Columbus Monthly: Columbus composer helps us to learn to hear
Columbus-based composer and pianist Brian Harnetty lived in Berea, Kentucky, in 2006, working to complete a fellowship at Berea College. Each morning, he headed to a basement library on campus and immersed himself in one of the world's most significant sound archives documenting Appalachian history and culture. In long rows of cataloged stacks are thousands of recordings: oral histories, old radio shows, field recordings from people's homes, others from inside the region's many churches. The sound archives—stored in a mix of mediums—include open reels, cassettes, and even some 78s. With nearly 85 years' worth of material, it would take someone a lifetime to listen to everything. Harnetty had only a month.
He'd sit, headphones wrapped around his head to cancel out the world around him, listening to samples, eight hours a day, days on end. The recordings he selected were, by default, mostly random. Some he found searching the catalog with keywords like "winter" or "night." Others were suggested by archivists and librarians during coffee breaks. Then one day, Harnetty heard a voice—raspy and boisterous, an emotive contralto unaccompanied by instrumentation. It was Addie Graham, a singer of traditional ballads and hymns, many originating from the British Isles. The recordings were made in the 1970s. Graham was born in the late 1890s in eastern Kentucky and sang in obscurity until her early 80s, when she began performing at regional musical festivals. It was the rough cuts of these recordings, the lulls between songs when Graham bantered with others in the studio or laughed with abandon in a high-pitched peal, that Harnetty listened to over and over again. "You could hear how alive she is," Harnetty explains in a recent interview at his home studio in Clintonville. "She is so full of life."
The weekend after first listening to the Graham archives at Berea, Harnetty attended a party in nearby Whitesburg, Kentucky, and talked about the impression Graham had made on him. "Oh, yeah, that's my great-grandmother," a woman at the party, Amelia Kirby, told him, and proceeded to introduce the young composer to her father, Addie Graham's grandson, Rich Kirby, who has worked to keep his grandmother's music alive. This unexpected and brief connection with the descendants associated so intimately with a sound archive already chosen by Harnetty changed many things for the young composer. Harnetty had been using samples from sound archives in his works without seeking direct permission from the musicians or singers, or ever meeting someone with a direct connection to a recording. This serendipitous encounter altered not only how he now thinks about sound archives, but how he approaches his work as a composer. Sound archives are not sterile, dead things, he came to understand. They have their own lives. They are connected to living human beings.
Harnetty's 2007 album, American Winter, represented the first expression of this new vision. The first track opens with Graham's infectious banter: She's clearing her throat, asking where to stand and, at one point, begins to talk about Florida. The effect is a rare and unexpected intimacy. Graham then begins, with uncommon force and authority, to belt out a soulful ballad about birds singing in the winter ... on every leaf and vine. The effect, for the listener, is a bit like eavesdropping, though more intimate. We have been invited. We can hear Harnetty listening along, adding his own layer of meaning to this decades-old recording: dissonant piano chords and softly rung bells. "Haunting" might be a fitting way to describe the song's effect, but it would be the wrong word—a two-bit cliché, and the effect is something else entirely: an act of transport to the past without the schmaltzy feel of nostalgia.
Harnetty's second major work, 2009's Silent City, is described as an "otherworldly album that demands—and deserves—undivided attention in a darkened room with some good headphones" by a music critic at Paste magazine. The album revolves around a myth: the imagined small town. It still operates largely as an abstraction. Harnetty is moving toward something different, even if he doesn't yet know what exactly that something is.
Shawnee, Ohio, population 655, was founded in 1872 and once was the largest town in Perry County. Harnetty's maternal ancestors arrived in this village the year of its founding, part of a migration of Welsh miners seeking work in the booming coal fields of the region. His grandfather, Mordecai Williams, grew up here, played saxophone and piano at the high school, then left, after graduating in 1925. Harnetty first visited Shawnee's Main Street, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, in 2010, after he had started working with Marina Peterson, a performance cellist and an associate professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts at Ohio University. Working with Peterson, an anthropologist who has spent her career integrating the discipline with sound studies, Harnetty completed a doctorate in interdisciplinary arts as he developed a new approach to his work as a composer and began merging sounds archives with ethnography.
