I spend a lot of time listening to Appalachian Ohio. I listen to its people: bakers and shopkeepers, community organizers and coal miners, farmers and fracking protesters, and they all have a story to tell. I listen to places, too: forest hemlocks and sulphury streams, warblers and spring peepers, oil wells and local industry, as they come together to make the region’s soundscapes. Just as importantly, I listen to sound archives, where I hear voices and songs of everyday people; I am eavesdropping as sound and history collide.
I transform these sound archives into new music. For the past two decades I have worked as a composer and ethnographer to figure out a process and a language to do so. I have worked with archives across Appalachia and the Midwest from Kentucky to Chicago. They have included everything from 90-year old ballad singers to the ruminations of jazz visionary Sun Ra. In this work I am striving toward a new way of listening that involves careful attention to both old recordings and contemporary voices. The projects look back and perform history, but invariably they also lead me to the present moment.
Making music from archives helps me develop an understanding of complex cultural and social relationships that inform both rural and urban places. But it is also contradictory: my training as a classical composer is undoubtedly cosmopolitan, yet the music I make and who I make it for are increasingly rooted in rural communities. Since 2010, I have spent much of my time in Appalachian Ohio, a region deeply divided. Residents are caught between fighting for jobs in the midst of economic depression, and mitigating centuries of environmental degradation. These differences often correspond to the political spectrum, pitting right against left. Despite divisions, residents come together over shared places and pasts: histories of towns and forests; stories of immigration and racial tolerance; and celebrating the region’s long labor struggles.
My current music projects, Shawnee, Ohio, and Forest Listening Rooms, reflect these divisions and contradictions. Each project allows rural and urban relationships to inform one another as a means to change our understanding of both. In Shawnee, Ohio, for example, 11 local residents tell and sing the stories of a small coal mining town in Appalachian Ohio. These projects also consider family history. My ancestors immigrated to Shawnee as Welsh coal miners in the 1870s. Here, I take author and farmer Wendell Berry at his word. I return again and again to where my family is from to understand it in new ways and infuse my own artistic voice with senses of place. This points to a broader metaphor, where the music becomes part of a place, and the voices and land and past of that place all become music.
What can people from urban areas learn from Shawnee and other rural places? And perhaps more importantly, how can we come to understand each other? During the Trump era, we are barraged with media about rural voters, forced to understand Appalachia in particular through the reductive lenses of Hillbilly Elegy, whiteness, extraction, and poverty. These narratives only feed into our divisions and fears. We are made to think that the nation is so completely unyielding between left and right and urban and rural that there are no solutions between ideologies.
Or so it seems. The more I listen, the more I am not so certain these divisions are insurmountable. For example, I have talked with what some may find the most unlikely of environmentalists: mud-caked ATV and dirt bike enthusiasts emotionally describing their love for public lands as they fight to prevent further strip mining; and hunters with a vested interest in our state’s national forest. They have as keen a desire as any urban environmentalist to protect places as an act of stewardship.
The strategies I have developed for listening to archives and the people connected to them can be used to help navigate our current political and ecological crises, where careful acts of listening have often ceased. When I am meeting local communities, our conversations often begin over a shared love for the land where they live. We then follow associations and connections, even when they seemingly go nowhere. Here, intuition leads to places we never intended, and this openness yields sparks of insight. All along, I am always listening, and in many different ways: closely, critically, peripherally, contemplatively. These forms of listening take time to unfold, just as it takes time to build relationships and trust.
There are two more strategies that can help us understand one another: offer something in return, and keep coming back. To understand each other is an exchange. When I visit Shawnee and ask residents to participate in my work, I am taking and benefiting from them. In return, I offer help in simple, tangible ways: volunteering, for example, or sharing new recordings. And, even when there are disagreements, I keep returning. There is something powerful in holding on to your deeply held convictions, yet saying, “I’ll see you again tomorrow.” It shows you are committed to both places and relationships, despite differences. It also shows these relationships are between equals, and not a reduction of people to things or “others.”
This process is slow. But it is necessary work, done to combat frantic and fraught media and election cycles. These listening strategies, developed as an artistic process, are part of a larger toolkit seeking common cause amid fear mongering. They are ways to think and act creatively, addressing some of our most pressing issues. I argue that the simple act of listening to the past and present together can be transformative. Listening is the slow work that must take place if we are to understand divisions between rural and urban, and between one another.
Brian Harnetty is an interdisciplinary artist who works with sound archives. His latest album, Shawnee, Ohio, is out now on Karlrecords. He is currently an AmeriCorps volunteer and an A Blade of Grass Fellow for Socially Engaged Art, listening to and telling the stories of people in Appalachian Ohio.