“Sit down. Be yourself. Be prepared. Be attentive. Defy the voices. Be the thing you want to be. Write. Be playful. Be reckless. Remember that you are uniquely designed for the idea that is moving toward you. You are good enough. The idea is about to arrive.”
Nick Cave again

§

“A lively understandable spirit
Once entertained you.
It will come again.
Be still.
Wait.”
— Theodore Roethke, “It Was Beginning Winter.”

Gordon Withers: Cello Sketches for BELLS≥ “North American Spirituals”

The playlist below includes four examples of what BELLS≥ has been doing towards our next album, a collection of music called North American Spirituals. If you saw any of our performances on our tour last August, you heard quartet versions of another two of the pieces (“The First Ray” and “May You Bury Me”), both of which were written thus far with the group’s then-current line-up in mind.

That is, the pieces that will comprise “North American Spirituals” remain in variously-preliminary states, and while Chris Ernst has been working on them in Baltimore and Stephen Shodin and I have taken a swing at them here in New York, Gordon Withers recently performed some of his own ideas at the Galaxy Hut in Arlington, VA.

At the root of Gordon’s cello sketches are drum demos I recorded with J. Robbins at The Magpie Cage back in May. We set up a drum kit and some other drums and percussion and recorded for an hour or so. The next few hours were spent on edits, overdubs, and rough mixes. Chris Ernst was there, too, and by the time we left the studio that evening, we had drum tracks for a handful of pieces ready for distribution to each other and our collaborators. It’s not the way we’ve worked in the past, but we thought we should give it a shot, passing the tracks back and forth until Chris, Stephen, and I sense completion, and in the meantime, with hopes of such an outcome as Gordon has provided here. BELLS≥ has always been a collaborative group with its three core members at the compositional center, and since the beginning, Gordon, like J., has been a key contributor to BELLS≥. To have Gordon playing along with loops of my beats sounds, in the end, as natural as the two of us playing together.

Additionally, I’ve included in this post a Pete Duvall photo of Gordon and me from a few years ago in hopes of providing evidence of our performative unity in this somewhat unusual situation.

Photo by Pete Duvall

All of which is to say, here are four pieces from Gordon’s last show. One of the selections includes some organ from J. and orchestra bells from Chris, both recorded when I cut the drum tracks, and not live with Gordon. Be advised that these are only sketches, improvisations on some rhythmic ideas we have in mind. But we thought you’d enjoy them so here they are.

Notes on Punk

There is no punk without its music.

There are forms and styles of rebellion other than punk, and though their success or failure may be measured along the same lines as those of punk, if they have a music at all, it is usually complementary to their fundamental missions. In punk’s case, the music is the primary expression of the mission.

There is also fashion but what an outwardly punk look brings first to mind is aggressive music, or at least a taste for aggressive music whose simultaneous shock and recognizability ensure that the audience knows it’s being attacked. To be punk is to possess an ability to repeatedly embrace and sustain the shock until it becomes the recognizable element itself.

§

Each region’s musical contribution was drawn from what made its place of origin unbearable.

Initially, then, punk was a revved-up and less polished version of things that were handy: blues-rock (Detroit), pop/art (NYC), class conflict and morality (London), boredom and neglect (LA), etc. If one was inclined to take part in punk for any reason, it wasn’t too great a leap from 60s guitar-rock or pop to punk. The means of passage was even less mysterious. One simply showed up. My own experience was precisely that: I started playing music and spending more time with my punk friends and became, in relatively short order, punk.

It wasn’t simply an urgent need to take part in something active and lively; it was also an opportunity to start over and to do so more or less anonymously. Reinvention from square one, the practical assumption that one’s activity is the first of its kind, is among punk’s chief and guiding qualities. Another of its fundamental characteristics is the assumption that, by virtue of one’s sense of outrage, abandonment, disenfranchisement, or ostracization, one will fit in immediately, or even better, won’t need to fit in at all.

§

This piece was inspired by three consecutive events, which occurred over the course of three consecutive months.

First, I was interviewed on the subject of punk’s death, a topic I found especially quizzical since a) it hadn’t occurred to me that punk was ailing; and b) punk’s general state didn’t seem to differ much from what it had always been, an ongoing struggle against the mainstream, the terms of which were clear to anyone who was taking part in it and indecipherable to anyone who was not. The interview went well enough, I guess, though I’m not sure when or if the article it contributed to will appear.

§

Punk is something that occurs conspicuously outside the mainstream.

