Composer Brian Harnetty

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Shawnee, Ohio, is one among a group of small southeastern Ohio coal mining communities known as the Little Cities of Black Diamonds. Though once lively with people and industry, they now resemble ghost towns with just the bones of once-booming cities to serve as reminders of the past.

Brian Harnetty, a local composer and artist, is using archival samples of oral histories and images of people in the Shawnee region to examine place in relation to environment in his new composition,Shawnee, Ohio.

"This piece asks, 'What is the story of this place?' 'How does extraction and coal mining affect it and the hopes of the people in it?'" Harnetty said.

Harnetty has been working with sound archives for about a decade, drawing mostly from the Berea College Appalachian Sound Archives in Kentucky, and the Sun Ra/El Saturn Creative Audio Archive in Chicago. He began his research forShawnee, Ohio, in 2010.

"It's a long process of getting to know the people that live there and studying it as a place," Harnetty said. "The other component is that I was studying the sounds that are there … [such as] the sounds of coal mining and the sounds of the forests."

Coal mining has poisoned the region to a point at which very little is living in the streams, creating an eery silencing of the waters. "What does a healthy stream sound like versus an acid mine stream?" Harnetty said. "Sometimes it's a really subtle difference. There are less sounds the more damage there is, because of the fewer ecosystems."

In the composition, Harnetty also incorporates archival images to create a visual collage. Some of these images include his own ancestors. Harnetty's grandfather, Mordecai Williams, grew up in Shawnee where he played music with a local orchestra. Harnetty is using these images to determine the instrumentation he will incorporate in the composition. His family history in Shawnee plays an important role in his inspiration for the piece.

"It was like rediscovering my family roots," Harnetty said.

Shawnee, Ohio, is being commissioned by the Wexner Center for the Arts, which recently was awarded a $25,000 grant from the National Endowment of the Arts to support creative residency artists. Harnetty is one of three nationally acclaimed artists who are receiving support from the grant.

Charles Helm, director of performing arts at the Wexner Center, said he is excited for the premiere of the composition, scheduled for Oct. 28, 2016. "It talks about issues like environment, Appalachian culture, the history of coal mining, organizing labor and fracking's impact on population decline," said Helm. "He's dealing with this material in a very profound and artistic way. That's exactly the kind of project we want to embrace."

The premiere will feature a live performance with Harnetty and a handful of other artists, along with an accompanying video. The album is scheduled to be released on the Dust-to-Digital recording label in September 2016.

"The Wexner Center for the Arts has a strong commitment to local artists, and I think that it's pretty amazing for Columbus," said Harnetty.

Harnetty quotes Wendell Berry, a Kentucky poet, activist and farmer who writes about agrarian and environmental issues.

"He said that he used to think that art was a refuge from all the troubles in the world, but he no longer thinks that way," Harnetty said. "Art is his place and he lives in it. I took that pretty literally."

To hear a promotional sample ofShawnee, Ohio, go to and search "Brian Harnetty."