reviews and articles for the star-faced one (2013):
mojo magazine: 4 stars: "peculiarly intimate and beautiful"
Brian Harnetty knows his way round sound libraries. Over the past seven years the Columbus, Ohio musician has mined rich seams from the archives at Berea College, Kentucky, producing works as spooked, spellbinding and particular as 2009’s Will Oldham collaboration, Silent City. For The Star-Faced One, Harnetty was given access to Chicago Experimental Sound Studio’s Sun Ra/El Saturn tapes, magnetic miles of rehearsals, concerts, lectures and nut-job field recordings from the Alabama-born jazzstronaut’s infinite universe. Rather than emulate Ra’s interplanetary chant-bop stylings, Harnetty and band weave melancholy threads of music-box celesta, piano, flute, cello and clarinet through warped reels of Ra philosophy and instruction. The end result is peculiarly intimate and beautiful, a drifting dialogue between past and present in the smoke-filled rec room of the orbiting Arkestra space station.
the wire: "Another option is to say screw it and just go along for the ride"
Brian Harnetty’s last two albums were fascinating collaged explorations of the past (both real and imaginary), and for his latest project he was invited to explore the retro-futurism of the Sun Ra/El Saturn Creative Audio Archive in Chicago. The first result of this journey was last year’s Sociophonic Key 7”, and it has now been joined by this album.
The Ra Archive holds a curious mix of material, including music, lectures, radio appearances and various random blurts. Harnetty uses these sources in a variety of ways, most of them fairly straightforward, but the bits themselves are so atmospheric (and sometimes bizarre), there’s really no meed to do anything but present them. There are also rehearsal tidbits, which are mostly music with instructions given durning the playing. These are the segments over which Harnetty seems most inclined to add his own music with a quintet including cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm. Their sound is generally within the quiet avant chamber music tradition, and the archival material flows under and across it like water.
Other parts are tougher to untangle. Alternating layers of vocal groups, lectures, Arkestral playing and possibly Harnetty’s ensemble interact in drifting simultaneity. This may make it sound as though the results are jumbled, but they’re not. The individual threads, though sometimes very close, can generally be teased apart aurally. It’s fun to puzzle out where one part begins and another ends. Another option is to say screw it and just go along for the ride.
In his comments on working with the Ra Archive, Harnetty wrote about the idea of opening up a dialogue with the material. When I first read that, and noted that he has no real connection to the jazz tradition, I was skeptical about both the concept and its chances of succeeding. But Harnetty has approached this stuff with the same surety that marked his earlier work, much of which was based on traditional folk recordings. Many people have been knocked sideways in any attempt to contextualize and extend the message of Sun Ra’s music––his rep is just too heavy to handle––so perhaps his initial unfamiliarity with it turned out for the best. Since he did not feel particularly reverential towards Ra, Harnetty was able to approach the archive with ears wide open, looking only for sounds and words that he knew would work. And they do.
aquarius records, san francisco: "unendingly fascinating"
Years back, we reviewed a strange record by a musician/soundscaper/sound artist named Brian Harnetty. That record was called American Winter, and consisted of various recordings, radio transmissions, oral histories, that Harnetty gathered from the audio archives at Berea College where he was a member of the Appalachian Music Fellowship Program, he then took those recordings and used them to create what we described as sounding 'like the slowly disintegrating pages of a stranger's scrapbook', a haunting collection of dark sonic landscapes wrapped around these voices and transmissions, to this day we still haven't heard anything like it.
A few weeks ago, Harnetty got in touch to let us know about this, his latest project, another collection of recordings, this time culled from the Sun Ra / El Saturn archives, which is a collection of rare Sun Ra rehearsal tapes, studio recordings, recitations, live recordings, as well as tons of unlabeled sonic mysteries. Harnetty and a handful of musicians (including Fred Lonberg-Holm) got together to record some accompaniment to these recordings, employing piano, celesta, saxophone, flute, cello, bass clarinet and vibraphone, all woven into a dark jazz backdrop, which when all mixed up with the original recordings, makes for a super psychedelic sonic trip, where it's often difficult to tell whether it's Harnetty and his crew or Sun Ra's band or both. One can only imagine that at times, it's the modern band playing along with those old recordings, but just as often one or the other, the songs in constant flux, voices, and studio directions, varying degrees of audio fidelity, what sound like commercials or instructional tapes, fragmented plunderphonic collages, some gorgeous stretches of jazzy bliss, paired with still more mysterious voices, awesome rehearsals, killer breakbeats, the original tapes crumbly and staticky so it sometimes sounds like Tim Hecker gone jazz, it's hard to describe, other than to say it's a pretty fantastical trip through the past via the present, a glimpse of what went on behind the curtain, as interpreted by modern day sonic archaeologists, unafraid to join in, the resulting sonic document [is] unendingly fascinating, and the sort of thing that should appeal to classic jazz lovers as much as outsider avant/experimental music obsessives. So cool!
aquarius records, san francisco
columbus alive: "brian harnetty spins sun ra's recordings into kaleidoscopic collage"
Columbus musician Brian Harnetty tends to work in solitude, but his music is anything but insular. Harnetty dialogues with the past and contextualizes it with his own contributions for the present, bringing dusty archives back to life.
For the 2007 album American Winter, Harnetty immersed himself in the Appalachian Sound Archives at Berea College in Kentucky, selecting choice bits of found sound and interweaving his own instrumentation. For the 2009 release Silent City, he used more Berea material and enlisted the help of Will Oldham, aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy, to add vocals.
Harnetty’s just-released album on Atavistic, The Star-Faced One, draws from an entirely different source. In 2010,
Chicago’s Experimental Sound Studio commissioned him to make a sound installation from the archive of Sun Ra, an avant-garde jazz artist who mythologized himself as an angelic being from Saturn.