Instead of an imagined small town, he spent more than five years coming back, again and again, to Shawnee, trying to understand his personal connection to this place. His performance here is the culmination of those years of "deeply hanging out," as Harnetty puts it, in a real place, with real people. "This whole new process means that I can't detach myself from the piece," Harnetty says. "It's not an abstract thing. It's a very concrete world, and there are people connected to the archives, and I have a responsibility to do a piece that I believe in, something that offers respect and dignity to the people I have been sampling."
Harnetty debuted Shawnee, Ohio, a composition named after the town, with performances at the Wexner Center for the Arts, which co-commissioned the piece, in October. But it is here, in Shawnee's old opera house, built in 1907 and known today as Tecumseh Commons, that the composer has most wanted to perform.
During a potluck dinner before the show in the downstairs lobby, Skip Ricketts, who owns the building, takes a group to the upstairs theater. Standing in the dusty and cavernous space, Ricketts explains how he came to own the tallest privately owned building in Perry County (only the county courthouse is taller) and spent decades trying to revive it. He was running a diner in Shawnee, back in the summer of 1976. Two guys came into the diner for a cup of coffee. They told him their plan to tear the 75-foot-tall building down, only to salvage the building's massive steel I-beams. "For them, the only value in this building was some steel," Ricketts says. He asked the two men how much they were paying. $500. Ricketts immediately went to the owner of the building and talked him into selling it to him for $500, even though he didn't have the money to buy it. He borrowed the cash from his father. "For 20 years, it rained into the building after a fire next door jumped to the roof and put holes in the ceiling," Ricketts says, pointing up to the ceiling. "It's a testament to the structure that it really didn't hurt it." There has been the occasional grant, bake sale, concert, and for 30 years, a basketball tournament to raise money. "A million dollars in here wouldn't even go very far," Ricketts admits.
The walls are bare to the lath. In a corner, a sign says: "TO-NIGHT BASKET-Ball DANCING."
A dusty piano, its guts open, has keys like broken teeth, blackened and crooked. There are signs of progress: new wooden stairs up the three flights from the downstairs lobby; drywall on the right wall of the theater, up to the ceiling over the thin lath—wood planks that run horizontally like music staff. But the stage curtain—Ricketts tells us he suspects it's made of asbestos—has not been moved. The opera house was a place once full of life, from its first event in 1907, a basketball game, to the site of high school graduations and class plays.
It has also been a 210-seat movie theater, with one of the first sound projectors in the state, and after the shows, people would move the chairs and make room for a band, dancing into the night. When Ricketts was growing up in Shawnee, he watched picture shows in the theater every weekend. There are no picture shows in Shawnee anymore.
Downstairs the potluck is ending. A gaggle of kids roam about eating cookies. The adults grab cans of beer and wine from a makeshift bar near a small kitchen, before settling in a semicircle in front of a makeshift stage. A video projector in the back of the room is aimed at a blank white wall. It's too dusty and dangerous to hold concerts with a full audience upstairs, although earlier in the day, Harnetty recorded a session of Shawnee, Ohio upstairs with the eight-person orchestra, which includes flute, saxophone, bass clarinet, banjo, cello and viola, along with Harnetty on piano and electronics.
Harnetty is dressed casually in a flannel shirt and jeans. Tall and bespectacled, he has an imposing presence, yet he speaks reservedly and with complete sincerity when he begins his introduction to the crowd of about 60 or so. Within moments, his 8-year-old son walks up, puts his arm around him, trying to get his attention. "I need to talk right now," Harnetty says, gently. "This is my son Henry; he's going to be really good in the front row." But Henry runs off with a group of kids who play tag outside in a small garden park next to the theater, where a bronze statue of a coal miner stands watch.
Harnetty gives a brief overview of the performance, explaining the score's structure and origins—11 portraits of actual people, told through a montage of archival videos, photos and sound recordings. Many of the tracks focus on Shawnee, stitched together by Harnetty's original score. Some of the videos were found during the many interviews he conducted with people in the region, including a man from Murray City who handed him a video cassette tape after he met him and said: "Either there's some 1920s and 1930s coal-mining video on here, or it's stuff I taped from the History Channel." Harnetty was pleased to discover it was the former. The footage is spliced and cut within the work, mingling with new images and film of Shawnee today created by Harnetty. "The past and the present, sometimes they get a little mixed up," he says, as the lights go down and the performance begins.
