Esotericism in the creative process of Arthur Russell
Pub date: November 15th, 2021
Raised in the cornfields of Oskaloosa, Iowa, Arthur Russell (1951-1992) would become a visionary cellist, singer, composer, and producer in Lower Manhattan’s “Downtown” arts scene during the 1970s and 80s. Russell’s enigmatic music blended and transcended genres as disparate as Indian raga, Americana folk, avant-garde composition, and disco. He actively infused popular music into Manhattan’s avant-garde art scene, while bringing a Buddhist-inspired experimentalism into American popular music. As poet Allen Ginsberg recalled, “His ambition seemed to be to write popular music, or bubblegum music, but Buddhist bubblegum; to transmit the dharma through the most elemental form…”
Following Russell’s premature death due to AIDS at age 40, composer Philip Glass reflected, “Arthur was very, very ahead of his time.” And while a few of his dance singles would remain underground classics, Russell’s work would be significantly neglected for over a decade. However, through the archival releases of Audika Records, a documentary film (Wild Combination) and a biography (Hold On to Your Dreams), Russell’s fearless creativity and radical vulnerability have found an admiring audience in the 21st century. Today, celebrated artists–from Kanye West to Arcade Fire–as well as emerging musical generations are breathing new life into Russell’s music and praising his name. Nevertheless, he has remained as mysterious as he has become accessible.
Buddhist Bubblegum dives deep into the mystery of Arthur Russell and offers an unprecedented exploration into his lifelong Vajrayana Buddhist practice. Author Matt Marble charts Russell’s spiritual path, from his early life as a Buddhist monk on a Bay Area commune to his maturing engagement with Japanese Shingon and Indo-Tibetan Vajrayana traditions in Manhattan. Along the way, we learn how Russell creatively adopted traditional methods of mantra, mandala, meditation, astrology, numerology, and more. Through extensive archival research, personal interviews, and musical score analysis, Marble highlights Russell’s major works and shows how esotericism and aesthetic theory strategically guided his creative process. The writing is supplemented throughout with numerous archival images, featuring Russell’s original scores, notebooks, and photographs. Marble’s work is indebted to the Arthur Russell Estate/NYPL, Audika Records/Steve Knutson, Tom Lee, and Russell’s friends and collaborators, as well as to the pioneering work of biographers Tim Lawrence and Matt Wolf. Hailed by the New York Times as “groundbreaking work,” Buddhist Bubblegum reveals how one of America’s most visionary artists uniquely fused spiritual and musical disciplines.