiti”, is Russell’s longest work. (The title is the name of a Haitian god.) The Prelude was written in Port au Prince, Haiti, in August, 1932, and the ballet was finished in New York in May, 1933. This piece, along with Made in America , was given to Don Gillespie by Russell in 1988 and received its premiere by Essential Music at the February, 1990 concert, over fifty years after its composition. Russell wrote a synopsis of the ballet that includes suggestions for staging, costumes, lighting, choreography, and even drawings of curtain drops. The cast would include the leads of the voodoo priestess and priest (Mamaloi and Papaloi), as well as flagbearers, swordbearers, dancers and spectators for a total ensemble of 40 to 70. While Russell’s 1930’s interpretation of Haitian ritual may seem flawed to us today, the music does tell a story with great intensity and marvelous dramatic contrast. The piece uses rada drums, or Haitian hand drums, and acons, a type of Haitian shaker.

Made in America was composed in 1937 and was slightly revised by Russell before its premiere in 1990. Scored for automobile brake drums and pipes, tin cans, suitcase, washboard kit, lion’s roar, and a drum kit made of found objects, it also originally called for a “Baetz’ Rhythm Rotor”, a mechanical rhythmic device similiar to Leon Theremin’s “rhythmicon”, an early electric instrument that produced rhythmic ticks. Prefering to avoid contemporary contrivances such as drum machines, Mr. Russell revised the rhythmicon passage for ratchet and assorted noisemakers of his particular liking.

Made in America deserves to stand as a classic work in music history. Its celebrative use of found objects, found rhythms (Russell has said that he employed some rhythmic motives produced by things such as a one-lung concrete mixer and elevated train) and homemade instruments, with a swing peculiar to American jazz, quintessentially characterize the American spirit, the modern age, and the birth of an American musical avant-garde. No other work so brilliantly shouts the arrival of a relaxation of attitudes in the world of “art” music. And it is perhaps the first example in western music of a technique dubbed “rhythmic phasing” by contemporary minimalists, whereby one musician progressively “phases” his pattern ahead in time against the pulse of the ensemble.

– John Kennedy, 1990/1992


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