Field Works: Cedars | ★★★★ [Temporary Residence; March 5]
Per his website, the goal of the musician and artist Stuart Hyatt’s projects, including his experimental Field Works albums, is “to tell evocative stories about our complicated relationship with the natural world.”
Field Works utilizes different musicians for each of these explorations, and often builds from the National Geographic Explorer’s audio recordings of nature. The sprawling 2020 double album Ultrasonic, for instance, uses the echolocations of bats as a compositional and thematic frame.
Less than a year later, Field Works returns with Cedars.
Focusing on ancient forests, the album again reckons with the world, our place in it, and the toll of our often destructive nature.The two sides feature different instrumentalists, a few of them local to the Triangle—Danny Paul Grody, Bob Hoffnar, Tomás Lozano, Fadi Tabbal and Dena El Saffar on the first; Marisa Anderson, Nathan Bowles, Alex Roldan and Hoffnar on the second.
On the first, Lebanese musician and musicologist Youmna Saba (who also contributes oud) performs eight of her own poems in Arabic. On the flip, Durham singer-songwriter H.C. McEntire recites English poems by Todd Fleming Davis.
The Saba-led half is enchanting and unsettling. Pedal steel, oud, and other hard-to-place sources of distortion and drone pool, resigned but anxious, as acoustic guitar fizzes and juts.
Saba’s vocal performance is a marvel. Her mellifluous narration and hypnotic tremolo when singing showcase Arabic’s beauty as a language, and bring a sense of hard-fought peace to considerations of our fleeting corporeal existence—“She spreads her arm to touch the ancient earth and descends gradually into the labyrinth of its compassionate depths,” reads one translated passage in the liner notes.
Perhaps the Earth shouldn’t be so forgiving. Davis’ poems center on a girl whose ancestors “sailed across the ocean in ships built of cedar” after cutting down ancient forests. She lives in the shadow of “machines that can make a mountain disappear, no regard for the memory or souls of trees.”
Her mother brings her an inhaler as she struggles to breathe when her father sprays chemicals on their fields, “the world, as we’ve remade it, settl(ing) in her chest.”
McEntire’s narration is calm, collected and deeply empathetic, expressing concern for both the girl and the land. Anderson’s acoustic guitar and Bowles’ banjo pick with insistent momentum, suggesting humanity’s unstoppable consumption.
Pedal steel and other ambient embellishments intimate the apprehension of viewing this “progress” through a longer lens.
Organically connecting Western and Middle Eastern musical traditions, and offering keen reflections on how we treat our world, Cedars is an album worth many returns.
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