Words and Silences: The Thomas Merton Hermitage Tapes

March 14, 2023 | 44:58

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Brian Harnetty’s recent record, Words and Silences, takes voice recordings made by the famed American Trappist monk Thomas Merton and sets them within Harnetty’s musical compositions. The meditative and revealing result has been lauded by critics in The Wire, MOJO, and Aquarium Drunkard

In this episode, we share a Phantom Power exclusive: a brand new narrative piece that Brian created about the making of his record. “Words and Silences: The Thomas Merton Hermitage Tapes” is much more than a behind-the-scenes look at Brian’s process. Harnetty’s audio diary is its own moving meditation on Merton, solitude, sound, media, and the self. 

This is the second piece that Brian has shared with Phantom Power–you may remember his Forest Listening Rooms episode. Like that episode, this is something special. We highly recommend taking a walk in the woods or finding a quiet space to listen to this beautiful meditation. And after we listen, Mack talks to Brian about what we’ve heard. 

(And, of course, we’ll have a longer version of the interview and our What’s Good segment for our Patrons.)

Who was Thomas Merton?

Thomas Merton was an author, mystic, poet, and comparative religion scholar who lived from 1915 to 1968. It’s hard to imagine a spiritual superstar quite like Merton appearing in America today. His first book, 1948’s “The Seven Storey Mountain,” became a best-seller and led to a flood of young men applying to join Catholic monasteries. 

Merton had a major influence on spaces such as the progressive Catholic church Mack grew up going to. He was outward facing, committed to leftist causes, and fascinated by other religions, but at the same time, he retreated from his fame into his hermitage in KY. In The New Yorker, Alan Jacobs called him “perhaps the proper patron saint of our information-saturated age, of we who live and move and have our being in social media, and then, desperate for peace and rest, withdraw into privacy and silence, only to return.”

Brian Harnetty

Brian Harnetty is an interdisciplinary sound artist who uses listening to foster social change. He is known for his recording projects with archives, socially engaged sound works, sound and video installations, live performances, and writings. His interdisciplinary approach has been compared to “working like a novelist…breathing new life into old chunks of sound by radically recontextualizing them” (Clive Bell, The Wire).

Brian is currently a Faculty Fellow at Ohio State University’s Global Arts and Humanities Discovery Theme (2022-23), Harnetty is a two-time recipient of the MAP Fund Grant (2021, 2020), and received the A Blade of Grass Fellowship for Socially Engaged Art in Contemplative Practices (2018) and the Creative Capital Performing Arts Award (2016). He has also twice received MOJO Magazine’s “Underground Album of the Year” (2019, 2013).


(3:25): Brian Harnetty Speaking About Words and Silences 

(35:36): Brian Harnetty Interview

Ethereal Voice: This is Phantom Power.

Thomas Merton: Who is this I? 

Who am I who sit here?

It’s very difficult to say because the I who speaks outwardly, who uses this tape recorder, who speaks back to itself from a tape recorder, is to some extent an illusion. And to use a tape recorder is to perpetuate this illusion.

Mack Hagood: Welcome to another episode of Phantom Power, where artists and scholars tell stories abou sound. I’m Mack Hagood. 

You just heard the voice of Thomas Merton, the American Trappist monk, author, mystic poet, and comparative religion scholar who lived from 1915 to 1968. 

It’s hard to imagine a spiritual superstar quite like Merton appearing in America today. His first book, 1948’s The Seven Story Mountain, became a best seller and led to a flood of young men applying to join Catholic monasteries. 

Merton had a major influence on spaces such as the Progressive Catholic Church that I grew up going to. He was outward facing, committed to leftist causes, and fascinated by other religions. But at the same time, he retreated from his fame into his Hermitage in Kentucky.

In the New Yorker, Alan Jacobs called him, “perhaps the proper patron saint of our information, saturated age. Of we who live and move and have our being in social media and then desperate for peace and rest, withdraw into privacy and silence only to return.” 

Last year, my guest today, Brian Harnetty, released a new record called Words and Silences, that engages with Thomas Merton and his relationship to media. 

