Mojo Magazine: 4 stars, and 2013 Underground Album of the Year: "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!
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.”
The Columbus Dispatch: "spacey sounds of avant-jazz pioneer Sun Ra have found a new orbit"
The spacey sounds of avant-jazz pioneer Sun Ra have found a new orbit. Columbus composer Brian Harnetty in recent years dissected and re-imagined sonic swaths of the subject’s solar system — with the resulting fusion of old sounds and new notes the backbone of his 2013 work, The Star-Faced One. “Mine is just one voice among many,” said Harnetty, a resident of the Clintonville neighborhood who will perform the hybrid compositions with a four-piece backing band on Friday in the Wexner Center for the Arts. Crackly audio snippets of Sun Ra’s voice meld with bass clarinet. A tinkling celesta and moody vibraphone are suggestive of the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood background music after a hit of acid. The modern sum of its retro parts is like Instagram for the ears. The British music magazine The Wire put it another way: “Just go along for the ride.”
Inspiration first came in 2007 via a massive collection of 600-plus cassettes of Sun Ra recordings housed by Experimental Sound Studio, which mixed and mastered a past Harnetty album. The Chicago nonprofit tapped Harnetty, among several other artists, to create their own respective works based on the archives (digitized and delivered on iPods). Harnetty spent “hours and hours” absorbing the material at home during several months. What spoke to him, however, wasn’t the most accessible stuff. “I mostly worked with smaller things; maybe a minute or two at most,” said the 40-year-old, who is pursuing a doctorate at Ohio University with a focus on sound archives. “I looked at the in-between moments — the banter between takes, somebody messing up, something going wrong.” Other unearthed clips were even more extraterrestrial: dialogue taped off a television, for example. That approach, in a sense, reflects the Sun Ra mantra.
Born Herman Blount in 1914, the Birmingham, Ala., native who later changed his name — and claimed to be a 5,000-year-old angel from Saturn — eschewed trends. An early adapter of electronic bass and keyboards, he was dubbed “the missing link between Duke Ellington and Public Enemy” by Rolling Stone. Also known for his science-fiction-themed performance garb, Sun Ra and his aesthetics could be viewed as more literal than outlandish during a time of social unrest in the Deep South. “He was already treated like an alien in his own hometown,” Harnetty said. “‘Space’ travel gave him a way to move around a lot of the racism he faced.”
Sun Ra, who spent his later years in New York and Philadelphia with his Arkestra ensemble, grew more experimental over time. The composer-pianist died in 1993 in Alabama. Harnetty, too, has changed his tune. The Westerville native studied music composition at Ohio State University and the Royal Academy of Music in London. His once-classical focus evolved to become contemporary. Several of his past projects — including American Winter, a 2007 effort sampling Appalachian sounds culled from resources at Berea College in Kentucky — have centered on the notion of “found” audio. He doesn’t want to mimic his subjects of study. The objective, rather, is to bridge separate worlds. “It allows me to enter into some kind of direct contact or conversation with people,” he said. “ You get to move in two directions at once — to look at the past and also add something else to it."