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Saturday, May 23, 2015

Whenever I Hear a Remix I Think of Healing

By Theodore Kerr

A one-of-a-kind force in New York City’s legendary downtown music scene of the 1970s and 80s, Arthur Russell left behind a beguiling, ahead-of-its-time body of work spanning from avant-garde classical to hypnotic minimalist disco to haunting, plaintive folk. For Master Mix: Red Hot + Arthur Russell!, playing the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House on May 29 & 30, the Red Hot Organization in partnership with Red Bull Music Academy has assembled an eclectic lineup of intrepid musicians—including Cults, Devonté Hynes, Sam Amidon, Jake Shears of the Scissor Sisters, and more—to breathe new life into Russell’s spellbinding compositions.

Born on the landlocked plains of Iowa, Arthur Russell created an oceanic wall of sound for his 1994 release, “This Is How We Walk in the Moon,” with his voice (distorted), horns, what sounds like hand percussion, and, maybe, strings.

Rewind back to 2012. The remix by Youth Return to Base is buoyant and haunting, but still retains the sea legs of Russells original. Horns are triumphant, with Russell’s voice, echoing throughout the song, more prominent than before. The refrain “every step is moving me up” is uplifting, yet a reminder that the multitalented artist is no longer with us. He was among the more than 198,000 Americans who died of AIDS-related causes in 1992, two years before “This Is How…” was released.

Later this month a version of the song will be released on “Corn,” a new album of Russell’s recordings from 1982 and 1983.

Its said that a sign of trauma is a compulsion to repeat, and that this can hold true for an individual and a community. It is also said that a strategy for collective healing is for people to share their stories, have others bear witness to the telling, and for teller and witness to create something new together. The newness, rooted in past experience, is the start of healing. It sounds a lot like remixing, or like a really good cover. An artist creates a song; another artist hears it, and, using his/her own imagination in tandem with what existed before, creates a new song.

For last year’s Red Hot + Arthur Russell tribute album, José González selected “This Is How…,” playing it first like a stripped-down cover, only to let it resurface as something new in its own right. The coolness of the original is infused with a sensual warmth. The quality of the 1994 version’s percussion and structure is largely intact, with González focusing Russell’s audio waves into a journey of anticipation—moments of connection, just in the distance.

Music can’t end AIDS. But as Red Hotan organization that engages popular culture to make a difference in the ongoing AIDS crisis—knows, it facilitates change, awareness, and provides a sense of belonging in what can be a lonely world.

Russell was a masc-emo perfectionist before his time. His brooding romanticism was a clarion call for all generations to join himwith synth, string, horns, and harmoniesthrough his dreams, desires, and yearnings. With every iteration of “This Is How...,” we can join Russell in being one step closer to the moon, and gaze up a bit longer with the ocean lapping at our feet—wherever we are.

Canadian-born Theodore Kerr is a Brooklyn-based writer and organizer who focuses on HIV/AIDS and community. He was the programs manager at Visual AIDS, and is currently in the graduate program at Union Theological Seminary.

Presented by the Red Hot Organization in partnership with Red Bull Music Academy, Master Mix: Red Hot + Arthur Russell! plays the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House on May 29 & 30.

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