It brings together archival recordings Merton made alone in his Kentucky Hermitage, along with Hart’s newly composed music. It’s a stunner and it’s been lauded by critics in The Wire, Mojo, and Aquarium Drunkard.

Now, I’m thrilled to share with you a brand new narrative piece that Brian created for Phantom Power about the making of his record. It’s much more than a simple behind the scenes look at Brian’s process. It’s a moving meditation on Merton. Solitude, sound, media, and the self. 

This is the second piece that Brian has shared with Phantom Power, you may remember his Forest Listening Rooms episode. Like that episode, this is something special. I highly recommend taking a walk in the woods or finding a quiet space to listen to this beautiful meditation. 

And after we listen, I’ll talk to Brian about what we’ve heard and of course we’ll have a longer version of the interview and our “What’s Good” segment for patrons.

And now here’s Brian Harnetty on the making of Words and Silences.


Brian Harnetty: It is 2017, and I walk into the Thomas Merton Center in Louisville, Kentucky. The center holds an archive of the Trappist monk and writer, Thomas Merton. 

I’m attracted to the place, curious to explore the materials there. Journal entries, photographs, drawings, books, a typewriter. I listen to audio recordings too; of lectures, talks, even Merton’s funeral ceremony. I notice there is an outward public quality to the recordings. 

I keep listening, uncertain. I listen for different kinds of sounds, emotional or environmental sounds, sounds that might betray a field or room, extra sounds beyond the message of the text. 

An archivist points me to a set of recordings Merton made late in his life, in the solitude of his Hermitage during the spring of 1967.

A hermit alone with a tape recorder is odd, I think. The tape begins and I hear something unusual. The first words fired off quickly and without pause or punctuation. 

[Merton Recording]

Merton: Okay, now I hope we can go on recording like this I think it will stay down good let’s go. 

Harnetty: There is no audience except Merton, and his candor and ease with the recorder is unsettling. I feel as if I’m in the room with him. 

I choose another tape and listen in. Merton is now recording outside noting the birds he hears. 

[Merton Recording]

Merton: Sound of an unperplexed ren.

(Birds Chirping)

No comment necessary. 

Harnetty: There is an audible delight in Merton’s voice. He is not lecturing or pronouncing. Instead, he’s curious and experimental with the tape recorder. 

In these initial recordings, I hear contradictions in Merton’s words, voice and silence. Comment and no comment. Perplexity. 

I hear him creatively making use of the tape recorder, and I hear what the recorder reflects Back to Merton. The tapes begin to reveal something to me too, twice removed and some 50 years later. 

I have an intuition. There is a project here, one that might bring together the tapes with music as an archival performance. As a way to bring Merton’s interior voice out of the archive and into the world.

Two years later, I am at an artist residency in Vermont. My studio, alone and up the road from the other artists, is a kind of temporary hermitage. There is a piano, desk chair, coffee maker, and a place to sleep. An occasional car passes. 

I listen to the Merton tapes again and again. The recordings fill the room. The windows are open, letting in summer air and a lone bee. 

I begin the process of transcribing Merton’s tape. I notice he’s offering commentary on many texts, Sufi mystics, Michelle Fuoco, Samuel Beckett. I also make note of sounds such as creaking chairs and bells. 

Slowly an oral image of the Hermitage take shape in my mind. I stay open as possible and listen for clues between the words just after one thought and ahead of another.

Or I listen for brief pauses where Merton doesn’t seem to know what to say. I hear breathing in silence or even humor. I like hearing him turn the recorder off after finishing a last thought. Each time the gesture feels definitive, sure. 

Sometimes Merton reads his own writing and the writing of others. After he reads a text from Samuel Beckett, for example, he listens back to it, connecting Beckett’s poetry with his earlier musings on perplexity and silence, and admiring the openness and flatness of the words heard aloud.

[Merton’s Recordings]

Merton: Sounds very good. Now what it brings out is the, the monotony of the language and of the syntax, evading complicated statements. Simply stringing together nouns and adjectives and so on seems to emphasize the metaphysical silence behind the person, the persons that he is talking about. 

And in the end, the silence is emphasized as being metaphysical. 

