Stuart Hyatt, with colleagues Erica Penna and Nathan Ferriera, recording bats
Listening to the Anthropocene
interview by Kyle Barnett
A few years ago, I happened upon a few recordings from Stuart Hyatt's Field Works. Hyatt blurs traditional boundaries between field recording, music, and visual art, in a way that is immediately engaging. It's engaging for a lot of reasons, but the key element for me is that his work put you in a specific place, a specific moment. Then suddenly you're hearing voices and sounds from that place, whether it's in our built environment or in environmental locales that few of us will ever experience firsthand. Through listening, whatever you thought you knew about a given locale - if you knew anything beforehand - starts to change.
If you haven't heard of Hyatt, you have likely heard of some of his collaborators, including Eluvium, Mary Lattimore, Noveller, Dan Deacon, Juana Molina, The Field, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, and Matmos, to name a few. With so many collaborators, one might assume the music would have a disparate, even disjointed quality, but the compositions still end up sounding like Field Works.
In what follows, I talk to Hyatt about his work to date, including Field Works' massive Metaphonics and the collective's most recent release, Ultrasonic.
PSF: How do you describe what it is you do as a field recordist, as an artist, as a musician? Did one facet come before the other?
SH: When I was three years old, I was a pretty hyperactive kid. A psychologist recommended, of all things, violin lessons in the Suzuki method. So, at the ripe age of three, with a 1/16th size violin in hand, my musical journey began. Suzuki relies on rhythm, repetition, and ear training to learn an instrument. I did this every day until I was ten, then abruptly quit to pursue other interests. Fortunately, the lessons really did seem to calm my mind. Unfortunately, the timing of my quitting coincided with the introduction of sheet music into the practice. So I left the violin, able to masterfully play complex pieces, but completely unable to read what I was playing.
The next year, in fifth grade, my eccentric genius friend Kevin started hacking his parents' tape machines and turntables, creating homemade multi-track recordings. I was hooked. In high school, I borrowed my friend Brian's 4-track tape recorder and began layering my own compositions together. This led to tape splicing, field recording, and eventually Pro Tools. All the while, I was teaching myself guitar, piano, bass, drums, and programming.
But my schooling was centered on visual arts and design. I eventually attained graduate degrees in both architecture and sculpture, but sound was consistently woven into the work. This is all a long way of saying that I am decidedly outside the formal music education system or scene. I identify as a visual artist who happens to make records. As such, I rely on non-traditional means of expressing composition and communicating them with potential performers and collaborators. I employ a vocabulary from art and design to describe melody and rhythm - I think of these things in spatial terms, with color and pattern and textures throughout. This all comes to fruition through graphic scores and drawings, which I sometimes use to eventually inform musical notation.
This story is nicely documented by my friend Sarah Urist Green in a chapter of her wonderful new book You are an Artist, available now via Penguin Random House. Highly recommended reading.
PSF: How did your work process develop? Is that development linked to work on your own TEAM Records and collaborations with M12 Studio? Both get credits in your projects to date.
SH: I embrace multiple parallel careers, in which I have varying levels of freedom and control. It keeps me challenged and inspired. My work as TEAM Records, although highly collaborative, is entirely driven by my own very personal intellectual curiosity, project ambitions, and creative decisions. My work with M12 requires a complete forgoing of my ego and an adoption of group think, potential synergies, and conflict. I am grateful to have these multiple approaches to making work.
PSF: How do you see the collaboration between your field recordings and the wide variety of musicians that make up the Field Works ensemble? How do you see the Field Works' projects differently from your earlier Stuart Hyatt work, such as The Clouds (2005)?
SH: It's just been a slow transition from songwriting - with verses and choruses and such - to more abstract, cinematic soundscapes. Field recordings have always been a part of it though. On the more traditional folk / gospel / indie rock stuff, I was always integrating interviews and found sounds into the music. And while I still absolutely love great songwriting, insightful lyrics, and memorable hooks, I realize the life of performing and touring in bars and clubs was never for me. I am much more attracted to quiet museum spaces, sound installations, and bookstores.
I recorded a trilogy of albums as Stuart Hyatt / TEAM Records in 2004, 2005, and 2006. These three albums are out of print but they contain some of the most incredibly unique community-based songwriting out there. All three are being totally re-mixed and re-mastered for a special 20-year anniversary release in a few years. If there's a label out there that's into esoteric reissues with little commercial appeal, by all means reach out to me! Haha.