It would be impossible to narrate the hour-long performance—it flits and lingers, shifts and cuts within a montage of tragic, celebratory and everyday events: the state's worst mine fire in 1930 at the Sunday Creek Coal Company, in which more than 82 men died, alongside footage of activists singing a protest song at a demonstration against fracking; a boy delivering papers; a murder ballad from the town of Gore, Ohio; a parade of musicians and young children riding bikes down a vibrant Main Street. It is an impressionistic tour de force through this region's past and present, and the lack of any systemization is, in fact, its greatest strength. History rarely has a clean narrative thread—and as it is often told, glosses over the social life of people and place. Harnetty avoids such traps, letting the people of this region, whom he has spent years listening to, speak instead. In doing so, he makes no narrative demands for a coherent storyline: The collage of images and archives conveys instead, and with admirable fidelity, a sense of this place, the struggle of its people and a reverence for the resilience and hope still found here. One comes away wanting all of history to be accompanied by a live score.
A few weeks after the Shawnee performance, I drive to Harnetty's home studio in Clintonville. When he opens the front door, his dog, Iggy, bounds out. As we sit in his living room for the interview, Iggy gnaws with great vigor on an enormous bone at Harnetty's feet. Surprisingly, considering the composer has spent so many years talking to veritable strangers in his field research for his latest project, Harnetty's natural state is reclusiveness. "I have to psyche myself to go talk to people," he says. "In the classical world, there's a lot of hiding out in the studio, in the practice rooms, and those things are so crucial to getting technique down. But you also have to live as a citizen and a human that interacts with other people. It is the only way to bring people into a relationship with the music."
Harnetty was born in 1973. He grew up in Westerville, and although neither of his parents were musicians, music ran through the family on his mother's side. He began taking piano lessons when he was about 6, and throughout his training, he often thought of the dreams his grandfather, Mordecai Williams from Shawnee, most likely gave up as the Depression limited his options—limits Harnetty has not himself faced.
In 1998, Harnetty moved to England. He earned a coveted spot at the Royal Academy of Music in London to study under Michael Finnissy, one of the most influential British composers of his generation. Finnissy, an experimental composer, samples folk music, sometimes hundreds of songs at a time, splicing them into a chaotic collage and creating a kind of musical commentary on how we understand what is rural and what is folk life. Finnissy's compositions operate firmly in the world of notation and classical music, and as such, operate as abstractions. "He was the first person with intelligence and authority in my life that believed in me," Harnetty says.
By 2000, Harnetty had completed his master's degree in music composition at the academy and returned to Ohio, a move encouraged by Finnissy. "He thought there was something here I really needed to investigate, and some questions I needed to answer," Harnetty says. But the young composer drifted. He waited tables at The Monk in Bexley. He became involved in environmental issues. He slowly unwound from the intensity of the Royal Academy, but the inspiration his mentor instructed him to find in his hometown eluded him. He moved to San Francisco and into a three-month residency at an artist's colony. He was the only composer among them. There were visual artists, sound artists and poets. He experimented with sampling and sound archives. A new world—outside of classical music—opened.
While Harnetty still considers Finnissy his primary influence, other composers inform his work, including experimental composers: John Cage, Morton Feldman, Frederic Rzewski, Steve Reich and Pauline Oliveros. "I was always interested in the political aspect of a lot of the composers who dealt with contemporary or political issues. All those things excited me. I wanted to find a way to combine those things into my work."
With Shawnee, Ohio Harnetty has transformed his quiet practice of listening into a novel new form of storytelling. Performance cellist Peterson praises Shawnee, Ohio for how it raised important contemporary questions. "How do we listen to a region? How do we listen to cycles of energy and economics? It was so powerful to see how this process of engagement manifested itself in his work," she says. "Brian is taking seriously human sound—the sound of coal, for instance. It's material, and it has a human angle, and he's taking on questions of political economy, but through sound."
