Brian Harnetty’s Shawnee, Ohio Premieres at the Wexner Center on October 27-28
Columbus-based composer-musician Brian Harnetty is one of today’s shining examples of making fresh, surprising work that speaks to today and tomorrow made stronger by its direct, explicit connection to what’s come before. Grown up in Westerville, through the years he’s put out records on prominent underground labels like Dust-to-Digital and Atavistic, lectured and performed around the world, gotten a Masters from the Royal Academy of London, but always come back here. His new composition, premiering this week at the Wexner Center for the Arts, Shawnee, Ohio, comes closer to home in a few senses. I had the pleasure of talking with the composer earlier this month.
Harnetty wrote the dissertation for his Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary Arts from Ohio University on the coal mining region of southeast Ohio, dubbed “The Little Cities of Black Diamonds.” His mother’s family moved to Shawnee during the Hocking Valley Coal Boom which “left two opera houses in little towns [like Shawnee]. A precursor to the United Mine Workers was founded in the next town South. A dispute led to a mine fire that’s been burning for over 100 years. You’ll still see spots on the hills in winter with no snow.” When that boom went bust before the Great Depression, they migrated toward Columbus.
His previous records showed a deft use of archives, including those from Berea College’s Appalachian Sound Archives (American Winter, Rawhead and Bloodybones) and that of avant-garde composer/pianist/bandleader Sun Ra’s El Saturn Archives (The Star-Faced One). For this look into the region’s past, he started with The Little Cities Archive based on Main Street in Shawnee, assisting in digitizing cassette tapes of conversations local archivists had with the remaining miners and longstanding members of the community. The use of real, untrained voices of the area and photographs from this archive was the key to his Shawnee, Ohio. “I structured the piece around 11 portraits in song based on the people I found.”
Harnetty also worked with the archive of renowned musicologist and collector of folk ballads Anne Grimes. He described Grimes as “an Ohio Lomax” and talked about being struck by the similarities in songs of the region. “The same melody shows up throughout songs of Kentucky, West Virginia…in Ohio, it’s given localized details. The Ohio River, state roads, landmarks, all get mentioned. There was speculation that Gore, Ohio, was named after a particularly grisly murder named in a song I found [instead of the dressmaking term].”
Using the materials of the past doesn’t make these finished pieces dry. Harnetty’s chamber music settings have the integrity of a piece that can stand on its own, with jolts of delight and surprise that don’t come at the historical document’s expense. The region isn’t an exotic flavor, but the contemporary music doesn’t treat it with kid gloves either. His voice keeps the records from just being exercises in collage, but that doesn’t mean the raw material isn’t seen as an equal. Among other things, Harnetty is one of the best composers writing for struck idiophone percussion – vibes, marimba – and reeds. His use of the tonal color of that chiming percussion keeps the listener leaning in, engaged. His reeds writing is also particularly striking.
Along with Harnetty himself on Fender Rhodes electric piano and electronics, the ensemble for this week’s shows is anchored by Jeremy Woodruff who joined Harnetty on his Sun Ra piece on record and live in a double bill with Lonnie Holley at the Wex in 2013. Currently based in Istanbul, Woodruff has had world premieres of his compositions in NYC, Boston, Berlin, and Kathmandu, in addition to being Harnetty’s best man. The musicians bringing Shawnee, Ohio, to life also include Paul de Jong, cellist for The Books who put out a gorgeous solo album last year, and Anna Roberts-Gevalt, who does similar fascinating investigations into America’s musical past using archives, on violin and banjo.
This kind of project speaks to the value of institutions like the Wexner Center. Working through Creative Capital, a nonprofit that doles out grants and works in an advisory capacity, Harnetty lined up financing through a combination of the Wexner Center, the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, and Durham’s Duke Performances (the latter having given the world brand new work by William Tyler, Jenny Scheinman, and The Bad Plus). This support helped the project achieve the scale it has. Tying back to the personal connection, between the two Wexner Center dates and the appearance at the CAC on November 3rd, the ensemble performs this piece at the Tecumseh Theater in Shawnee. Harnetty’s grandfather played in the High School orchestra and played basketball on weekends in the same theater.
Shawnee, Ohio, isn’t a museum piece. It’s dedicated to “telling the stories of the people there through the stories of those who came before. The past and present at the same time, moving back and forth. Fracking is another piece of the boom and bust cycle that’s been going on since the 1800s. They’re putting old brine into abandoned mines which causes earthquakes [like Nelsonville’s in 2013].” At a time in our history when empathy seems more needed than ever, and the past is either held tightly to in a form no one who lived through it would recognize, or discarded with a sneer, Brian Harnetty’s vital work should be seen by everyone.
Shawnee, Ohio, has performances at 8:00 pm on October 27 and 28. For tickets and more info, visit wexarts.org.