The 21st Century has given artists, writers, and musicians an expanded palette from which to express their ideas. Technology, particularly sound technology, along with new ideas about how sound fits together have made it possible for artists to create in ways that cut across forms that were not possible in times past. As the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition looks to contemporary artists to continue the project of furthering Appalachian culture, it is especially exciting to find someone who seems to make everything new while remaining closely tied to tradition. Trey Burnart Hall’s work is an example of the formal experiments that are now possible, even as his work takes up threads that are as old and traditional as an Appalachian quilt. His latest project, “Sound Quilt #1, Harlan Country Reprise” features the work of UACC Core Member Pauletta Hansel.
Trey Burnart Hall weaves his patchwork within a different medium than cloth, but the weave and patchwork is just as clear. The Sound Quilt Project “is an audio series that takes different sonic “fabrics,” such as music, poetry, and other multimedia, and weaves them together to create something new,” to cite Hall. Rather than fiber and thread, the Sound Quilt stitches together fragments of poetry, music, clips from news broadcasts—really, anything that fits in much the same way as a quilt made from fabric scraps. Like a traditional quilt, the whole takes on strength and beauty that exceeds the sum of its parts.
In her book Quilts as Text(iles): The Semiotics of Quilting (University of Michigan Press, 1996), Judy Elsley explains that “a quilt is a text. It speaks its maker’s desires and beliefs, hopes and fears, sometimes in a language any reader can understand, but often in an obscure language available only to the initiated.” A quilt conveys meaning in the same way as any written text, and it gets this meaning across in at least two ways. There are meanings available to anyone willing to take the time to look. Then there are the meanings that are accessible only to those who belong to a group from which the quilt maker speaks, writes, or sews.
There is a long tradition of quilting in Appalachian culture. Some quilt patterns were embedded with specific meanings bound up with the issues of a historical period. There is, for example, the Black Rose design that was meant to signify allegiance with the abolitionists. Hall’s Sound Quilt is woven into the issues that attend the coal industry and its impact on Appalachian people. Hall told me that he had been involved in a seminar in the Media, Art, and Text program at Virginia Commonwealth University that was exploring the idea of “sound.” He said, “I did a nosedive into Appalachian resistance documentaries and was watching Harlan County, USA by Barbara Kopple as protests were breaking out about the Blackjewel Coal Bankruptcy. I was watching coverage on news outlets and then stumbled onto Pauletta Hansel’s Harlan County, USA (2019)’ in Rattle’s Poets Respond online publication. A constellation of sorts was found here.” These pieces of sonic fabric made something of a single piece, and Hall eventually began stitching them together into what would become the Sound Quilt Project.
Drawing on poetry, music, and sound clips, Hall’s work threads voices and other sounds into the quilt. The piece confronts the listener with the voices of miners who had been left unpaid after the mining company pulled up stakes and declared bankruptcy. But you can also hear the defiant voices of the miners as they chant “No money. No coal” while blocking the mining company from business as usual. The distinction between what we ordinarily call music and poetry, and the ambient “noise” of the disruption surrounding the events of the mining standoff is quite deliberate. Hall told me he had begun asking questions like “What is the different between sound and noise?” Questions like this were part of the germ that led to the creation of the Sound Quilt. Again, this resonates with the traditional fabric quilt when we consider that quilts are in fact made from “scraps,” pieces of fabric that would have been thrown away had not necessity forced quilters to re-use in creative ways.
Trey Burnet Hall comes from Botetourt County, Virginia. His memories of this part of the country are fond, even if the geography itself has profoundly changed, not necessarily for the better: “Growing up, it was a farm town, dissected by the Appalachian Trial. It was a patchwork of apple orchards and corn fields, but as time and industry progressed, my childhood stomping ground was paved over, and suburban sprawl snuffed out much of the natural environment I thrived on growing up.” Perhaps watching the land itself become lost under the homogenizing forces of suburbanization is part of the drive to preserve the cultural memory of Appalachia in the best way he knows, through music and sound. That patchwork of home has become a patchwork of a completely new form. The synthesizing process of sound quilting is a logical extension since it melds the contemporary with the traditional both in form and content.
You will hear the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition core member Pauletta Hansel’s voice on the Sound Quilt Project. To describe all that you will hear would be to diminish the power of Trey Burnart Hall’s ambitious work. Give it a listen yourself at the link below. As part of the UACC mission of gathering and disseminating information about Appalachian history and culture, it is especially gratifying to put a spotlight on the Sound Quilt Project as work that advances Appalachian culture in new and exciting forms.
You can listen to “Sound Quilt #1, Harlan Country Reprise” here.
Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. Check out his profile in UACC’s new Cultural Directory. He lives in downtown Cincinnati with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city snapping photos. She looks up at that the grandeur of the city, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.