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Sound, touch, the felt body and emotion: Toward a haptic art of voice

Yvon Bonenfant

As an extended vocalist and performance artist, deriving my work, as I do, from experimental music, contemporary performance and body psychotherapy, sound and touch have come together to form a sort of aesthetic existential crux against which the rest of my practice revolves and rotates. In recent praxis, I have been exploring sound and touch from the perspective of the notion of membrane. Membranes are essential to both sound and touch:  they are that which permits perception of contact. The recently published National Scientific Research Centre of France’s Dictionary of the Body (Dictionnaire du corps) (Andrieu and Botsch 2008) defines touch as “the action of the movement through which two bodies come into contact with one another” (Nancy 2007: 325). Membranes permit this contact.

In my creative work, I have been working with a literal form of membrane. The fine, semi-transparent grade of habotai-weave silk I have been using for runs of my intimate performance Soie soyeuse (2007-8)has a number of startling characteristics. Firstly, I can sing from behind layers of this fabric and my voice is not stifled – it is as if I am singing in open air. Sound travels almost perfectly across the barrier, and I have found no other fabric which has such sound transparency yet is still opaque. Next, the silk, though cold for perhaps half a second when touching my skin, heats through and warms startlingly quickly: it takes on body temperature on contact very swiftly. Thirdly, despite its permeability to air, this incredibly thin layer of silk insulates extraordinarily well. It is fascinating. Like a second human skin, it cocoons and breathes; like an eardrum, suspended as it is in warm nests of human tissue and in contact with tiny bones, it reacts to sound while transmitting the sound waves on to the matter beyond. Holding the silk while singing, I can actually feel it vibrating; the sensation is one of toughness and fragility yoked together in one tissue. Not unlike our own human skin.

Fig. 1 Bonenfant singing onto and touching silk during Soie soyeuse

Photo: Caroline Mercier, Galerie Talmart, Paris 2008. Scenography Spyros Koskinas

At the end of this performance,when I invite the audience to literally ‘become silky’, I am inviting them to indulge in a sensuality of both vocal sound and skin, and to contemplate how the membranes that envelop us both contain us and permit exchange with that which is outside of us. The innervated membrane of skin is what allows us to perceive sound; it is what allows us to perceive touch.

Sound and touch meet at the notion of membrane: that which divides us from others, yet, ironically, that which links us to others, for our most outer membrane, the skin, is the home of a nervous complex that permits us to sense one another – and to sense the world around us - on the most intimate levels. Our eardrums – like the finest habotai silk – dance with wave-carrying air and with another nervous complex that carries the vibrations travelling in air to our brains. What, indeed, does it mean to be touched by vocal sound? How do these worlds relate to one another? And how can live, between-human-bodies art be made that is almost exclusively focused around the sound-touch continuum? Why would such art be interesting or even urgently necessary to create?

Touch, sound and performance

Although my work is derived from the musical, I work in the contemporary performance domain. This is a hybrid and unstable domain, drawing influences from live/performance art, and intersecting with experimental approaches to theatre, dance and music. My own work lies somewhere along the boundaries between American-style performance art, experimental music and dance, for I am an extended vocalist who is involved with the composition and realisation of innovative performance experience for new audiences. I am interested in that which renders performance multisensory, and the ways in which performance can directly address, and interact with, bodies of spectators, rather than simply providing entertaining performance experiences for them, or that address themselves to what architect Juhanni Pallasmaa (2005: 16) calls the “ocularcentric” relation to the world. The domain of contemporary performance has experimented extensively with touch as a relational-aesthetic discourse and generative process, even though this practice remains extremely marginal within accepted theatrical venue and gallery venue settings.

So, I am certainly not alone in being interested in wanting to ‘bring’ (in a literal way) performance to the tactile bodies of spectators. In the very early twentieth century, futurist interdisciplinary artist Filippo Marinetti’s manifesto on tactilism (Marinetti 1921) postulated a new form of art based on tactile perception.  In this manifesto, he proposed to develop a new form of art that addressed itself to the haptic senses, and that was absolutely separate from the kinds of worlds engineered by visual artists. He postulated a tactile education system for motivating bodies to engage with the tactility around them, and divided tactile sensation into a series of categories. He proposed the creation of tactilist ‘tables’, which would bring together experiences of tactile sensation via careful choice of objects and events surrounding them. Renouncing the visual, and the bias toward visual perception as primary, he insisted that visual artists not be those who create the tables, for the risk that they would mix the tactilities with colours and interesting visual forms would be too great, and that this would distract from the necessary focus on tactile sensation from which ocularity tends to distract us (Marinetti 1921: 258).  He even suggests that: “[t]actilism must avoid not only collaboration with the visual arts, but also pathological obsession with the erotic. It must have as its goal only tactile harmonies. Tactilism will serve to perfect spiritual communications among human beings through the epiderm” (258, translation mine). In so doing, Marinetti conjures already the mental image of membrane: the epiderm, the outermost layer of skin tissue, becomes a region of enlightened relationship between living humans.