Punk was couched as rebellion, and even was rebellious in some cases, and quickly became a division in entertainment offices and therefore subject to the needs of those offices. Subjecting one’s needs to the status quo is antithetical to rebellion. In which light, the first wave of punk wasn’t substantially different from any other popularized genre.

It’s worth noting, though, that unlike its approximate contemporaries — reggae, disco, hip hop, L.A. pop, glam — punk seemed to come from all sides at once, with no allegiances, laying no particular claim to anything but its own cage-rattling noise. It was essentially reactive, an unfocused cultural conniption.

That punk’s founding purveyors, with whomever and wherever one wishes to start, were outside the accepted notions of then-current conventional taste did not preclude their assimilation by the culture at large. Punk emerged, that is, from the minds of people who sought conventional success or alliance with such success.

Eventually, however, the agencies which sought to capitalize on punk’s novelty found that although punk didn’t always pay off as expected, its artists weren’t always that far out after all. Widespread success for many of these acts was only a few musical and performative changes away. With the initial shock absorbed and new work moving closer to popular music in both sound and execution, several of the original participants found lasting mainstream success. But an idea began to take root that once everyone knows about something, it isn’t punk anymore.

Since then, in part because of the work of the agencies described above, the term punk itself has, for many, come to signify a conscious evacuation from much of what the success they offer might entail, and further, what it might cost. This text grew directly from my own experience with that evacuation, my own assessment of those costs.

§

Second, a friend and sometime collaborator began work on a children’s book, a history of punk. It will no doubt be a delight to punk or punkish parents to share with their children. In the meantime, I couldn’t help but think about who I would include in such a book and why.

§

All social and/or cultural rebellion can be bought if it is understood to be for sale.

As in any uprising, the existing economic powers found ready and willing participants among punk’s rebels. This was, at one time, a source of cultural betrayal, an impetus for local scenes to sprout up autonomously and get in touch with each other. Zines appeared, shows were booked, bands toured. An entire circuit driven by the need to assert freedom from conventional entertainment and culture was established almost globally and in the course of less than a decade. The politics of these scenes was explicitly and uniformly anti-corporate. If their other interests diverged even to the point of conflict, punk scenes were in agreement that corporation-generated economies and cultures were at the root of ongoing political and social deterioration and repression.

Though such scenes may continue to exist and appear in some areas, the larger cultural shift has come to exclude them in favor of whatever the mainstream, after decades of exposure to its own definition of punk, decides protest should be and how it will be sold.

That is, we rarely notice anymore that the quality of rebellion is frequently measured by the culture it seeks to dismantle. The victory of mass media supports the persistent disenfranchisement of those who cannot or will not take part in the culture at large by reinforcing that they are not worth knowing or knowing about. Punk, it turns out, can be quite profitable if its audience is not limited to punks and if its practitioners are visibly “punk” from a distance.

§

The third event was the death of Lou Reed. My clearest memory of him is shilling for American Express, and though I was not unaware of his music prior to that campaign, the only prominence it ever held for me was tacked up on the wall in the living room of my first punk group house: a poster of a lone figure under a streetlamp, as I recall, with the lyrics from either “Heroin” or “Waiting for the Man” confirming the photo’s urban defeat and desolation. Mr Reed has never been more than an image, or an image of an image to me, however fulfilling. I had my own now-I-really-live-in-New-York moment the first time I passed him and Laurie Anderson on the street, for example, but it wasn’t appreciably different from the first time I tried to ignore the Empire State Building’s Fuji-like ubiquity. Both experiences were necessary but only the latter endures as an emblem of why I love this city and call it home.

Not so, however, for several of my friends, collaborators, and favorite artists, some of my chief punk mentors and allies, who were saddened by Mr Reed’s passing. It was difficult to reconcile his influence on these people, his presence in their lives. After all, it was, and is, these same people from whom I learned and learn to articulate and enact my distaste for the mainstream, my commitment to cultural activism, who deeply felt the immediacy and permanence of his absence as a figure to whom they attributed not only artistic, but in some cases spiritual, inspiration. That they could hold a representative of self-interest and blatant 80s consumerism in such high and personal regard was baffling.

Which is to say, this piece did not unfold as I expected. Rather than organize my thoughts into some kind of coherent causal history of punk, I found the text falling into a pattern of statements that proposed truths one might hold about punk regardless of where and when punk first entered one’s life. Not surprisingly, boiling this text down to such statements and a minimum of commentary proved much better suited to describing how I think punk has developed so far. The caveat? My position in regard to this subject is not, it turns out, unlike that of the fish and the water. There is very little, if anything, here that does not continue to inform and define my life, and from the inside of it, I’m increasingly suspicious that there isn’t much to say.

