Graded on a Curve:
Field Works,
Ultrasonic

Although he has a sizable discography to his credit, Stuart Hyatt isn’t accurately labeled as a musician, but rather as a field recorder, and through extensive collaboration, a sonic architect (he indeed studied architecture, an endeavor that led him to his current pursuit). Released as Field Works, his productivity was collected in a large-scale limited edition vinyl box set in 2018, and now there’s Ultrasonic, a 2LP, CD, and digital release of Hyatt’s compositional sources enhanced by, amongst others, Eluvium, Sarah Davachi, Mary Lattimore, Noveller, and Jefre Cantu-Ledesma. Cohering into a rewarding “storytelling project” concerning the endangered Indiana bat, it’s out May 1 via Temporary Residence.

Although electronic music has its share of multi-member groups, and most-often duos (e.g. Boards of Canada, Matmos, Autechre, The Knife), it is still dominated by solo operators (and doesn’t my promo inbox know it). Indeed, electronic music is largely an auteur-driven zone where collaboration is regularly utilized as a way to extend or just spice-up an approach that has already proven effective on its own.

But wait. To describe Field Works as electronic is reductive, even as the list of those who’ve built upon Hyatt’s foundations include many who fit into that category (the aforementioned Matmos, Visible Cloaks, Ben Lukas Boysen, The Field, Dntel, B. Fleischmann, Gazelle Twin, Prototokyo, Pantha du Prince, and more), along with others, with the expected descriptive overlap, who are frequently tagged as ambient (Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, Lusine, Chihei Hatakeyama).

But there are also names standing a little further apart (The Album Leaf, Juana Molina, Lullatone, Dan Deacon), or a lot (William Tyler) as Field Works becomes distinguished for the bedrock necessity of collaboration. To offer some background, the numerous prior recordings in the Field Works catalog, currently available separately digitally but released in 2018 on vinyl in the 7LP set Metaphonics: The Complete Field Works Recordings, evolved from a site analysis Hyatt conducted of the Washington Street neighborhoods in his hometown of Indianapolis as part of his M.Arch. thesis project.

As related in a 2018 article from the Bandcamp Daily website on Field Works, Hyatt knew that his collected sonic architecture (the found sounds, the field recordings, the interview snippets) would probably be too raw to serve as a standalone recording, so they became the materials for further developments that resulted in a series of releases, the first being The National Road.

One of the collaborators on that first album was Nick Zammuto, which is significant, as the sound of Field Works on the records collected in Metaphonics (which don’t appear to have had any kind of physical format, or for that matter digital, release prior to getting boxed up in 2018) can, on occasion, recall Zammuto’s sadly defunct project The Books with Paul de Jong, who contributed to the Field Works release Born in the Ear. Field Works and The Books also share a label.

I’ll stress the occasional in this scenario as it largely relates to the use of captured (and less frequently, deliberately conceived and applied) speech, as the predominant impression while soaking up Metaphonics is how it doesn’t easily compare to anything else, a quality that extends to the pieces that comprise Ultrasonic.

Side one gets underway with the contribution of Eluvium to “Dusk Tempi,” which starts off with layered patterns of sounds—squirts, squiggles, a definite rhythm (a synthetic march, of sorts), tighter repetitions, and swells of synth prettiness—cohering into a whole that’s beautiful but gradually more intense; reaching its apex, it then zeros-in on a cyclical motif and dissipates, giving way to “Silver Secrets” and the sounds of Mary Lattimore’s harp, her instrument recognizable but also clearly enhanced in this setting, though there are also threads of her splendid playing that register as untouched by production.

Eluvium and Lattimore are return collaborators, with these reconnections perhaps insinuating that Ultrasonic’s strength comes through familiarity, though in fact most of the contributors here are new to the Field Works’ scheme of things. That’s the case with Jefre Cantu-Ledesma, who brings side one to a close with the enjoyably spacy/ Kosmische-tinged “Night Swimming.”

Part of the fun with Field Works can be in contemplating what’s a Hyatt field recording (the echolocations of bats this time, and maybe the first time they’ve been employed musically) and what’s likely not, such as the piano tones in “Kelelawar” featuring Machinefabriek. And then: what’s a hybrid of the two, and what’s Hyatt’s captured sounds transmogrified into something else?

Even better, the musicality of the pieces ensures that these questions aren’t lingered upon too long, as there are a few seconds in “Kelelawar” that sound like an autotuned Giger counter. There are also times where the contributor seems to be taking over the situation entirely, which is the case with nearly all of “Sodalis” with Kelly Moran, though that’s not a letdown but rather underscores the breadth of the project’s possibilities.

Indeed, the situation with “Sodalis” isn’t a constant, as Hyatt’s root is considerably more prevalent in “Echo Affinity” with Taylor Dupree, and yet curiously so, as elements resonate like chirping birds. But why would they? This is a musical journey derived from and concerned with the welfare of bats. Maybe they’re not birds at all. An appealing ambiguity, though in “A Place Both Wonderful and Strange,” which concludes side two, it’s unquestionably (if not obviously) Noveller, aka guitarist Sarah Lipstate.

More “maybe birds but probably bat” sounds are heard (plus, a recurring element hitting the ear like audible scampering) in the mysterious “Music for a room with vaulted ceiling” with Christina Vantzou, while “Marion” with Sarah Davachi is a bit like Ligeti storm clouds blended, and then overtaken, by wire tower drones.

In some ways, “Night vision, it touched my neck,” with Felicia Atkinson, unwinds closest to what an expectation of a collab based on field recordings of bats would sound like, which contrasts with side three’s “Indiana Blindfold” featuring John Also Bennett, a piece that’s quite reminiscent of early academic electronic music, a swell state of affairs all-around.

Kicking off the home stretch, “The Circle” with Chihei Hatakeyama unfurls like an uncut slice of prime rainforest New Age, while “Torpor” with Ben Lukas Boysen dishes a chillier, mildly futuristic (one might even say science-fictive) atmosphere. And then, “Between the Hawthorn and Extinction,” the record’s only three-way collab, credited to Stuart Hyatt (the only time he’s listed as a musical contributor), Player Piano (aka Jeremy Radway), and Julien Marchal, also features an uncredited woman speaking, likely reading from a text.

Initially abrupt on first listen, the calmness of the human voice, together with chamber tones that are almost post-rock, deliver a finale that further differentiates the enduring Field Works project. Specifically, where music based in field recordings can often seem random, even when that’s not the case, Ultrasonic thrives through depth of assemblage, and interaction, and a relationship to the natural world (Note: funded by the IUPUI Arts & Humanities Institute and the National Geographic Society, every copy contains an official printed booklet of The Endangered Species Act of 1973).

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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