Columbus Sound Artist Brian Harnetty Premieres New Work at the Wex

The local composer debuts a new album inspired by a monk’s words.

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Monthly
Columbus composer and sound artist Brian Harnetty

As a teen, Columbus composer and sound artist Brian Harnetty got his hands on a couple of books by Thomas Merton, a progressive, Cistercian monk whose writings in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s tackled topics like pacifism and interfaith studies. Harnetty was drawn to Merton’s dual identity as a mystic and an activist who spoke out on issues of race and the Vietnam War.

Despite Merton’s ordination in the Catholic priesthood, he validated other religious traditions. “I used [Merton] as a way to gently discuss and argue about religion with my parents,” Harnetty says. “That was an important step for me as a teenager.”

Harnetty set Merton aside for a while, studying at the Royal Academy of Music in London and Ohio State, later earning his doctorate at Ohio University, where he focused on sonic ethnography and sound art. Over the years, Harnetty has worked with the Berea College Appalachian Sound Archives in Kentucky and the Sun Ra/El Saturn Archives in Chicago to create albums, sound installations and performances that feature his own musical compositions interacting with archival audio.

Several years ago, Harnetty began to wonder what treasures might be tucked away in the Thomas Merton Archives at Bellarmine University in Louisville, so he ventured down to Kentucky in 2017. Most of the audio featured Merton’s lectures, but Harnetty wanted something less public. “The archivist said, ‘There’s this other set of tapes that he made in his hermitage that you might be interested in. They haven’t been published,’” Harnetty says. “I knew they were what I was looking for.”

In 1967, a year before he died, Merton experimented with private, journal-like recordings, pontificating on everything from Samuel Beckett and Sufi mystics to the racial uprisings in nearby Louisville. “Merton uses his tape recorder as a contemplative tool, but he’s also investigating what the medium is and what it means,” Harnetty says.

To compose music to accompany Merton’s words, Harnetty made a playlist of music Merton loved, including jazz and boogie-woogie. Using that material as a jumping-off point, Harnetty began composing, playing piano and recruiting trusted musicians to add clarinet, saxophone, trombone and more. He wrote the meditative score in the early days of the pandemic—a period that complemented Merton’s hermetic world. The resulting album, Words and Silences, released on Oct. 7, and on Nov. 9, Harnetty and his chamber ensemble will premiere the project at a Wexner Center show in Mershon Auditorium, which will also include video footage of Merton’s hermitage.

Like most of Harnetty’s art, the Merton project harnesses the musician’s superpower of careful listening and his deep curiosity about other people. “It’s a way to open up what you’re doing and to be closer to the rest of the world,” he says.

This story is from Fall Arts Guide in the September 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.