––Mya Frazier, February, 2017
Columbus Alive concert preview: Brian Harnetty mines southeast Ohio’s past for Shawnee, Ohio
While working on his Ph.D. at Ohio University, Columbus musician and archivist Brian Harnetty conducted ethnographic research (“Basically just deep hanging out,” he said) in southeast Ohio, paying particular attention to a group of Appalachian coal-mining towns known as the Little Cities of Black Diamonds.
After the coal boom, most of the Little Cities went bust, including Shawnee, an architecturally preserved town of around 600 people located about 65 miles southeast of Columbus. Harnetty discovered he had family roots in Shawnee — his grandfather Mordecai Williams graduated from high school there in 1925.
In 2010, Harnetty, whose previous projects collected audio from the Appalachian Sound Archives at Berea College in Kentucky and from the archives of avant-garde jazz musician Sun Ra, asked a Shawnee historian if the town had any sound archives. “He said, ‘Well, let me check,’” Harnetty said recently at a Clintonville coffee shop. “He went into his back closet and pulled a box of cassette tapes out. They were full of interviews he did in the 1980s and ’90s.”
Harnetty digitized and cataloged 40 cassette tapes, then went about the work of listening. He also supplemented the tapes with audio from the Library of Congress collection of Anne Grimes, who made field recordings of folk songs from all over Ohio in the 1950s. “There were no recordings from Shawnee, but there were other recordings from some of the other Little Cities,” he said. “There’s two murder ballads, both based on classic folk songs, but they have local lyrics. Both are from this little town called Gore, as in ‘gory.’ I think the name may have come after these murders.”
Though Harnetty eventually adds his own music as a way of reframing the sounds, he never begins composing right away. For four or five years, Harnetty listened and investigated the context of the audio to make sure he wasn’t culturally strip-mining the archives. “Doing some serious research and also hanging out with the communities connected to the archives doesn’t give you carte blanche to use it however you want,” Harnetty said, though over time, the hope is that “you can find some ways to use it ethically but still have your own artistic voice in there.”
Inspired by Sherwood Anderson’s 1919 short story cycle Winesburg, Ohio, Harnetty, a pianist, created a series of aural portraits, focusing on one person for each of the 11 tracks that make up Shawnee, Ohio, which will be released next year. On Thursday and Friday, Oct. 27 and 28, Harnetty and seven other musicians (playing flute, saxophone, banjo, violin, cello, clarinet and other instruments) will perform the songs, accompanied by photo and video projections, at the Wexner Center (a co-commissioner of the piece, along with support from several other arts organizations).
The first portrait is titled “Jim.” “He’s describing the buildings and the people in the town when he was a kid,” Harnetty said, “and in his mind he’s moving from building to building along Main Street, which is totally fascinating. … Part of the visual project is to document the town today, so as he’s recounting this, you’ll be seeing footage of the town today mixed with archival photographs and video. There’s this real mix-up between past and present.”
On another track, “Boy,” a banjo enters, followed by the voice of a child. “I’m going to ask my grandma questions of the olden days,” the boy says. “Um, Grandma? In the mines, do you know how many people died? Do you know anyone that was in the mines? Can you tell me three people? Can you name them?”
A short pause follows each question, but instead of the grandmother’s responses, only Harnetty’s ghostly music is heard; the boy placed the tape recorder next to him instead of near his grandmother. “That gives it a haunting quality,” Harnetty said. “If you listen closely without the music, she’s giving some answers but is very reluctant. So that reluctancy in talking about miners who might have died and people she may have known, that opened the space up for the listener to imagine [her responses].”
Inseparable from the history of Shawnee and other Little Cities of Black Diamonds are the environmental and socioeconomic issues related to extraction in the region. Harnetty investigates what it sounds like when Ohio communities wrestle with what coal-mining and hydraulic fracturing have wrought in the region. “You rulers of the forest, this song to you I’ll tell / Do the impact study, save us from fracking hell,” an activist sings on “Jack.”
“The big problem today is the scale [of drilling], and its connection away from smaller-scale, localized operations to trans-national stuff,” said Harnetty, who, while researching, accompanied one local well-driller who’s been using the same rig for 60 years. Some local drillers give their neighbors free gas. “There’s this sense of generosity that you wouldn’t even think of with a big corporation,” he said.
