Brian Harnetty is an interdisciplinary composer/sound artist whose projects bring together place, myth, history, ecology, and economy. Informed by his family’s roots Appalachian Ohio, his 2019 project, Shawnee, Ohio utilized archival recordings alongside newly composed music to create a series of audiovisual portraits of people from a small Appalachian mining town, was named MOJO Magazine’s “Underground Album of the Year.” His latest project, Words and Silences, is a musical portrait of the Cisteritan monk and writer Thomas Merton, bringing together archival recordings Merton made alone in his Kentucky hermitage in 1967, along with newly composed music, to create a long-distance, intriguing exchange between Merton’s intimate tape-recorded contemplations and the contemporary moment.
Dao Strom is a poet, artist, and songwriter who also makes multimodal projects that explore “voice” at the intersection of text, image, and music. She is the author of five books and two song-cycles, most recently the poetry collection, Instrument (Fonograf Editions, 2020), which blends poetry and images, and the book’s companion music album, Traveler’s Ode (Antiquated Future Records, 2020), an interwoven series of textured, ethereal “song-poems” that explore themes of displacement, diaspora, and hauntings. Born in Vietnam, Strom grew up in the Sierra Nevada foothills of northern California, and draws from disparate “folk” music and poetry influences—from rural American gospel ballads to Vietnamese “sung-poetry” (ca dao).
In this conversation, Harnetty and Strom talk about how the intersections of sound, language, music, memory, history, place, and practices of “listening”—to the past, to the present—fuel their respective interdisciplinary practices. Although working in quite different contexts, both artists root their art in a strong contemplation of place and one’s relationship to “place”.
Dao Strom: Hi Brian, how are you today? What kind of day is it where you are?
Brian Harnetty: Today is filled with a lot of busyness––more than I’d like––of parenting, work, meetings, cooking, and so on. Enough that I can’t seem to focus on any one thing for long. Still, I stole five minutes to be quiet today. I’m also thinking a lot about hydrophones…We had a fire outside last night, and I can still smell the smoke on my hat, and I like that, too. How about you?
Dao Strom: I am sitting on my couch in Portland, Oregon. There are crows gathering on the lawn across the street and sometimes a squirrel runs by my porch. I am trying to root myself in the concrete as I start to think about our two projects because whenever I start to think about music, I also start to think very abstractly about place, I start to think about music—the space of a song, for instance—as a nonphysical place. I think our two projects are very different, yet there are elements and maybe some methods in common, maybe some similar veins we’re traversing. There are the hybrid and interdisciplinary elements, of course, the way these projects don’t fall completely or neatly into the expected “genres” or “disciplines” we each might’ve begun our practices with; but I think we may also have in common things like working with time and ghosts and remote collaborations (multiple voices, archives, etc). Words and Silences is in essence a dialogue with Merton’s recordings, but also an odd, asynchronous dialogue across time-space, so maybe too it is a dialogue that attempts to fill in or connect the silences, connect solitudes? I wonder too about how place—the regional geography you roughly share with Merton—underpins this project? Are you dialoguing with “ghosts” when you compose music in response to archives from the region where you live?
Brian Harnetty: Incidentally, your concrete and careful description of what is in front of you, and of nature in particular, is exactly how Thomas Merton begins most of his tapes and journal entries. And I always love these moments the most; they are a simple and grounded way of paying attention, a balance to abstraction.
But to start answering your questions about place: for a decade, I have been focusing almost exclusively on the town of Shawnee in Appalachian Ohio, and yet I don’t live there. I travel back and forth between Shawnee and my home in Columbus, and in that process everything gets mixed up. My grandfather is from Shawnee, yet he died long before I was born. Sometimes I think my desire to be in and make pieces about Shawnee, its buildings, and streets, are as physically close as I can get across time to meet him—a ghost, for sure. So, the place and the idea of a place are fluid, and they seep into one another. Shawnee has changed me. It has changed my work, even as an outsider. And in some small way I may be changing it, too.
What about you? How do you connect place, time, silences, and ghosts? Obviously I see it in the extreme physical distance between where you were born and where you live now, and the time in-between. I also see it in the “silences” of Instrument: the physical spaces between words and punctuation. Or the repetition and returning and reworking of themes, traveling back and forth between them, bringing out something new with each journey. And then the photos, too: often empty of all people, and when there are others, including yourself, they are out of the frame, or fragmented, partial. And it is all very concrete: crossing the river, the tiny birds, the yellow dress, the caves.
