In connection with the release of the book by Tim Lawrence:  Hold on To Your Dreams; Arthur Russell and the Downtown Music Scene, a series of panels and events will take place at NYU on Saturday October 10, 2009 at Tisch Performance Studies, 721 Broadway Suite 612. I read Tim Lawrence’s book as a draft and it  is a well-documented, historic biography with a level of objectivity that does not leave any gaps in the history or press a gay viewpoint. This is the link for the conference, book party and concert schedule which will appear only if you scroll down the page…

Arthur Russell and Elodie Lauten at LaMama

Arthur Russell and Elodie Lauten at LaMama, 1988

My own presentation in the first panel (10:30-11:30AM) will cover “Lesser-known relationships: in the Singing Tractors nexus, a sense of freedom and exploration”. The elusive Singing Tractors were actually more than a band per se, a set of creative relationships that evolved between Arthur Russell, myself, Peter Zummo and Mustafa Ahmed some of which last to this day. I will also speak between 5 and 6PM in the panel Remembering Arthur Russell.

When I first met Arthur Russell at Allen Ginsberg’s apartment where we were both staying, he was a classical music student and I was the lead singer and songwriter for Flaming Youth, the all female band formed by Denise Feliu, guitarist and on-and-off girlfriend of Peter Orlovsky. Arthur was curious about our band and came to a Flaming Youth performance or two. Classical meets rock at Allen’s: being at opposite ends of the musical scene, the serious music student and the rebel songwriter, we were very interested in each other and I recall that Arthur invited me to record for him at a studio at NYU.

But I left Ginsberg’s place and lost track of Arthur for several years as he went to the West Coast and then back in New York, I did not find him again until 1977 when in a memorable jam session with his band the Flying Hearts, I sang nonstop for two hours. Then again, we lost track of each other. Three years later, I ran into Arthur on Second Avenue; he was in the process of recording Go Bang. He immediately asked me to and record for him at Sorcerer Sound – the studio’s atmosphere was created with various  species of insects including a live tarantula.

Then something magical happened: the classical and the punk rock were merging all around us. Without being “influenced” by it, we were inside of the trend – generally perceived on the scene as a crossing over from rock music to experimental and classical music to microtonality, with the rise of artists like Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham who began to perform works that borrowed freely from various forms.

Taking advantage of the proximity of our apartments we started getting together around sunset to improvise. I was playing a Casio and he was playing cello. His favorite key was G minor natural – I still have some of those recordings on cassette.  Our playing together was not prompted by anything else than making music.

Later I found myself participating in various sessions with Arthur and Peter Zummo and the three of us soon became a trio. We loved Casios. The mini keyboards allowed easy transport and some toy-like electronic sounds that were usable. All three of us played the Casios. We also did cello, trombone and Casio trios and occasionally were joined by guitarist Ken Goshhorn and also Ron Kuivila on one occasion.

When Mustafa appeared, I was thrilled because I always loved African percussion. It runs in the family: my father, Errol Parker, who played jazz piano and drums, customarily replaced the snare on his drum set by a conga which gave his band a more African feel…

The four of us became  the Singing Tractors, after Arthur had visited his family in rural Iowa and came back inspired with the name…. So that’s what he called the ‘band” although there was not the kind of pressure that you usually have with certain common goals and business. It was just a purely creative gathering, a  nexus of free-form exploration.

The music itself was very experimental and mostly improvised although there were usually a couple of lines written out but no strict arrangement for them. We would explore harmonically and melodically reacting to one another’s sounds and occasionally reading a part but always expanding from there. We were merging influences  from post-Cagean randomness to free jazz to rock and pop music to classical elements to African beat and dance music… such as In the Light of a Miracle, recorded by the group at Battery Sound where Arthur had time booked by Sleeping Bag Records.  I recall working on many, many sessions during the winter of 1982,  but the song was somehow never finished – I think Arthur was fascinated by it and wanted to keep working on it, as finishing it would mean to let it go: he keep remixing it  for years on end without ever bringing it to final stage, although every different remix was good enough to release. I was very involved with this song initially to the point that I co-wrote the music, but I also wanted to see it finished and released. Despite many attempts, remixes and partial releases the piece  has never been properly released in its entirety – it  could probably fill an entire album.

Arthur was a crossover artist who bridged the gap between pop music and experimental music, in the same way as I and many other of my contemporaries have bridged between classical music, minimalism, experimental music, rock and jazz.  No wonder this seed band and its members’ interaction led to such a fruitful variety of recordings and performances for the next 20 years.

Peter Zummo had innumerable collaborations with Arthur Russell including on his own album Experiments with Household Chemicals and on his projects for Trisha Brown Dance Company and more.  Mustafa Ahmed has a well documented MySpace page that will tell you how many albums and tours he worked on that involved Peter Zummo, myself, and others he met through Arthur Russell like Peter Gordon.

We worked together in all different ways, trading leadership on different projects.  I would play on some of Arthur and Peter’s gigs, they would join and play on some of my gigs also. Arthur and Peter are an integral part of my early 80s releases, Concerto for Piano and Orchestral Memory and The Death of Don Juan. We worked closely together until 1988. When I did a sound sculpture installation in Soho based on the work of Marcel Proust (in collaboration with Carl Karas), Arthur played with me at the opening. Also we performed together at LaMama the Music for the Trine, a custom electro-acoustic lyre I designed to facilitate microtunings, and Arthur participated in a commissioned project I had at Lincoln Center that summer. I continued to work with Mustafa Ahmed on  Existence my multimedia opera at the Performing Garage (1991), Waking in New York (1999-2003), Harmonic Protection Circle (2004). I also worked with drummer Bill Ruyle on Waking in New York and my recent Two-Cents Opera at Theater for the New City last March which also featured Steven Hall.

I was involved creatively with Arthur Russell in the early to mid-eighties. It is interesting to mention that Arthur was open to working with women – mostly myself, and later on Joyce Bowden. I was working with Arthur in an early stage of my career when I was in a process of evolution from musician to composer – I went to NYU for my Master’s in the mid-80s and got an NEA grant in 1985 for The Death of Don Juan. By the late 90s  I had evolved into a composer and multimedia artist writing chamber and orchestral music as well as multimedia operas and doing visual art as well. My band days were  over by the late 80s.

Elodie Lauten & Arthur Russell and collaborators:
Discography/Performance Highlights

Concerto for Piano and Orchestral Memory (LP, Cat Collectors 1984), soon to be reissued on Unseen Worlds: with Arthur Russell, Peter Zummo

The Death of Don Juan (LP, Cat Collectors 1985), reissued on CD by Unseen Worlds (2008) with Arthur Russell, Peter Zummo

Music for the Trine, LaMama, live performances with cello and Trine, with Arthur Russell (1988)

Five Pieces for Processed Strings (Lincoln Center Commission Serious Fun 1988), with Arthur Russell

Remembrance of Things Past, live performance with gallery installation, Penine Hart Gallery, Soho, 1988), with Arthur Russell (1988)

Existence, live performance at the Performing Garage, Cat Collectors 1993, with Mustafa Ahmed

Arthur Russell, Another Thought (Point, 1994) - In the Light of the Miracle

Dry Ice, songs by Steven Hall, produced by Steven Hall and Elodie Lauten (Studio 21, 2002)

Waking in New York, portrait of Allen Ginsberg, (4Tay, 2003) with Mustafa Ahmed and Bill Ruyle

Harmonic Protection Circle, with Mustata Ahmed (Studio 21, 2004)

The Two-Cents Opera, with Bill Ruyle and Steven Hall (DVD, L.E.S.P.A., 2009)

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