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Stay, Listen, Organize: Bridging Appalachia’s Past and Present through Sound

A listening room session in the Wayne National Forest led by Brian Harnetty with local Shawnee residents Alicia Caton and her daughter. Photo by William Randall.

A listening room session in the Wayne National Forest led by Brian Harnetty with local Shawnee residents Alicia Caton and her daughter. Photo by William Randall.

Careful listening is more important than making sounds happen. — Alvin Lucier1

A Blade of Grass Fellow Brian Harnetty is an artist who chose to stay. Born into a multi-generational Appalachian family in southern Ohio, his work as composer, musician, and sound studies scholar is both inspired by and addressed to his local communities. His commitment to place is a radical choice, in the original sense of “radical,” meaning to have roots, specifically to share the experiences and concerns of communities to which we are accountable.

Brian uses a deceptively simple practice to root himself in place and community: he listens. He has listened for close to twenty years, which has enabled him to realize a remarkably diverse collection of compositions, recordings, and writings.2 His latest work, Forest Listening Rooms, brings together residents and workers from rural Appalachian Ohio for collective, site-specific listening sessions. In these events, listening is a tool for community organizing.

Brian did leave once. In 1998, after completing an undergraduate degree at Ohio State University in Columbus, his hometown, he moved to London to attend the Royal Academy of Music (RAM) where he earned an M.Mus. in composition. He intended to stay in Europe. However, at the urging of his mentor at RAM, the composer Michael Finnissy, he returned to southern Ohio to initiate an inquiry into the musical and sound history of Appalachia.  This project has taken many forms, including archival research, sound walks and site recordings, ethnographic observations, musical performances, and sound compositions.

Archival photo of Main Street in Shawnee, OH. Photo courtesy of Little Cities Archive.

Archival photo of Main Street in Shawnee, OH. Photo courtesy of Little Cities Archive.

Brian spent his first decade home listening to the region’s sound archives, extracts from which featured in his musical compositions, recordings, multi-media installations, and writings. The albums American Winter, Silent City, and Rawhead and Bloody Bones are products of this phase of his inquiry. For each, Brian curated a collection of songs, interviews, radio broadcasts, site recordings, and sound ephemera from the holdings of the Berea College Appalachian Sound Archives in Kentucky.3 He then annotated each extract with acoustic and electroacoustic compositions. Sometimes his music lies beneath, at other times beside, and, only very occasionally, it moves over the original sounds. On one track, a simple melodic line echoes the lilt in an interviewee’s voice. In another, a rhythmic pulse accompanies a recording’s flaws. It is as though I am listening with rather than to Brian.

For American Winter, his first album (released by Atavistic Records in 2007), he gathered archival recordings of folk songs about or featuring references to winter. These are not professional, studio recordings but rough ethnographic or folkloric documents in which ordinary folk sing and converse about songs, memories, and themselves and their loved ones. Brian does not edit out the non-musical elements. For example, the first track, “The Night is Quite Advancing,” begins with a woman nervously or distractedly preparing to sing. “I’m going to get my voice clear by going to Florida,” she announces. Then, after noisily clearing her throat she sings: “The lonesome scenes of winter inclined to frost and snow.” She stops after a few seconds, struggling to remember the second verse. We hear her discuss this struggle with someone else present for the recording. Brian’s music is present throughout the sequence. He composes an almost melody to accompany an almost song. As the woman speaks, clears her throat, and sings, he sounds simple, spare notes: keyboard, percussion, plucked strings. Also, the reverb is high so the notes feel spacious and gentle. On other tracks, Brian’s musical accompaniment highlights different sonic qualities and emotional tones. For the choral, “I’ll Have To Go Off and Be Gone Tonight,” he provides an atonal composition for toy piano that punches up the rhythm in the recorded song. When the singers pause and talk, Brian is silent, and I lean in to hear what is being discussed.

Sound artists and scholars sometimes refer to audio recordings as “sound objects.” This metaphor underscores the materiality of sound (the meeting of surfaces, movement of air, and vinyl or electromagnetic tap) and the tactility of sound editing, which once involved splicing tape and today usually requires keystrokes. By keeping the recordings intact, Brian ensures that we not forget their status as archival objects. With this condition in place it is as if, with his musical compositions, he picks up the archival sound objects and feels their different textures, their weight, their materiality. Brian notes that archival recordings do more than document moments and their ambience. The recordings he uses also preserve the sounds of their making and their survival, such as the signature timbres of the recording apparatus and tics and crackles that are analogous to the feel, smell, and discolorations of old papers. Each audio layer is a register of time. The content of the recording, its subject, is of its time, as are the rhythms and cadence of voices that differ from those in contemporary speech. Scratches on vinyl or the decay of magnetic tape produce grain and hiss, testifying to the medium’s fragility and endurance. Brian listens deeply to the full spectrum of archival sounds and composes works that teach us to do the same.

