Q&A: Brian Harnetty, creator of sound installations

  • Photo by Tessa Berg
From the July 19, 2012 edition

Brian Harnetty is well-schooled in the music of old — he got his master’s in classical composition at London’s Royal Academy of Music — but these days he converts archives into futuristic sounds.

Columbus-based Scioto Records just released “The Sociophonic Key,” a 7-inch culled from Harnetty’s 2010 sound installation based on the Sun Ra/El Saturn archives. An LP follows in October.

Between trips to Athens for work on a doctoral degree, Harnetty discussed the ideas behind his art.

My background is in classical music. I studied at OSU and did my master’s abroad, and then got further and further away from the classical world. So maybe I’m in some weird in-between space between the classical world and the pop world.

Maybe 10 years ago I started working with samples, specifically samples with Appalachian sounds.

I was never interested in moving to New York. So when I decided to stay here in Columbus, the only way I could make it work was to make what I do about this place or about this region.

In 2010, [Chicago’s Experimental Sound Studio] commissioned me to make a sound installation using the Sun Ra archives because they knew I had been working with other archives.

I’m not a jazz musician, so I knew that I could never approach it from that angle. Me playing jazz just doesn’t work. I’m horrible at it. So I started to think of it culturally and socially and the context of what his work was.

The fancy word is Afro-futurism, which is really about African-Americans being excluded from society. Because Sun Ra grew up basically in the Jim Crow era, so what better way to just circumnavigate the whole thing than by saying you weren’t even born on this planet and you’re going to take everyone to outer space?

With all of these projects, I’m trying to do two things. One is to go deeply into the archive. … The second thing is to help the archives come alive somehow, because that’s the one thing that’s missing from an archive is a living human being.

[For concerts] I make one-off versions of vinyl with my material on it and with the material from the archives. I have these records made, but I’m not a DJ. I also would suck at that if that was what I did. It’s really for me about having some physical object to play with. And it’s the layering of those sounds and having several different sounds happen simultaneously and then playing along with them.