Press "Enter" to skip to content

Brian Harnetty’s Words and Silences: An amazing, challenging, intriguing composition

At an important point in my life last year, Thomas Merton’s No Man Is an Island landed in my hands. In it, the 20th century monk/mystic/author/international cause célèbre argues that the growth of the virtue of charity in a person is a way of assessing, sanctifying, and maintaining the internal state of the soul. It was a comfort in a difficult time, and I proceeded to dog-ear 20+ pages in it. I had never read anything by Merton (I had him confused with Thomas à Kempis, which is only approximately 500 years off), but I was deeply intrigued after my first experience.

My second experience of Merton was via Brian Harnetty‘s Words and Silences, which is one of the most intriguing and complex records I’ve heard all year. (It’s already landed in my Top Ten of the year, because this review is late.) Harnetty is a composer who primarily works with strings, woodwinds, piano, and found sound. The found sound in Words and Silences is a collection of tape recorded thoughts that Merton created in the late 1960s at his hermitage in the Abbey of Gethsemani. The fusion of Merton’s voice, cassette-noise artifacts, Harnetty’s elegant and detailed compositions, and the delicate instrumental performances produce some of the most amazing, challenging work of the year.

Let’s start with Merton: the fact that Thomas Merton’s voice is coming out of my speakers is a somewhat miraculous feeling. The tone of Merton’s voice is serious, warm, calm, and thoughtful. He speaks the way that the prose of No Man Is an Island sounds.

Merton’s topics here are carefully curated to reflect a few core ideas. The idea of man being unable to escape the perplexity of being, although animals can, appears often throughout the album, most prominently in “Sound of an Unperplexed Wren.” Mystic thoughts discussing Ibn al-Arabi’s thoughts on the nature of the self and life reflect Merton’s interest in interfaith understanding (“Who Is This I?”, “Breath Water Silence,” “One Plus One Equals One”).

These two topics are the most directly religious of the themes, with others going in different directions. Meta-analysis of what recording actually does for ideas (obscures some things, makes some things plain) is the fascinating topic of “Thinking Out Loud in a Hermitage. (The subtle clicking of the tape recorded that comes along with every recording of Merton becomes just as friendly as the sound of Merton’s voice and Harnetty’s delicate piano. The sonics never work against the subtle rhythm to create unintended discord. It’s this sort of detail that makes the record so exquisite.) His interest in poetry and jazz (“A Feast of Liberation,” “New Year’s Eve Party of One,” “Well Cats Now We Change Our Tune”) pops up too. There’s also a discussion of a Foucault book, which is the first time I’ve ever heard music about Foucault (“”Let There Be a Moving Mosaic of This Rich Material”).

And, although I have been explaining the spoken word that is featured here, this is not a series of lectures. Harnetty’s compositions here work to showcase ideas of Merton’s. Harnetty’s work is often highly emotional; the found sounds that Harnetty works with often don’t reveal specific interpretations. In previous works like Shawnee, Ohio and Silent City, Harnetty used his compositions to guide the listener into what to feel about the found sound presentation. In Words and Silences, Harnetty pulls back from that impulse, letting the compositions augment the feelings that Merton himself brings up. Merton’s main ideas revolve around uncertainty and questioning, and thus so do the compositions here.

“A Feast of Liberation” sees Merton talking conducting “an experimental meditation against a background of jazz,” and the sonic environment to fit that is a delicate arrangement of staccato piano and mournful woodwind. Why so glum? Merton mentions the 1968 Louisville riots as the occasion of the meditation. Yet as the piece continues on, the interlocking rhythms of the arrangement do give a feeling of mournful jazz. The fusion of historical context, religious activity, and musical sensibility delivers a truly evocative experience.

The heart of the record is “Who Is This I?”, which continues the theme of jazz-inflected, woodwind-heavy compositions. Merton’s words are some of the most mystical on the record, and Harnetty’s arrangement offers mysterious, pensive vignettes between bursts of Merton speaking. The conversation of Harnetty and Merton via art is most prominent here: Merton speaks, Harnetty speaks (through the composition), Merton speaks, and then their work fuses together. It’s a masterful handling of the style: Harnetty’s vision about what he wants to say arrives through a fusion of what has come before (Merton’s thoughts) and what he is creating (the musical compositions).

The only piece here that features no Merton in the body of the composition is titled poignantly: “Strange Things You Sometimes Find.” In the same way that Merton marvels over his discovery and use of the tape recorder, Harnetty here delivers a tender, 68-second piano rumination on the whole process of doing this sort of work. Merton postscripts the piece: “Sadness has filled your heart. Strange things you sometimes find.”

It’s not all meditative. Elsewhere there’s fun and beauty: “New Year’s Eve Party of One” is Merton describing music that he loves over lightly jaunty piano, and “A Hawk Flew Fast Away” is an elegant composition that shows Merton reading a pastoral poem he composed. Harnetty’s goal here isn’t to give a full accounting of Merton (who could?), but he does show starkly different facets of his self and work.

Words and Silences is a true collection: the album is bookended by “Sound of an Unperplexed Wren” and “One Plus One Equals One,” which feature the same melody in variation. (You could argue that “One Plus One” is a variation of “Sound,” but Merton might suggest that it really depends on which part of the recording you listen to first.) Ultimately, these two pieces lay out main melodic and lyrical themes, pointing the listener back into the work to reveal more from the sounds and words.

Harnetty’s vision here is immense: combining the thoughts of a spiritual giant like Merton with compositions that support and showcase the ideas while balancing complex sonic artifacts is a ton to wrap one’s head around. And yet, Harnetty achieves all of that, and the collection here soars. The work is distinctive, immersive, and poignant. It’s an unalloyed triumph and a magnificent achievement. Highly recommended.