Brian defines his restrained and minimal musical interventions as forms of “co-presence” (a reaching across the distance of time) or “imagined presence” (the re-embodying of sound). That is, he foregrounds the tension or contradiction between the pastness of history and memory’s aliveness, its presence. It is a tension or paradox he does not resolve by abstracting the sounds from their context, by transforming them into music. As place and time-specific dialogues, these works reaffirm his decision to stay. He wants us to know that for an archive to exist, someone had to stay and listen.

Performances of these archive-based compositions led Brain to hear how his neighbors heard their pasts. On more than one occasion, relatives, friends, and acquaintances of people from the recordings introduced themselves and shared their memories. Similarly, people responded to recordings of and about specific events and places with more stories, their stories. Under these conditions, listening assumed a dialectical form: listening inspired dialogue, and dialogue guided Brian back to the archive to learn more. Brian shared with me that these encounters encouraged him to compose with specific audiences in mind. Thus the compositions shifted from being the aim of his work to a tool for guiding listening and dialogue.

Mine Fire East Entrance, Shawnee Tunnel. Photo courtesy of Little Cities Archive.

Mine Fire East Entrance, Shawnee Tunnel. Photo courtesy of Little Cities Archive.

In 2014, Brian completed a PhD in Interdisciplinary Art at Ohio University. His topic was the sound history of southern Ohio, which he explored through a combination of sound art and ethnographic methods. The rigorous attentiveness and deep listening involved in ethnographic research no doubt contributed to his growing interest in who listens, where, and under what conditions. These concerns informed his next major composition Shawnee, OH, a commission from the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus where it premiered in October 2016.

As with his prior compositions, Shawnee, OH draws deeply from the region’s sound archives, including, this time, the Little Cities of Black Diamonds Archives.4 Founded in 1872, Shawnee was once a mining boomtown. Brian’s maternal ancestors, Welsh miners seeking work in the newly discovered coal fields, arrived that same year. From 2010–2015, Brian repeatedly visited the town to explore his personal connection to it. The final work presents eleven aural portraits of people with close ties to Shawnee. In performance, these compositions are accompanied by historical images and video documentation. Like his sound compositions, the video pieces are collages of found and composed materials. Again, Brian chooses to listen to archival objects, following where they lead rather than providing an expository structure such as a chronological or narrative sequence.

Shawnee, OH touches on many facets of the city’s history but never strays far from the painful, perplexing, and contentious role mining plays in the area. In one section, we hear the activist, teacher, musician, and filmmaker Jack Wright sing: “You rulers of the forest, this song to you I’ll tell / Do the impact study, save us from fracking hell.”

Wright sings to the tune of Florence Reece’s classic 1931 solidarity song, “Which Side Are You On?” Reece’s husband, Sam Reece, was a union organizer for the United Mine Workers in Harlan County, Kentucky.

Live performance excerpts of Brian Harnetty’s Shawnee, OH at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio (October 27, 2016), and the Tecumseh Theater, Shawnee, Ohio (October 28, 2016).

In another phase of the performance, a young boy interviews his grandmother about mining accidents. He failed to extend the microphone to her so we do not hear her responses. We must infer what she said from the boy’s follow-up questions. After announcing, “I am going to ask my grandma questions about the olden days,” he asks:

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?

The accompanying music, performed on banjo, fiddle, and piano, recalls the simple, cyclical refrains of a dance or song. The accompanying video moves from a black and white photograph of an elderly woman leaning on the back of a bench in a diner and looking directly into the camera, to one of a young man standing on what may be the front porch of the same shop, a faded Coca-Cola sign on the walk behind him. Next is a few seconds of slightly out-of-focus, color film of a grey-haired and bespectacled woman standing in front of her house, followed by color footage of a young boy wearing a jean jacket with a canvas bag over his shoulder. He walks down the street, stops, looks at the camera, and moves in closer. As these fragments of old color film and black and white photographs accumulate, we start to feel the place and its people. A few of the photographs are of men dressed in mining uniforms and holding their mining gear. It is the juxtaposition of these mundane and mostly cheery images with the boy’s questions about fatal mining accidents that mark an epochal presence, those points when tragedy thrusts life into history. This awareness is all the more forceful because, like the absent voice of the interviewed grandma, it is a silent, invisible presence.

“Boy” from Brian Harnetty’s sound and video composition, Shawnee, OH.

Brian was determined that Shawnee, OH be performed in Shawnee, which it was in early 2017 at the Tecumseh Theater.5 In an interview with Mya Frazier, a journalist from Columbus Monthly, he describes the performance as the culmination of years of “deeply hanging out,” a process of listening that meant, “I can’t detach myself from the piece . . . 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.”6

I met Brain during his years of “hanging out” when, in 2010, I was a visiting professor in Ohio University’s Theater Division. At the invitation of anthropologist and musician Marina Peterson, also Brian’s PhD supervisor, I returned to lecture and facilitate workshops on the intersection of ethnography, sound studies, and sound art. As a member of the sound art collective Ultra-red, I organized a listening session in 2013 that Brian helped facilitate. He shared an archival recording and asked us to describe what we heard.