For nearly 150 years, southeast Ohio has been booming and busting. Fracking, Harnetty believes, is merely the next phase of the same boom-bust cycle, which comes just as some natural areas are beginning to recover.
“They’ve been doing all these great things where they put systems in upstream to fight the acid mine drainage, and it’s working,” Harnetty said. “So for the first time in 100 years, a lot of wildlife is coming back. Species of fish have come back, and that brings back the kingfisher, and that brings back other animals. Right at the time when there’s real noticeable recovery, there’s another boom/bust cycle happening.”
Harnetty also realizes not everyone in Shawnee and the surrounding area will agree with his stance on fracking, and he sympathizes with the need for jobs in the area. “I don’t have a solution,” he said. He also acknowledged that no matter how much time he spends in Shawnee or how many hours he spends researching and listening, he’ll always be a Columbus resident, and therefore an outsider.
But he still treasures his Shawnee roots. Before beginning a weeklong residency at Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center, Harnetty and his band will perform on Saturday, Oct. 29, in Shawnee’s Tecumseh Theater — the same building in which his grandfather once played basketball.
––Joel Oliphint, Columbus Alive, October 26, 2016
Columbus Underground: Brian Harnetty’s Shawnee, Ohio Premieres at the Wexner Center on October 27-28
Columbus-based composer-musician Brian Harnetty is one of today’s shining examples of making fresh, surprising work that speaks to today and tomorrow made stronger by its direct, explicit connection to what’s come before. Grown up in Westerville, through the years he’s put out records on prominent underground labels like Dust-to-Digital and Atavistic, lectured and performed around the world, gotten a Masters from the Royal Academy of London, but always come back here. His new composition, premiering this week at the Wexner Center for the Arts, Shawnee, Ohio, comes closer to home in a few senses. I had the pleasure of talking with the composer earlier this month.
Harnetty wrote the dissertation for his Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary Arts from Ohio University on the coal mining region of southeast Ohio, dubbed “The Little Cities of Black Diamonds.” His mother’s family moved to Shawnee during the Hocking Valley Coal Boom which “left two opera houses in little towns [like Shawnee]. A precursor to the United Mine Workers was founded in the next town South. A dispute led to a mine fire that’s been burning for over 100 years. You’ll still see spots on the hills in winter with no snow.” When that boom went bust before the Great Depression, they migrated toward Columbus.
His previous records showed a deft use of archives, including those from Berea College’s Appalachian Sound Archives (American Winter, Rawhead and Bloodybones) and that of avant-garde composer/pianist/bandleader Sun Ra’s El Saturn Archives (The Star-Faced One). For this look into the region’s past, he started with The Little Cities Archive based on Main Street in Shawnee, assisting in digitizing cassette tapes of conversations local archivists had with the remaining miners and longstanding members of the community. The use of real, untrained voices of the area and photographs from this archive was the key to his Shawnee, Ohio. “I structured the piece around 11 portraits in song based on the people I found.”
Harnetty also worked with the archive of renowned musicologist and collector of folk ballads Anne Grimes. He described Grimes as “an Ohio Lomax” and talked about being struck by the similarities in songs of the region. “The same melody shows up throughout songs of Kentucky, West Virginia…in Ohio, it’s given localized details. The Ohio River, state roads, landmarks, all get mentioned. There was speculation that Gore, Ohio, was named after a particularly grisly murder named in a song I found [instead of the dressmaking term].”
Using the materials of the past doesn’t make these finished pieces dry. Harnetty’s chamber music settings have the integrity of a piece that can stand on its own, with jolts of delight and surprise that don’t come at the historical document’s expense. The region isn’t an exotic flavor, but the contemporary music doesn’t treat it with kid gloves either. His voice keeps the records from just being exercises in collage, but that doesn’t mean the raw material isn’t seen as an equal. Among other things, Harnetty is one of the best composers writing for struck idiophone percussion – vibes, marimba – and reeds. His use of the tonal color of that chiming percussion keeps the listener leaning in, engaged. His reeds writing is also particularly striking.
