For his Field Works project, Stuart Hyatt has built musical compositions through the sounds and studies of cities, trees, rivers, and even the ultrasonic chatter of bats. With a mix of science and art and a well-chosen selection of collaborators, Field Works always offers something new, whether starting at a point mundane or extraordinary. For his latest release, Stations, Stuart does something even more ambitious: he uses the sounds of the Earth itself. These seismic noises become partners to human voices and surprisingly vibrant music. With a matched set of “peer review” remixes and an accompanying book that’s as literary as it is explanatory, it’s a wonder that Hyatt can remain so grounded.
As with each of Hyatt’s releases, the process requires some unpacking, but – no matter how good the music sounds – understanding the process contributes to the album’s enjoyment. For Stations, Hyatt traveled to Alaska to work with the Anchorage Museum, and he asked, “What does the Earth sound like?” Trying to answer that question led him to the USArray, a “network of several hundred both permanent and transportable seismic monitoring stations spread throughout the United States”. Hyatt found ways to use the recordings from this project as the basis for the ten tracks on Stations, accompanied by a handful of musicians.
These Earth sounds don’t have quite the intrinsic appeal of bats or trees; something about their geologic nature feels transcendent and interactive than more accessible sources. At the same time, hearing humans set themselves in conversation – whether through voice or vibraphone – with the Earth itself makes for an unexpectedly alien experience. Hyatt’s work can be almost disorienting. Ambience can be soothing; considering the Earth’s movement as part of natural phonics feels more troubling, even if the tectonic edges have been smoothed.
The final track, “Station 10”, brings Hyatt to an unanticipated point: the global lockdown. As people began staying home in 2020, the seismic readings started to change even in remote Alaska. Scientists could see (to some extent) the difference between the Earth’s natural noise and human-caused seismic rumblings. The world got quieter, not just in its streets but right down to its foundational rocks. To work with this idea, Hyatt brought in Laraaji. His piano pushes the recordings into somewhere spacier than, for example, the almost club sounds of “Station 5”, but his laughter reorients us to the very human-dwelling space that we’ve been considering all along, without allowing us to get comfortable.
That slight discomfort suits the record; the music throughout Stations never takes on a jarring tone but never settles either. The album opens with haunting sounds, whether we’re deep underground or deep into Alaska, we’re remote, and it’s dark. Most of the tracks have a nocturnal feel, though some of them move more quickly, the changing pace part of the surprising nature of the album. The remixes essentially resist this urge. Deantoni Park’s “Station 1 Review” strips the track of its ghostliness, adding more than a glimmer of sunlight. Nathan Fake makes it almost possible to dance to the Earth (although that comes more from his minimal beat than from the actual geophonics). The reimagined tracks work like the mostly subdued afterparty for the science conference.
In case the 20 tracks weren’t enough, Hyatt adds the book Stations: Listening to the Deep Earth. The text includes his writing, an interview with seismologist Debi Kilb, and a research paper from Science. The heart of the book, though, comes from pieces from scholars, writers, and poets. The mystic and the literary intersect here. The conjoining of science and music makes for a unique pairing; adding other points of view makes for a fully encompassing approach to the project. It’s an approach that makes sense, given that Hyatt, after all, is listening to the Earth. Even more impressive, it does justice to the small work involved, the precise attention not to planet-sized ideas, but to the minute changes and subtle tones that make the music so rewarding. As Kilb says in the book, “Every wiggle counts.”