Listening to the Democratic Forest with Brian Harnetty

In July 2020 I spoke with composer and sound artist Brian Harnetty about his work—particularly Forest Listening Rooms (2018–present), a project that brings diverse groups of Appalachian residents, young and old, activists and oil drillers, to sit and listen in wooded spaces (or “rooms”) and absorb the sounds of a landscape in flux. Appalachia has been transformed by human activity, perhaps most notably and often tragically by extractive industries. But Harnetty’s work is not a moralizing teach-in about the dangers of a despoiled environment. Each listening session is a performance, and no two sessions can be the same because different people are listening and reflecting on different sounds each time. Central to its purpose is an awareness that debates about the environment are too often in the heated abstract, with the residents of Appalachia often unheard, and ideological combatants listening neither to each other nor the natural world itself. Forest Listening Rooms offers an encounter with an Appalachia that is changing rapidly, sometimes loudly, as in the clang of an excavator, and sometimes softly, as some ecosystems rebuild in the wake of fossil fuel companies in retreat. It reimagines the space of the forest as one of democratic immediacy.

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