This is a piece which does manifest the silence. The perplexity is very subdued in it, and this is the right kind of perplexity.

Not an emphatic perplexity, but a subdued and deep awareness that everything is perplexed. 

Harnetty: Here, Merton is preoccupied with how Beckett’s even and featureless language arranged as a simple stark mosaic points to a silence behind the words. 

It is this act of reading aloud into the recorder and then listening back again, that makes the silence audible and known.

I am reminded of another Samuel Beckett project, the short one person play Krapp’s Last Tape, where a solitary man at the end of his life speaks to himself through a tape recorder. 

Krapp listens back to his past, grasping for something in his own voice and the hiss of the tape. I wonder if Merton could have known this play.

In the studio, I continue to transcribe the Merton Hermitage tapes. One begins like this: 

[Merton’s Recording]

Merton: It’s Monday morning, April 24th. Some ideas about the use of tape, something that just occurred to me. Tape can be used to speak on in such a way that you say nothing and hide everything, or it can be used in such a way that something is revealed.

Harnetty: I noticed the recorder influencing Merton’s imagination. He shifts his focus to an interrogation of the medium of audio recording itself and its own contradictions. 

The fact that he records himself while doing so only highlights this absurdity, even as he is searching for meaningful reasons to keep using the recorder.

[Merton’s Recording]

Merton: But what should be manifested in thinking out loud in a hermitage is not simply the mechanical operation of the mind itself mechanically recorded on another machine, two machines recording each other, but as speaking, which will somehow bring to the surface this metaphysical perplexity of man in the presence of his own being or being in the presence of other beings in such way that the unity is manifest of the one and the many. 

Harnetty: Merton is twisting and turning the language. It is alliterative, repetitive, and his words seem to deliberately complicate and obscure the tape. 

It is as if he is attempting to do the very thing he warrants against, overrunning the tape with words in order to find out what does and what does not have meaning.

As I listen, I am sure Merton is aware of this, yet another contradiction lying at the heart of these two machines. The tape recorder offers a sonic mirror to him. In his need to fill the tape with sounds and words, he risks getting lost in them. I am struck by Merton’s ability to attentively move through this line of questioning and reach a conclusion imbued with its own contradictions.

[Merton’s Recording]

Merton: And when the tape is moving, you have to keep talking and you have to keep saying something, and you have to keep pretending that you know something. 

In which case you hide the fact that you don’t know, you get away from the perplexity, and perhaps the danger of tape is that it takes you away from the inner mulling over of what is not yet formulated to let the inner word really grow and develop and expand in you before it is uttered. 

In other words, the danger of speaking constantly from the top of one’s head instead of from the heart. 

Harnetty: Merton is speaking urgently, thoughts streaming onto the tape. As I transcribe it is hard to keep up. I go back many times and listen again, and I often don’t know where sentences begin or end.

This process of re-listening brings out patterns in my mind, as Merton’s improvised words become solidified into pairs of opposites. 

Knowing and unknowing. Inmost grain and divine grain. Head and heart. 

In a recording made, three weeks later, Merton offers a commentary on Michelle Fuoco’s Madness and Civilization.

Merton, again thinks deeply about the medium of tape and how it might offer a new way of writing and being in the world. 

[Merton’s Recording]

Merton: The salutary effect on me is to see suddenly how partial and how limited my own preachments are, my own temptations to say that such and such a thing is the cause of such and such a phenomenon, and this is right and this is wrong and so forth. 

This polarizing is a very limited, a very weak approach to reality, and it’s much better instead of polarizing to make mosaics of all the material that is there to take the material as it is. 

Natural and social. 

Harnetty: I hear a shift and Merton is letting go. Judgment, certainty, and preaching all fall away. Only the material is in front of him. Just let the material be Merton seems to be saying, “Let it speak for itself.” I’m reminded of the composer of Morton Feldman, who likewise refused to push the sounds around in his music.

It is interesting that Merton sees the medium of tape as a way to create these mosaics. He perceives how collage sound might be put together, arriving and dissolving ambiguously without explicit answers. 