Along with Harnetty himself on piano and electronics, the ensemble for this week’s shows is anchored by Jeremy Woodruff who joined Harnetty on his Sun Ra piece on record and live in a double bill with Lonnie Holley at the Wex in 2013. Currently based in Istanbul, Woodruff has had world premieres of his compositions in NYC, Boston, Berlin, and Kathmandu, in addition to being Harnetty’s best man. The musicians bringing Shawnee, Ohio, to life also include Paul de Jong, cellist for The Books who put out a gorgeous solo album last year, and Anna Roberts-Gevalt, who does similar fascinating investigations into America’s musical past using archives, on violin and banjo.
This kind of project speaks to the value of institutions like the Wexner Center. Working through Creative Capital, a nonprofit that doles out grants and works in an advisory capacity, Harnetty lined up financing through a combination of the Wexner Center, the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, and Durham’s Duke Performances (the latter having given the world brand new work by William Tyler, Jenny Scheinman, and The Bad Plus). This support helped the project achieve the scale it has. Tying back to the personal connection, between the two Wexner Center dates and the appearance at the CAC on November 3rd, the ensemble performs this piece at the Tecumseh Theater in Shawnee. Harnetty’s grandfather played in the High School orchestra and played basketball on weekends in the same theater.
Shawnee, Ohio, isn’t a museum piece. It’s dedicated to “telling the stories of the people there through the stories of those who came before. The past and present at the same time, moving back and forth. Fracking is another piece of the boom and bust cycle that’s been going on since the 1800s. They’re putting old brine into abandoned mines which causes earthquakes [like Nelsonville's in 2013].” At a time in our history when empathy seems more needed than ever, and the past is either held tightly to in a form no one who lived through it would recognize, or discarded with a sneer, Brian Harnetty’s vital work should be seen by everyone.
––Richard Sanford, October 26, 2016
Columbus Makes Art: Personal Essay about Shawnee, Ohio
I grew up in Westerville, and my parents have deep family roots in southeastern Ohio, in Perry County. My favorite memory from childhood is walking in my grandfather’s orchard in Junction City, picking and eating apples until my stomach hurt. In 1998, I moved to London to study music composition. After finishing, my teacher there encouraged me to come back to Ohio; he thought I might thrive better here than anywhere else. Even though I wanted to stay in London, I knew that he was right, so I moved back. I never forgot his advice. I’ve often felt pretty lost since then. Slowly, I built a creative voice here. I started working with local and regional sound archives, and the communities connected to them. In 2010, I began to visit, record, and write about Shawnee, a town in Appalachian Ohio, where my mom’s family emigrated to as coal miners in the 1870s. I did a lot of listening––to people and places––and made a piece called Shawnee, Ohio that traces the history of mining and energy extraction in the region. Now, I am performing this music for audiences in Ohio (including in Shawnee) and around the country. I feel compelled to honor the voices of the people that have lived and worked in Shawnee, to share their stories, and to add my voice in solidarity to those working as stewards of their own places.
––Brian Harnetty, October 25, 2016
Cincinnati CityBeat: Preview of Shawnee, Ohio
Brian Harnetty is a Columbus-based multimedia artist whose work combines, in his words, “sonic archives, performance, ecology and place.” The place in the case of his latest work is pretty obvious, given its title: Shawnee, Ohio. (The performance piece, which debuted at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, will be presented 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Contemporary Arts Center.)
Once a bastion of the 19th-century coal mining boom, Shawnee is now a decaying reminder of a Rust Belt region in transition. Located about an hour southeast of Columbus, Shawnee is a place where the remaining inhabitants struggle to find good jobs and to keep a healthy sense of civic pride.
Harnetty, whose grandfather was from Shawnee, uses the hard-luck town as a basis to investigate what it sounds like to be from an environment where extraction has been a way of life — first as a coal hotspot, more recently as an adopter of fracking.
“There are a lot of places in the United States that had a monoculture, went through a boom-and-bust cycle and have struggled since then,” Harnetty says by phone from his home in Columbus. “That’s a story that people can identify with. You don’t have to be from Shawnee, Ohio, to identify with the larger story of how capital and industry circulate through our lives and then kind of leave us in their wake.”