The musicians who collaborate and contribute to Field Works are hand selected by me according to a number of project-specific factors, but I always 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 am a music geek first, and am a real fan of every single musician in this series. I listen to their respective music all the time.
PSF: Most people think of field recording as a relatively solo endeavor, but for your work - even before collaborations with musicians - it seems crucial to have collaborators. As your projects evolve, the collaborations continue in music, video, and print media. How does this approach set you apart?
SH: One thing I've tried to avoid is restricting myself to artistic collaborators only; I need my work to appeal to a lay audience. The commercial art world and the general business of music are brutally competitive and seem to reward some version of an idealized individual visionary genius. I reject that concept. I like working with and learning from biologists, policy makers, environmentalists, mathematicians, essayists; trying to approach problems together, telling stories that perhaps aren't being told. I don't think there's anything substantial that sets me apart; nor is this type of work new.
PSF: In 2018, Brooklyn's Temporary Residence released your sprawling multi-media project, Metaphonics, under the Field Works moniker. How did you get musicians to join in on the collaboration? How did the work process proceed, or was it different in every case?
SH: It varies greatly. On some tracks, there's a lot of give and take, back and forth. On others, I simply provide field recordings and some suggestions to a musician and am completely uninvolved in the composition and recording. On others, I personally write the music and then hand it off for arranging and recording. And sometimes, I do it all myself. I try to let the subject matter determine the approach. A lot is also determined by budget and schedules. I have modest budgets, often derived from artist grants and foundations, but I push it all through to my collaborators and contributors; I pay every single person up front who works on this. I then try to break even on record and book sales. It's not going so great.
PSF: The 7-album box set comes with a listener's guide designed by Indianapolis' PRINTtEXT and published by the Netherlands' Jap Sam Press. In some ways, the book represents as much work as the music, given that you got yet more collaborators to help here, including field recordists, artists, and archivists, and including naturalist Bernie Krause to write the foreword. How was this process similar or different from the music?
SH: The book started as simple liner notes to accompany the 52 tracks contained in the boxed set; I thought of it as a kind of annotated bibliography. But I also realized that most listeners might not be familiar with the overlapping fields of soundscape ecology, urban studies, and nature writing. So we decided to commission writers and artists to contribute new thoughts and ideas to the field. Bernie Krause, who was thinking about these issues long before most of us, was generous enough to write the foreword, which establishes a taxonomy of sound that guides the reader through the entire book. Building the book was, I suppose, not unlike crafting a Field Works album. I was fortunate to have Janneane and Benjamin Blevins of PRINTtEXT as my primary collaborators on the book. Also, the boxed set is expensive - $150 - and is a super limited edition, and is already sold out. The book retails for about $25 and includes the entire discography via the included download card, so the idea was to also have a much more affordable and portable product.
PSF: Your work links sound with a strong sense of place. Some of the recordings on Metaphonics takes sounds from primordial locales: glaciers, volcanoes, even sonic representations of gravitational waves. But you also highlight sounds from everyday (if under-represented) locales. We've both spent significant amounts of time in Indianapolis and the rest of Indiana, areas uniquely represented here. The project also takes us to Glen Rose, Texas and Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. What is your relationship to the places that appear in your work? What does it mean for you to represent this place through sound?
SH: Representing a place through sound is my response to our image-saturated media environment. Everyone with a phone now travels with a high quality pocket camera. The sheer quantity of photos taken and disseminated is just extraordinary. I think sound is still undervalued as a means to measure environmental health, regional identity, and personal narrative. So that's what I've focused on. As for the choice of locations, sometimes I seek them out, sometimes a person or a story grabs me and leads me, sometimes it's a weird spiritual quest, but most often, it comes down to how and where I can get funding to realize the projects. I've received grants and commissions from a number of organizations, and each batch of funding comes with certain requirements and limitations. That's just part of the game, I guess. I've been lucky to have really generous funders who for the most part trust me to create meaningful work that both celebrates and interrogates sonic space. My background in studio art and architecture has served me well regarding site specificity and responsiveness. I can immediately reference a few texts that I repeatedly go back to on these issues: Miwon Kown's One Place after Another, J. B. Jackson's A Sense of Place, a Sense of Time, Yi-Fu Tuan's Space and Place, and pretty much everything by Lucy Lippard.