§

Punk is no more the province of celebrity without talent than it is the province of talent without celebrity.

Punk is instead, like its more popular counterparts, a combination of both celebrity and talent but according to its own rules and scale. Its chief accomplishment in this way is a willingness to eschew inflated or hyped presence in favor of a system in which audiences and performers have a choice and are free to determine their own engagement without being subjected to mass-marketing or airwave- or bandwidth-saturation. Not everything, punk teaches, is for sale or for everyone. It is, by this default, less greedy. It is also, by this default, limited in its reach, perhaps now more than ever.

§

Still, questions persist: what is punk? How did it happen? What has it done? The answers are subjective but since no one is punk alone, it’s a fair assumption that whatever follows applies to more than a single individual, that a given parsing of punk and its meaning will be true for several people at a time.

Why any of this matters is another question. Mostly, in a certain light, it doesn’t. Whether or not anyone ever again puts together a historiographic view of punk seems of little great consequence, in and of itself.

And yet, punk has provided three generations of music listeners with an entry point into politics, economics, aesthetics, spirituality, and every other aspect of their societies and cultures, emerging, finally, as its own society and culture. So in the end, I trust that it does matter.

A Note on Art and Maturity

Mark Strand once said that poets reach maturity when they move from saying private things in a public language to saying public things in a private language.1 I understand this statement to mean that a poet matures into not only a sense of scale wherein his/her work comes to describe more universal things than personal feelings or personal feelings as universal things; but, simultaneously, a style.2

We see this kind of development equally among all artists, I think, and a mark of the maturing, as opposed to fully mature, artist is that his/her work remains a kind of test, a challenge to the audience to decode and interpret his/her effort. Though this might yield some reward for artist and audience, s/he is nearing the state of maturity that will free him/her from the need to obscure his/her subject (frequently with objects) but isn’t quite there. My own maturation as an artist and an audience member has been characterized by impatience with this kind of obscurantism, even when I can parse the clues. One is always hip to some reference or other but it shouldn’t be the full price of the ticket.

For better or worse, I tend to approach most art literally and let it go to work on me from there. My own musical preference for ensemble composing and performing without vocals stems from this condition, as it supports an it-is-what-it-is art, contingent only on what the group plays, not on what the audience might think about what one of us is saying. In this way, my mature practice, such as it is, is marked by collaboration, understanding that what one is trying to get across benefits in every instance from direct involvement with and the ideas of others: the audience collaborates, exhibitors and distributors collaborate, one’s inspiration and aspiration collaborate. One way or another, the art experience is always shared.

That said, art work begins with inspiration and aspiration. One is moved to get something across, an image, a sound, a structure, or whatever else, as Denise Levertov put it, raves to us for release. In my work, what, exactly, do I try to get across? It’s fairly simple: we must be good to each other.

Two examples of the basic philosophy behind this idea take G-d as their object, not their subject. I suspect you’ll catch my drift when you have a look at them.

James Baldwin

The first is from James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time,

If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If he can no longer do this then it is time we got rid of Him.

The subject of this statement is our inspiration, aspiration, humility, and selflessness. Its object, on the other hand, is G-d, who we are free to embrace or deny according to our need. This sort of statement, a benevolent subject paired with a provocative treatment of an ideal object typifies certain of Mr Baldwin’s statements, especially as he reached his artistic maturity. During his peak, he was a master of this kind of statement.

Nick Cave

Another example is Nick Cave, who in a lecture he delivered on writing love songs said,

Actualising of God through the medium of the love song remains my prime motivation as an artist. The love song is perhaps the truest and most distinctive human gift for recognising God and a gift that God himself needs.

I won’t make any proclamations about Mr Cave’s faith but I will point out that the role he assigns to G-d is similar to Mr Baldwin’s in that they both invoke G-d’s mutual need for us, as conjurers or gift bearers.3 That they speak of G-d only matters here insofar as he represents an ideal, either an ideal inspiration (Baldwin) or aspiration (Cave). Each man’s use of a mutually held ideal — held, that is between the idealizer and idealized — affirms the necessity of striving or longing and a goal. In other words, the gap between the effort and the object is the subject. The effectiveness of the work is defined by the ability of its audience to recognize and identify with the effort, not the object.