Shawnee, Ohio is a natural extension of Harnetty’s work as a “sound artist” who uses a host of archival materials for inspiration — previous projects include collaborations with the Berea College Appalachian Sound Archives in Kentucky and the Sun Ra/El Saturn Creative Audio Archive in Chicago. This new project is a true multimedia event that incorporates live music (courtesy of Harnetty and three other musician friends), projected images (including a host of vintage and contemporary photos and video) and audio recordings from former or current Shawnee residents.
“There was a whole box of cassette tapes that a fellow pointed me to and said, ‘Well, that’s not really a sound archive, but these are some oral histories that I made 20 or 30 years ago, and you’re welcome to take a listen,’ ” Harnetty says. “So I digitized all those tapes. A lot of them were really deteriorated, but there were some great recordings on there of people that are no longer living, or were children at the time and are now adults.
“It was a great place to start,” he continues. “I turned a lot of those oral histories and interviews into portraits — musical oral portraits of some of the people from the region. And then I composed the music that goes around that.”
An accomplished pianist who is fluent on a number of instruments, Harnetty studied music composition as an undergrad at Ohio State University. He’s also a writer whose work has appeared in such niche publications as The Experimental Music Yearbook, New Music Box and Sound Effects.
Shawnee delves into controversial issues; the performance includes footage of someone singing a protest song related to the environmentally hazardous practice of fracking.
“I feel like I have to take a position and a stand on it because to try to remain neutral is also just taking a stand on it,” Harnetty says, when asked if he was wary of tackling such a hot-topic political issue. “But it is walking a very fine line. I worry about the environmental stuff, because it is a contentious issue.”
Harnetty did years of research before completing the final version of Shawnee. He combed through troves of photos and other archival materials and listened to dozens of townspeople tell their stories, all in an effort to represent his subject in a truthful way.
“Sampling is so easy, right?” Harnetty says. “You can sample anything in the world that’s recorded, and it’s very liberating. But to remember that there’s an actual person that went into that recording, and that there are real people that can be affected by that recording, really puts a human aspect to the archive. It puts the one thing back into the archive that’s not there — a living, human presence.”
––Jason Gargano, November 2, 2016
Shawnee, Ohio, is one among a group of small southeastern Ohio coal mining communities known as the Little Cities of Black Diamonds. Though once lively with people and industry, they now resemble ghost towns with just the bones of once-booming cities to serve as reminders of the past.
Brian Harnetty, a local composer and artist, is using archival samples of oral histories and images of people in the Shawnee region to examine place in relation to environment in his new composition, Shawnee, Ohio.
“This piece asks, ‘What is the story of this place?’ ‘How does extraction and coal mining affect it and the hopes of the people in it?’” Harnetty said.
Harnetty has been working with sound archives for about a decade, drawing mostly from the Berea College Appalachian Sound Archives in Kentucky, and the Sun Ra/El Saturn Creative Audio Archive in Chicago. He began his research for Shawnee, Ohio, in 2010.
“It’s a long process of getting to know the people that live there and studying it as a place,” Harnetty said. “The other component is that I was studying the sounds that are there … [such as] the sounds of coal mining and the sounds of the forests.”
Coal mining has poisoned the region to a point at which very little is living in the streams, creating an eery silencing of the waters. “What does a healthy stream sound like versus an acid mine stream?” Harnetty said. “Sometimes it’s a really subtle difference. There are less sounds the more damage there is, because of the fewer ecosystems.”
In the composition, Harnetty also incorporates archival images to create a visual collage. Some of these images include his own ancestors. Harnetty’s grandfather, Mordecai Williams, grew up in Shawnee where he played music with a local orchestra. Harnetty is using these images to determine the instrumentation he will incorporate in the composition. His family history in Shawnee plays an important role in his inspiration for the piece.
“It was like rediscovering my family roots,” Harnetty said.
Shawnee, Ohio, is being commissioned by the Wexner Center for the Arts, which recently was awarded a $25,000 grant from the National Endowment of the Arts to support creative residency artists. Harnetty is one of three nationally acclaimed artists who are receiving support from the grant.
Charles Helm, director of performing arts at the Wexner Center, said he is excited for the premiere of the composition, scheduled for Oct. 28, 2016. “It talks about issues like environment, Appalachian culture, the history of coal mining, organizing labor and fracking’s impact on population decline,” said Helm. “He’s dealing with this material in a very profound and artistic way. That’s exactly the kind of project we want to embrace.”