“You can’t divorce [the myth] from his upbringing in Alabama during the Jim Crow era under segregation,” Harnetty said. “Alabama was probably a stranger place than Saturn — more alien and alienating.”
The Star-Faced One condenses the sound installation into a captivating 22-track album.
The Sun Ra/El Saturn archive is vast and sometimes inscrutable. It includes everything from rehearsal tapes to audio of Sun Ra’s television set. Harnetty, who’s also a Ph.D. candidate at Ohio University, spent more than six months listening to about 700 recordings before ever reaching for his own instruments.
“Part of what I’ve been doing for school is to study archives, and what does it mean to reinterpret it,” Harnetty said. “It’s not a real collaboration. It’s like a posthumous duet. The person who made the original recordings isn’t there. He doesn’t have any say. So there are a lot of ethical concerns to go along with that.”
Instead of trying to become a Sun Ra completist, Harnetty became a curatorial medium, sampling the audio scraps he found most compelling and adding his own musical voice, along with the voices of other musician friends, to create something kaleidoscopic and interpretive.
Harnetty admits he’s not a jazz musician, but he said it’s better that way.
“If I try to mimic it,” he said, "then I’ve totally failed.”
May 9, 2013
reviews and articles for silent city (2009):
the wire magazine: "weaves a melancholy spell....we are in deep"
Two years ago Brian Harnetty, an ex-student of composer Michael Finnissy, released American Winter, an emotional encounter between his own music and a trawl through the Appalachian Sound Archives of Berea College in Kentucky. Some of its eeriest moments occur off-camera, as it were. During the opening piece “The Night Is Quite Advancing”, an elderly woman is digging deep in her memory for words to a song she hasn’t sung since she was a girl. Suddenly a gulf opens up and we hear her shock: “I’ve lost track! That did something to me – scared me to death.” The final track, “We’ll Look For You If We Come Back”, captures an awkward moment between the archiving recordists and a toothless gent; is he asking for money, or maybe just trying to persuade them to keep him company a little longer? The process of collecting old songs is exposed as a strange, unpredictable human interaction, where subjects may tumble backwards into disturbing memories.
While working on American Winter, Harnetty says, he “kept hearing elements of Will Oldham’s voice in the old recordings”, and started corresponding with the singer. He hoped to persuade Oldham (aka Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy) to sing on that record, but schedules did not permit the collaboration until now. Silent City is another powerful personal statement in which the distant past and present are interwoven. Harnetty juxtaposes archive recordings with his own piano, banjo and accordion, and this odd co-existence generates a new poetic context for the bygone voices. Working like a novelist, he has immersed himself in an archive of field recordings – slices of past lives – and now emerges to create a new text, breathing new life into old chunks of sound by radically recontextualising them.
Silent City is a more accessible album than its predecessor: Harnetty has reduced the surface complexity of his music, and raised the temperature by adding the warm tones of an electric piano. The core is still Harnetty’s own piano, accordion and harmonium, but he has assembled a small group to flesh things out: drums, trumpet, vibes and clarinet. Lyrics were pieced together from folk song fragments (pulled from Berea recordings) and phrases drawn from Harnetty’s memories of his father’s rural hometown.
The underlying concept is an amble around a small rural town. We seem to peer in at windows, each one from a different period of the past. Some of the archive elements recall the debut album – a track dissolves into the scrape of a foot-stamping folk fiddler, or a radio announcer from half a century ago stumbles while introducing the next live act. Harnetty’s piano doesn’t drive the music in a conventional manner, more as if it were a set of tuned bells, hanging notes around the room like decorations. “Well, There Are A Lot Of Stories” finds Harnetty’s father reminiscing about prison life, surrounded by suspended chords on clarinet and accordion, and propelled forwards by Sam Paxton’s drums. Alarmingly, Harnetty Senior used to play with the local prisoners as a schoolboy: “They were killers; and I was never afraid all the time I was there, hell, I could run faster than any of them.” Elsewhere, “Papa Made That Last Verse Up” dives headlong into a long-ago parlour full of cackling laughter and family versions of a comic song.
Amidst all of this, Oldham contributes three substantial vocal performances. Harnetty likes vocal and backing simply to share the same space, rather than neatly interlock, and Oldham’s voice is deployed here somewhat as the cobwebby archive tapes were on American Winter, creating a further slippage between the present and past. Oldham’s singing is fragile but firm, adding both mystery and focus to the album. “And Under The Winesap Tree” floats his vocal across Harnetty’s accompaniment as if the singer is dimly recalling the song from his youth. “Sleeping In The Driveway” is a love song from a timid admirer, watching a girl asleep in her car, hearing the radio quietly playing, not daring to approach. The high point is “Some Glad Day”, where Oldham dips a tad lower in his vocal range and comes up with a lovely evocation: “Brick-making prison; tobacco in the grass; some glad day we’ll all arrive.” The song, for all its otherworldly drift, works like a hymn, in which only the first line changes for each verse. This is the experimental end of Bonny ‘Prince’ Billy’s oeuvre: gentle and solemn, it recalls his Get On Jolly (2000) collaboration with Dirty Three member Mick Turner, where the lyrics were picked from devotional verses by Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941).
Harnetty’s teacher Finnissy has long been developing his own take on folk music. In the late 1970s he wrote and performed a raucous, unsentimental piano suite called English Country-Tunes. For this two-fingers-aloft project the accent was firmly on the first syllable of the second word. For him the piece was “most simply, a totentanz – a dance of death, a lament, a wake – celebrating arcadia, the product of a long fantasy tradition of ‘rural innocence’... The remainder is made up of a series of responses to, meditations and variations upon, the ‘issue’ of folk-music, and how one integrates it now (with meaning and vitality) into ‘art-music’.” Well, putting quotes around all your terms is a start.
