When local musician Steve Parker first witnessed 1.5 million bats emerge from underneath the Congress Avenue Bridge, he listened intently. What he heard led him on a journey to investigate bat calls and their place in musical composition.
“You’re just sort of immersed in this chatter, this bat cocktail party, and I just became fascinated with it,” Parker, a UT alumnus, said. “I’m really interested in unusual sounds, and the more I messed around with the [bats’] sounds and explored them, the more I became interested in the melodic or musical nature of some of their echolocation calls.”
Parker’s latest project, BAT/MAN, will feature bat calls accompanied by a live ensemble of human voices, conch shells, funnel horns and man-made echolocation devices. The performance will debut Sunday at the bat observation lawns near the Congress Avenue Bridge, where bat calls will be collected in real time from a microphone attached to the bridge. The calls will then be amplified and pitch-shifted to make them audible to human ears.
“Most people I’ve spoken to have not really noticed what the bats sound like, and I think it’s one of the more interesting aspects of the having bats here,” Parker said. “I think what’s really exciting is illuminating this secret dialogue that’s happening, literally, under our feet or above our heads every day. It’s a really
BAT/MAN will debut as a part of Fusebox Festival, an annual hybrid art festival that showcases a variety of interdisciplinary projects at more than 20 locations around Austin. According to managing director Brad Carlin, the festival encourages artists to include an educational aspect in their work. In the week leading up to the performance, Parker worked with Anthropos Arts and Austin Soundwaves, local nonprofits that provide musical instruction to underprivileged kids, helping young people experiment with audio manipulation and educate them about the bats.
Carlin said Fusebox Festival is defined in part by its choice of venues all over the city, including historic landmarks such as the bridge Parker uses in his work.
“We use the festival to explore Austin and highlight places that maybe people haven’t seen before or help to see it in a new way,” Carlin said. “Steve’s project definitely checked that box for us because I don’t know that you can get more Austin in terms of exploring the city than engaging with the bats.”
Parker, who can play all of the instruments featured in the performance, spent the last year collecting bat sounds and playing over them as part of his composition process. Despite his work, Parker said it is impossible to predict what the calls will sound like on the day of the show.
“[The bats] sound most similar to bird calls, like alien bird calls,” Parker said. “But they’re also pretty fast. We don’t really know what it’s going to sound like until we’re in that space on the day of the performance.”
While Parker composed a score for BAT/MAN, parts of the show have been left open for musicians to react to the noises from the bats around them. During the performance, UT alumnus Brent Baldwin will lead the vocalists of the Texas Choral Consort in segments of improvised singing throughout the show.
“With Steve, we keep it fun, we keep it kind of free and in the moment,” Baldwin said. “We’re kind of approaching it like jazz players might. There’s a set structure, but within that structure almost anything could happen.”
- When: 7 p.m. Sunday, April 10
- Where: Bat Observation Lawns, Congress Avenue Bridge
- Admission: Free