Field Works is the project of Indianapolis based sound artist Stuart Hyatt. Recently, he released a new album titled Ultrasonic which is out via Temporary Residence. According to the press release, it is perhaps the ﬁrst-ever album to use the echolocations of bats as compositional source material.
For this special album, Hyatt has assembled an extraordinary group of contributors: Eluvium, Christina Vantzou, Sarah Davachi, Ben Lukas Boysen, Machinefabriek, Mary Lattimore, Felicia Atkinson, Noveller, Chihei Hatakeyama, John Also Bennett, Kelly Moran, Taylor Deupree, Jefre Cantu-Ledesma, Julien Marchal, and Player Piano. Ultrasonic is part of a broader storytelling project about the federally endangered Indiana bat. Generously funded by the IUPUI Arts & Humanities Institute and the National Geographic Society, each album contains an ofﬁcial printed booklet of The Endangered Species Act of 1973.
Check the full streaming of Ultrasonic and read our talk with him about the new album, the field recordings, the concept of the soundscape and much more.
“Ultrasonic” is your new album. It is part of a broader storytelling project about the federally endangered Indiana bat. What was the starting point of the idea of the album?
For the last few years, my work has focused on recording the sounds of our planet and turning them into music. The goal is to tell evocative stories about marginalized people and their communities, about fragile and unique ecosystems, and about our complicated relationship with the natural world.
But it wasn’t until last year that I even considered the possibility of recording something I couldn’t actually hear. I was a chaperone on a school field trip with my son’s 5th grade class. We were on a twilight walk in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. As the sky began to darken, the park ranger stopped us and pointed up. We couldn’t see or hear anything. Then she removed a few small chunky white devices from her backpack. We turned them on, pointed them upward, and the sky exploded into sound. We instantly heard staccato bursts and rhythmic thumping. Everyone just stood there, mesmerized, holding the little white devices with outstretched arms. We were listening to bats. I knew at that moment this would be my next project.
What are your first memories during the period of field recordings for this album?
It was so difficult. I was literally recording things I couldn’t hear while completely covered in swarming insects, wearing a mesh head wrap and gloves. It was pretty miserable. I pulled ticks from my hair and had insect bites all over my body. It wasn’t very glamorous at all.
You involved a lot of great musicians. How did you choose them and how did you work with them?
I hand select all the musicians who contribute to Field Works according to several project- specific factors, but I generally try to pair people with source material I think they might be inspired by or at least be able to treat with a high level of investigation and respect. I also have modest budgets but try to push all of my funding directly through to the musicians. For Ultrasonic, I was completely hands-off with the contributors. I gave them access to a huge catalog of field recordings, a few prompts, and just let them do their thing. The quality and variety of their contributions is super compelling.
“Ultrasonic” is one of those cases which a record goes beyond the traditional concept of music. Each album contains an official printed booklet of The Endangered Species Act of 1973. It’s a way to turn the physical format of the record in an immersive experience. How much important is to create these kind of connections between music, other arts and nature?
Somebody once said that art can ultimately only be about three things: love, death, and god. I think there may be some validity to this, but I’d certainly add nature to that list.
The world is a recording studio where people, places, and things become the instruments. Where I live, Puglia (South Italy), we created an open source website called “HER, Il suono della Puglia” where you can find all the sounds and noises from our area. What do you think of the idea to create a worldwide open source website where people can upload sounds of the places where they live to create a huge online archive which artists like you can use to create something beautiful as “Ultrasonic”? How much important is the concept of soundscape?
I’ve also created a few sound maps along the way, using a software called ZeeMaps as a web template. My colleague Stuart Fowkes, who contributed an excellent essay to the Metaphonics book, runs a wonderful project called Cities and Memory (taken from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities). It’s a fine example of aggregated localized sounds. He’s also been capturing and sharing the great silences filling our cities during this pandemic.
The concept of soundscape is very important. If a violin is a certain sound, and the oboe is another, then the soundscape is the entire orchestra playing together. It’s the forest and the trees.
How are you living these strange times and what are the main concerns as an artist? And what do you think that we’ll learn from this?
It’s really awful. I am both a visual artist and a musician, and folks I know are really hurting. However, as someone who spends a lot of time thinking about, listening to, and recording the sounds of our planet, it is fascinating to witness a great quieting of the industrial world and an awakening of the natural world. There’s a certain dystopian calm. Creepy but also beautiful. In many places, we may actually be hearing the world as it sounded decades, perhaps centuries ago. Like a weird sonic time machine.
When all this situation is over, do you think which there is a chance to see “Ultrasonic” as a live performance with some of the musicians you involved in the project?
We were in discussion about exactly this topic, but then everything changed. I’m finished with the next record and starting on yet another, both of which are better suited to live performance, something I hope to do in the near future.
Ritual question. What are the best releases you recently appreciated?
Yo-Yo Ma’s 2018 album of Bach’s cello suites. He claims this is the final time he’ll record this music. It’s awesome to think how many times he’s performed and recorded these same suites; the manners in which a seemingly static piece of work can evolve and grow as a human interpreter ages and matures. It’s really special.
Also, I am still haunted by the Purple Mountains record from last year. I love the Silver Jews catalog, but hadn’t really been listening to it lately. I used to give people a copy of David Berman’s poem “Self-Portrait at 28” on their 28th birthdays. How nerdy is that? I was so thrilled to see him return with such an incredible record; it really seemed like things were going well. I was trying to figure out where I could catch him on tour. And then hearing the news. So sad. Sorry to end on such a downer, but that’s the first album that came to mind. He’d probably write like no one else about this pandemic.