Dao Strom: When you say that your grandfather was from Shawnee but you actually never met him, and that the project of immersing yourself in that place (now physically absent of him) is a means of getting closer to him, I definitely see correlation between our methods…I was born in Vietnam but have no memory of it. In my life I’ve met only one grandparent, my mother’s father, briefly once before he died. My own father is still alive, I’ve met him only a handful of times, and communication is difficult also because I don’t speak Vietnamese.
One of the “place” processes that fed into Instrument was that I wanted to visit a certain location in Central Vietnam, a stretch of highway where a certain event occurred in 1972, a tragic event, a massacre. Sadly, many events of this nature occurred in those war years, so the significance of this event, for me, is not historical investigation so much as it has simply to do with the fact that my parents, as journalists, visited this site exactly nine months before I was born. In my perhaps naive way of thinking, I imagined this location, this event, as a key part in what they shared—their bond (probably too their shared sorrows) at the time—and hence a sort of emotional backdrop to my own being.
I had a question in mind, or maybe more so in my body, about ghosts, in visiting that region of Central Vietnam. I was wondering, would I feel them, would I hear them, would I feel something in being there, physically? I often come away with more questions than answers, with these processes. There is a small memorial at that highway site, the only evidence of the event that happened there, and I recorded the sound of some metal chimes clanging above the altar there. This sound got woven into a track on the Traveler’s Ode album (the “Wading into a new decade, etc” song), which also contains sounds from the jungle and a cave I visited in that same region. The caves in that region have been a fascination of mine for some years now–the idea of this vast system of karst caves (far more vast than tourists get to experience), the idea of a whole ecosystem uniquely preserving itself beneath and despite all the human activity wrecking its surfaces; this contemplation has given me a lot, in way of realizing and healing my own sense of Vietnam and whatever losses my parents may’ve felt standing on that stretch of highway in 1972. Collecting those few field sounds to work into a song is my small way of trying to piece together some of these thoughts and feelings.
Brian Harnetty: It is increasingly clear to me how much you connect the body—in terms of sense, of affect—to both place and past, physically putting yourself there to see what you feel. And yet the past can’t be touched, we can only catch glimmers of it, reverberations, aftershocks. Maybe this partially points to your interest in music and sound: sound physically touches us and at the same time moves through and around us. And to pinpoint your own origin like this, forged through the bonds and sorrow of your parents, it shows how much the past can affect us in profound ways, but it also can be a heavy and lasting burden to carry. But I also wonder if the process you go through might actually work toward acknowledgement, letting the past touch you but also letting it pass through?
Dao Strom: Yes, certainly, that makes sense, too. I’m enmeshed in the past but at the same time have a desire to make art that might also transmute or transcend some of those burdens—in the end, at heart, I’m definitely trying to do something other than just document…
While your Shawnee, Ohio project is very much anchored in a geographic place, your Merton project is more of a specific dialogue, a collaboration with the voice of Thomas Merton, via his taped vocal archives. This is a different kind of “ghost” communion, isn’t it? How does “place” figure in with the Merton project? Might the voice, his words, in this case, be also a form of place?
Brian Harnetty: For Words and Silences, the connection is through words, and the archival recordings. I haven’t been to Merton’s hermitage, yet. So it is in my imagination. I have looked at every photo I can find, memorized the interior, imagined sunlight through the window, the warmth of a fire against the coldness of cinder block walls. There are clues in Merton’s recordings, too. You get a sense of the room; there is an ever-present ticking, perhaps of a clock; the gas turns off. And outside he records birds, rain, thunder. There are aural clues in his journals, too, often of nature. So, I am piecing all of these things together, making speculative connections, assembling it into a different and subjective whole.
To make the album, I listened to and transcribed many hours of Merton’s recordings. And then, after I narrowed down exactly what recordings I wanted to use, I listened to them dozens, maybe hundred of times. At some point, I felt so close: I started to think no one has been this physically close to him in over fifty years (Merton died in 1968). I even began to think of us as friends. Every inflection of his voice, breath, hesitation, laugh––they all hold meaning to me, they betray his humanness and vulnerabilities. I felt an intimacy, one that comes from countless hours of dialogue. And yet, he is not listening to me. It is one way. So yes, this is exactly how I would describe visiting a ghost; a recorded shadow of a man. This has happened many times with other projects, too.
