Written by Alan Barker, Freelance Writer, British Science Festival 

Joanne Armitage is delivering the Daphne Oram Lecture for Digital Innovation at this year’s British Science Festival. Can You Feel the Music? explores the ways that the body interacts with and mediates sound. Alan Barker got a sneak preview.

How do you go about answering the question in your lecture’s title?

My work explores how we can develop installations that respond to music. I’ve developed about ten different projects that look at gesture and other unheard aspects of sound, and how they can be rendered as something physical.

My degree is in electronic engineering, and I did a PhD in the Music Department, using what I’d learnt in my degree to explore sound. I currently teach digital media, and I travel a lot and work with artists to develop sensor technology, interactions and so on. My philosophical perspective is one that embraces an embodied approach to technology: thinking of technology as a way of being rather than as a way of doing. And I explore this through my teaching and my own practices.

There’s this lovely quote by Evelyn Glennie, the famous deaf percussionist, and it’s quoted by other scholars who work in the area that I specialise in, which is physical computing and haptic technologies.

What does ‘haptic’ mean?

Communication through touch. Evelyn Glennie says that, basically, hearing is a specialised form of touch, and she makes sound by feeling it through her body. My work looks at the ways we can heighten the physical sense of sound, to create embodied and immersive experiences, especially in digital contexts – how we can transcribe or share a sense of aura about a digital media artefact through a haptic or physical interaction.


Like, a presence. It’s thinking about a piece of music not just a sound file, but something that was produced in a moment, and how we can explore that digitally, to heighten it.

And how do we do that?

Well, I do it by developing haptic interfaces. We have vibration motors in our phones. I have lots of vibration motors in my home, and I build chairs and cushions and waistbands and headbands... My long-term goal is to make a vibrator-making workshop, but I haven’t quite got the materials sorted for that yet...

What do you mean by ‘in the moment’?

In the moment of performing. I’m an improvising musician. So, for example, I make computer music, created by live coding. I have a piece of equipment that captures all my key presses and renders them as vibrations for audience members. It captures a sense of my gesture that’s disconnected from the sound itself. I have an algorithm that measures the intensity of flow and sends that as vibrations.

Will you demonstrate all this in the session?

Yes, I shall have various different pieces of equipment that I can share with the audience. Some things I’ll need volunteers for, because they’re fixed to the floor...

When you say ‘measures the intensity of flow’, do you mean electrical flow?

The flow state, the performer’s state of mind when she’s performing. Flow is quite a subjective thing, but when you perform, your flow is disrupted by things. For example, if I’m trying to debug a piece of code or something, and I slow down my typing, the algorithm will register that and you’ll feel it as a lack of physical presence.

It might be interesting to combine your work with an EEG to see what’s going on in your brain when that happens...

Yeah, a close collaborator of mine has developed a piece called Flow, using an EEG monitor. Done that!

Can You Feel the Music? is on Tuesday 5 September at 12.30. Book tickets on the British Science Festival website.