In this recording, Merton once again, steadfastly strips away artifice and surety in favor of an open and complex uncertainty. This ability to reconcile contradictions is the key mark of the mystic, according to the philosopher and psychologist William James, where the opposites of the world are melted into one another.

But to carry all of these qualities together, unresolved and without judgment, and then to create something new with him, this is the mark of an artist contemplative. It is no coincidence that author James Baldwin’s description of an artist’s role, “To face one’s own silence alone and to find ways to illuminate that darkness,” is strikingly parallel to Merton’s own words and deeds.

One night in Vermont, I forego the evening social gathering and walk back along the road in the pitch black to my studio, suddenly aware that my time there is coming to a close. 

There are no cars and I make my way by feeling the asphalt underfoot, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the night. It is still hot and a chorus of crickets and katydids sing antiphonally from fields on either side of the road. 

There is a rustle in the bushes. I jump and then I laugh at myself, realizing it takes a long time to become comfortable with the night and with the noisy, quiet of rural places. Herem I am forced to listen, to feel, to touch my way to the studio.

Inside there is a solitary light on at the desk, insects clamor at the window. I try to embrace the unnerving quiet of solitude and get back to listening.

I play another tape. Merton is now reading the prominent Sufi mystic, Ibn  al’Arabi. In one passage, al’Arabi reconciles and unifies bears of opposites, inward and outward, speaking and hearing as two sides of the same thing, and then a remarkable moment: 

[Merton’s Recording]

Merton: To return to Ibn al’Arabi, the inward belies the outward when the latter says “I” and the outward belies belies the inward, when the latter says “I”, who is this I? I speak. Here I am speaking, and a moment ago, the birds were singing and the gass just turned off. 

Who is this I? Who am I who sit here?

It’s very difficult to say. 

Because the I who speaks outwardly, who uses this tape recorder, who speaks back to itself from a tape recorder is to some extent an illusion. And to use a tape recorder is to perpetuate this illusion. 

Harnetty: Now, if I focus on Merton’s words alone, I hear a detached commentary on the Hermitage and al’Arabi, but the recording shares more information beyond the text.

When Merton says, “Who am I who sit here?” his voice waivers, something is revealed. Something deeply emotional, an uncertain I, and the tape recorder is there listening. In fact, it is the very presence of the recorder that disrupts and destabilizes Merton’s sense of self. It mirrors and splits not only his wavering voice, but his wavering identity too.

There is a pause and we hear the silence of the hermitage, the ticking of a nearby clock, the hiss of tape, the faint sounds of the furnace, and each is now part of a profoundly charged silence, full of meaning, and bewilderment.

All along the tape recorder quietly clicks on, reflecting Merton, unsettling him, forcing him to remain both between and uncertain.

Psychologists use the phrase “speech reveals and text conceals,” and this is where many layers of information are built into the sonic qualities of the voice. Information that is often hidden or obscured when written down. 

In this recording, we can hear Merton’s contradictions and between them is a still point, a silence embodied and made audible. In that instant, I hear an acute sadness in Merton.

I hear confusion and doubt and searching, a moment of inner conflict. It is as if the unlikely combination of al’Arabi’s words, Merton’s emotions, and the presence of the tape recorder so deeply touched him that he is audibly shaken. 

This passage reminds me of just how much sound can touch. In fact, each time I listen to it, I am deeply, physically affected. As if on cue, my spine tingles starting at my head and just below my neck. Waves of nerves radiate across my back and shoulders and down past my knees. My body is detecting and responding to the slightest emotion. A fever, chill of joy.

It’s six months later. I’m alone in a cabin in Knoxville, Tennessee. It is late at night in December. There’s no one around if the cabin is anything but silent. Snow and rain fall on the roof and clinging to every tree. 

I sense the size of the room, the pressure of air against my ears. I feel a little dizzy. I have a desire to fill the cabin with sound. Radio, music, anything that could be a distraction from settling down with my thoughts and this unceasing noisy silence of being alone. 

I begin to collage the transcriptions of Merton’s words. I focus on in between moments or beginnings and endings, or times just before or after the main events. I structure the passages in the order they were recorded, mapping the spring and early summer of 1967 plus a single winter night on New Year’s Eve. 