For Forest Listening Rooms, Brian has left the theater. He now carries the archive to key sites in the Wayne National Forest, a patchwork of public land covering over a quarter million acres of Appalachian foothills in southeastern Ohio. He invites people he knows from his years of work in the region to join him for sound walks, listening sessions, and conversation in open-air “rooms” or sites. He also reaches out to people he does not know, especially those outside his network of academics, artists, and community organizers. Forest Listening Rooms will culminate in a public listening session.

Documentation of “Tecumseh Lake Trail (formerly the XX Coal Mine), Wayne National Forest, Shawnee OH,” a listening session from Forest Listening Rooms.

One of the listening rooms is Robinson’s Cave in New Straitsville. There, beginning in 1870, various emerging mine unions including the Knights of Labor met in secret to help form the National Federation of Miners and Mine Laborers, later renamed the National Progressive Union. The listening session in this room might include archival recordings of people talking about their or a family member’s participation in strikes. Brian has made this sharing of the archive part of an iterative process of recollection and discussion. He records the discussions at each gathering and integrates extracts into future listening events. This process is reminiscent of the ascending spiral frequently used to illustrate the repetition-with-difference nature of long-term community organizing. These cycles of reflection and dialogue systematically build collective literacy and community engagement.

It may seem that as Brian expands his circle of listening by reaching out to new communities and working in different locations, he is moving further and further from his work as a composer and musician. At the heart of both practices, however, is the importance of accompaniment, co-presence, and attentiveness. In our conversation, Brian spoke of two key social practice-type lessons that have emerged from the project. Both draw on qualities he has nurtured over the past two decades of sound work.

The first lesson concerns how one invites others to join a process. Invitations are slow, multi-phased engagements. Brian frequently returns to places and conversations to affirm his commitment and trustworthiness. He also joined AmeriCorps to work with others on stream restoration and the development of non-extractive businesses. This shared endeavor adds legitimacy to his more recognizably artistic work. He now also spends time with people in their homes and at work. This process, he recounts, is transforming him in much the same way he was transformed by his close work with archival materials. A further dimension of the invitation process is Brian’s willingness to stay beyond disagreements, which are mostly likely to emerge when discussions turn to mountaintop removal mining and fracking. The stakes of these disagreements have grown substantially given the current national political climate. This practice of staying through disagreement leads to the second lesson.

Acting locally is a direct contribution to national and even transnational struggles. The contradictions that shape life in Appalachia reverberate across the nation and the world. Brian references the anthropologist Kathleen Stewart’s observation that “[Appalachia] is a place that is at once diffused and intensely localized, incorporated into a national imaginary and left out, intensely tactile and ephemeral as the ghostly traces of forgotten things.”7 He has stayed to listen from within these contradictions and is now inviting others who have stayed to do the same. We would all do well to pay attention to this work because it comes from a place where people know what is at stake. 


1. Cox, C. and D. Warner. Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music. New York & London: Continuum, 2004. 63.

2. To learn more about Brian Harnetty’s work, I recommend starting with the series of dispatches he wrote for NewMusicBox in 2016 on the sounds of labor, activism, and everyday life in contemporary Appalachia, Then dive into his website where you can listen to and watch extracts from his albums and videos,

3. Berea College’s sound archive is one of the most important collections of Appalachian recordings in the world. The archive includes recordings made in homes, churches and local and regional festivals of traditional music, local lore, religious celebrations and testimonies, radio broadcasts, and oral histories. Visit the Berea College Library website for additional information about the archive and to access finding aids, at

4. Held in community rather than academic spaces, the Little Cities of Black Diamonds Archive is a repository for all forms of information about the history of the cities and towns in Ohio’s southern Perry, northern Athens, and eastern Hocking Counties. The physical archive is located on West Main Street in Shawnee and is open Monday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. See

5. The Tecumseh Theater was built in 1907 by the Improved Order of Red Men, one of the region’s many fraternal organizations. It was originally known as the Red Men’s Dining Hall. It has a double-height, flat floored theater without fixed seating, enabling it to be used for vaudeville shows, basketball games, as a roller skating rink, and as a movie theater. A fire in the 1960s severely damaged the building and it was vacated and slated for demolition in 1976. A group of local citizens formed to save to building. They bought the property, renamed it the Tecumseh Theater after the local first nations leader who fought to protect his people and his land, and have been slowly renovating it. The theater is now part of the National Register of Historic Places District in Shawnee, Ohio.

6. Frazier, Mya. “Columbus composer helps us learn to hear.” Columbus Monthly. 28 Feb. 2017.

7. Steward, Kathleen. A Space on the Side of the Road: Cultural Poetics in an “Other” America. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Robert Sember works at the conjunction of public health and cultural production. He teaches interdisciplinary art at the New School’s Eugene Lang College where he also directs the social justice scholarship program and is on the faculty of the Lang College prison education initiative. Robert is a member of Ultra-red, an international collective of sound artists that address issues of housing, public health, sexuality rights, and racial justice.

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