The premiere will feature a live performance with Harnetty and a handful of other artists, along with an accompanying video. The album is scheduled to be released next year.
“The Wexner Center for the Arts has a strong commitment to local artists, and I think that it’s pretty amazing for Columbus,” said Harnetty.
Harnetty quotes Wendell Berry, a Kentucky poet, activist and farmer who writes about agrarian and environmental issues.
“He said that he used to think that art was a refuge from all the troubles in the world, but he no longer thinks that way,” Harnetty said. “Art is his place and he lives in it. I took that pretty literally.”
––Amber Hague-Ali, December, 2015
Ohio Alumnus, Sound Artist Brian Harnetty Receives 2016 Creative Capital Performing Arts Award
Ohio University Compass Magazine
Brian Harnetty, a sound artist, composer, and scholar was selected from more than 2,500 national submissions for a 2016 Creative Capital Award. One of 46 projects receiving support this year from the national arts funding organization, Harnetty’s sound collage work “Shawnee, OH,” commissioned by the Wexner Center for the Arts, in Columbus, Ohio, is currently in development for a live performance premiere later in the year.
Harnetty, Ph.D. 14’, an alumnus of the School of Interdisciplinary Arts, began his ethnographic study of the sounds of Appalachian Ohio in 2010, informed in part by his family’s roots in the region, and drawing on oral histories from the Little Cities of Black Diamonds archives, and field recordings collected at various locations.
“The award will help me develop the project further, and set up performances; to help pay musicians to perform it with me. Creative Capital also works hard to help artists network with others and promote the work in larger cultural centers, and to national audiences,” said Harnetty, who was elated with his win.
Continuing a decade long exploration of sound archives, “Shawnee, Ohio” grew out of his dissertation research considering the histories of South-Eastern Ohio. Evoking place through sound, the compositions juxtapose the audible present alongside traces of the past, combining field recordings, transcriptions, images, and historical recordings into newly re-contextualized sound collages.
“In 2010, I began studying in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts—my advisor was Marina Peterson, who was doing work with the Little Cities of Black Diamonds organization. I began an ethnographic study of this group’s archives, which eventually became a part of my dissertation.”
“It took awhile for me to make sense of what I was learning in my research; as a result, much of my creative project happened after my research was complete.”
“Shawnee, OH” critically engages layers of history and memory with the sounds of mining, fracking, and of a town fighting to survive after a century of economic decline and environmental degradation. The work fits into a practice considered “sonic ethnography,” the study of culture, people and place through sound.
Shawnee’s history includes coal, gas and clay extraction, and the formation of early labor unions. The town’s downturn and partial restoration act as an ethos of the struggles and hopes of the larger region, now immersed in a controversial fracking boom.
"What’s unique with his work, is the emphasis on sound, his skillful listening, an extension of his own composition practice. This dovetails nicely into ethnography, the practice of listening and experiencing. Engaging with a range of subjects, leading to a combination of research and creative work," said Marina Peterson, associate professor, School of Interdisciplinary Arts.
"Harnetty's Creative Capital Grant is a validation of his project, bringing the significance of the history of this region to a wider view. Performing his work at the Wexner Center is a fantastic kind of world stage, it opens up the history of Southeastern Ohio to a larger public."
In a previous project, “Star Faced One,” Harnetty re-composed sound recordings from the Sun Ra/El Saturn Collection of the Creative Audio Archive in Chicago, earning him the 2013 Underground Album of the Year award by Mojo Magazine. In yet another project, he worked with the Berea College Appalachian Sound Archives.
Selected with the help of curators, consultants, and arts professionals, the monetary Creative Capital award is a highly competitive honor supporting innovative and adventurous artist projects under development. Drawing on venture-capital principles, the organization is known for seeking out artist projects that are bold, innovative and genre-stretching, and then providing the tools they need to realize their visions and build sustainable careers.
An album version of Harnetty’s project will be released next year. He is also planning for the world premiere performance of "Shawnee, OH," with an ensemble of live musicians at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus on October 28, 2016.
The Creative Capital official award announcement can be read online at: http://creative-capital.org/projects/view/872 .
––Daniel King, February, 2016