Place, Sound, History, Now: Listening to the “Little Cities of Black Diamonds”

Place, Sound, History, Now: Listening to the “Little Cities of Black Diamonds”


Courtesy of the Little Cities of Black Diamonds Archive

In a brief essay from 1975, author, farmer, and environmental activist Wendell Berry wrote that he used to think there was a division between culture and place. He thought art could be detached and removed from environmental damage, that art was somehow perfect in an imperfect world. After inadvertently damaging his own property, he recognized that the complex relationships between power, culture, and place are in fact deeply entwined. Berry acknowledged, “It used to be that I could think of art as a refuge from such troubles. …Art was what was truly permanent, therefore what truly mattered. …I am no longer able to think that way. That is because I now live in my subject. My subject is my place in the world, and I live in my place.”

I listened to Berry’s words carefully, and took them to heart. After returning from being a student in London to my hometown of Columbus, Ohio, in 2000, I increasingly incorporated regional and local material into my work, mostly from sound archives. I developed friendships with like-minded artists and musicians who felt a deep sense of embodied stewardship toward the cultures and places where they lived, from Whitesburg and Berea, Kentucky, to Chicago, Illinois. Since 2010, I have done ethnographic research in Appalachian Ohio with a focus on sound and senses of place. Over this series of posts, I’ll write about the archival and contemporary sounds that I have listened to in the region. I’ll also consider how listening connects me to the people and history of the area, and how these sounds might become material for creative projects.

For the past two centuries, this region of southeastern Ohio has been immersed in extraction industries, from coal, oil, and gas to timber, iron ore, and clay. Located in what is now the Wayne National Forest, the towns that quickly arose around coal mining in the 19th century are collectively referred to as the “Little Cities of Black Diamonds.” The area is also bound together by a common heritage of booms and busts, environmental destruction and recovery, and the formation of early labor unions. After nearly a century of economic and population decline, another boom and bust cycle is playing out with the rise of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” Despite facing an uncertain future, the communities that live in the Little Cities continue to work for environmental, economic, and cultural enrichment. On a personal level, my father’s and mother’s families have roots in the region, with both families immigrating there in the 19th century. For me, listening to the past of the Little Cities involves listening to traces of family history. And because there are so few recordings, I also listen through images and text: photos, yearbooks, musical scores, and letters. David Toop (2010) refers to this process of listening to “silent media” as a form of “mediumship,” where writing and images offer clues and suggestions of “acoustic space.”

The sonic ethnography I’ve been doing in the Little Cities falls under the auspices of sound studies, an emergent field that draws from disciplines such as anthropology, performance studies, geography, and cultural studies. But in listening to these places and people, I also rely on my background and training as a musician and composer. In local archives and oral histories, field recordings and conversations, I listen to many voices in counterpoint across history. This practice echoes Edward Said’s (1993) contrapuntal rereading of the cultural archive with an ear to tension and exchange between power and marginalization. It also follows the sound art collective Ultra Red’s (2013) call to listen “in tension,” to allow many different voices to be heard, and to push creative practice into direct social engagement. For me, research in the Little Cities becomes groundwork for current and future sound works, including recordings, performances, and installations. Disciplinary lines break down; research and creative practice influence each other and become integral to one another. Together, they affect my compositional decisions. They allow me to develop sonic material that is richly contextual and always grounded in people and places.

In the Little Cities, I listen to these people and places closely. I hear the soundscapes of energy extraction, including independent oil and gas drillers who have worked in the region for fifty years, as well as contemporary sounds related to fracking. I listen to the forest, to environmental damage creating silences there, and to the emerging sounds of recovery, such as the return of wildlife to the region’s waterways. Through archival recordings and contemporary conversations, I listen to oral histories of those that have lived in the Little Cities. Residents describe concerts and basketball games, parades and funerals, and hopes for the future. I also pay attention to those affected by extraction-related disasters, such as miner Sigmund Kozma as he describes the sonic qualities of “pressure” and “force” of a mine explosion. Finally, I listen to voices of dissent and protest, of people who seek to avoid yet another boom and bust cycle after fighting so hard to recover from the previous two centuries of extraction.

The sounds of a 50-year old gas and oil driller still in operation.

Sigmund Kozma describing his experiences surviving the 1930 Millfield Mine Explosion that killed 82 miners. Interview courtesy of Justin Zimmerman

Over the next three posts, I’ll explore the above sounds in more detail, focusing on labor, environment, social life, disaster, and protest in the Little Cities. The posts also coincide with a parallel creative project I am working on titled Shawnee, Ohio. The piece assembles these sounds into a performance of collaged archival samples, photos, and videos, with live musicians. As I work on the piece, I continue to think about Berry’s words and deeds. When he concludes that “an art that heals and protects its subject is a geography of scars,” he is speaking from experience. Art stemming from and reflecting place will often be all too human: flawed, fragmented, and incomplete. Sometimes this art will not end up the way it was intended to be. But it will also be rich with knowledge and potential. I feel compelled to “live in my subject,” to add my voice in solidarity to those working as stewards to their own place. I also feel encouraged to create something that moves toward protecting the places my families are connected to, despite their past damage.


Brian Harnetty

A composer and artist, Brian Harnetty’s creative and scholarly work connects sonic archives, performance, ecology, and place. His pieces transform archival material––including field recordings, transcriptions, and historic recordings––into newly re-contextualized sound collages. For the past decade, this has led to a focus on projects with archives, including the Berea College Appalachian Sound Archives in Kentucky and the Sun Ra/El Saturn Creative Audio Archive in Chicago. Harnetty received a Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary Arts at Ohio University, an M.Mus. in music composition from the Royal Academy of Music, London, and a B.Mus. in composition from The Ohio State University. Harnetty’s most recent release, Rawhead & Bloodybones, is on Dust-to-Digital Records. His 2013 release, The Star-Faced One, was MOJO Magazine’s Underground Album of the Year. His current project, Shawnee, Ohio, will premiere in October, 2016 at the Wexner Center for the Arts and is a project of Creative Capital.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

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