Brian Harnetty and Bonnie Prince Billy: Silent City

Brian Harnetty is a British composer with a serious crush on American folk.  His last record, American Winter sampled rare recordings from an Appalachian folk archive at Borea College in Kentucky.  In many of those pieces, he added instrumentation on top or around these recordings.  Bells, twinkling toy pianos, bowed metal, string drones, the tools of a new music composer's approach to folk.  Some of it had a contemporary drone feel, some of it was like a disfigured, reoriented bluegrass, as if someone had forgotten how to play it but remembered the rhythmic pattern.  His use of samples is unique.  Firstly, he picks a lot of moments that are in transition from the spoken, or ambient, to the musical; a woman forgetting her lyrics and trying to remember how the rest of the song went, a radio dj introducing the next selection, people describing their understanding, or perhaps more importantly their memory of the songs they're about to or have just performed.  For Harnetty, the moments before or after a performance are not only musical themselves - the ambience, the spoken word, creating a kind of a soundscore already - but also present an openness, or priming for what I suppose you could only call accompaniment.  Which is to say, sometimes the sample is not what's important here, sometimes the composing takes over and really sends the sample into a back layer.  This is especially true when he blatantly ignores the tempo and meter of a given sample and composes against it, creating a new temporal arrangement that feels torn between the two worlds, the imaginary archival world, and the modern one, looking back.

The trouble is, on this new record, Silent City, out on AtavisticHarnetty teams up with indie folk's most notorious self aggrandizer (aside from Devendra who can hardly be called folk anymore), Bonnie Prince Billy (Will Oldham).  Don't get me wrong, I love Bonnie Prince Billy, I mean like love love, like I think he's one of the more enigmatic, shapeshifting, brashest musicians in this country.  He's just way too Bonnie Prince Billy to sit in on a very sensitive proceeding and go unnoticed.  It's the exact same problem I have with David Sylvian's music altogether.  He's singing outside of the music, it's all about him (and his brooding fascination with himself).  Similarly, when BPB sings it pushes the rest of the piece to the background, which is what good singing is supposed to do, but what the best of Brian Harnetty's music moves obliquely in opposition to.  The good thing is, BPB is only on a couple of the tracks, and the rest of the record is really a beautiful graduation forward from American Winter.  It's really a more settled, more accessible record.  It's also darker.  Instrumentally, it leans a bit too hard on the accordion which can get tinny after listening to it sustain through every track on the record.  But the addition of drums, which are performed loosely but with great specificity, is an important step for this composer, in that it pushes him past creating beautiful textures and mysterious situations, it asks him to tell us something with a sharper ear for how time is being played out.  And that's always a good thing.  Who wants to hear a Brian Harnetty/Grouper split?

Brian Harnetty & Bonnie 'Prince' Billy - Silent City
Brian Harnetty & Bonnie 'Prince' Billy - Well, There Are
Brian Harnetty & Bonnie 'Prince' Billy - Sleeping In The Driveway
Brian Harnetty & Bonnie 'Prince' Billy - As Old As The Stars

Also here's a pretty interesting video for 'Sleeping In The Driveway'  It's a poignant montage of southern farms, farmhouses, interiors, graveyards, and roads.

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Matthias Röder said...

Thanks for sharing this, Peter! Very cool stuff!

Anonymous said...

He's not British...he's from Ohio