What would you say if I told you that one of the year’s best ambient/drone albums was made from field recordings of bats? That’s the story being Ultrasonic, the 8th album to be released under the Field Works name. Stuart Hyatt, the man behind the project, recorded the sounds made by bats in Indiana. From there, the recordings were used by a group of prodigiously talented musicians — including Kelly Moran, Noveller, Eluvium, and Christina Vantzou — to create a series of stunning ambient soundscapes. I talked with Hyatt via email about the project’s genesis and the permutations that this album underwent en route to its completion.
How did you go about selecting the musicians who would work on Ultrasonic?
Ultrasonic is the 8th album in the Field Works series; each record emerges from very specific circumstances, including a guiding conceptual framework, locational context, and funding mechanisms. I hand select all the musicians who contribute to Field Works according to all of these 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 am a music geek first, and am a real fan of every single musician in this series. I have modest budgets and these are pretty esoteric releases, so I might typically have about a 50% success rate on getting folks to participate. But with Ultrasonic, almost everyone I asked said yes, hence the sprawling double LP.
The field recordings you were dealing with for this project were sound that had a function above communication. Did that have any impact on how you approached this relative to the other Field Works albums?
This was quite literally uncharted acoustic territory for me. Humans can detect sounds that are between 20 Hertz and 20,000 Hertz. Think of a Hertz (Hz) as a single wave of sound hitting our ears. The number of waves (or hertz) entering our ears per second determines the pitch of what we hear. For example, in the orchestra, a tuba can produce sounds as deep as about 30 Hz, in this range we can mostly feel the vibrations rather than hear them. A violin can play notes up into a few thousand hertz.
But bat echolocations don’t even really get started until about 30,000 hertz. This is way, way, above our range of hearing. To hear, and ultimately record, these incredibly fast moving vibrations, I needed to get my hands on some very specialized equipment.
First, I needed a recording device with strong and clean amplification. Then I needed specially designed microphones built to capture high frequency sounds. I also used ultrasonic heterodyne detectors for rhythmic recordings. Outfitted with this super cool new equipment, I just needed to find some bats.
Luckily, there are 3-4 bats that appear like clockwork every evening above my driveway, right in the urban heart of Indianapolis. They fly around my yard, feeding on insects for about 30 minutes after sunset, then move on to new areas. The species is Big Brown bats, and I spent most of last spring and early summer camped out in my driveway, figuring out how to record them.
Once I developed reliable recording techniques, I was ready to go find the elusive and endangered Indiana Bat (Myotis sodalis). I was so fortunate to work in the field with an incredible team of biologists from Indiana State University’s Center for Bat Research, Outreach, and Conservation The research team is led by Dr. Joy O’Keefe, who is perhaps the world’s leading expert on the Indiana Bat. I also got to tag along with Tim Shier, a mammalogist for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.
These scientists are experts on the Indiana Bat, which is protected by the U.S Endangered Species Act of 1973. It’s an extraordinary document. I’ve included an official printed copy of it in every package of the double vinyl LP, which is available for pre-order right now.
For me, recording these endangered creatures has been like stepping into an alternate dimension. And the music we’re creating is a portal into that dimension.
What was the biggest surprise for you, as far as what one musician had done with these field recordings?
I was almost completely hands-off with the commissions on Ultrasonic, so each email that came through with a draft or final version of a contributor’s track was like opening a very special wrapped gift. Some pretty remarkable approaches, from what I can understand, include Taylor Deupree’s piece, in which he mapped the tuned bat sounds to each key on a piano, and Ben Lukas Boysen, who apparently only used the bat sounds themselves to build the composition. No other instruments or sounds used whatsoever! There was such a wide variety of approaches, my real challenge was to present them with some level of cohesion.
Hearing language spoken on “Between the Hawthorn and Extinction” made for a jarring and moving moment. Where did the text used in this piece come from?
It is jarring, for better or for worse. I agonized over if, when, and how to insert some level of text into the record. Huge credit to Kelly Moran for convincing me to keep any spoken text away from the other contributor’s tracks. I eventually came up with a sort of goodbye for the end of the record, the end of the story, the end of the night, the end of a species. I asked Cecily Parks, a poet I really love and who I’ve worked with before, to write something. It became “Between the Hawthorn and Extinction”, which is printed in full within both the LP and CD gatefold. We actually performed this piece live with cellos, vibraphones, guitar, and piano. It was lovely. People have wildly polarized opinions about spoke word combined with music. It can be so cringe-inducing, and isn’t exactly the most marketable type of music, but it’s something I continue to work with. The previous Field Works album Glen Rose Formation does this to a great degree with narration by my friend Mary McGrath Curry.
Noveller’s “A Place Both Wonderful and Strange” occurs at the midpoint of the album, and takes on a more dramatic swell than the rest of the record. How did you go about sequencing the album?
Noveller’s piece is pretty dark and dramatic…it really felt like a turning point, so I placed it at the end of the first LP. My sequencing was mostly with vinyl in mind, which obviously might not translate as well on CD or digital. The two LPs (4 sides) are formatted into a thematic chronology of the night, of an Indiana bat’s nightly ritual: Dusk, Forest, Field, Dawn.
Ultrasonic is being made available in a host of formats; what would you say is your ideal listening environment for the album?
Digital: Walking at twilight with good headphones on.
CD: Driving from the city to the country.
Vinyl: Laying on the floor at home near your turntable.
Although these are recommended environments for pretty much any experimental album 🙂
Photo: Anna Powell Teeter