This kind of connection speaks to the variety of music, poetry, or other art that initially captivates us: we respond to the uncommon relation of common reactions to common things.The things in question likely appeal to us specifically at a certain point in time, regarding death, injustice or oppression, a favorite location, a favorite car, or an especially difficult break-up, for instance, but the stuff that stays with us does so even after these events have receded into the past. So one might be struck by a poem that speaks to one’s immediate circumstance but what will keep one interested in the poem is what it tries to do, and as we mature, what it continues to do.

A related idea is the preference for genres. If we cling to the event or time during which we were first captivated by a work, we will seek similar-sounding or similar-looking material to repeat or revive both the original experience and the captivation. This is distinct from the relationship described above in that it asks art to seize an experience rather than develop as we ourselves mature.


  1. He called it a point of truth, not maturity; I take these terms to be synonymous.

  2. The poet comes to rely on her own vernacular, symbols, etc.; our recognition of her style is a result of her skill and, frequently, vice versa.

  3. Edmond Jabès: “Every god needs a witness.”

A Note on Art and Audience

Because our general understanding of humility is calibrated by its outward expression, it seems arrogant when an artist is sufficiently satisfied with her or his own work to eschew the conventions of approval and praise.

The failure in this understanding is to recognize that humility exists not in the face of praise or recognition for or of one’s work but rather in the respect for the work’s materials, deference to the practice of making art in the first place, the pleasure of the work, the labor, the creation itself.

Which is to say that there are reasons to make art independent of having its final outcome seen or heard by other people.

Some Thoughts on the State of Things after Re-Reading “Parker’s Back”

A piece on Christianity in contemporary fiction in last week’s New York Times Book Review mentioned Flannery O’Connor’s “Parker’s Back” and subsequently sent me to my bookcase. I pulled Ms O’Connor’s Complete Works from the shelf, checked the index, and marked the story with the book’s ribbon. My apartment is small enough and the books organized well enough that the entire process took less than one minute. To read it took a good deal longer, not least because I have learned to read slowly but mostly because “Parker’s Back” is a frightening story about a man whose apparently misplaced faith yields cyclical resentment and crisis. Mr Parker’s judgment is not what we generally think of as “sound.” It’s an extraordinarily dense work, covers a great deal of time and space in fewer than 20 pages.

Another option under these circumstances might have been to search Wikipedia for the story, where one would find a synopsis of the work that not long ago would have met the inadequate-for-all-but-testing standards of Cliff’s Notes, and from which one might glean a vague idea about faith and identity, class and fervor, failure and aggression – at least enough to cover oneself at a cocktail party should the conversation veer into The American South.

Choosing the second option, I would experience only the shame or pride of passing muster at a cocktail party, nothing of Ms O’Connor’s work, nothing of the possibilities, depth, or range of human belief and expression. That this second option has become the norm is not an argument between reading or not reading nor exactly an argument between knowing and not knowing.1

I sense that in the last several years, these two phenomena, the concession to brevity and the experience of knowing a subject or object thoroughly, have become, in many instances, practically interchangeable.2We have come to trust the brevity of our exchanges, to assume a glance and a longer look are equivalent, because we are so rarely asked to take the longer look, to digest the experience before reporting on it, to have the courage to form a relationship with a work, our own or someone else’s, without fear of missing out on something else. We spend increasingly more time scanning short, discrete expressions in anticipation of meaning if not relation. I think we suffer for it, too.

My choice, as it happened, will not be unusual to anyone who has in the course of their life assembled a personal library, a large or small collection of books or other analog materials whose presence in one’s home serves both as reference and affirmation of one’s identity and sociability. Unlike the material in the current climate of electronic reading, these collections share our space with us, as do our friends, family, collaborators, guests, and co-workers. Books can be passed around with ease, unbound as they are to any proprietary format or device, and in so doing grant our presence to the receiver’s home or travel or wherever they might take the book in question. I’m open to but not aware of instances where digital media — files, that is — provide the same sense of intimacy. There are, no doubt, exceptions but as I say, they’re not part of my experience.

I should add, for what it’s worth, that I am not a Luddite. I’m typing this on an iPad Mini, a device for which my fondness so far extends beyond its novelty and from which, earlier today, I streamed Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia to my television. I embrace such devices for what they can do but remain skeptical about their ability to replace the tactile relationship I have with my books. I am certain that this skepticism is not unique, nor is it limited to books. I have, for example, a similar relationship with records and CDs.