Finnissy’s bracing counterblast against English pastoralism was a way of wresting folk song back from the clammy hands of Vaughan Williams. Meanwhile Brian Harnetty creates a space to work with a wealth of American folk, parlour music, radio shows and roaming archivists. Silent City weaves a melancholy spell of chiming pianos and vibraphones, much aided by Paxton’s lowkey but eloquent drumming. By the closing “To Hear Still More” – backwards piano over purring harmonium bass – we are in deep, under the music’s hypnosis.
the wire magazine
paste magazine: Artist of the Week, August 10, 2009
For Fans Of: Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, Steve Reich, Anthology of American Folk Music
In 2006, musician and sound artist Brian Harnetty had the opportunity to spend a few months rummaging through the Berea College Appalachian Sound Archives in Kentucky. He treated it like a regular job, camping out in a basement corner from 9 to 5, immersing himself in old field recordings and radio broadcasts on cassettes, reel-to-reel tapes and ’78s. “There’s so much. It’s overwhelming,” says Harnetty, 36. “Sometimes I would just type a word [into the database], like the word ‘winter,’ and then come up with every single song that has the word ‘winter’ in it.” Other times, he says, “I would just walk into the archives and start randomly pulling tapes.”
Harnetty wasn't sure what he was looking for at the time, but eventually emerged with 30 to 40 hours of archive materials from which he's been making new music ever since. He's a collage artist of an unusual sort: His first album inspired by the Berea archives, American Winter (released by Atavistic Records in 2007), was chock-full of found sounds—the story of a 1928 outdoor funeral, a crackly-voiced woman singing a song called “Drunkard’s Dream,” another woman struggling to remember the words to a song— all interwoven with Harnetty’s airy, unobtrusive instrumentation, evoking a ghostly, eavesdropping experience.
For his new record, Silent City (out Aug. 11), Harnetty enlisted the help of Will Oldham, a.k.a. Bonnie "Prince" Billy. “I kept hearing elements of his voice in the old recordings that I was listening to,” Harnetty says. The archival samples are pushed deeper on the new LP, buffering between Harnetty's loosely laconic instrumentals (lots of Rhodes and toy pianos, accordion, bells, clarinet) and three tracks with Oldham’s voice floating like gossamer over sleepy drones. Harnetty took melodic inspiration from songs found in the Berea collection, like the fiddle ditty that ends the first track, “The Night Is, And Lights Are.” The lyrics came together like a puzzle: He had had one list of words and phrases of his own creation, one list of text fragments from the Berea archive and one list of Oldham’s making, and Oldham pulled from each to create something cohesive.
“It was pretty extraordinary to watch that happen in the studio,” Harnetty says. “It was a fascinating collaboration.”
The result is an other-worldly album that demands—and deserves—undivided attention in a darkened room with some good headphones. In that environment, you might just be transported to the mythological small town Harnetty imagined while recording. “I had this vision in my mind of being late at night, and you’re in an old dive bar, and it’s between being awake and being asleep,” he says. “You’re tired, but at the same time you’re observing—and it’s simple but pretty extraordinary, too.”
august 10, 2009
new music box: "brings gem recordings up out of the basement and into the light"
It's easy to imagine that composer Brian Harnetty salvaged most of his equipment from various attics, basements, and yard sales. A scan of the stage at a recent performance revealed three worn turntables and a beast of a Rhodes. Even the tape deck looked like it remembered the '80s.
As it turns out, it was an appropriately theatrical way set the scene, because in a sense the music itself is something of a rescue operation. Ever since he was a music fellow at the Berea College Appalachian Sound Archives in Kentucky, Harnetty has been creating work that brings gem recordings from that collection up out of the basement and into the light. With a soft touch, he weaves these aural snapshots—a snippet of fiddle playing or the gravely voice of an elderly woman singing a half-remembered folk tune—with his own music. The elements feel loosely tied together, allowing the lines to float over and beside one another, slipping in and out of focus.
The archival recordings are rich documents, often capturing related memories or the nervous laugher of the participants along with the music. Harnetty sought these moments out. "The whole allure for me in those archives, listening to these things, was that these people weren't used to being in front of a microphone necessarily. So when they were being recorded, there was an awkwardness that I started to fall in love with," he explains. "In most commercial recordings, obviously, that's the part that gets cut out, so these in-between moments were really magical for me."
Pairing those moments with newly composed music became a rewarding balancing act as he looked to filter experimental ideas through older media, and older ideas through new technology. The pieces Harnetty has created with this material are showcased on two discs: American Winter (2007) and Silent City (2009), both on the Atavistic label. While the music on American Winter serves as a kind of frame for the samples, with Silent City Harnetty seems to have shifted the equation around a bit and used the archival audio as one strand in the braid. His own music takes a more central role, and he's also brought the striking vocals of Will Oldham in on several of the disc's tracks. Oldham, a highly respected songwriter from Kentucky, is a collaborative partner whose raw, Americana sensibilities perfectly suit this old world/new world material.
Despite the creative motivation Harnetty found in the archives, the resulting music isn't about stepping back into the past, but rather experiencing the past and the present simultaneously in a way that is instructive.
"I'm not too interested in sentimentalism or nostalgia; I don't want to be there. I like the idea of showing many layers of history," he says. And though the sounds are incredibly evocative, he's not so much telling you a story as helping you tell yourself one. He was inspired by his own childhood and family memories while making Silent City, but Harnetty acknowledges that each listener comes to the music with their own histories as well. Instead of fighting that, he welcomes a certain sense of ambiguity in the music and invites the audience to let the sounds take them where it may. "I can't control that," he concedes, "so I like to present the material and then try to get out of the way as much as possible."
In a way, creating this work was a kind of homecoming for Harnetty. Though he will never meet many of his collaborators, the sounds of Appalachia spoke to his own sense of personal history and helped him discover where his formal compositional training met his artistic motivations. Only then did his music began to find its own voice, he says. "I kept trying to be like I was in college, but that wasn't working. It wasn't until I started to pay attention to the things right in front of me, like literally in my room, or the landscape around me and the people around me, that the music became a lot better. It became a lot more personal, and it also became my own."