In her survey of what she calls “touch performances”, Jennifer Fisher (2007: 166) begins with Marinetti as a starting figure in the development of touch-derived art forms throughout the twentieth century and until the present. Fisher points out that Marinetti’s perspective “codified modalities of tactility: on one hand, contiguous touch involving the apprehension” (166) of sensation, and on the other hand “affective touch” (167), involving being touched by emotions and/or abstractions. Highlighting that in his distinction of the sensation of touch from the processes of intellectual cognition (and ocularcentrism) Marinetti foreshadowed later understandings of the neurophysiology of touch, Fisher affirms that

As a communicative act … touch, in effect, incorporates the social interface as it dissolves the boundaries between subject and object. Acts of touching, as cultural events, presuppose affective encounters – the relations between ‘being touched’ and ‘being moved’ is a strong one. (2007: 167)

Surveying art experiences based on touch through the twentieth century, she divides the use of touch in art into distinct categories: “touching blind” (168), or working with the “invisibility of touch to interrogate technologies of vision”, such as installations where massage is dispensed from behind impermeable barriers; “perilous touch” (169), where the  boundary between pleasure and pain is tested, and audience agency to enact touch actions on performers is accorded; “helping hands” (171) where the hand interacts directly with audiences to support, engage, or briefly brush with them in a way that celebrates the positive interactive qualities of contact; “recovering touch” (173), or performances that offer some kind of reparative contact to audiences; and “immersive touch” (174) or touch which aims to incorporate audience into a sense of the disappearance of membrane and boundary, and engage them in a dissolution of a clear sense of skin boundary around the self. The artists’ work who Fischer cites range across cultures and national boundaries, as well as across time. She includes works by Yoko Ono, Marina Abramovic, Chris Burden, Gelatin, Praxis, Jennifer Borsato, and Marie-Ange Guillemot as artists having created environments in which tactility plays a central role.

Fisher’s categorisation of touch-based performance art into these distinct thematic elements is a useful framework from which to begin to address the relationship between touch and vocal sound. For vocal sound can perhaps anchor itself in any of her categories: voice can touch blind, emerging from spaces with no ocularity; it can emerge from vulnerable bodies and engage with perilous contact; it can be perceived to help, to recover, to bond with others; it can create baths of human vibration that are immersive. Fisher underscores that “touch performances do not terminate at the skin” (Fisher 2007: 176) and builds on Susan Buck-Morss’ conception of the synaesthetic system as “the extension of the nervous system beyond the body” (Buck-Morss, cited in Fisher 2007:176) to claim that “the synesthetic system is perceived by the tactile modality of proprioception” (176) to “engage in the sensing of location, vertigo, mood and climate” (176). “As contiguous touch occurs,” she claims, “detached perception dissolves, and possibilities evolve for mutually dynamic encounters in time and space” (176). This creates a liminal region of exchange made of the “in-between spaces of becoming”.

One example of an extension of touch art into the vocal sound realm is given by Welton (2007) in his analysis of ‘theatre in the dark’ experiences. Welton makes a case for sound and touch being part of what Fisher would perhaps characterise as a sound and touch extension of proprioception into the synesthetic plane, within her “seeing blind” category of touch art; Welton calls this sound-touch plain a “haptic continuum” (Welton: 154). Similarly to Juhanni Pallasma’s argument for the creation of a haptic architecture, he says:

[“Haptics” are] the building blocks of the sense of self. In the apparent absence of anything to see, the haptic senses are piqued: not necessarily any more sensitive, but forming a more important part of awareness. Concurrent with this, one’s awareness of what is close to the body (especially that which is touching it directly) is also raised. What constitutes the world in this situation takes on a far more temporary nature: move away from a stimulus so that it is no longer apparent to touch and it no longer exists for you outside of memory. (154)

