Words and Silences is released in dual vocal and instrumental versions, befitting its title. Winesap Records is also offering a fine 48-page chapbook, which we recommend to gain that precious tactile experience. While Thomas Merton ~ the subject of this album ~ was a mystic, monk and nature writer, we can’t help but think he would have preferred a physical book to a digital copy.
The listening order will influence one’s interpretation. Play the instrumental version first, and later one may hear the words as an amplification, finding spaces one did not know existed. Play the vocal version first, and later one may feel as if something more than words has been removed ~ or conversely, that the echo of the words continues to exist in the notes.
We’ve tried both, and recommend the former. The label writes, “This music is great for driving, looking out of windows, quietly sitting on the front porch, walking across fields and forest paths, and careful up-close listening.” It’s also a perfect accompaniment to the chapbook, because it is nigh-impossible to read while listening to narration. And while the words of Merton are the most important part of the release, the replay value of the instrumental version is much higher. One may even imagine time folding back on itself, the monk alone in his hermitage in 1967, recording observations on a reel-to-reel recorder. It’s likely that his musings first appeared in handwritten form, notes scrawled while listening to John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, Mary Lou Williams and others, whom Brian Harnetty quotes in his music. While the brass and wind instruments are intended to evoke meditation, they may also suggest nature, aspiration, and the passage of time. Harnetty’s piano provides the anchor for these compositions, but the music soars whenever the brass quartet enters, inspiring the listener to believe that with a little help from each other and above, Merton’s societal dreams might one day come true.
The connections continue on the reel-to-reel disc. Merton’s words and silences create space for contemplation, each pause an opportunity for musical or spiritual reflection. After visiting the hermitage, Harnetty retreated to “a temporary hermitage” of his own, playing the tapes until they began to seep into his soul. He concluded that they formed a portrait of Merton’s interior life, one that with a bit of molding might become a radio-play, but that he would present in a more abstract manner, preserving the field recordings, beginning with an “unperplexed wren” and occasionally sharing the “peripheries” rather than the heart of the monologues.
Merton seems fascinated with the recording process, enamored with the mechanics. The reel-to-reel recorder provided him with a way to interact with his thoughts and his own voice; Harnetty’s work is an engagement, not only with thought and voice, but with intonation and emotion. Just as Merton often did other things in the silences: paint, draw, photograph – Harnetty decorates (not fills) the silences with music.
One of the most telling passages in Harnetty‘s musings is his reaction to being in a deserted cabin in winter: “I have the 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.” This passage echoes Merton’s “experimental meditation, against the background of some jazz,” as well as a New Year’s Eve spent alone playing records. By making two recordings, Harnetty fills the silences with music and removes the words to reveal silences. By writing a chapbook, he imitates Merton’s creative process in such a way as one might use Harnetty’s words as the basis of a new composition.
Harnetty listens to Merton, who quotes al-‘Arabi and listens to Mary Lou Williams. Merton writes of racial unrest in Louisville; Harnetty thinks of Floyd. Who am I who sit here? As time markers disappear, Harnetty concludes, “the opposites of the world melt into each other.” When identities are subsumed, the possibility for forward progress is revealed, the “I” giving way to the “we,” a conclusion ironically discovered in the midst of a solitary life. (Richard Allen)