PSF: The forthcoming Field Works project, Ultrasonic, marks a departure on several fronts. Your environmental inspiration for the project is the endangered Indiana bat and your compositional approach builds from the bats' own sonic practices. To begin, this may well be the first album in history to use the echo location of bats in music composition. What does that mean, in terms of what we hear?
SH: The listener is literally hearing sounds that virtually no other human has ever heard before. While scientists frequently record bats for species Identification, population counts, migration patterns, and communication studies, to my knowledge no one has ever unearthed the musical qualities of their voices. Add to this that the bats' voices sit well above the range of human hearing; you really are stepping into another dimension. I see my field recordings, and the resulting music, as a portal for the listener to enter this alternate dimension.
PSF: Ultrasonic is also unique in that it is in that it has funding support from the National Geographic Society (as well as IUPUI's Arts and Humanities Institute). Can you tell me how your relationship with the National Geographic Society came about?
SH: Once I received funding from the IUPUI Arts and Humanities Institute, I knew the idea would become reality. I also recognized that in order to do the project right, I'd need more money and support. I applied for funding from the City of Indianapolis, which I figured would be a slam dunk. I also found these exploration grants from the National Geographic Society, which I applied for (thinking there was no way they'd fund this). The opposite happened - Indianapolis rejected my proposal but Nat Geo funded it. I am so grateful to have the support from the National Geographic Society - not just the money - but the advice, logistical support, and introductions to some pretty incredible people. Plus, I've always had trouble answering the whole "what do you do?" cocktail party type of question. Now I just say I'm a National Geographic Explorer. World's coolest job title.
PSF: To date, I largely associate your work with sound recording. Have you performed live before? I'm curious as to how that might work, though it could be challenging. I could imagine special events in special locales. Have you thought much about how your work could translate to live performance?
SH: Yes, we do live performances. Perhaps once or maybe twice per year. I try to make them as unique and context-specific as possible. Because Field Works is not a band in any traditional sense, there is no set lineup or format whatsoever. Each event is a complete invention of a new band. It's thrilling but exhausting. We've performed in the woods, in a cave, in museums and galleries and bookstores, and typically in conjunction with significant visual and sculptural elements. I almost always feature non-musicians as well: scientists, writers, members of the public, actors, filmmakers - I want each Field Works event to defy categorization but to be intellectually approachable, emotionally rich, and completely memorable. I occasionally succeed.
PSF: I wonder if you might talk more generally about your relationship to sound and what it means to you. Your Metaphonics listener's guide divides sounds into three categories that emerge from Krause's work: geophony (sounds produced by the earth); biophony (sounds produced by non-human organisms); and anthropophony (sounds produced by human beings). To what extent has this categorization guided your own approaches to each?
SH: Bernie's book The Great Animal Orchestra was a revelation for me. I had been pointing my microphones in every direction, with no real organizing framework for the field recordings. His elegant taxonomy really helped me understand how I might transform my own recordings into more compelling stories. How sound can be a critical tool in measuring the health of a given ecosystem. It seems obvious now, but our culture is so visually oriented that we all sometimes forget to just listen. We used his three categories as conceptual guideposts through the Metaphonics book; and yes, it was a real honor to have him write the book's foreword.
PSF: I know Ultrasonic comes out in May, so you may not have thought much about next projects. But can you offer any previews of what's next?
SH: The next two Field Works albums are underway. I'm in the studio now doing final arrangements and starting to mix the 9th record in the series; it combines Cosmic Americana with Cosmic Arabic music. It's about trees. The one after that is a commission from the Anchorage Museum and is a collaboration with geologists in the polar north. We're starting to track that one in May. There will also be a major book to accompany the album. It's all very exciting.
For more information on Stuart Hyatt and Field Works, see https://stuarthyatt.org/
Ultrasonic, Field Works' latest release, is available via Temporary Residence, Ltd.
Kyle Barnett is the author of Record Cultures: the Transformation of the U.S. Recording Industry and is associate professor of media studies at Bellarmine University in Louisville, KY. A book excerpt appeared in a previous issue of Perfect Sound Forever and can be found here.
Also see our 2021 article about field recordings
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