Dr Graeme Marlton (University of Reading) Interview: hertz Unlimited project – Awakening ancient fury

Lightning strikes the Cabulco volcano in Chile

hertz is an innovative research and development project, and the creation of experienced Lead Artist Juliet Robson. It is supported by arts commissioning programme Unlimited, which celebrates the work of disabled artists, with funding from Arts Council England. hertz diversely marries four fields of study: art, astrophysics, mathematics and meteorology. The project aims to allow audiences to discover what noise, trapped inside stars in space, sounds like – and what it looks like in the shape of patterns it creates. Further, hertz aims to translate infrasound, which we cannot hear, into physical sensations people can experience.

Dr Graeme Marlton – a meteorologist and Postdoctoral Research Assistant at the University of Reading – is collaborating on the project and below, describes his role on the team and also what first drew him to hertz.

Before we spoke, I – Glenn Bryant, a journalist – was fortunate enough to experience an early working prototype Juliet and Graeme have constructed. It is a chair hooked up simply to a large speaker. Equipment is attached to one of the chair’s legs, which, when sounds are played through the speaker, propels physical vibrations through the chair and through you, the participant.

What did it feel like? In a word, angry. The vibrations felt awesome, in every sense – overwhelming almost. It was a furious feeling. The infrasounds Juliet and Graeme had unearthed felt very primeval, like they had laid dormant for millennia and now that they were awake, they were not happy we were suddenly privy to their power. It was not a natural sound and, to a layman, did not appear to follow predictable patterns of rise and fall. The jumps in decibels were dramatic and disconcerting, and yet thrilling. And that was only a prototype.

Afterwards, I spoke to Dr Graeme Marlton.

What first attracted you to the project?

Juliet sent the university an email asking if it was possible to do something with the infrasound waves we hear in the atmosphere and to turn them into something tangible for audiences to experience – for example, sending vibrations through a chair people can sit in and feel. I currently am working on a project at the university called Arise, which involves looking at infrasound waves below human hearing measuring 20 hertz or less. In that context, hertz sounded fun and exciting, and something which could introduce infrasound waves to a wider audience.

Have you ever collaborated with an artist previously?

Not strictly, no. My mother was an artist, so I have early memories of sitting with her growing up and drawing together. But working now with Juliet on hertz is a brand new experience for me and a very interesting one. It is interesting seeing how the art world works and how academia works in relation to that. They are very different worlds I am discovering.

Describe your background Andrew.

I started my undergraduate degree at the University of Reading in 2009. That then opened the door for me to study for a PhD, in a very hands-on project with a guy called Giles Harrison measuring atmospheric turbulence using balloons. That took three and a half years. I then became involved in the Arise project again at the University of Reading. I guess one of my areas of expertise is taking observations we record, looking at what the atmosphere is doing at that point and looking at reasons why things like gravity waves are forming. On Arise, we also do a lot of work with helium-filled weather balloons. We place a small package inside which can sense the temperature, wind, relative humidity and atmospheric turbulence. Now we have turned the project on its head somewhat and are looking at gravity waves which are the source of that atmospheric turbulence.

Infographic showing sources of Infrasound

What is your role on hertz?

My role on the project is to take infrasound recordings, which can be recorded here at Juliet’s studio or wherever we want, run some computer code and software, and turn something that we cannot hear into something audible through equipment like a subwoofer or something like a vibration. We can put those vibrations through an object like a chair, which an audience member can then sit in and experience tangibly first-hand – and experience different atmospheric phenomena: glaciers, volcanoes and thunderstorms, which all produce infrasound.

How will working on hertz benefit your own practice?

The hertz project is unlike anything I have ever worked on before. Infrasound is talked about a lot in academic communities, but more widely, nobody has ever heard of them if you pardon the pun. Through hertz, I hope people want to discover more about infrasound and learn more about why this sound is being produced all the time. We just cannot hear it. I want to showcase the fact through hertz that infrasound is vitally important.

Will you be excited to see how audiences interact and engage with the final work?

It will be fascinating to see how members of the general public perceive hertz. How will they react? We don’t know. But that is exciting.