[note: there is also an extended radio interview here.]
new music box
mojo magazine, uk: "Oldham unites with Ohio sound artist for bewitching folk collage"
Oldham and Harnetty began corresponding three years ago when Harnetty was working at the Berea College Sound Archives in Kentucky, weaving together Appalachian field recordings with accordion, piano, banjo and dulcimer to create a frayed patchwork delirium of songs and voices that became 2007’s American Winter. Hearing ghosts of Oldham’s voice in the old recordings, Harnetty suggested they work together. This is the result. Less unsettling and abstracted than American Winter, Silent City plays like a snow-dampened sleepwalk through the shadows of a rural American town, Oldham’s voice floating like a Salem sprite over the field recordings and naïve piano melodies, spinning together folk fragments and the words of Harnetty’s father. Not the next purchase for casual fans of Oldham’s solo work but certainly far more enchanting and adventurous than BPB’s last few solo efforts.
Magic rpm, France: "stretches out before our very eyes, to our great joy!"
Alongside his prolific musical output, Will Oldham has always had strong collaborative projects (Tortoise, Current 93, Red, Sage Francis, and so on). However, in this flourishing parallel discography, his duet albums have almost always proved to be the most exciting of all (Alasdair Roberts, Dawn McCarthy, David Pajo, Matt Sweeny, Mick Turner). So, it was with a touch of excitement when we discovered Silent City, the result of his surprise encounter with the American multi-instrumentalist and Brian Harnetty. A specialist performer of keyboard instruments of all kinds, this quiet resident of Columbus, Ohio, is also influenced by Steve Reich and local folk music. And if we had to provide comparable artists, Yann Tiersen (for music) and Dominique Petitgand (for the experimental procedure) share some similar traits.
For this release, it’s near Louisville that the conceptual artist Harnetty found in the voice of Bonnie "Prince" Billy the ideal vehicle to implement a new Appalachian sound. Essentially airy—one thinks of the recent film music adventures of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis—Silent City draws from a pool of Appalachian sounds coming from the archives of Berea College, Kentucky, inventing along the way a kind of rural drone. And if the conventional structures of songwriting (verse, chorus, etc.) fly apart here, so does the narrative itself—close examples include the collages of William Burroughs, as well as Bob Dylan’s lyrics—they are like abstract puzzles where each listener can find their own logic. And if there has been an often—and let’s face it, sometimes wrongly—continuously long string of praises for Bonnie “Prince” Billy, the strength of his contribution here (“Sleeping in the Driveway”, “And Under The Winesap Tree”, “Some Glad Day”) must be emphasized. Fans of Get on Jolly (2000) made with the Marquis De Tren will appreciate this, as it shares similar sounds. This disc sees atypical folk bells and keyboards take precedence over the guitar, and time stretches out before our eyes, to our great joy!
Magic rpm, France
Rock Action Magazine, Italy: "one of those disks that cannot pass unnoticed"
Silent City is one of those disks that cannot pass unnoticed, for the quality of musical thought and care poured into its unique sound. The twelve tracks provide an evocative atmosphere where the voice of Will Oldham is often primary and indispensable, with its dense beauty and depth of expression. Behind him move the muted colors of a battery of pianos that create tension, a large number of additional instruments (including some brass accents), and some samples taken from the American folk and gospel traditions (which do not hurt, either).
The patterns are always quiet. Silent City takes place at night, where the listener can quietly observe, carefully, without the haste of the day. The three last successfully end the disk: “Some Glad Day” seems to be an invitation to spiritual recollection, the instrumental “As Old As the Stars” feels like an improvisation inspired by shooting stars, and “To Hear Still More” a short piece borrowed from the world of Brian Eno.
The album finishes in forty elusive minutes: long enough to fall into an indelible, strong groove before we reach the new day, with its noise and its inevitable distractions.
rock action magazine, italy
Kronic Magazine, Italy:
Silent City is a unique and intimate disk. This is particularly so because of the ability of Brian Harnetty (a contemporary artist with a thousand faces) and Bonnie “Prince” Billy to tap into the sounds close our hearts—ranging from field recordings to soft electronics reminiscent of folk-country—sounds that evoke a deliberate melancholy. And, the voice of Will Oldham observes and recounts folk singing without being condescending to it.
It is intimate because a rich mixture of sounds dominates, and there is solitude in each of the individual parts (sound, singing, and performing): the exact approach that also appears in the two videos shot by Harnetty (“Sleeping in the Driveway”: fields and warehouses in Ohio, a cemetery where an older man cleans a headstone; and the companion video “Some Glad Day”: deserted places, village festivals, and glowing lights), where each image reflects this imaginative album.
It is therefore a language connected to silence, enhanced by Oldham, and based on an instrumental landscape that, even when hostile and uncompromising, is showing an insight into sound. A language that is angular and stretching, searching for a barren and earthy sound. Like the sound of a barren and empty street.
Kronic Magazine, Italy
October 6, 2009
Blow-Up Magazine, Italy:
Harnetty is a sound artist and makes music for installations, and Will Oldham sings. The disk is largely instrumental, and Oldham sings on three of the twelve tracks, lending the power of his media name. But, know that these three songs are very beautiful precisely because they fit into a larger plot provided by the instrumental music (a cross between film music, traditional folk songs, and found sound). The singing and the words combined prevent mere background sound: they give the music power.
Overall (6/8 stars); the three songs (7/8 stars)
Stefano I. Bianchi
Blow-Up Magazine, Italy
Stereogum music blog:
From Beware's "You Can't Hurt Me Now" to his take on Yusuf Islam/Cat Stevens' "One Day At A time" (thanks, Reid), there's been plenty Bonnie "Prince" Billy news as of late. Now, Ohio musician/artist Brian Harnetty's collaborated with Oldham on Silent City. The video for their spare, spacious "Sleeping In The Driveway" is quietly beautiful: A patient camera guides us through fields and the interior of a house, past silos, blues skies, fall leaves, and stop signs to an old man wandering St. Patrick's Cemetery, rural America. Press pause and you have yourself a postcard.