Dao Strom: That is a very immersive research process, and I admire the patience in it. Might I ask what led you to this song-form, of creating time-space spanning dialogues between archives and your own compositions? What led you to this form of your musical voice (piano) conversing—years distant—with the voices of others, from recorded archives, captured on tape?
Brian Harnetty: When I was a student, I tried to make music that recreated the spontaneity I heard in field recordings: the texture of people talking, untrained singers, the sounds of places, and so on. I made increasingly complex scores, and it never felt right. Later, I gave up and started working directly with recordings––old and new, archival and field recordings––and everything changed. I saw that the recordings themselves contained things that couldn’t be recreated without losing something. Not only the grain of the voices, but also in-between and peripheral moments that created a rich and complex world if you only listened to it with different ears. Then, when I began working with formal sound archives, everything changed again: I started to meet relatives of people who were on the recordings, and suddenly there was a physical connection between past and present, between the dead and their families, with the recording acting as a medium between them. It changed the way I understood sampling, and breathed life into otherwise dead archives.
The Merton project is a continuation of this process—eavesdropping in long enough to feel close, as close to time travel as one can get. And yet, and this is important, not doing so with a sense of sentimentality or nostalgia. Instead, to make something new of the material, to step back and understand how old recordings might be relevant today, how they might act as cautionary tales, or in Merton’s case, how his use of both contemplation (silence) and action (words) might help us address racial and environmental justice issues.
I, too, want to ask you about voice, and about the physical mediums you are using. I am thinking both in terms of your singing voice (and how you recorded in such a large and resonant building, for example [for the “Traveler’s Ode” song]), and your written voice. In Instrument, you mention learning techniques about a given medium––photography, audio recording, and your development as a singer and musician––and how this process of exploring and mistakes yielded new ways of understanding. I was surprised to see this folded into the text, but it makes sense, and felt very honest to me. It also seemed to reiterate in-betweenness: between place, culture, time. In the Merton tapes, I heard him doing something similar: he was interrogating the medium of tape, grappling with what it might reveal and what it hides, and ultimately using it as a tool for contemplation.
Dao Strom: This concept of mistakes being part of the fabric of the work, makes me recall some short films by an artist named Sky Hopinka, where in some shots the camera will jolt or tilt or go black suddenly, and you realize he has made edits that intentionally show the “seams” of the camerawork. This, I think, is similar to the “grain of the voices” (such a great phrase) that you speak of, and the wish to capture those peripheral and spontaneous moments that lend a special texture, that is also unreplicable. Does working with these types of materials become, thus, a sort of working with, composing around, leaving in, of the spaces in-between, I wonder?
Brian Harnetty: Yes! The “grain of the voice” is a phrase by Roland Barthes, and my expanded understanding is that the spaces and silences of a recording also share a kind of audible “grain”––one connected to memory and place, much like photographs––that I want to pay attention to, to highlight, and to ultimately place at the center of the work.
Dao Strom: I love that. I’ve drawn a lot from Barthes in regards to contemplating image, too…In regards to voice: I think maybe, especially with this latest project, I needed to find the “spaces” (or happen on them) that could best enable the voice, both written and sung. By this, I think I am trying to say that the voice—in best expression for a song or poem—may need a certain context or space to sound within; its precise cavity, or body. With the “Traveler’s Ode” song, for instance, I had sung it many, many times before and even tried to record it in a few instances, it’s actually a song I wrote and recorded as an a capella version many years ago; but this incarnation of it, singing through effects pedals, came together as a recording only once I’d found that cooling tower space [in the abandoned/re-purposed Satsop Power Plant]. Once I decided on the slightly hair-brained idea of recording in that space, the pieces fell together quickly, in terms of logistics and collaborators and timing. It was as if that was the place the song wanted to be recorded in. With the poetry, though, as in those self-reflective and transparent passages you mention in Instrument, I would say the ‘space’ of those “voicings” was a very interior space. Some are fragments culled from what I might call my personal journals. I don’t really keep a diary-fashion journal, but I do have several documents on my computer where I write very organically and associatively to myself (or for myself). I think maybe some of the energy of those initial spontaneous voicings provides some of the “grain”, if you will, of voice in those parts.