In this chapter, Welton makes a case for theatre in the dark forcing him as spectator and audience member to refocus his own perception on the auditory, and surprisingly tactile, qualities of the performance experience. The above quote underscores his contention that vocal sound and the perceptual field of  proprioception that it stimulates, the need for self-location, indeed, relationship with other human bodies’ signalling vibratory presence through sound, becomes the core sense of the work that frames itself in this way (Welton 2007: 146-151). This is echoed in the words of an actor in the specific “theatre in the dark” work (War Music [1998] by Sound and Fury Theatre Company) who explains that:

[The] physicality of the piece took us all by surprise. … It was a physical piece; you really used space. You couldn’t be seen, but it just proves that you need the physical expression to give way to the vocal expression … what I really loved was the alliteration or the rhythm of the speech, and I was really moving with it, really finding the weight of it, and that really manifested itself in me. (Interview with actor Rob Vesty in Welton 2007: 153)

It is interesting that Fisher’s and Welton’s writings are both part of a recent collection addressing the full range of senses in performance. While there is more and more physiological and psychoacoustic work about how vibration in and of itself interacts with human bodies, the senses other than sight, and the cognitive/metaphorical interpretation of language (and in the larger sense, text), are startlingly underanalysed in performance theory. The collection The Senses in Performance (Banes and Lepecki 2007) is pioneering in that it starts to open the door to frameworks of understanding for live performance that go beyond the ‘unfelt’, or the optically analytical. The liveness that is the focus of performance studies is crucial here, for this article is exploring the interactive, living, haptic, tactile qualities of the embodied human voice and its relationship to the interaction of touching. 

The fact that this field is little theorised – but that it addresses the experiential, motivates me to invite you as reader on a short journey through some key experiences that raise questions about the notion of the human vocal art as a form of touch art.

Sound and the haptic 1: pitch, timbre and sensation

In my journey toward a mature artistic practice, singing teachers have at various times asked me to feel rather than hear the pitch of my own voice. One of them, Jean Westerman Gregg, talked about feeling the centre of vibration as replacing a sense of heard pitch.1 Heading for a high note, she would yell at me, ‘don’t reach for the pitch, reach for the vibration!” While Jean had her own particular take on this, it is, of course, not uncommon … many voice work styles and singing techniques talk about feeling vibration in the ‘resonators’, or resonant cavities of the body such as the sinuses, nasal passages, exhaling lungs, and belly. These resonators resonate with … vibration. One feels them in action, one hears them. Jean, however, believed that sound vibrated in a certain region and with a certain frequency that a refined singer could sense, and with which that singer could replace the inaccurate notion of hearing pitch. She wanted me to ‘feel’ pitch in my bones and skin rather than listen to pitch. Somewhat similarly, my Roy Hart voicework teachers, Margaret Pikes and Noah Pikes, concentrated very much on the notion of there being a vibratory centre to each kind of vocal timbral quality, sometimes linked to pitch and sometimes not, ranging from the belly up to the crown of the head, able to be displaced around the body2, which conferred and interacted with pitch, timbre, texture and profoundly embodied emotional qualities. I did discover new internal sensations doing the kind of somatically sensitive work they proposed; these sensations required profound focus on tactile senses of feltness. Despite these experiences, which cannot be exclusive to me, the nature of the relationship between voice and touch has been little addressed in music or performance theory. The nature of the feltness of sound remains largely within the realm of the experiential, unarticulated in verbal form.

Sound and the haptic 2: a singing intestine

At a certain point in my life I decided to become a client in body psychotherapy. An extremely logical person, who could ‘figure out’ all of my problems, I thought that traditional talking therapies wouldn’t do much for me … after all, I was very good at talking, and at sounding intelligent and ‘worked out’ while talking. After a couple of years trying out one technique, I moved cities, and heard about this strange new psychotherapy technique that somehow involved electronically amplifying the intestines. I decided to try it … I had had intestinal irritation in my teens and thought, well, what the hell. The first experience of hearing my intestines was astonishing, indeed delightful. I had been involved in avant-garde improvisation training in music, searching for spontaneity in sound, and here it was: ringing in my own belly. An intestine filled with orchestras of sound. An amplified stethoscope head captured the sound and broadcast it over speakers. But most intriguingly, these sounds had appeared and increased due to a special kind of touch being used on my body by the practitioner. The touch was called biodynamic massage3, but it was completely unlike any other ‘massage’ I had heard of or tried. It was ultra-light, practiced overtop of clothing on unthreatening parts of the body (the top of the head, around the eyebrows, the fingertips, the toes) and the touch qualities used were butterfly-like: delicate, precise, rhythmic, patterned, almost like brushing gently against the most superficial layers of the skin rather than ‘rubbing’ or ‘kneading’ it. It was a practice of interaction with the most superficial layers of dermal membrane. The more the touch was used, the more sound my intestines made. I fell into a sort of dream state, seeing images, feeling things come together, and I talked about them.

