It's easy to imagine that composer Brian Harnetty salvaged most of his equipment from various attics, basements, and yard sales. A scan of the stage at a recent performance revealed three worn turntables and a beast of a Rhodes. Even the tape deck looked like it remembered the '80s.
As it turns out, it was an appropriately theatrical way set the scene, because in a sense the music itself is something of a rescue operation. Ever since he was a music fellow at the Berea College Appalachian Sound Archives in Kentucky, Harnetty has been creating work that brings gem recordings from that collection up out of the basement and into the light. With a soft touch, he weaves these aural snapshots—a snippet of fiddle playing or the gravely voice of an elderly woman singing a half-remembered folk tune—with his own music. The elements feel loosely tied together, allowing the lines to float over and beside one another, slipping in and out of focus.
The archival recordings are rich documents, often capturing related memories or the nervous laugher of the participants along with the music. Harnetty sought these moments out. "The whole allure for me in those archives, listening to these things, was that these people weren't used to being in front of a microphone necessarily. So when they were being recorded, there was an awkwardness that I started to fall in love with," he explains. "In most commercial recordings, obviously, that's the part that gets cut out, so these in-between moments were really magical for me."
Pairing those moments with newly composed music became a rewarding balancing act as he looked to filter experimental ideas through older media, and older ideas through new technology. The pieces Harnetty has created with this material are showcased on two discs: American Winter (2007) and Silent City (2009), both on the Atavistic label. While the music on American Winter serves as a kind of frame for the samples, with Silent City Harnetty seems to have shifted the equation around a bit and used the archival audio as one strand in the braid. His own music takes a more central role, and he's also brought the striking vocals of Will Oldham in on several of the disc's tracks. Oldham, a highly respected songwriter from Kentucky, is a collaborative partner whose raw, Americana sensibilities perfectly suit this old world/new world material.
Despite the creative motivation Harnetty found in the archives, the resulting music isn't about stepping back into the past, but rather experiencing the past and the present simultaneously in a way that is instructive.
"I'm not too interested in sentimentalism or nostalgia; I don't want to be there. I like the idea of showing many layers of history," he says. And though the sounds are incredibly evocative, he's not so much telling you a story as helping you tell yourself one. He was inspired by his own childhood and family memories while making Silent City, but Harnetty acknowledges that each listener comes to the music with their own histories as well. Instead of fighting that, he welcomes a certain sense of ambiguity in the music and invites the audience to let the sounds take them where it may. "I can't control that," he concedes, "so I like to present the material and then try to get out of the way as much as possible."
In a way, creating this work was a kind of homecoming for Harnetty. Though he will never meet many of his collaborators, the sounds of Appalachia spoke to his own sense of personal history and helped him discover where his formal compositional training met his artistic motivations. Only then did his music began to find its own voice, he says. "I kept trying to be like I was in college, but that wasn't working. It wasn't until I started to pay attention to the things right in front of me, like literally in my room, or the landscape around me and the people around me, that the music became a lot better. It became a lot more personal, and it also became my own."