I follow the contrasts that Merton alludes to; night and day, sun and rain, jazz and sacred, theoretical and emotional, contemplation and action. Together these tensions map Merton’s movement from silence to words and back again.

I begin to transcribe the music Merton had loved. I take delight in the variety. John Coltrane and Bob Dylan, West Montgomery and Jimmy Smith, Bix Beiderbecke and Louie Armstrong. 

The cabin has a piano in it, and I play fragments from the transcriptions and spin them out, adding lines, slowing them down, stripping away rhythms, adding new notes.

I do this so the music has its own logic. It is tethered to Merton, and yet I can still add my own voice alongside, allowing both to change and grow. 

Merton talks of music on the Hermitage tapes too. 

[Merton’s Recording]

Merton: I’m up late, it’s seven o’clock and instead of going to bed, I’m gonna sit around and play some records and, uh, so you are invited to participate in this New Year’s Eve party of one.

Or rather two, me and my girlfriend, Mary Lou Williams, but Mary Lou Williams is on a record. 

Harnetty: You can hear him celebrating. Laughing, not really caring who his audience might be.

It occurs to me that I’m listening with Merton, eavesdropping in on these innermost words, trying to find and conjure and compose yet another meaning, another layer of connection manifesting itself as music. 

I wonder, “What does it mean to listen closely to a specter?” A recorded shadow of a man, the dead speak, and I listen. In the headphones, every inflection of his voice is audible, his thoughts made concrete, his solitude and confidence in questioning all laid bare. 

Each hesitation laugh and pause holds meaning, each fumble or confidence of words betray his humanness and intelligence and vulnerabilities. 

So close, so far. 

Merton is not listening back to me. It is a one way conversation. It is, as he says, an illusion, but this is the very point the recordings make. Listening is both intimately close and impossibly far, both elusive and real. And my equally absurd response through music strains to complete in exchange across the silences of death, geography, and time.

It is the spring of 2020. I am sitting in my garage in Ohio during the first weeks of the pandemic, composing. I feel anxious. Like so many others, I am in a forced solitude, facing the uncertainty of viruses and shutdowns and shortages and life and death. 

Sitting in the open air, I relax. Outside seems to be the one place I am not stifling my breath, where I am not afraid to breathe deeply and fully. slowly, Merton’s words and the music come together.

A few months ago, I sent music fragments to an ensemble of performers. I intentionally sought out wind instruments to balance the piano. It felt important to think of breath made audible, even as Covid 19 renders the air around me tangible and breathing a symptom of illness. 

These instruments also indirectly reference music Merton admired and the slow breathing of meditation. I asked the musicians to record their parts several times where they made subtle changes to rhythms, textures, and notes. 

Now, the resulting recordings constitute my own unusual archive that I draw from, something known yet unfamiliar, full of sounds that might resonate with the archival tapes of Merton.

Sometimes the music closely follows the auditory cues laid out on the tapes as in breath, water, silence, where Merton comments on several passages of Ibn al’Arabi. 

I am moved by al’Arabei’s notion that all of nature is grounded in the divine breath of each of our lifetimes being contained within a single breath where we are breathed out and then back in.

I begin with a transcribed fragment from Boogie Woogie Prayer, a blisteringly Fast Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons piano duo. I dramatically slow the fragment down and spread it out across several octaves. 

Now greatly simplified, it expansively, resonates and helps create a pocket of space for the words to inhabit.

Trombone and clarinet play long tones, the length of a breath. The instruments color these notes with tremolos, bended notes, and buzzing sounds. Sometimes the musical phrases nestle between words and sometimes the rhythms of words and music match or mimic or are in counterpoint with each other. 

And then there are times when the music seems to reflect or comment on what Merton is saying, as when I pull a triplet figure from Boogie Woogie Prayer and spin it out to correspond with the archival sounds of water dripping in a bucket and rens outside the Hermitage. 

As the piece unfolds, these two elements, breath and water, wax and wane, and then join together with the saxophone, which plays a melancholic wavering Three note melody to the end.

