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.