While you are not nostalgic in working with archival recordings, as you say, I think you are also quite respectful in the way you allow the archival voices to take space, to express their own rhythms and cadences; how you seem to try to stay out of the way and not guide our interactions with them (although, by nature of curating and selecting, you are guiding us). Nevertheless, there is a measure of restraint and care of spacing in the way you arrange these compositions, the way the piano melodies lead us gently through the pauses between Merton’s musings but also do not interpret them. In the “Let There Be A Moving Mosaic of This Rich Material” track, there are some wonderful, riveting lines from Merton that speak to just this sort of thing — getting out of the way, letting the “material speak for itself”, and so forth. To briefly quote, he says: “instead of polarizing, to make mosaics of all the material that is there, to take the material as it is. Natural and social. Not pass final judgement on it, not try to stabilize. Let there be a moving mosaic of this rich material.” (And then he moves into an even more meta space, reflecting on his own medium: “And perhaps tape can help to do this.” Which has such a wonderful, almost innocent aura of questioning to it.) I think some themes of both Merton’s contemplation and your process are captured in those lines. What you are doing with this album feels, to me, very much about the “natural and social” and enacts the “mosaic”, too. Do these qualities resonate with you, the natural, the social, the mosaic? I’m also curious about how you arrive at your own voicings, in terms of the piano sections and where/how they occur. Do you assemble the archival voice passages first, or your piano parts?
Brian Harnetty: Yes, that passage where Merton talks of a “moving mosaic” was a both guide for me and a key for the entire project. I tried to keep the integrity of the archival recordings by leaving them (mostly) alone, but at the same time I am cutting them up in relatively large chunks. And I see the album––as a whole––as a collaged mosaic. The same is true with the music: built from fragments of transcribed recordings that Merton loved throughout his life, I then collaged those together too, and let the material shift and change without adding any tricks or “development.” Essentially, I took Merton’s advice to get out of the way and leave the material alone.
So, yes, I always begin with the archival recordings, along with some kind of research (here, finding and transcribing Merton’s words and favorite music). I also think it’s important to consider the historical and cultural contexts of the recordings, along with a sense of stewardship to those recorded. And as I said earlier, I spend most of my time listening to the recordings again and again, noticing what I am attracted to, what elicits an emotional, visceral response. Only when I can’t stand it anymore (and I am waking up in the morning with the recordings playing through my thoughts) I begin to arrange and bring everything together. It’s all rooted in a particular way of paying attention: careful and critical listening.
Perhaps as a way to finish, I would like to ask: how do you imagine someone experiencing your projects? I can say that as I move back and forth between Traveler’s Ode and Instrument, not only am I focused on the interplay between text, image, music, and voice, but they share a combination of intimacy and quietness that invites me to take a second look, to lean in closer, straining to hear, coming back to reread phrases that continue to unfold and take on more meaning with each repetition. The book and album are companions, woven together: they complement one another, making each other a deeper and richer experience.
Dao Strom: Thank you for these observations, Brian, you are such a generous and attentive listener/reader, the best kind a project like this could hope for, especially in a world that often doesn’t have time for close listening or close looking. I can feel in your work, too, the way that slowing down and allowing things to unfold brings other degrees of attention to greater amplification; which as an act of perceiving can extend beyond the realm of art, too, I think, in beneficial ways.
In making these multimodal hybrid projects, I think I always had in mind they would or should have multiple entry points, or should allow for that possibility at least, and that maybe this is something integral to the hybrid ethos–that structure is fluid. And that experience of the work can be, too. It can be fragmented, it can be nonlinear, it can be just poetry or just music, or it can be a multidimensional kind of “reading”. I guess my impulse is to leave open how a reader or listener will choose to navigate the work, with also the hope that it might shake up how a reader or listener approaches a page, or a song, or language and listening. And I love that your experience has been to find “intimacy and quietness” in the work, as these are definitely qualities of voice I feel drawn to.
I think, in similar though different ways, both of our art/music practices are rooted, as you put it, in a kind of attention to “paying attention”—which seems both very simple and very crucial. It takes effort to listen and there are a lot of layers to hearing.