Perhaps it’s a generation gap but I doubt it. I know younger people, aged 25-30, give or take, who prefer vinyl or CDs to MP3s, theatrical moviegoing or DVDs (or even VHS tapes) to streaming. They’re picking up, I think, on the culture surrounding these activities and formats, which is essentially social and in-hand, and perhaps more importantly, has a history from which they can learn and grow and to which they can contribute.

Additionally, too much convenience and too many choices can be paralyzing. Sometimes the extra effort it takes to find a rare or elusive work in order to share it in person makes the experience more memorable or valuable. This is not to say none of us have benefitted from contemporary electronic correspondence, exchange, or collaboration. It is, however, to suggest that these latter relationships and their outcomes will likely remain fixed on their speed and superficial variety until such time as they resolve in a physical proximity.

In any event, “Parker’s Back” is a wonderful story and worth a read. If you don’t have Ms O’Connor’s stories handy, you can read it at Doral Academy Preparatory High School’s site.


  1. I don’t think there’s any particular harm in not knowing Ms O’Connor’s work nor do I think there’s any particular harm in cocktail parties. I do, however, think there’s a distinction worth making between knowing something because one believes it is worth knowing thoroughly and knowing about something in order to get over in a social situation.

  2. In fact, of course, they are not: the stages of a thoroughgoing learning process could be described as something like introduction, acquaintance, apprehension, understanding, and synthesis. Gleaning, I think, precludes most of these steps.

Inspiration: David Byrne

The band became a more abstract entity, a community. And while individual band members might shine and take virtuosic turns, their identities became submerged within the group. It might seem paradoxical, but the more integral everyone was, the more everyone gave up some individuality and surrendered to the music. It was a living, breathing model of a more ideal society, an ephemeral utopia that everyone, even the audience, felt was being manifested in front of them, if only for a brief period.

– David Byrne, How Music Works, pp 48-49.

Notes on the Anniversary of 9/11

1.

Every year I set out to write something about my experience of watching the Twin Towers fall on 9.11.01, and every year I find that whatever I’ve written is inadequate. I have thought in years past that it was a matter of skill: were I a better writer, I’d come closer to the mark. I’ve come to understand, however, that the issue is not so much one of skill as it is a matter of memory. Each year it is harder to recall the immediate effect of hearing the planes’ impact explosions,1 the fact of confronting an unbelievable chain of events, the awful placidity of my office’s view uptown.

2.

As it was for many of us who were in Lower Manhattan on that day, the experience was traumatic. I know 9/11 was traumatic for many people who were not here that day as well, but I find it difficult to disallow the distinction between those of us who watched it firsthand and those of us who watched the ghastly footage looped on television. We remain different, thousands and thousands of us, because we were there, an area which extends roughly 2.5 miles north to 14th Street and the width of Manhattan. The people I’ve spoken to who were at or near the Pentagon have reported a similar distinction.

I cannot address the victims of the attack or their surviving loved ones. I cannot imagine the isolation and violation they have felt, to say nothing of the shock and despair, the irretrievable loss.

3.

The people I know or have met who escaped the Towers before they collapsed are, to a person, hounded by a sense of uniqueness, separated from the rest of us by the stairwells, fire exits, and street-level escape routes through which they singly yet en masse brought themselves safely into the 21st Century.

4.

I can recall the absences of persons unknown to me except for our daily, simultaneous commute downtown from Queens. They were suddenly gone, and noticeably so because we were all getting on with our lives by accounting for everything and everyone that was suddenly missing. It was, and remains, an impossible calculation.

5.

There is, as far as I can tell, no aspect of our culture that has been untouched by 9/11. I cannot help but think that the widespread, accelerated retreat into thoughtless comfort and convenience2 is a direct result of the attacks and, in the long run, perhaps more important than the immediate problems we have faced and will continue to face. Those of us who have suffered directly as a result of the attack will eventually all be gone and our suffering with us. The economic fallout, the wars, and the constant, nagging state of alert, on the other hand, will continue for years to come. It occurs to me on this anniversary that these latter phenomena, as opposed to simple assault, death and ruin, are what the attackers had in mind.


  1. Did I hear both planes hit their respective targets? I think I did but the timeline has loosened in the last 11 years and I am no longer sure. Further, does it matter?

  2. The sense of entitlement to home ownership is one example of this rush to comfort; the popularity of retread art and entertainment, not to be confused with Clinton- or Reagan/Bush-era nostalgia, is another.