“National Geographic Explorer is the coolest job title,” Stuart Hyatt said. “I can just hang it up from here.”
Hyatt, best known for his musical releases under the Field Works name, won’t actually hang it up any time soon — certainly not with unusual projects in the works. Right now, he’s anticipating the Friday release of “Ultrasonic,” a unique new album built on his field recordings of endangered bats. The album, produced in collaboration with artists like Eluvium, Kelly Moran, and Mary Lattimore, began humbly before taking off.
“I was stuck on a field trip with my son’s fifth-grade class in the Smoky Mountains,” Hyatt explained. “It was our last night there. We were on a hike. It was dusk — a beautiful night. The park ranger handed us these little walkie-talkie-like devices. We pointed them to the dark sky and they just exploded with sound. We were actually listening to the echolocation of bats. It was such a magical moment, a childlike thrill. As someone who studies and thinks about sound, I was inspired and embarrassed that it hadn’t occurred to me, this other realm. It was like peering into another realm.”
Hyatt, using grants from the National Geographic Society and IUPUI Arts & Humanities Institute, recorded the sounds of the endangered Indiana bat. National Geographic proved to be not only a financial backer, but also a steady supporter.
“They loved it, and they funded it. They’ve been super supportive — not just financially, but with resources, and inviting me to their headquarters for training,” Hyatt said. “They want to be a lifelong partner in these things even after the grant is finished.”
Those recorded sounds, starting at 30,000 Hz, needed to be “transposed back down to the sound of human hearing.” From that point, Hyatt simply brought in artists to turn the field recordings into musical pieces.
“For ‘Ultrasonic,’ these were pretty straightforward commissions,” he explained. “I did not have my hand in the contributors’ music. I just provided them with the source audio and said, ‘Go for it.’ The way I chose people was .. .folks whose music I’m a fan of, that I thought would be interested and inspired by the source material. I tried to get a variety of types of musicians about how they approach composition. The record ended up being so long because almost everyone said yes. I usually get a 50% hit rate when I ask people to do these things.”
Once the pieces were finished, Hyatt still had to shape the album, which plays remarkably cohesively, given its origins.
“That was the real challenge. I formatted the four sides of the two records to be ‘Dusk,’ ‘Forest,’ ‘Field,’ ‘Dawn,’ thinking of the narrative arc of a single night in a bat’s life. The sequencing is with vinyl in mind.”
Hyatt arrived at this work after a circuitous journey. He began playing with four-track recording in high school, but initially he did head down a related career path. He went to school for visual arts and architecture.
“The Field Works body of work came out of being in architecture school. When I was developing a thesis project, I chose Washington Street in Indianapolis as my building site. On the site analysis part, as a responsible designer, one is supposed to dig deep into the cultural specifics and needs of a community. I started talking to people, and I found that talking to people and getting these little snippets of sound was perhaps the most interesting part. I started walking farther along Washington Street and ended up losing myself in this process of recording the sounds of the people and the animals and the places. I walked the entire 22.5 miles across our entire county, in a sort of Forrest Gumpian-type move. I said, ‘This is way more interesting than a building.’ I was lucky to have sympathetic advisors who essentially accepted a vinyl record as my architecture graduate thesis.”
That work led to “The National Road,” which then set Hyatt down his career path. That background still influences Hyatt’s work, as he doesn’t have musical training and he works sometimes with graphic scores to communicate his ideas for others to play.
“The thinking leans heavily on vocabulary and thoughts that one develops in design and architecture school,” Hyatt said. “I think about space and structure and skin and texture. I think about color and movement, and all of these things that have no direct relation to quarter notes and half-notes and rests.”
Hyatt’s varied background all pulls together, whether telling the stories of a city or “bringing attention to communities and landscapes that are a little bit outside” the urban mainstream (as his M12 collective does) or thinking through the soundscape ecology of Bernie Krause to learn how to listen better.
With those thoughts, Hyatt has “slowly started to move away from humans toward the nonhuman world.” His next two projects — as far as he’ll give them away at this point — revolve around a study of trees for a dual-language English and Arabic album and a study in Alaska working with geologists and seismic data.
Hyatt isn’t your typical artist, but we’re all better for it. Who else would use an unheard realm to help us think about hearing better? With “Ultrasonic,” he does just that as the architect of a strange and captivating experience.