After serving 18 years as a classical music programmer for Wisconsin Public Radio, Robert Russell will soon give up his unique place behind the microphone, where he has long charmed audiences with his verve, wit, enthusiasm, and deep knowledge of the music. Given his enormous competence, a large and loyal following among WPR listeners, and most of all his virtually unlimited passion about music, it may seem strange for him to retire at the relatively young age of 62, strange enough that one can't help but wonder whether there wasn't something behind the scenes compelling such a move, since the entire noncommercial broadcasting world has so dramatically lowered its standards in the past few years. Whatever the case may be with regard to those changes, it was clear within minutes of meeting him that Russell is entirely and uncompromisingly focused not on transitory vanities of that sort, but rather on Things That Really Matter, and furthermore that this focus is animated by a passion that far exceeds even music in his life.
I had no idea about this before we met. Having myself hosted several classical-music radio shows in a ten-year tenure at WORT-FM, in a sense competing with Russell for the same special audience, it's strange that we had not met earlier. I feel a certain sense of loss or regret about that now, for during our interview I was repeatedly struck by what a totally dedicated, utterly kind and compassionate person he is. And this provided the key to understanding his decision to retire, to devote the remainder of his time on earth to the spiritual life.
Born in Long Island, Russell studied music at the Mahnattan School and from a very early age was a composer. In due course he became highly successful, with numerous performances of his music in various New York venues. The compositions include piano music, chamber works, large-orchestra pieces, song cycles, and three operas (one of which was staged). He had built up every ingredient for success in modern performance: the track record, contacts among the right people, the ability to work hard and to follow through. As he puts it, "I was incredibly centered on music. I cared with a real passion."
Then in 1974, having reached Op.40 and being 40 years old, living in the ferment of the Vietnam peace movement, the civil rights struggle, and marching in parades and demonstrations, "Everything changed. I had done almost everything. I'd traveled widely, had a terrific education, enjoyed great success, and so forth. One thing I had not done in any depth was to consider the spiritual life, whatever that was. I was a raging atheist, having looked and not having found." But, so characteristically for Russell, he made a conscious decision: "One thing I had not done in music was a New York Philharmonic or a Metropolitan Opera performance. I decided that I would look into the spiritual thing, and if there was nothing there, then I would follow the path of hedonistic love. But as it turned out, I broke through."
Having worked at WNYC under the venerable music director Herman Newman, Russell moved easily into his broadcasting career in Madison, where in addition to the job, from 1975 to 1988 he took advantage of the resources of the UW-Madison libraries, reading, studying, throwing himself deeply into every form of religion, be it Christianity, Buddhism, Sufism, Islam, Judaism, the Unity movement, or the Kabala. Eyes sparkling, Russell recalls that this period was a challenge for him. "I was terrified, but I came to understand that all this," -- with a gesture he indicates the world around us -- "is the manifestation of a great process, and that there come from time to time people who demonstrate it to the world." Although he has had many teachers for guidance during his spiritual quest, the names Jesus, the Buddha, Sri Rama Krishna, and Meister Eckhart recur frequently in his account.
Russell has just completed a book about his discoveries, "but it needs revision, and I want to to do another, more accessible one, first. The message, basically, is this: the world is complex, but it is simple as to principle." One way to sum up this principle is to consider Russell's response to the pessimism/optimism polarity: "People's eyes are closed, there's little devotion to deep learning, and true commitment is rare. What must be understood is that there's nothing wrong with the world. It's perfect, there's not a leaf out of place. What we get is what's appropriate for us to awaken; our only job is to open our eyes. When you do, it will change everything, for you will see things as they really are. The answer to the horror stories, Bosnia for instance, is that every other person's events involve us. We are all in it together. If we want a more loving world, we'll have to love more."
It's clear now that Russell is leaving the limitations of public radio behind, however passionately he feels about music, because glowing within him is a passion greater yet, a radiance you can see, hear, and feel in his presence: to be fully awake and to awaken others to things as they truly are.
Isthmus, June, 1995
Copyright 1995 Jess Anderson