Stereogum music blog
Prefix Magazine: "stimulating sneak peak into Brian Hanretty’s Silent City"
The video “Sleeping in the Driveway”, a collaboration between Ohia sound collagist Brian Harnetty and renowned Kentucky songwriter Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy is thoroughly Midwestern. The shaky home movie footage is a patchwork of the Heartland; countryside fields, small town roads, churches, graveyards and silos....
The song itself is gorgeous—a refreshing change from Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s past experimental collaborations, such as those with Tortoise and the Tren Brothers. Perhaps “Sleeping in the Driveway” works so well because Oldham and Harnetty share a regional bond; although that doesn’t explain the brilliance of Oldham’s contribution to Current 93’s “Idumæa”. Whatever the reason, “Sleeping in the Driveway” is a stimulating sneak peak into Brian Hanretty’s Silent City, which will be released in August on Atavistic.
Autres Directions, France:
Not being content with a large solo discography, Bonnie “Prince” Billy is involved in various collaborations, not always successfully but sometimes to good effect, as was the case with the very good album with his friends Tortoise, The Brave And The Bold.
This time, it should be noted that Silent City is primarily the work of Brian Harnetty who writes most of the texts and music. About Harnetty, we do not know much. The biography that accompanies the album released by French label Ruminance informs us that this artist and native of Ohio works with found sound and his music contains a strong political and social discourse. Indeed, many compositions of Harnetty make use of "field recordings" from the sound archives of The Berea College in Appalachia: sound clips recorded in rural areas, where we hear echoes from the past. But far from being reduced to a sociological or ethnographic project (as interesting and relevant as it may be), Silent City proves fascinating because of its additional instrumental parts, built around a violin, trumpet, several vintage keyboards and very discreet rhythms. This is shown in the beautiful song “The Top Hat”, artfully arranged, delicately fringed with piano, brass and inventive drums—it is a beautiful piece of folktronica. Or, in the song “Silent City”, which is distantly reminiscent of the band Berg Sans Nipple. Additionally, there are brief interludes that capture a form of life evoking moments in a distant America we will never know. Bonnie "Prince" Billy illuminates the songs he sings on (“Sleeping In The Driveway” or “And Under the Winesap Tree”) with restraint and precision, and he enjoys shining light into new corners of the Silent City.
Another collaboration benefiting from the contribution of Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Silent City is savored like a good book by John Fante.
Autres Directions, France
October 13, 2009
Pop Review Express Blog, France: "sumptuously arranged, and captivating to the end"
Here is a disk that is stark and meditative. The music is filled with rural melancholia, under the high patronage of Will Oldham / Bonnie 'Prince' Billy. And even if he sings on only three songs on this album, it recalls the atmosphere of old albums of Palace or Palace Borthers, or the venerable solo album by Mark Hollis, but also the work of Nick Cave & Warren Ellis gathered in their great double CD Lunar White.
Filled with sound environments akin to an intimate western, Silent City captures this mood in the very first song with the use of a ghostly saloon piano and the scattered notes of accordion, banjo, field recordings, and archives. The album also contains the sounds of banjo, trumpet, or drums. All of these are sumptuously arranged, and are captivating to the end.
Pop Review Express Music Blog, France
october 13, 2009
Komakino magazine, Italy: "i dare you to listen to this record alone in your room"
Needless to say, Bonnie 'Prince' Billy is an amazing musician and songwriter, and his vocals can tear you apart. But, shit, I cannot but write this here too, because I'm listening, over and over, to the new record Silent City, made with Brian Harnetty.
It's like you're sitting all night long in a small bar—it's not that crowded, but you're not sure it's still 2009 (Sinclair Serenade); you're drinking and sleepy, listening to someone tell an old story ("Well, There Are A Lot Of Stories").
Outside the bar it's autumn: a deep black, silent night. You have the sensation you're living in a small, small town, an American rural one—the old toothless man sitting next to you actually is gently playing a banjo (It's Different Now); then you hear a piano, an accordion, some dreamy glockenspiel calling, humming drums…and it is like if Yann Tiersen's pastoral magic were drowned in a glass of whiskey, where the folk sounds are next to silence, next to death (Some Glad Day).
Hmm, no, I guess you won't have anything to laugh about tonight. It's about the inescapable loneliness, coming soon or later in your life, (As Old As The Stars); loneliness of aging, of living (Sleeping In The Driveway), of 'being' (To Hear Still More)…I mean, this is a dangerous record. It might actually make you stop and think. Distributed in Europe by Ruminance, and in the USA by Atavistic, even if you're made of stone I dare you to listen to this record alone in your room.
Komakino magazine, Italy
October 22, 2009
Aquarius records: "haunting and captivating"
The last Brian Harnetty record was a sleeper hit around here, fusing sampled bits of Appalachia and fragments of oral histories with dark brooding collaged soundscapes, the results were haunting and captivating, the two sounds working surprisingly well together, creating a sort of ghostly old world folk, the cracked and weathered voices wrapped in warm whirs and spectral ambience.
For his latest record....Harnetty has assembled a conventional band and composed a set of gorgeous and dark chamber rock / dark jazz vignettes, utilizing piano, accordion, clarinet, trumpet, violin, drums, bells, vibes as well as vocals on a few tracks courtesy of Mr. Will Oldham aka Bonnie Prince Billy....
