Open Day Success!… Through the hertz Looking Glass

On 2 November 2017, I held an Open Day at my studio in Oxfordshire and invited current project collaborators, interested future parties and a journalist from Disability Arts Online to experience progress we have made so far on hertz.

hertz, after all, in its current incarnation remains a research and development (R&D) project, so it felt like a significant step in its evolution to allow people to peer through the looking glass, so to speak, of my studio and see work in progress. At the beginning of the Open Day, I delivered a presentation. Below is an extract focusing on my motivation for founding the project:

hertz is fantastic for me in that it gives me the opportunity to go more in depth and develop a particular side of my practice, and it brings together beautifully passions and interests of mine:

  • A love of music and fascination with sound that began with classical training in voice and was followed by 20th century composition and contemporary art at university
  • An awareness that everything around us resonates; that we are living in an invisible world of harmonics, both natural and manmade. This web that surrounds us fascinates me
  • Also, as a singer and a teacher of singing I’m very aware of acoustics and resonance in different environments and how resonance is used by and affects our own bodies
  • A love of the natural sciences. I had parents who were keen to share their own love and knowledge of the natural world including constellations and moon cycles
  • I am a member of and painfully aware that we are losing our dark skies for the next generation and the environmental effect of light pollution
  • A deep respect and affection for scientists and what they do. My father was a research scientist – a plant physiologist – who encouraged curiosity and creativity. He was also a great friend. We had many debates about art and science and he was an uncredited collaborator on a number of works. He would have been itching to get involved in hertz
  • Lastly but not least I am innately curious about how things work, why things are and what they do. My least favourite answer to a question is, ‘Because that’s how it is’, or, ‘It’s always been like that’. I earnt the nickname of ‘Fingers’ Robson in my family for my ability to take things apart and not be able to put them back together again, something I am still guilty of. I blame my grandfather who I was close to and was an engineer and inventor

As I was first researching for a potential project, I came across the amazing fact that stars really do make music in an article by Birmingham university. An idea formed to make the sound of the stars audible and to use a Chladni plate to make the signatures of those sounds visual.

So, I got in touch with Professor Bill Chaplin from Birmingham university’s Astronomy and Physics Department and politely asked if he was interested in collaborating and supporting an art application for R&D. Happily he was! Through conversations and visits, Bill explained that gases inside sun stars create harmonics like air passing through musical instruments and create their own unique pitch and tone. This trapped resonance makes them gently breath in and out, creating regular fluctuations in the light they emit.

The Singing of the Stars

Bill leads a team from within the international Kepler Asteroseismic Science Consortium (KASC) responsible for studying stars similar to our own sun. Asteroseismology is a rapidly growing field of astronomy. Bill has been using data from the Kepler Project, which has recorded the ‘singing’ of more than 2,000 stars in our galaxy.

He studies these stars searching for orbiting planets in our galaxy, fluctuations of light and therefore resonance, which tell him how big and how old the stars are. Through that he can find planets which maybe like Earth lie in a ‘Goldilocks Zone’ like ours – i.e. not too hot and not too cold to support life.

In Bill’s own words: “Stars resonate like musical instruments. KASC may be able to use this ‘music of the spheres’ to help us understand the origins of solar flares and coronal mass ejections, so we are better able to predict events like solar storms and their impact on us.”

At the same time as the partnership with Bill was developing, I sent another email outlining the project to Reading university, also enquiring if there was anybody working with inaudible frequencies who would be interested in working with on the project.

Another lovely man, Andrew Gibbs, a mathematician and a sax player got back to me. Andrew’s PhD research broadly focused on what happens when sound hits two-dimensional obstacles and bounces back. Dr Graeme Marlton from the University of Reading’s Meteorology Department brilliantly also responded.

The Human Range of Hearing

Through the Atmospheric Infrastructure Research in Europe (ARISE) project, Graeme has access to infrasound data recorded at international stations of many natural and man-made phenomena below the human range of hearing.

This data can be used for research to observe events such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions as well as detecting nuclear explosions. These sensors are constantly recording and storing this data. They are also recording and storing a treasure trove of other fascinating phenomena that is not used in research. Myself and Graeme want to bring them into the light of day for people to experience. These include things, as I mentioned earlier like, the movements of glaciers, oceanic waves and even comets hitting the earth.

Graeme was keen to be involved in hertz so that people can discover more about infrasound, what it is and does, and to learn more about why this inaudible sound is being produced all the time.

Rock Stadiums

Using a large subwoofer of the kind used in rock stadiums, that resonate very low frequencies, we can make infrasound audible. We linked the same frequencies to a transducer called a butt kicker used by videogamers and attached it to a metal framed wheelchair.

Until we made the sound files and put them together with the equipment, we did not know for sure what we would get, so there have been some tense and then excited moments along the way. The funny thing with very low frequencies is that they only become audible through this kind of speaker. When writing the code to translate them, Graeme cannot hear it through his computer speakers and it is impossible to record the sound from the subwoofer and play it back through any kind of normal speaker.

Naturally, there is a real moment of anticipation each time while we wait to see if it has worked and what it will sound like. I have happily adopted Graeme’s catchphrase of, ‘Boom in the room’ every time we play a new file and it works. There is still much to do.

What Now?

I have been thinking about the fact that on one hand hertz has a visceral experience of phenomena of our own planet, which we are inextricably, physically bound to and on the other a manifestation of the stars that weave through our art, literature, philosophy, religion, science and culture. It provides us with inspiration, aspiration – an opportunity for reflection to put our place in the galaxy into perspective. Ultimately, we want to create truly extraordinary and interactive artworks.