This experience opened up a new world for me, a world where my own, unconsciously generated bodily sound and the act of being touched were intermingled and inseparable from one another, where the very vibrations of my intestines responded to the lightest touch contact, where a feedback loop formed within which touch and sound stimulated one another. I went back for more … for physical, aesthetic and psychological reasons.

Later, training in this technique, I experimented with turning ‘on’ and ‘off’ these intestinal sounds by singing to myself and trying to vibrate specific parts of my body with specific tones. These ways of ‘touching’ myself (in conjunction with other technical trainings) developed into an extended vocal practice. I found I could use vocal vibration similarly to manual touch, and stimulate these sounds.

Sound and the haptic 3: In the improv lab

 My first improvisation teachers were Bill Dixon and Arthur Brooks. These men were pioneers of sixties and post-sixties avant-garde American Black music. They opened up a world of pure rebellion – but refined, careful, considered rebellion, aesthetically purposeful rebellion, and socially interactive rebellion – to me. Never having heard of this kind of avant-garde jazz, I sat in their ensembles playing the cello, feeling the waves of the vibrating strings of the instrument on my chest, its soaring sky sounds and its low purring growl coming out to blend with the other sounds around me. I worked with eyes closed. Anything could come out here … but this wasn’t some kind of the world of the primal scream. It was social. It was difficult. I had to listen and perceive with every alive and vital bone of my body. I had to respond, but I was free to respond in my own language, being aware of the other languages that surrounded me, of the human, sounding, vibrating, radiant content of the people who took me into their receptive worlds. This was a somatic space, a space of physical response, of sonic and corporeal gesture. This was a world of attention, of exchange, of the diffusion of the most intimate interiorities into the realm of the social, into an exchange of sonic sensation. This was the world of sound. But it was a world felt as sound, where to my young body the unknowable mysteries of humanity seemed to be reaching out.

The skin-ego, identity, vocal relationship

The formative and influential experiences I have described – part of the constellation of reasons why I am so interested in sound and touch – are obviously – like the experience of touch itself – deeply subjective. Skin is necessarily subjective, as we are the subjects that are enskinned; despite the Cartesian domination of the body by the ocularist concept of a detached, observing mind, we must now admit the body is self, and as Pallasmaa, Fisher and Welton point out, tactility is the seat of a space of relationship rather than of detached observation. Skin requires proximity to action; it requires a sense of depth; it is a space of sensation that drives intersubjective exchange. An art of the tactile is an art of intercorporeal relationship.

In exploring the nature of the skin’s subjectivity, and of its connection with self, and identity, it is intriguing to explore the French psychoanalyst Didier Anzieu’s (1995) concept of the skin-ego (my translation of what he calls the Moi-peau). For Anzieu, the skin’s corporeal and metabolic functions are intrinsically related to a number of psychological notions of representation, self-worth, value, empoweredness, and ability to enter into the relationship with the world. He points out that the skin is a place of contradiction:

The skin is permeable and impermeable. It is superficial and profound. It is truthful and yet deceptive. It is regenerative, yet it is constantly drying out. It is elastic, but a piece of skin once detached shrinks and hardens considerably. It calls to itself libidinal investments that are both narcissistic and sexual. It is the seat of well-being and also of seduction.  It transmits to the brain information coming from the outside world, including impalpable messages, when one of its functions is to palpate while the ego remains unconscious of this action … It embodies through its very thinness its vulnerability, [calling back to] our original distress [at being vulnerable infants], greater than that of all other species, and yet at the same time it embodies all of our adaptive and evolutionary suppleness. (Anzieu 1995: 39)

In outlining these contradictions, Anzieu in fact highlights how profoundly connected our skin is with fluctuating identities, and with the contradictions in our psychologies and physical organisms that make us human. Linking the physical skin to a developed psychoanalytical notion of the Ego, he creates an argument for our experience of skin and sense of self/psyche being an integrated whole, through sketching out the eight functions of that whole (Anzieu 1995: 119-137). While Anzieu’s theory is complex, and can’t be entered into in detail in this article, and is perhaps too uncritically classically psychoanalytic, I highlight here two of these functions, as they are particularly applicable to sonic, haptic relationships among membranes and senses. These are:

1. The fact that cells walls protect the individuality of cells, similarly to the ways that skin protects, contains, and furnishes information about the psychological identity of the human mind; our skins are marked, differently pigmented, contain differences in pilosity, variations of texture, moles, etc; our skin is the outer, observed surface with which we engage both haptically and visually with other humans (126).

