On March first of this year, not a note of this music existed. I had much of it in mind one way or another for some time but didn’t know where to start or how to capture it. It came to me, finally, that I could put together a modest but effective studio, sing the primary chords of each piece, record them over basic drum tracks, and send the results to cellist Gordon Withers. Gordon then sent me his cello ideas for each piece, frequently several at a time, which I edited and shaped into skeletal versions of enumerated compositions eventually called “Freedoms.” From there, the sketches were sent to J. Robbins and Mark Cisneros, and we all met at Magpie Cage in Baltimore to record their ideas and improvisations. I finished the pieces back at my studio, sent the files to J. for mixing and Dan Coutant for mastering and that is the story of these recordings.
“But why ‘Freedoms?’ Freedom from what?” one might ask. Freedom from oneself, perhaps, as one is freed when captivated by acts of creation; freedom from the limitations one has habitually and wrongly set for oneself; freedom from the despair and fear of the cascading and escalating crises of the last several years and especially the last couple of years. These freedoms are temporary, of course, and rarely concurrent. But they are at times all we have, and it seems suitable if humble tribute to capture and share some of their spirit in music.
Thank you for listening. I hope you enjoy it.
My band, BELLS≥, recorded the first of our North American Spirituals this past weekend at the Magpie Cage in Baltimore. The piece is called “The First Ray.” We debuted it last year on tour, and although we’ve kept the overall structure intact from that version, there have been some significant changes that we hope familiar listeners will enjoy.
Among these changes is J. Robbins joining us on bass. We were all quite pleased working together on Solutions, Silence, and Affirmations and it seemed a natural move for us to include him on this and future recordings. We look forward to his contributions to the remaining Spirituals as we move towards composing and recording the entire cycle.
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.
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.