“Song is not a sharp weapon”

Aristotle tells us that the high-pitched voice of a woman is evidence of her evil disposition.


Gelsey Bell’s improvising American national anthem winds a voice like a gnarly, worm-infested organ in a collaboration with radio artist Gregory Whitehead. It’s as if she was directed to feel this iconic song through her bones and rattle it up towards her throat, to heave her chest, to push out barely audible screeches that lay on top of many other sounds. The morphed song is inharmonious to frequently spurted American values.

Invited to offer a solo track, Bell stretched back to an unreleased work.

Hi Joan,

I’m about to head into a busy week but this is where I got to today pondering ideas of patriarchy, foul mouths, and song. I would love to know what you think and if it will be useful for you. Attached are some written thoughts and a demo of a song I wrote ten years ago and never released. I thought the song could be inserted into the writing to signal that it is listened to halfway through reading. The song itself does not have any of the signature marks of my current music – no extended technique and only simple piano accompaniment. Nothing to necessarily denote it as being part of the category of sound art. But of course any song is still within the larger category of sound and I think in some ways its conventional form may fit my ideas even better. Anyway let me know what you think. If you have any ideas for improvement. If it’s totally off the mark from what you were looking for…

And thanks for giving me the excuse to sit in these ideas and force some articulation.



Song Is Not A Sharp Weapon
by Gelsey Bell

I am so patient
I listen
My ears are hot
A stone forms in my stomach
A buzz covers everything
I don’t say anything in response
I steal away
with my silence
& find a song
Songs are safer than speeches
Songs can inspire & songs can be ignored
The performativity of heightened utterance plays by different rules than
Ordinary language
Though in some ways the best speeches begin to sound like music
Demand the repetition of rhythm and melody
I need more time to rehearse
His story is not my story
Yet his is the story heard
Mine gets twisted when I try to weave it
Mine becomes a string of knots
The song can be woven more obscurely
And yet perfectly crystalline for those who recognize a known truth
His denial cannot cover its cold eye
He will let me sing
He will call it
Art for art’s sake
He will not be offended
But I will know the lie
Though I can’t be sure
If he knows the lie as well
My stomach stone has softened
My breath has deepened
When I sing
I not only stop feeling sick
I feel healthy
My song was never
Is never
To please you
It is a physical need
To overcome disgust
Unclench my teeth
Spit the rose out of my mouth
Taste the thorned blood
Let it smear onto my enamel

But I would like to state my disgust as clearly as I would with a misbehaving dog:
When I was a young girl, I once told an anti-Semitic joke not understanding what it actually meant. I will never forget how cleanly and completely my friends shut it down. It was a quick and easy lesson to learn. I wish I had done that with every person who said a misogynistic thing to me. Every stranger, boyfriend, teacher, female peer and old woman not understanding their own self-hate. How many of them probably didn’t even realize the implications of what they were saying.
Song carves out a safe space. Song helps me to remember to breathe. Song can take my rage and my sorrow and transform it into something I can swallow.
And song can infect. Song begs to be repeated. Song can speak and song can cross lines.
But the law is not written in song.
Song is not a sharp weapon.
Women must be careful of song. Because it is a glorious thing. But it is not enough in the face of patriarchy. Don’t let anyone ever trick you into thinking that it is.


Gelsey Bell is a singer, a songwriter, and a scholar. She has been described by the New York Times as the “future of experimental vocalism,” an “imaginative,” “brandy-voiced,” “winning soprano,” whose performance of her own music is “virtuosic” and “glorious noise.”


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