2. The skin is the organ of the intersensorial, for all other sense organs emerge from it, in a most literal way; the skin is the sensory organ that connects all others: taste, smell, sight, hearing all emerge from pockets in the skin and are relayed with one another via the nervous system; indeed, the skin and the nervous system (including the brain) evolve during the maturation of the human embryo from the same early embryological tissues. The skin-ego function of the psyche thus helps to unite our varied sensory (and even thought) systems into one functional whole (127).

The implications of the above for the relationship between voice and touch are profound. The first point suggests that when we enter into haptic relationship, we do so partly to confirm our own identities. We are forced to explore our own identities through the haptic, because our skin-self is the most outer manifestation of these identities. The second point iterates the role of the skin as a primary organ knitting together all of our other sensory information, and providing a chain of associative relationships between sensation and what we call thought; through it, we become a kind of active skin-brain, the skin being the tapestry upon which all other senses communicate, creating primal associations of unity of feltness and reflection.

Intriguingly, Anzieu applies these theories to the world of the voice. He theorises that the embodied human psyche is made up of varied, layered, skin and membrane envelopes. One of these is a sonic envelope (Anzieu 1995: 183-198). This sonic envelope is created by the primary parent and child through the exchange of sound and language close to the body at the earliest ages. It is a reinforcer of an identity that is social and that can exchange; the bath of sounds in which an active-state baby and a vocalising parent are immersed creates what we might call a second skin, a membrane outside of the skin-membrane, which is the first corporeal and slightly distal world of bilateral exchange between humans. It furnishes a first spatio-auditive image to a baby’s emerging sense of self and also a bath of more distal (than direct touch) sensation to a baby’s body. This is because the baby senses and feels the words close to him, on his skin, but also resonating in the air and space around him, and learns to co-create that space through infantile utterances (192). This provides the psychic backdrop for the development of a sense of being able to socially exchange in the adult world.

This takes Fisher’s and  Welton’s ideas to another level of conceptual engagement, for Anzieu provides an extension of similar concepts into the realm of the development of a corporeal human psyche. Voice is not only a haptic stimulus, soliciting our engagement and active reaction; Anzieu’s theories mean that engaging with the body through vocal art also targets our very ability to engage with others in the development of a space of vocal exchange that interacts with and stimulates our skin, helping reinforce our identity, and that resonates backwards to our earliest experiences of vulnerability and relationship. This means that the touch of voice – like the touch of skin – is a touch that moves beyond the present to stimulate unconscious notions about how we learned about relationship.

This text will be replaced by the flash music player.

Excerpt from videodance/extended voice project Intimacies (2008). Sound copyright 2008 Yvon Bonenfant. Video directed by Yvon Bonenfant and Ludivine Allegue. All voices (with no pitch manipulation) and composition Yvon Bonenfant. Compotional assistance by Francis Silkstone.

This excerpt from a video soundtrack is particularly illustrative of a range of vocal sounds developed by Bonenfant from various kinds of touch qualities. They appeared here layered and at times contrasting, and are conceived as a kind of overall vocal touch experience.

Voice, touch and emotion

If touch and the touch of voice can evoke associations with our first experiences of relationship, the development of our identities, and the ability to exchange with the corporeal and affective worlds around us, they must also be intrinsically related to our own embodied psychological makeup. 

The notion of an embodied psychology is still a strangely contentious one. Despite the fact that direct interaction with the body through tactile interchange has had a place in psychologically targeted therapeutic processes in Western culture for more than eighty years, the practice is still relegated to the margins of the world of psychotherapeutic intervention. We do not hear about body psychotherapies much in popular or even intellectual culture, but they exist across Europe, North and South America and Oceania. Most of them are descended from the pioneering work of the controversial disciple (and later rejected disciple) of Freud, Wilhelm Reich.4

The experience I described earlier in the article, in a simple, narrative fashion, of hearing my own intestines, took place in a body psychotherapy context. This sound of the intestine sang out from behind the membrane of the skin, from the deepest bowels, and in the case of biodynamic massage, was stimulated by touching the skin in various, ultrarefined ways. By ultrarefined, I mean to say that the touch styles used are choreographed with fantastic precision. These happen in a dialectic dance with the skin/body reactions the therapist’s client might be having. The massages in question intend to send very specific messages to the body, through interacting mostly with the dermal layers (Boyesen, M.L. 1992a, b; Boyesen, E. 1992, Southwell).  According to the theories of the inventor of the massage technique in question, Gerda Boyesen, the sounds we hear are the result of what she calls psychoperistalsis: they are the sounds of the large intestine digesting the corporeal and emotional residue of stress (Boyesen, G. 1985: 88-90; 155-162).

