Bats are not very popular right now. They’ve received an inordinate amount of blame for the coronavirus, which was not their fault; and as a result, we feel kind of sorry for them. Thankfully, we’re able to make up for it a little by showcasing this bat-themed album from Stuart Hyatt and a host of our favorite friends. Ultrasonic is the 8th Field Works album, arriving on the heels of last year’s seven-album box set.
While field recordings are the basis of these pieces, the tracks are intensely musical. Hyatt set out to record the endangered bats of his native Indiana, then modulated and amplified their frequencies so they could be heard by the human ear and sent to various artists.
Eluvium builds “Dusk Tempi” into a sky-reaching symphony, filling it with swarms of happy creatures enjoying the advent of a new evening. They’ve slept all day, and now it’s time to feed and play! Mary Lattimore performs a duet of harp and bat, which we’re guessing is a first; the loops in her piece are rhythmic and percussive, not what one expects from echolocation. We’re already liking the bats a little better.
In “Night Swimming,” Jefre Cantu-Ledesma offers a slice of his signature drone. One may recall late afternoons at the beach that turned into evenings, and the question, “Is that a bird?” followed by, “No, I think it’s a bat.” The patina is intensely peaceful. The bats aren’t here for us, after all; they want to eat the bugs which would have bitten us. Machinefabriek begins his contribution on a rustling note, then turns playful with piano and clicks that sound like winding clocks but are our darting friends, making sure they don’t fly into anything. The artist’s notes play like morse code, a tapping that seems related to the bats’ navigational signals. Kelly Moran produces scales of chimes, pushing the timbre beyond ambience into the realm of modern composition before Taylor Deupree knocks it back down again with soft piano and birdlike chirps.
As one might expect on a piece titled “A Place Both Wonderful and Strange,” Noveller covers the field with wind and deep electronic tones, emphasizing the dark allure of our nocturnal companions. Large chords suggest dramatic associations: Halloween, vampires, Batman. Christina Vantzou’s “Music for a room with vaulted ceiling” is a slight departure for her: a dark ambient piece with haunting intrusions of voice (or is it voice?) and extended chords. We have little to fear from bats, but we still love to fear them, as their very appearance produces a frisson. And while we’re not sure why Sarah Davachi names her piece “Marion,” we imagine a small child, sheltering a baby bat that grows up to be a ginormous monster, and just as it is about to destroy the local village (which never understood it), she intervenes, and the bat recalls what it was like as a child, and flies away with her to start a new life elsewhere.
Felicia Atkinson’s “Night vision, it touched my neck” offers duets between vibraphone and bat, then piano and bat, akin to the experiments of David Rothenberg with birds. The bats sound at times like castanets, the keyboardist curious and expectant. We doubt the recording took place this way, but it’s fun to imagine. John Also Bennett offers wet frequencies like dripping stalactites; Chihei Hatakeyama presents a growing drone like a cloud of shapes covering the sky. The somber “Tompor” is a reminder that this bat species is endangered; Ben Lukas Boysen’s waves of drone descend into quietude, finally focusing on their chirps before Hyatt and Julien Marchal offer a sad, spoken word finale. “Goodbye, oaks, dogwoods, ashes and elms; goodbye, caves; goodbye mines, and the coal that lit up the night.” Are these bats worth protecting? We didn’t really think about it before we heard this album; but now we don’t want them to say goodbye. (Richard Allen)
This album is funded by the IUPUI Arts & Humanities Institute and the National Geographic Society.