[Excerpt from Words and Silences composition]

In another piece, A Feast of Liberation, I get stuck trying to set Burton’s experimental jazz meditation to music. No matter how many times I try, it falls apart. My attempts are too obvious and the recording does not need my intervention.

I, impulsively decide to replace Merton’s meditation with music. I create a cutout of the tape, only allowing the listener to hear the moments just before and after the meditation.

To my surprise, this not only allows the music to evoke the emotional intensity of the meditation, it also allows the silence beneath Merton’s words to come to the fore.

At the beginning of the tape, Merton talks of racial unrest and protests taking place that very night in Louisville. 

[Merton’s Recording]

Merton: There’ve been riots in Louisville for the last two or three days. The subject of the meditation is who you identified with. It’s not a meditation with points in the background, it willl speak for itself, and if I get some ideas, I’ll speak to them too.

If I don’t get any ideas, I won’t say anything. Outside the moon is full. It’s very quiet here. In other parts of the world, people are being killed. See what it sounds like.

Harnetty: I think of the suffering then and the suffering now, too. The murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd are still raw and ringing in my ears, and once again, breath has been made palpable. 

I add a repeating, solitary sparse line to Merton’s voice. Giving enough space to provide a lilting counterpoint, it swells into a cloud of dense piano lines. The music suddenly stops and Merton’s voice returns, the words now calm and oddly quiet. 

It is as if he is tired and emotionally spent from the evening’s experiment, but also now in a new place, the audible remnants of reflection and repose. 

[Merton’s Recording]

Merton: After I got through recording that I went out in the night, beautiful smell of the grass, full moon, cool dew on the grass dark. 

Lovely cold, quiet night. Tonight is a very beautiful night and I’m celebrating a feast of Lliberation. 

Harnetty: And then a final piece, which I titled One Plus One Equals One. It draws from a curious recording Merton made of another Sufi mystic Sarmad Kashani. 

[Merton’s Recording]

Merton: When one manifests itself in a different form, it is called two. But two is nothing other than one and one put together, while one itself is not a number. 

It is to be remarked that the structure of this putting together of two ones is one. And the product of this putting together, which is called two, is also one number. 

So that the essential form here is one. The matter is one, and the two ones put together are also one,  i.e., one manifesting itself in a form of the many. 

Harnetty: Merton reads Kashani’s words in a clear, detached voice. They reflect as Merton says, the one and the many. They also remind me of the wordplay and repetition of Gertrude Stein. In this recording, I can’t help but hear a culmination of words and silences and the multi-year process of shaping an archival performance out of the Merton tapes. 

I hear the flatness of Beckett, the dichotomy of pairs of opposites from Ibn al’Arabi, an open bewildered perplexity, the twinning of Merton, and the tape recorder, and the exposed, vulnerable, uncertain I of Merton sitting alone in his hermit.

And in this moment of listening with all of its contradictions between past and present, inward and outward, living in dead time and space, everything and nothing. I hold them together and move between them. I hear both unity and multiplicity and the opposites of the world melt into each other.

[Excerpt from Words and Silences composition]


Mack: And now here’s my interview with Brian Harnetty. 

First of all, just thank you for this wonderful piece. I’m, I’m just blown away by what a meditation this is on voice and interiority and media and the act of recording. So, just thank you so much for sharing this. 

Harnetty: Sure. You’re welcome. It’s my pleasure. 

Mack: And so this visit to this archive, it resulted eventually, you know, this journey resulted in this critically acclaimed album from last year, Words and Silences

And you didn’t make too big a point about this in the piece that we just listened to, but I was really struck by how we start off thinking about Merton in his little Kentucky Hermitage recording his voice alone. Then we gradually start to realize that your process as a composer parallels his in some ways, you know? By 2019, you’re working with his recordings alone in this rural residency and then by the time that you’re ready to record the album with musicians, Covid has struck, and many of us are like living in our own little hermitages by that time.

Including like you and your musicians, I guess they had to record themselves remotely. 

Harnetty: That’s right. 

Mack: Not unlike Merton himself. 

Harnetty: That’s exactly right. That happens to be my normal process of making an album, which is funny. But I’ve been doing that for many years now because I work with musicians that are, I’m in Ohio and I work with a lot of musicians that are elsewhere.