No ‘hard scientific’ validation of this technique has ever been carried out. The understanding of the role of listening to the sounds of the body in question is largely phenomenological. Of import to us, though, is the notion that refined qualities of touch might actually have specific and directly attuned effects on the ways our most visceral anatomical systems act and interact, within our own bodies, and by extension, effect how we interact with others, through modifying our own biophysical states. What I can confirm is that as a client in this work, I was carried directly into the resonant spaces of the skin-ego that Anzieu describes, a space that activated and made me question the nature of my own skin-identity; I was carried into that emotive space, filled with affect, that Fisher describes as being the realm of the connections we form in the world of contiguous touch; the past, the present, and my own history with intersubjective space were conjured: not necessarily as visual memory, but as a series of associations, a series of understandings about how I learned to relate to the world from the skin. In so doing, I experimented with my own voice and its projection into the field around me, as well as how it felt on the surface of me and within me. I became fascinated by the space just outside the skin that is made up of the primary field of sonic exchange that Anzieu describes, the space of the sound envelope, where voices vibrate our external skins and then subsequently penetrate into deeper flesh, transferring their physical energy to the membranes that make up the honeycombed cell walls of our tissues. I was active, and haptic, and engaged in a world that I felt could only have been opened to my sensorially-deprived body through the nature of the specific kinds of touch I was receiving. Touch opened up to sound.

The psychotherapeutic technique in question is complex, and I address here only one small aspect of it. This aspect, however, forms the basis through which I elaborate the notion of sound-touch, and voice as a form of social touch.           

How, therefore, might we understand the potential of the human voice to touch others in all its haptic qualities along the haptic continuum? The human voice takes this tactility an evident step further. The human voice requires that one generates sound from within one’s own body. The voice is used for language, music, and what might also be called pre-language, or extra-language: sounds that are not shaped into words but which have an expressive impulse and meaning, such as grunts, groans, sobs, laughter, and other kinds of expressive sound.

This text will be replaced by the flash music player.

Excerpt from flashing light/extended voice project Beacons (2008).  Sound copyright 2008 Yvon Bonenfant. Video directed by Yvon Bonenfant and Ludivine Allegue. All voices (with no pitch manipulation) and composition Yvon Bonenfant. Compositional assistance by Francis Silkstone.

This excerpt from a video soundtrack begins with a peculiar touch quality reminscent of the throat singing traditions, and then expands to layer extremes of the baritsone register on top of one another. This is an exercise in divergent touch qualities that are also assertive and activating but in very different ways and with very different emotional qualities and haptic sensualities.

A concluding reflection on sound and touch

Both touch and sound dialogue require that we relate to the sensuality of our various skins – skins that permit us to perceive waves of energy that surround us. 

Sound wave transmission, though on a different level than it, is similar to manual touch in that both are gestures carrying physical energy through space to interact with – to contact - the flesh of another’s body. Both seem to be able to generate sensation, and subsequently, emotion, image, and perhaps even meaning for those involved in touch, or sound-touch, relationships with each other. This is a complex and not always linear chain of causality.

Sensation, or the perception of physical phenomena in the body, may or may not lead to the generation of emotion, for emotion is at least to some degree physical. If one is crying, one’s eyes water, the breathing modifies in speed, duration, and quality. Often sound is made (sobbing). If one is angry, one’s skin might become more red; one might feel heat around the temples, etc. This is true for all intensely-felt emotional states. In English, we use the same verb, to feel, to refer to emotion and tactile sensation. Sensation therefore is a part of emotion, and movement toward an emotion may be encouraged by the experience of sensation. When sensation does lead to emotion, one is ‘touched’.

Sensation may also generate thought, in that experiencing a sensation can generate images, words, associations, and desires. Consider the warm hand of one’s beloved placed gently on the back of one’s neck, and the images generated by this tactile memory.