Harnetty hasn't abandoned his use of the strange old time samples either, they pop up throughout the record, a little burst of old timey Appalachia, a cute introduction from the bandstand of some dance, wild sawing fiddles, it sounds like a strange fit, but it weirdly sort of works. The record opens with a haunting ballad, all softly reverbed piano, and droning strings, shuffling drums, super moody and mysterious, when all of a sudden, right at the end, some old timey fiddle music fades while the song proper fades out, and the player says a few words and then we're already into the next song, another dark brooding drift. The whole record is pretty haunting and moody, a little Dirty 3, a little Max Richter, quite lovely, with the various old timey samples just adding a little bit of odd mystery.
aquarius records, san francisco
the 412, pittsburgh: featured album
There are samples, and then there are samples. While a great many artists from the Beastie Boys to Girl Talk have gained notoriety thanks to their inventive sampling techniques, artist/musician Brian Harnetty takes the concept to an entirely different front. In Silent City, his second release on Atavistic Records, Harnetty continues his trend of sampling everything from field recordings to scratchy old vinyl records to archived spoken-word tracks; basically, anything that could possibly be reworked, retooled, chopped, or mashed up into a song. And if that vein of inventiveness isn’t enough to entice you, then consider that the vocals on several tracks are provided by none other than Wil Oldham (AKA Americana singer/songwriter Bonnie “Prince” Billy), whose delicate voice fits the “lo-fi electronica” approach of Harnetty’s work perfectly. This is one of the few albums out there that should appeal to both the folksy-oriented hipster crowd and to those looking for a more challenging listen.
the 412, pittsburgh
august 11, 2009
reviews and articles for american winter (2007):
the wire: "so many striking moments"
Many are the artists who have been deeply affected by hearing scratchy old recordings, but Brian Harnetty has devised a way to let us simultaneously experience ancient audio documents and his music inspired by them. Harnetty has raided the sound archive at Berea College, Kentucky – a vast collection of 75 years of Appalachian history and culture. Cracked voices recalling almost forgotten songs jostle for space with leisurely yarn-spinners and radio announcers thanking sponsors. Harnetty lets us eavesdrop on moments of great beauty after a song is finished, when the singer is audibly moved, or else wondering why she can’t recall the next verse. One old-timer recounts a 1928 funeral, a vanished world where the crowd stood listening to the preacher and the pelting rain made no difference.
Harnetty’s ‘accompaniments’ to this fascinating material are robust – no clouds of electronica here. He summons textures and patterns from prepared piano, dulcimer, banjo, and junkshop percussion, bright acoustic sounds with plenty of Appalachian links, that entwine marvelously well with the husky voices and shellac crackle. “Drunkard’s Dream” is a perfect match between the old-timey vocal and Harnetty’s clanking gamelan of sounds, as is the snail-paced piano on “While Pacing a Garden”. Elsewhere an anthemic dirge sits astride a driving piano. Harnetty proposes not Ambient background but cohabitating musics. He exposes the gulf between well-fed radio voices and the poor farmers listening in, and makes us aware of the awkwardness of audio documentation: asking an elderly woman to perform a song from her childhood can unblock emotions in an unpredictable way. There are so many striking moments during this album, which Harnetty has dedicated to his former teacher at London’s Royal Academy, Michael Finnissy.
allmusic: 4.5/5 stars, "Brilliant, maddening, addictive"
Chicago's Atavistic Records is well-known for its Unheard Music Series coordinated by John Corbett, as well as being the label of the Vandermark 5, the wild Out Trios series, and other bits of necessary forward-thinking musical ephemera from past and present. It is not, however, recognized for issuing field recordings of all-but-unknown American culture. Brian Harnetty, a Fellow of the Berea College Sound Archives in Kentucky, has assembled one of the most obsessive collections of field recordings from the Appalachian region from that very place, weaving them into what amounts to a 17-"movement" composition that is steeped in ghost trickery. This massive sound archive was the source, along with the help and permission of some of the original song, radio commercial, and dialogue collectors who contribute to both the library and this offering. Don't look for Alan Lomax-type songs and stories here. That's not at all what this is about; in fact, listening to this sounds like eavesdropping on an alien planet. What begins with an old woman trying to remember the old folk song "The Night Is Quite Advancing" becomes a brief radio commercial and then morphs into essentially the same song with different words in "I'll Cross the Briny Ocean." Along the way, Harnetty and his sonic co-conspirators add some double-tracking to twin the piano or a guitar phrase, spoken stories and allegories emerge only to dissolve into a duet of older women singing a folk song that is accompanied by someone from another of these field recordings playing a strange, jumpy, nearly ragtime song on an out-of-tune piano, and the story continues. On and on it goes for 48 minutes and change, never repeating, always moving, yet always standing stock-still. Songs and stories often intertwine, creating a much larger allegory from the ether -- as in the case of "I'll Have to Go Off and Be Gone Tonight," where a toy piano and a pair of women singing about running away and eloping are juxtaposed against and then placed on top of an old man relating a story of a man who murdered his wife after a bad dream.
Brief interludes, like a yodeling radio duet of "Last Night as I Lay on the Prairie," slip into more commercials and public service announcements and reportage of a conscription lottery, slipping in and out of a piano playing some primitive melody on its lower keys, interspersed by disembodied fragments of sung voices and bells, crowd sounds, and an announcement for a draft lottery introduction by the President that never comes. "That Drunkard's Dream" and more toy pianos are punctuated by a single looped banjo, and by ten or 12 minutes in you are gone, off into some world you may be unfamiliar with except as the stuff of legend, and yet are drawn to compulsively. Field hollers, gospel songs, and American farmers prattling -- it all becomes part of an aural tapestry that speaks louder than all the officially released Lomax documents for having been woven into a fabric rather than categorized and separated by date, time, place, person, and what is happening exactly. It just is. It was, but it is, here, now, yet forever out of time and place. Guaranteed to piss off most stuffy "folk music" purists, this is the ultimate folk music, as it borrows from sources it may know or may not but is not divulging except to present them as a living document. The gospel songs in "Soon We'll Reach the Starry Sky" sound like they were recorded by two or three different original sources all spliced together with odd elements like a droning accordion key (or perhaps it's a harmonium), bells, and more; finally, a man who sounds so old he could have been Methuselah is in dialogue with some broke store patrons, saying "We'll look for ya if we come back..." with the great American huckster's truth actually spoken as sincere surprise -- in an exclamation of shock and bitter truth that brings the entire thing back to its beginning and raises the questions of who, what, where, how, and when all over again (but in vain, because this is secret history meant to be offered so as to create a greater secret by its revelation).
