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This autumn, Erased Tapes are set to release Give It to the Sky: Arthur Russell’s Tower of Meaning Expanded by composer and producer Peter Broderick and French 12-piece group Ensemble 0; a complete re-recording of Russell’s epic minimalist orchestral composition originally released in 1983. Released on October 6, Give It to the Sky also includes unreleased tracks by Russell which have been restored and re-recorded, resulting in an 80-minute reanimation that threads several lost songs into a meticulous and gorgeous rendering. The album was recorded live as a group in a small theatre in the Southwest of France with minimal overdubs.
For all its wonder and beauty, the musical output of the American cellist, composer, singer, and musical visionary also embodies irony, tragedy, and paradox. Russell famously recorded more than 1,000 hours of tape and left an otherwise-tremendous archive, now part of the New York Public Library. But before his death in 1992, Russell released just three albums under his own name. One of those was ‘Tower of Meaning’ (1983), a score commissioned for and then abandoned by a Robert Wilson production of Euripides' Medea. Composer and pianist Philip Glass helped preserve the music, at least, subsequently releasing a somewhat-thin recording on his own label of just 320 LPs.
A few years into his obsession with Russell’s work, Broderick paid $500 for one of those scant copies (it was remastered and reissued in 2006, followed by several subsequent editions). Still, he didn’t connect with that collector’s item the way he did with so much of Russell’s oeuvre. It felt a tad cold and distant, Russell’s usual tangle of intimacy and mystery perhaps lost in his frustrations with the process or maybe in the recording itself. Ensemble 0 founder Stéphane Garin realized he needed to pursue this project immediately after performing just a bit of the piece. In 2019, the group played a 25-minute chunk as a preamble to ‘Femenine’, the pulsing minimalist masterwork of Julius Eastman (a longtime Russell collaborator, Eastman conducted the initial recording of ‘Tower of Meaning’). He was struck by its splendour and subtle difficulty, the way that Russell shirked dissonance in favour of metric complexity. There was little else like it.
Garin was aware of Broderick’s stints interpreting Russell’s songs on stages and albums for the better part of a decade but also his work collaborating with Russell’s estate to restore previously unreleased tracks for the critically acclaimed album ‘Iowa Dream’ (2019). Broderick naturally did not hesitate when Ensemble 0 asked him to enlist, but he did offer a surprise: Rather than lace ‘Tower of Meaning’ with expected Russell standards, why not incorporate some of his cherished songs that had never found a home?
Early in the process, Ensemble 0 made the decision that they would not seek out Russell’s original esoteric scores, which had already been used to stage ‘Tower of Meaning’ elsewhere. They liked the fact that the recording felt unfinished, allowing them to consider what was missing and how the ever-restless Russell might have modified it over time. Ensemble 0 saxophonist Julien Pontvianne toiled over this task, scrutinizing recordings that Russell had slowed with a tape machine in order to find the melodies and undergirding arrangements.
‘Give It to the Sky’ is supple and dioramic. Pontvianne’s transcriptions add both muscle and nuance to the original recording, with a new low-end depth to balance the trebly tremble. Ensemble 0’s layers are as intricate as they are expertly rendered, the obfuscation of that rare Glass release replaced by a clarity that lets you peer inside this mesmeric music. New ideas appear, suggesting ‘Tower of Meaning’ as the scaffolding to something greater.
Ensemble 0 weave in and out of Broderick’s additions. ‘Corky’, a poignant cowboy ballad that Russell never finished, appears, disappears, and reappears three times, the droning exhalations of ‘Tower of Meaning’ making it feel sweeter and sadder. Arriving just after the triumphant halfway mark, the title track is a sublime meditation on mere existence, about staring at some simple rural scene and marcelling at the miracle of being anywhere at all. It is an apt encapsulation of how this entire project feels – a glorious way to hear something that might have seemed familiar as if for the very first time.
Russell was never much for definitive versions, of course. He was constantly rethinking the possibilities of a piece, of wondering what else it could do. ‘Give It to the Sky’ is a powerful affirmation of those principles, using Tower of Meaning’s framework to build outward and upward, to shape something that functions within Russell’s wondrous, paradoxical world. And ‘Give It to the Sky’ is also not intended to be some definitive last word. Broderick and Ensemble 0 speak already of the ways it may shift on stage, of where else it might lead.