Sensation can generate meaning, in that experiencing a sensation can attribute direction and desire to future impulses. The sonic sensation of hearing a singer’s voice sing wordless melodies may make me want to change my life, as it may bore me, motivate me to political action, or make me think about my value system.

Emotion spreads its tentacles into sensation, thought, and meaning as well. Intense emotion has an easily perceptible physical component, as illustrated previously, as do less intense emotions on a less obvious level. It also is something we label, abstractly, with words. If we let it, it modifies our posture, our vocal musculature, our facial expression in a way that causes us to be perceived differently than in a neutral state. Thought, meaning and emotion are in continual dialogue with each other. Indeed, it is perhaps ocularcentric and a denial of the intersensorial quality of skin to separate them from one another into discreet behaviours. But let us return our thoughts to sensation, and how it fits into the intricate dance that takes place between these four experiential planes.

The generation of vocal sound waves, before linguistic phonation is added to the shape of them, is the generation of transmission of haptic contact, which then enters into a dialogue with everything else around it that can sense that contact. The body emitting is also receiving, wrapping itself in Anzieu’s sound envelope, creating its own identity and radiating that identity.

Fig. 2

Fig.2 Bonenfant singing in a posture that creates access to extended vocal vocabulary during Soie soyeuse

Photo: Caroline Mercier, Galerie Talmart, Paris 2008. Scenography: Spyros Koskinas

Unlike manual touch, which limits us to very small numbers of simultaneous corporeal relationships with one another, sound wave generation and broadcasting, or sound-touch, can be practiced with large groups of people. Essentially, any human being able to perceive sound waves in some way, either consciously or unconsciously, can do so if the waves do not decay or disappear before reaching his or her body.

When we vocalize, then, we are distributing sound waves that carry a potential experience of sensation, generated by our own bodies, to all matter around us. They travel thanks to the properties of air, and eventually interact with all surrounding gases, solids and liquids until their energy is absorbed into, diffused by, or converted by this matter. This disappearance and redistribution process means they disappear from human aural perception.

And so what happens when these waves hit our bodies? If we consider sensation to be that which the nerves consciously or unconsciously perceive and transmit through the body, then we ‘feel’ them, aurally, and/or physically. When the stereo speaker in the dance club is vibrating our bodies, we will experience (not necessarily consciously) the stirring up of membranous material, interstitial fluid, muscle tissue, etc., elsewhere than in our ear drums.

The perception of sound is therefore a physical experience, whether or not we can be aware of its subtleties. Its experience can closely resemble, and perhaps be, that of emotional states. My work is based in making this physical experience of sound as conscious as possible for the emitter. This means developing an ever-increasing awareness of how the sound we produce acts on our own bodies by extension, our emotions, our thoughts, and the sense we make of them. This allows us to create and distribute a sort of sonic symbol, a constantly changing sonic representation of ourselves to a listener as a form of touch filled with intention. This symbol takes into account the subtle variations in posture, timbre, etc. that such awareness of our own bodies can permit us to generate within our bodies’ vocabulary of nearly infinite physical malleability. In the field of performance, this live dialogue appeals to the haptic agency of the bodies of the listeners. It attracts their impulses to action, their responsive agency, into dialogue with sound.

Each time a note is sung, someone’s physical, emotional, and mental state is broadcast outward to the world. This is because the emotional and the mental can affect the physical in terms of posture and breathing, which in turn affects the nature of the sound produced. This broadcasting is partly dependent on the way one’s own genetically and experientially unique singer-body generates, shapes, and attributes unique combinations of qualities to sound. Perhaps we do not hear everything the sound represents for the singer; perhaps he or she is choosing, consciously or unconsciously, to emphasise a given physical or emotional state, to act, or cover up, to repress given states, or to ignore such states completely. The fact remains that our bodies are vibrated by this sound, and that the matter within us, at least to some extent, must react. And since the state of our bodies is constantly transmitted, once again consciously or unconsciously, to our brains, and other ‘thinking’ regions of the body, we must react emotionally and mentally to this sound. This is a haptic form of dialogue.

We interact with this sound-touch, if we are within range. Our own bodies, with their particular genetic and developed characteristics, both inherently biological and acquired, are there, and filled with agency. We are taking part in a process of reaction and exchange that is profoundly human. It is a distributed, social touch, a touch that reaches toward.