And seemingly, just as you are about to enter another rabbit hole of curiosity and entranced, rapt attention: silence. In it you can realize how that last line (which won't be given away here) folds not only the recording, but all of that history, back in on itself all the way back to its lips, into the throat and belly trying to come back out until it disappears into its own mouth, hidden, obfuscated, but ever present resonating in the empty spaces and open-air echoing in the space of moments, decades, centuries. This is a new kind of transmission, one that begs far more questions that it could -- or even want to -- answer, keeping these names and faces eternal yet as anonymous as the land they were swallowed into by the grave. Brilliant, maddening, addictive: this is the kind of stuff Nurse with Wound's Stephen Stapleton lived for back when he was creating his big obscure music list -- and he should add this -- and other sound hunters would give anything to have created. That it was sanctioned by the Berea College Sound Archives is even more remarkable. Harnetty has proved that one way to preserve history is to weave it into the moment and let it vanish in our midst while echoing forever its truths, aphorisms, superstitions, and lies. Highly recommended.
other music: featured new release, "delicate fabric of forgotten atmospheres"
Brian Harnetty's American Winter is an intricately woven album of collaged archival recordings from the Appalachian collections at Berea College in Kentucky. Field recordings, radio programs, advertisements and interviews from the last 75 years commingle in a strange atmosphere that is not quite timeless, but perhaps could be described as "a-temporal". Yet while Harnetty's source material is clearly old -- much of it sounding like it was taken from old analog tapes, recorded wires, and 78s -- the compositional sensibility at work here is unmistakably current. The crackle and hiss of the old recordings -- from sources as diverse as national news broadcasts and intimate home recordings -- runs parallel with the crystal clarity of what sound like more recently recorded textures of accordions, pianos, banjos, bells, and electronic sounds from Harnetty's laptop. I couldn't help but be reminded of the similarly Appalachian influenced collage work of the Books when listening to this record, but rather than sculpting songs out of the antiquated material, Harnetty chooses to fashion the recordings into a delicate fabric of forgotten atmospheres, embracing all the nostalgia and feelings of loss therein.
vital weekly, influential weekly from the netherlands: "very odd but great"
If there was a serious question mark corner in Vital Weekly, then the CD by Brian Harnetty would be taken poll position there. Harnetty is a college professor in Kenyon. The music he presents here uses sounds from The Berea College (Kentucky) Sound Archives which 'hold non commercial recordings documenting more than 75 years of Appalachian history and culture'. Harnetty takes these audio documents consisting mainly of people talking and singing and may or not set music to that. May, as sometimes I think he does when he adds piano or guitar or layers them, adds some echo, and sometimes it seems as pure and clean as possible. This leads to a fascinating audio document which holds somewhere in between a radioplay, a documentary, a work of music and a field recording. I couldn't help thinking of the work of Dominique Petitgand. The way the voices are mixed with sparse music, the intimacy of it all, it all sounded like a US version of Petitgand. Very odd but great CD.
frans de waard
aquarius records, san francisco: "darkly lovely....hauntingly spectral"
A soft focus gauzy collage pieced together from fragments of Appalachian music and field recordings. Darkly lovely.
Darkly resonant and fascinating. The seventeen tracks of Brian Harnetty's American Winter album are like the slowly disintegrating pages of a stranger's scrapbook. Harnetty artfully and respectfully pieced together segments of dialogue, field recordings and radio transmissions among other things which he drew from the vast audio archives of Berea College where he is a member of the Appalachian Music Fellowship Program. Highlights such as "I'll Have To Go Off And Be Gone Tonight" feature fragments of oral histories from Appalachian folks accompanied by the gentle wheeze of what sounds like an accordion and the tinkling of a toy piano. The audio collages slowly drift in and out of focus, and the results are both engaging in the documentary sense and hauntingly spectral. Recommended!
aquarius records, s.f.
dusted magazine: "recontextualizing the sound of America’s past for a whole new generation"
Ever since a little bald vegan ruined it for all of humanity, I generally can’t get into people messing with quality field recordings and archival sounds. Harnetty redeems that whole idea, though, presenting a pretty seamless exploration of some deep vaults while recontextualizing the sound of America’s past for a whole new generation.
columbus alive: "hearing a relative's ghost"
A sample-based producer's main obstacle is usually copyright infringement. On his latest record, that wasn't an issue for Columbus-based composer Brian Harnetty, an OSU grad with a master's from London's Royal Academy of Music. When he began work on American Winter, out on respected experimental imprint Atavistic and celebrated with a release party Friday at Andyman's Treehous, he had full permission to use his source material. Berea College in Kentucky was actually paying him on fellowship to dig through their catalog. And just as Madlib's access to the Blue Note catalog for his Shades of Blue album was a goldmine for a jazz fiend, Harnetty was very pleased with the folk collection he rummaged through.
"The [Berea] sound archives, as far as Appalachian music, is second only to the Smithsonian," he said. "It's really impressive and they are very knowledgeable about the tradition of music."
With sampling restrictions out of the way, Harnetty's challenge was to create new art without disrespecting the historical and personal value of the music. "My approach was kind of like an outsider," he explained. "I was trying to find the balance to using it as material and also respecting the people that made the music. Beforehand, I was doing stuff with samples—old turntables, using material to just layer on top of one another. But when I got down there, I was meeting the relatives of the people that were on the recordings, and I got freaked out."
