Turning Earth Sounds Into Ethereal Music: Inside the Making of Field Works’ “Stations”

Recording the Earth

The last time we spoke with Stuart Hyatt about his Field Works project, he had recently released an album of immersive music with the sounds of bats at its center. The new Field Works album, Stations, goes to a very different place than that in a very literal sense. For this album, Hyatt drew upon the work of EarthScope, recording the sounds of the planet itself and then bringing in a host of collaborators, including Laraaji and Qasim Naqvi, to transform those sounds into a haunting, gorgeous soundscape. Reached via email, Hyatt discussed how everything came together.

How did you first get connected with the EarthScope project?

Id been hoping to work more with fundamental Earth sounds – what soundscape ecologist Bernie Krause calls geophony– and tectonic movements seemed as primary a source as one could find. So, upon my first visit to the Anchorage Museum, I began reading about the seismic activity in Alaska. I didn’t want to do a project about earthquakes though, I was listening for more subtle notes. 

In a conversation with museum staff, I learned that there just happened to be 280 seismic monitoring stations dotted across the arctic landscape. Working in concert, these stations 

provide scientists with the granular data needed to map the structure of the Earth with unprecedented detail. This giant experiment – also known as EarthScope – is producing an entirely new cartography of Alaska. But for me, it seemed like a big beautiful recording studio filled with 280 awesome microphones.

What was the initial audio like that you received from them, and how did you go about figuring out what would work best in a musical context?

We had to produce the audio ourselves. I worked with Debi Kilb, a seismologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. She and her colleagues had already developed SeisSound, a custom seismic analysis script for Matlab, the ubiquitous scientific computing platform. Amazingly, all the data from the Alaska array is available online in a free searchable database. Theres just a lot of it to parse. Using SeisSound, you can dial up any station, scan a timeline of ground movements – however big or small – and export various audible signals from a specific time period. You can endlessly adjust parameters for frequency, sensitivity, duration, location, and axis. The palette of sounds made available through this script are endless.

My chief concern was finding and creating musicality in the movements. Each tiny rumble and shake and hiss was processed in Pro Tools. I took great liberties to adjust the sounds as needed – applying pitch shifts, delays, reverb – I also looped sections to create basic rhythmic patterns. These files then became the foundation upon which we built the 10 musical tracks for the album. The ultimate idea was to have a human voice sing along with the Earths voice in a new kind of duet. I think it actually worked!

How did you select artists for this one? Were there any contributors who you’d been hoping to work with for a while?

I had a vision for a simple palette of instrumentation: vibraphone, bass, and percussion. So I reached out to folks who seemed adept on those particular instruments. Ive been a fan of Masayoshi Fujita for a while; his vibe playing is just extraordinary. He actually came up with the melodic foundations for each track. Then I handed it off to Brad Weber, who I mostly knew as the touring drummer for Caribou. His mix of kit-playing and electronic triggering is just mesmerizing and then I then found his solo work under the monikers Pick a Piper / Coy Haste. Hes amazing. Next came Qasim Naqvi, who I saw perform years ago in the mind-bending band Dawn of Midi. Hes since developed a unique modular synth language and I thought could add some sparkling textures to the mix. Then I sent everything to Janie Cowan, an upright bass master who Id worked with before on a project in Texas. Finally, and most importantly, the human voice. Ive admired Hanna Benns work for many years and was so glad she agreed to work on this. Her vocals are unbelievable beautiful. 

This album was commissioned by the Anchorage Museum and The National Geographic Society. How did those commissions help shape the finished work?

I can’t say they shaped the finished work in any specific way; they were both just unflinchingly supportive at every phase, trusting me to actually complete this ambitious project. If anyone finds themselves in Anchorage, the museum is a must-see! 

In its LP and digital forms, this is essentially a double album. What was the process like bringing in even more artists for the second part?

Track 10, I should mention, was a lockdown-inspired bonus track, which allowed me to finally get to work with Laraaji. His hums and laughter provide the strange conclusion to the album. But, I just kept going. In the spirit of scientific processes, which often require peer reviewsof findings, I thought it would be fun to have other artists interpret what the core group of us created. Plus, I just love remixes. So I reached out to some of the most interesting electronic composers I could possibly think of and got an incredible cast of remixers: Deantoni Parks, Green-House, Olga Wojciechowska, Afrodeutsche, Nathan Fake, Ben Chatwin, Sophia Loizou, Amulets, Penelope Trappes, and Alva Noto.

Did the pandemic make any aspects of assembling this album more complex than its predecessors?

My way of producing Field Works was kind of tailor made for a lockdown. Ive been sharing files and recording virtually for years, with collaborators and contributors often never stepping into the same room together. So in a way, this album emerged much the way it would have under normal circumstances. Of course, my many planned trips to Alaska were jettisoned so there was some very difficult social and creative isolation, something I know everyone is still coming to terms with.


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