A challenge

Because my artistic working methodologies are so profoundly intertwined with the notion of the receptive skin, the touching body, and the tactile voice, it is easy for me to lose track of the fact that not all touch touches, and not all contact achieves contact. As the theory and practice of haptically centred live performance experiences between living bodies evolve, it will be increasingly important that artists and academics articulate further the nature of the relationships that allow us to engage in these lived, exchange-filled relationships. The conceptual framework I’ve described presupposes that all participants in an artistic, voice-touch act are active and have some kind of agency. But what gives vocal sound – and for that matter – mechanically produced or reproduced sound – felt characteristics that seek to induce contact with personal, corporeal agency? We hear vocal sounds all day, yet we don’t necessarily respond to these at all times with a fully-indulged haptic perception. Maybe we need to train using Marinetti’s exercises, or be in the dark like Welton describes. My own approach has been to rely on the development of vocal sound that has similarly refined intention to biodynamic massage in order to focus on the corporeal interaction between the anesthetised, tactile voice and the haptically alive body. This is, of course, not enough. It is only a beginning.

Laura Marks (2002: 1-20) has articulated a clear vision of the aesthetic characteristics of film and video that can be characterised as ‘haptic’. We need to experiment with, and discover more about, the ways performers and audience might engage with each other to increase the haptic appeal to the body of vocal sound, and sound in general, that we want to touch others with. We need to identify how we might swim in hapticity, and probably even engage with haptic methodologies for discussing hapticity, since our relationship with scholarly text seems to be a relationship based on the confines of ocularcentric logic. We need to shift toward texts of metaphor and poetic suppleness and to knit together our scholarly communications with the rigour of refined qualities of touch. To adapt a phrase, until we do that, we will be talking about fish in the language of bicycles. 


1. Jean Westermann Gregg is a famous singing teacher and member of the American Academy of Teachers of Singing. However, she has never published a book on her method, and I am unable to provide any but anecdotal evidence of her practice.

2. Again, the technical mechanics of Roy Hart Voicework are largely undocumented, and manifestations of it vary from teacher to teacher. For a history of the development of the work, see Pikes, N. (2004), although this book does not describe the experiential vibratory phenomena I refer to here per se. 

3. I will give a full and referenced explanation of this school of techniques later in the article.

4. For an international survey of existing practices in body psychotherapy, see Staunton, T. (2002), or Totton, N. (2005)


Anzieu, D. (1995) Le Moi-peau (2nd edition), Paris: Dunod

Boyesen, E. (1992) ‘La distribution d'énergie’ in Manuel d’enseignement de l’Ecole Française d’Analyse Psycho-Organique, tome 2, ed. Besson, J., Gargas Gaudiès, France: EFAPO, pp.239-244.

Boyesen, G. (1985) Entre psyché et soma : Introduction à la psychologie biodynamique, Paris: Payot

Boyesen, M.L. (1992a) ‘Lifting et etirements’ in Manuel d’enseignement de l’Ecole Française d’Analyse Psycho-Organique, tome 2,  ed. Besson, J., Gargas Gaudiès, France: EFAPO, pp. 245-250.

Boyesen, M.L. (1992b) ‘Techniques des massages biodynamiques (2)’ in Manuel d’enseignement de l’Ecole Française d’Analyse Psycho-Organique, tome 2, ed.  Besson, J., Gargas Gaudiès, France: EFAPO,  pp.213-222.

Fisher, J. (2007) ‘Tangible acts: touch performances’ in The Senses in Performance, eds. Banes, S. and Lepecki, A, London: Routledge, pp.146-155

Marks, L. (2002) Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Nancy, J.-L. (2007) Toucher. Dictionnaire du corps, Paris, CNRS Editions, p325-327

Marinetti, F.P. (1921) Le Tactilisme (manifeste futuriste) in Duplaix, S. and Lista, M. (2005) Sons et lumières : Une histoire du son dans l’art du vingtième siècle, Paris: Éditions du Centre Pompidou: 258 

Pallasmaa, Juhanni. (2005) The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses, Chichester: John Wiley and Sons

Pikes, N. (2004) Dark Voices: The Genesis of the Roy Hart Theatre, Spring Journal Books

Staunton, T., ed. (2002) Body Psychotherapy (Advancing Theory in Therapy), London: Routledge

Totton, N., ed. (2005) New Dimensions in Body Psychotherapy, Milton Keynes: Open University Press

Welton, M. (2007) ‘Seeing nothing: now hear this…’ in The Senses in Performance, eds. Banes, S. and Lepecki, A., London: Routledge, pp.146-155