Harnetty's initial involvement with Berea stemmed from his membership in the art collective Fossil Fools, which did a project paralleling war in oil-rich Iraq and coal mining in Kentucky, comparing the effects on soldiers and miners in pursuit of energy. It hooked him up with Appalshop, an Appalachian arts and education center, which led to his contacts at the college.
From a listen to American Winter, I think Harnetty can put his concerns about exploiting Berea's resources to rest. He nails his chosen themes of war, travel and winter.
Layers of folk songs, news clips and interviews, primarily from the 1950s through 1970s—over a collage of bells, pianos, organs and strings—capture the sadness, texture and beauty of winter, and the underlying hope that can be found in a dark period of transition. At the same time, the essence of the source material isn't tarnished. Harnetty's also gotten a positive review from one of his most feared critics. After presenting parts of his composition to relatives of people whose lives were on the sound clips, one family member described it as hearing a relative's ghost.
kzsu, stanford: "great stuff"
Archival recordings of Appalachian folk singers/radio broadcasts, with studio banter/outtakes, etc placed over soundbeds of piano, sometimes minimal, always dissonant. This mix is sorta obviously juxtaposed, but the recordings might not be listenable otherwise, relegated to novelty/historical archives. The sound beds are quite interesting and cool, experimental at times but mostly appropriate feeling banjo, out of tune piano, traditional instruments, feel. Its nothing new to create experimental collage out of old records/sound sources, but its pretty damn cool to have done it while maintaining an historical archival sense to it all like its done here. Great stuff.
1) old timey singer in the studio sings simple folk song, captured with banter, with sound bed of eno’esque sparse piano
2) 17 second radio promo/commercial
3) nearly creepy female vocals made creepier with piano and electronic soundbed
4) story telling by an old man layered with a capela folk song and player piano
5) radio excerpt of lovely 1940’s yodel style western, female duet, unfortunately brief, cut-off
6) radio news reports over soundbed of piano playing, introduces the president but he never appears, a perfect intro to a next song with Duh-bya or the like
7) woman singing simple folk song over toy pianos
8) brief harmonium and fiddle 9) similar to #3 but piano never turns electronic
10) recording of funeral story from 1928, over toy piano, electronic washes
11) radio sample intro, then banjo playing soundbed with field recordings of conversations with old timers and old woman singing minor toned folk song
12) snippets of radio program, farming subjects, with piano
13) very brief, Arthur Godfrey on the radio, “praise the lord and pass the ammunition”
14) doubled piano playing and dulcimer provides cool soundbed to more folk songs
15) wartime radio broadcast to start, then old woman telling stories, singing over harmonium and toy piano
16) minimal music with female and male folk singing juxtaposed
17) brief recording of toothless old man you cant hardly understand, weird
Your Imaginary Friend, kzsu, stanford, california
thompson's bank, london: "poignant, celebratory, respectful, lively, playful"
Well, here’s a treat: but you need to know the backstory. There is a large sound archive at Berea College in Kentucky which documents Appalachian music and culture; the musician and sound artist Brian Harnetty was invited to explore and work with these recordings, and the utterly captivating American Winter is the result. Essentially Harnetty has chosen a number of extracts (mostly unaccompanied songs, though he is careful to leave in accompanying bits of chat; but also stories and bits of radio broadcasts), and overlaid them with music of his own: piano (with particularly effective use of thumbtack and toy pianos), banjo, percussion and so on. If what I’m describing sounds like highbrow Moby, banish such thoughts now: Harnetty has worked with immense sensitivity to his sources and managed to create what feels like a genuine dialogue with them. Quite often he simply creates an accompaniment for the a capella singer: but there is something almost uncanny about the way he’s able to place his own interventions in relation to the archive material, sometimes appearing not merely to respond to but slightly to anticipate the movements and nuances of their vocals, which creates a most curious simulacrum of liveness. This album is up with the uses of taped sources in Gavin Bryars’s "Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet" and John Adams’s "Christian Zeal and Activity" for emotional depth and affect, but like both of those it also creates something not merely poignant but also celebratory, and something respectful but lively and, in the best sense, playful. I’m so pleased to have come across American Winter and, through it, the work of an obviously immensely gifted artist.
thompson's bank of communicable desire
end of an ear records, austin, texas: "the original jandek, seriously"?!
The original Jandek, seriously. This is some crazy hermetic folk / sound art songs with home ambiences and backwards pianos and other unexpected weirdness. Awesome!
End of an Ear
songs illinois: "new ways for archival music to breathe again"
Brian Harnetty is like a modern version of Alan Lomax, though he is not content to just catalog and present ancient American music. Instead he’s chosen to interact with it by creating collages, contemporary compositions and new ways for archival music to breathe again. To do this he gained access to the extensive sound archives of Berea College (Kentucky). These archives collect more than 75 years of Appalachian history in the form of music, field recordings, oral histories and radio programs. He added live instrumentation to the field recordings and pieced various audio discoveries together to form a whole cohesive work that addresses as he states:
“The pieces point toward both the season of winter and to more ambiguous ideas: the winter of politics, war, emotion, history, and finally to its ultimate hope of renewal.”
The great Chicago based experimental label Atavistic Records will release American Winter on October 9.
deep discount: "elegiac, beautiful, and utterly unique"
In 2005, Brian Harnetty became one of the first Appalachian Music Fellows trained by the Berea College Appalachian Music Fellowship Program to gain access to the college's enormous archives. AMERICAN WINTER is a painstakingly compiled collage of overlapping samples augmented by modern instrumentation and post-modern aesthetics. The listening experience is elegiac, beautiful, and utterly unique; with a completely original mix of sounds as old as the hills, undiscovered shards of Americana, and meditative modern drones and shimmers. Perfect for fans of adventurous folk music, serious experimentalism, and aural pastiche.