“Our culture is so visual, so oriented towards the eyes. How do you explore a place by listening?” That’s the question that artist and musician Stuart Hyatt considered when thinking about the Lancaster Sound Map – a public arts project commissioned by the City of Lancaster’s Public Art Program. Hyatt – a Grammy-nominated but untrained musician based in Indianapolis – explores the space where people and place intersect with multimedia projects like the Lancaster Sound Map.
Hyatt assembled the map with sounds from all over Lancaster County as he walked around with his headphones and recording equipment. The Sound Map project has dozens of field recordings like snow geese taking flight, the bubbling sounds of a creek, Amtrak train announcements and people talking about what life is like on their block. Photos and ambient music made with sounds from Lancaster – like the Ephrata Cloister choir – add more dimensions to the project. Taken as a whole, the Sound Map illustrates the area in a totally different way than a topographical map or street map, illuminating the stories of people from forgotten pockets of the city or even the unseen moments in the life of a crow. The Lancaster Sound Map is more of an interactive multimedia storytelling tool than a navigational tool.
I called Stuart Hyatt and he talked to me about “Born in the Ear,” his album of ambient music made from the collected sounds and collaborations he made in Lancaster – which debuts to a sold-out crowd at Zoetropolis on Thursday, May 5 – and the Lancaster Sound Map project – which debuts from 5-9 p.m. on Friday, May 6, at the Downtown Lancaster Visitors Center and runs through July – from the waiting room of an auto body shop in Indianapolis.
Mike Andrelczyk: Have you made sound maps before?
Stuart Hyatt: I started in Indy making music out of sounds. The City of Lancaster Public Art Program liked the work I was doing. They thought it would be interesting. It’s such a huge county that there’s no way to even to even scratch the surface. So I see my role as setting this template for the sound map. Then I made this album out of it, which is what we’re releasing on Thursday [at Zoetropolis].
MA: So Lancaster was only the second sound map you’ve done?
SH: Yeah, the mapping is really in service of the music that we create under the name Field Works. So right now, I’m looking at a five-album box set, which is kind of the end goal. This album “Born in the Ear” is number three in that set. Numbers four and five are in production. So it kind of fit nicely into this idea of making music about place and the people there.
MA: So Lancaster city reached out to you?
SH: They did an open call for artists to submit proposals and then they had a juried selection. Typically public arts projects go toward sculptures, murals and things that you can see and are permanent, so I think it was a gamble for them to do something that was a little less traditional. [The Sound Map is] almost like an invisible piece of public art. I created this album and that’s kind of my creative contribution, but the Sound Map itself, we really envision as an ongoing database that could be contributed to by other people down the road. I would love to see this map get filled in with thousands more [sound clips]. You know, me walking around the outskirts of the city – I can only get so many small moments. I would almost train people to do these field recordings and they could kind of be like Lancaster natives who would actually have the advantage of knowing or being rooted in a certain neighborhood, an industry, a school or something and could really go deeper and collect more sound and then edit them and upload them to the map. So that’s what we’re trying to figure out now, because it’s a free and easy process. You just need an inexpensive audio recorder and then learn the basics of putting it on the map. So we’re just trying to get some funding to be able to have folks from your neck of the woods be able to go out and add to the map and really create a much richer tapestry of sound.
MA: Was this your first time in Lancaster?
MA: What were your first impressions?
SH: Well, I tried to go in with fresh, innocent eyes. So obviously, when people around the country think of your area they think of Pennsylvania Dutch, Amish, Mennonite and this kind of rural, beautiful, bucolic kind of thing. I know that the committee and the community foundation are obviously proud of that heritage, but we really wanted to tell stories that showed the diversity, that showed that Lancaster is a legit city with legit city problems, with all kinds of people and groups and different and disparate histories. So I really started out in the city looking for those stories and those kind of moments and then eventually got out to the county. My first impression was, let’s try to find some lesser known parts of the city and county.
MA: Looking at the map, you can definitely see a focus on downtown.
SH: I do everything on foot. The city is very walkable, obviously. On the album, the final track is called “The Last Long Walk” and it actually starts way over in the town right on the Susquehanna where the National Watch & Clock Museum is….
SH: Columbia. So that’s kind of like the west corner of the county. Then I kind of walk in this huge concentric ring around the county, but I cheated and got in my car and then went down and started walking again. It’s just a huge area.
MA: How do you decide when to stop or who to talk to?
SH: Sometimes I wear headphones, which for ambient sounds really heightens your awareness. But the headphones are connected to my microphone or recorder, so you really have a hyper focus on things. Typically I set some ground rules, like when I approach people I never walk up to someone when they’re on their porch or something. I never want to disturb someone’s residence. I’m pretty careful about walking into someone’s business if they’re trying to work. Usually you can tell if someone is open to chatting to some strange guy with a microphone or not. But for this project it was more difficult than some of my others because I did have to have everyone that I talked to sign a release. And that was mostly because I did have funding from the city and didn’t want anyone to come back and say, “Hey, he recorded me without my permission.” Which of course I never would anyway – and if I snapped their photo they had to sign a photo release form. It kind of stinks that you have to do that because it kind of breaks up the flow of kind of meandering around and talking to people. Typically most people don’t mind signing them, but occasionally some people say, “No, I’d like to not.” But I’m also not talking with people about what they had for breakfast or what their childhood was like, I’m trying to talk to them about their place. About a real sense of place. I’m not a sociologist or ethnographer or anything – I’m just an artist and musician so I’m trying to keep it really simple and about these different pockets of the city and county.
