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.

A Note on the Recent BELLS≥ Tour

My band BELLS≥1 recently completed a week-long tour, performing seven consecutive nights, sharing the bill with Nashville’s Friendship Commanders and D.C.’s The EFFECTS. We are grateful for their fellowship, to say nothing of their extraordinary talents. Their nightly performances were each an inspiration and their company a delight.


Except for some illness in our group, it was a smooth traversal, and audiences, whatever their constituents might have numbered, were supportive and enthusiastic. We hadn’t performed at all in almost 2 years and not outside of NYC in 3, and it was a true pleasure to find such a response after such a long time away.


The above photo was taken by Buick Audra of Friendship Commanders at St. Stephen’s in DC. We were fortunate to have Gordon Withers accompany us on cello that night. He is among the most supportive, intuitive, and collaborative musicians we know. It is our privilege each time he joins us.

Two other firsts that might be of interest: these were the first performances with our current bassist, Sean H. Doyle; and there were two new compositions in our set, “The First Ray” and “May You Bury Me.”

Those are more or less the facts of the matter. We saw many friends and family members among whom were mothers, siblings, and myriad cousins. We were fortunate enough to be joined by some of our closest and favorite music-friends and collaborators, and owe special thanks to Day of the Locust, Callowhill, and J. Robbins for help setting up the shows. Additional thanks to Drew O’Doherty, and still further thanks to old and new friends who made it out, promoters who took the time and opened their doors to us, and everyone else who bobbed, danced, watched, listened, swayed, swung, tapped, shopped, clapped, or otherwise joined in.

  1. I’ll take the liberty of speaking for us here, in the first-person plural.


My band, BELLS≥, was in the studio for 5 days last November.

In my experience, most recording has been a matter of capturing a given group’s routine at its best, by which I mean the performances we’ve been after were essentially definitive versions of the songs we’d rehearsed or performed prior to the session. Some of this was no doubt financially-driven. Studio time is not cheap and except for the two LPs I recorded when I was in Jawbox, much of my recording has been fugitive, donated, committed on the fly or in off-hours, in friends’ home studios or with portable gear. This mode, given that I’ve almost never been in improvisational groups, generally requires readiness, organization, and rehearsal. 1 At the least, one doesn’t want to prevail over an engineer-friend’s generosity, and besides, the music one writes for such sessions is prepared to be recorded quickly. 2

In any case, two major changes in our band’s life determined the course of this session. First, we lost some of our equipment and our rehearsal space to hurricane flooding. Second, we underwent a lineup change. Each of these circumstances brought its own consequences to bear. In the case of the hurricane, we were shocked when we first saw our space, and later depressed when confronted with what was lost and the prospect of not rehearsing before our session. As for the lineup change, we weren’t shocked by it but we were saddened and at something of a loss as to how exactly we would move forward.

There was nothing to do but accept the storm’s toll, replace or repair what we could. The work and generosity of several friends, some of whom we had not seen or spoken to in several years, closed the gear gap with surprising ease. Similarly, we found that, for the purposes of the session, we were not lacking a bass player after all, and though the tunes would eventually undergo some radical changes in both tone and spirit, we were and are quite happy with the results.3 Each guest player/collaborator who joined us did so with everything he could muster, each of their presences was unique and varied, each profoundly personal, and each dedicated to helping us makes our music the best it could be. We finished 7 songs in all, perhaps fewer than we’d thought we’d have when we booked the studio time last summer but no doubt more than we thought we’d have in early November.

As for the album’s future, its release is still up in the air but we’ll get it out there one way or another. For the time being, it’s mixed and at the mastering studio.

  1. There are three exceptions: The Night Is Now, with whom I played in Minneapolis and who made a single, improvised, as-yet-unfinished recording at a farmhouse in Hanska, MN; my bi- or triannual work with Kevin McKeendree and, sometimes, Steve Mackey (neither the guitar player/composer nor the member of Pulp) as the E Fowlkes Trio or Sextet; and Kill Dalton Ames, with whom I improvised the score to Christopher Ernst’s In Carcosa.

  2. This concept, that music is *designed* with one sort of recording or another in mind is not new, though it usually associates with works created, frequently over weeks or months, in the studio. For most musicians or artists without free access to a studio or large sums of money, this method is prohibitively expensive.

  3. Grateful acknowledgement to Eric Dixon, Keith Larsen, and Darren Zentek for thorough and generous drum support; and to Michaels Honch and Pahn (Argos), J. Robbins, and Gordon Withers for their friend- and musicianship.