And so I’ve developed a rapport with musicians to record themselves. I’ll give them a series of instructions. They’ll record themselves performing little excerpts and then improvising with them. And then when they send those recordings back to me, it feels like I’ve just received like a present of an unusual archive that’s been sent to me. 

And so it’s a delight to listen through those recordings and then to collage them together, as if I didn’t, you know, give them the instructions to do it in the first place. It’s a way of fooling myself into generating material that I find really intriguing.

But yes, I’ve always been drawn to solitude myself, I obviously in writing music you have a lot of solitude time, and so that felt relatively natural to me. And I felt the need to, I didn’t want to exactly put my life in parallel to Merton’s because it’s totally different. I mean, I have a family, you know, I have a very different way of being in the world.

But I wanted to see if there were points of connection, both through the music and how I was inspired by not only his words, but the medium of the recording itself and then all of the music that he was interested in. And then also, I had the fortune to have these mini experiments in solitude with these different residencies.

And so I used those opportunities to really explore what it feels like to be alone and to listen while alone. And so that, that became very useful to think about that. And so I also just thought it would be interesting to think about my personal process like an auto ethnographic process. So I incorporated that too. 

Mack: Yeah, and this term that you use for this kind of work that you’re doing this like I think you called it an “archival performance.” And bringing Merton’s sort of interior voice or this talking to himself that he was doing out into the world. 

It kind of reminded me of a guiding concept that Lawrence English shared with us on Phantom Power, which is what he calls “relational listening.” This idea that when he listens to recordings made by other people, he is listening not just to the sounds that were recorded, but he is trying to listen to the intentionality of the person who made the recording.

And also listening perhaps to, I mean, he didn’t quite put it this way, but maybe the intentionality of the recorder itself. So thinking about the relationship between the recordist and the recorder and the environment that’s being recorded, and it just felt to me like something similar was happening in your work where you seemed really just fascinated by Merton’s relationship to his tape recorder.

Harnetty: Well, first of all, I do use the term “archival performance” or performances, and I define it very broadly. I think it’s any interpretive act in relationship to archival materials. And that could be sonic archives or visual archives, or I even expand it beyond more formal archives to personal collections and so forth.

And it’s a way of realizing that an archive feels static. It feels like it’s sealed up and contained. In fact, it’s really always in a state of becoming itself and has its own kind of agency on us. 

And so, it’s acknowledging that when we listen to these recordings again and again, or spend time with archival materials, that in and of itself is a type of performance in my mind.

The other piece is that when I first started working with archival materials many years ago, I was able to meet some of the relatives of people that were on the recordings and it completely changed the way that I related to the recordings and how I used them. Because now I had those family members or those people that were close to those recorded in my mind.

And there was an immediacy to that and I realized that the recordings are not just static objects, but an actual medium between the past and the present, between the people they loved and who they are today. And so that just very deeply affected me and made me think about a kind of archival stewardship.

Mack: That’s just an excerpt of my conversation with Brian Harnetty about his work and Thomas Merton, and we were just getting started. 

We talk about cybernetics and its influence on Merton’s ideas. We talk about AI and our media saturated age, and the kinds of interventions that sound studies and sound walking can make, you can hear me go off on a weird luddite rant about life today.

It’s all available for our patrons in our patrons feed. If you wanna become a Phantom Power patron you can hear that whole interview plus our “What’s Good” segment with Brian, where he shares something good to read, something good to listen to and something good to do. 

Plans start at just $3 a month, so if you’re a person who listened all the way through this episode, I think you might be someone who would really enjoy being a Phantom Power patron. 

You can find out more at patreon.com/phantompower.

[Excerpt from Words and Silences]

And that’s it for this episode of Phantom Power. Huge thanks to Brian Harnetty for being on the show. 

Brian’s piece, Words and Silences: Listening to the Thomas Merton Hermitage Tapes was written and produced by Brian. 

Go buy Brian’s album, Words and Silences. You can learn more about Brian and his work brianharnetty.com.

That’s H-A-R-N-E-T-T-Y. Take care, and we’ll talk to you again soon.

[Music Fades]