MA: What kinds of questions would you ask people?
SH: I would ask, “What’s it like on this block? What’s good about this neighborhood? What’s bad? What’s changing?” I was just trying to go one layer deep with a lot of places.
MA: How many field recordings do you think you did during your time in Lancaster? And how many days were you here?
SH: So I visited eight times and my visits were anywhere from three to six days. Add it up and I’ve been there quite a bit. It was nice to be there in all different seasons, during the work week, during the weekend. Just trying to get a variety.
MA: You also worked with the Ephrata Cloister Choir.
SH: Well, certainly there are some really unique, fascinating, bizarre places and that’s one of them in the county so I was drawn to it. I got to thinking that that setting could make for an interesting song on the album. Then I discovered that there is still a choir there that sings those original compositions that were composed by Conrad Beissel back in the 18th century. So, I asked the choir if I could visit and record them, and I did – and it is beautiful. And it’s really bizarre. The musician I worked with to kind of help reformat that is a guy who records under the name Eluvium and it’s the second track on the album. It’s amazing. We actually shot a short film at the Cloister and we’ll be debuting that on Thursday as well.
MA: Did you do a lot of research coming in?
SH: A little bit. It was a leap of faith that I took with the committee from the foundation in the city, like, “How do we fund a public art project that’s almost like this immaterial thing?” I’m always clear that I’m not a historian, I’m not a scholar. I’m insistent that I’m just a musician and an artist – so my research is really just in service of telling stories and of making beautiful music. It’s not trying to provide – I mean, if the Sound Map were to expand it could become almost like a counter-narrative to the traditional ways of presenting culture phenomenon or heritage. That’s the ultimate goal with the Sound Map, particularly if it sticks around long enough, the places begin to sound different over time. The research methods that actual scholars would use would be way more rigorous and legit than what I’m doing.
MA: You were trained in architecture and sculpture. I was thinking of a Frank Zappa quote where he describes his guitar solos as “air sculptures” and to me this project does seem like a sculpture in a way. Have you thought about that? Is that something you had in mind going into this?
SH: I think that’s a really solid insight into the work. I’m not a trained musician, but I end up writing and recording and performing all this music. There’s a thing that I was just thinking about this morning while I was waiting for your call, it’s like if – and this is the first time I’ve tried to articulate this – but it’s almost like if bands and musicians are filmmakers, I’d sort of be like a documentary filmmaker of a pop music world. So, basically taking real sounds, real stories, real places and building up this music around it. Literally using the field recordings as instruments, as notes.
MA: If you had to sum up Lancaster in a single sound, could you do it?
SH: No way. The whole point is that only through multiple, contradictory, disparate elements can you even begin to form what could be considered a whole. That’s what’s beautiful about diversity, that’s what’s beautiful about being a welcoming community – is that only through those disparate parts can you get some sort of harmonious whole and I think the project seeks that. There is no broad brush stroke at all. It’s truly a mosaic.
MA: What did you learn from your time in Lancaster?
SH: I think I learned that I’d have to come back for 10 more years before I fully understand it. I mean there were a lot of bizarre things that happened to me while I was there.
MA: What kind of things?
SH: I mean, I probably heard the worst sound I ever heard in my life.
MA: What was that?
SH: It was a person jumping and committing suicide from a parking garage. It was awful. I was meeting a bunch of musicians at a wine bar. There’s a garage right across the street from that and we were all kind of meandering out and I thankfully didn’t see it, but everybody heard it. Obviously people came, but it was too late. And then I heard that there had actually been a lot of jumps from there. It was terrible. Every time I would come home I would tell my wife, “You won’t believe what happened in Lancaster.” And then I had my first ever true paranormal experience in a known haunted house, actually when I was trying to get up to Ephrata. You’re going to think I’m totally wacky now. I don’t believe in any of that stuff, but I was completely haunted by this woman spirit who had been murdered in her house. The landlord told me about this before I went so I was like, “Wow, thanks a lot.” But, this spirit, like, froze up my rental car and then I had to pull over into a ditch and I abandoned the car. Just really interesting stuff each time. There is some powerful stuff going on.
MA: And on the Sound Map there are recordings of, like, a creek or snow geese, really peaceful things that create some balance.
SH: Yeah, that’s what’s great. The typical thing that I discovered is that you can be standing, like, in the middle of a drug deal on a corner and drive three miles and you’re in the most peaceful, bucolic setting you could imagine. It’s doesn’t take long from the city center to be completely surrounded by nature or by cornfields. Really, drive five minutes.
MA: It’s kind of amazing to think, and I think the project really illustrates this, that all these different things are happening at the same time.
The opening reception for the exhibition takes place from 5-9 p.m. on May 6 at the Downtown Lancaster Visitors Center at 38 Penn Square. This event is free and open to the public.