p Idea

In a previous post, the observation was made that Kanye West had switched up the lyrics to Arthur Russell’s “Answers Me” to fit the hook for “30 Hours”: from “where the islands go” to “30 hours to you”. Curiously enough, there is a video of a live rendition of “Answers Me” where, around the two minute mark, Russell changes his own lyrics: from “where the islands go” to “where the firemen go”. Was this just a slip on Russell’s part?

It seemed merely accidental to me until I read a wonderful article by Ben Ratliff that brought up Russell’s own music writing process. Here are some fascinating bits from the article (the third quote is from Matthew Marble, a scholar who did his dissertation on Russell and who Ratliff corresponded with):

 “But what the paper archives make clear, through Russell’s personal notes — often written in small music-composition notebooks — is how much he sought to incorporate a conscious sense of openness and flexibility into his work. Some of his most useful notes, probably from the early 1980s, deal with ‘World of Echo'” (Russell’s 1986 solo album which includes “Answers Me”).

“Here he wrestled with the idea of form and completeness in fascinating ways, often using the notation ‘p Idea’ (the p may have stood for parenthetical). Such as: (p Idea: the construction of structure which can be abandoned at any moment, and that is transparent — W.O.E.)”.

“…he had nothing but time to work on music, which most people assume means honing cello skills or playing concerts — but the archive shows that he spent a lot of time working mental alterations on music. He got fixated in this kind of Rube Goldbergian way: His mind functioned like that. He craved complexity”.

“The percussionist Mustafa Ahmed told Mr. Marble that Russell used a mantric alphabet to come up with sung melodies; that could be a key to the flexible construction of the ‘World of Echo’ lyrics, which were often written down with three possibilities for a single word, and mumbled all the same (‘NON-VERBAL/POP FEEL’, says another note to self in the composition books)”.

To say that Kanye West had manipulated Arthur Russell’s lyrics implies that these lyrics are a static creation, written in stone. As it turns out, that was not even the case for the man who penned them himself. What we hear from the recording pulled for West’s “30 Hours” is just one permutation. Who knows what other variations Russell could have wrote down, recorded, or improvised. Was there even a definitive version to begin with?

This was the messiness to Russell’s process. With many versions of songs recorded and lyrics edited and rewritten, many of his friends believed Russell had a difficult time finishing anything. The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts recently received Arthur Russell’s archive. Mind numbing does not even begin to describe the task of organizing the archive of a musician who was constantly a work in progress.

Ben Ratliff makes an aside that Russell would have been interested in West’s constant revision of his most recent album. There is a point here. All of this makes Russell and West seem less like strange bedfellows and more like fine examples of process embodied: figures of the past and present showing the future of music.

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