How can you link sound to touch? Joanne Armitage is finding out. She delivered Can You Feel the Music?, the Daphne Oram Lecture for Digital Innovation at this year’s British Science Festival. Alan Barker went haptic.

It’s obvious at once that Joanne Armitage is a composer. When she’s explaining her work, she chooses her words with great care. But she would, you feel, much rather be spending her time coding. If anyone can actually bury themselves in a laptop, Joanne is that person.

She opened her lecture at this year’s British Science Festival by paying tribute to Daphne Oram, who imagined music unlike any heard before. Oram’s research – at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, among other places – led the way to Doctor Who and beyond. Joanne wants to take that work further: she researches physical computing. Her degree is in electronic engineering, and she’s just been awarded a PhD in the Music Department at Leeds. She teaches digital media, but her life is not bounded by academia: she works with artists to develop sensor technology and construct installations that respond – if that’s the right word – to music.

We all know that sound is physical; but Joanne wants to explore what she calls ‘the unheard aspects of sound” and render them physically. Technology, for her, is not just a means to do that, but an extension of the human. “My philosophical perspective,” she says, “is one that embraces an embodied approach to technology: thinking of technology as a way of being rather than as a way of doing.”


She enacts this philosophy by developing haptic interfaces. (Haptic? The equivalent, for the sense of touch, of ‘visual’ or ‘aural’.) We have vibration motors in our phones. Joanne claims to collect vibration motors – well, someone has to do it – and she uses them to build devices that connect sound to vibrations through code. Some of them are built into furniture: seats that send vibrations through your body. But Joanne voices frustration that many of these devices produce only what she calls an ‘analoguous’ experience, the physical merely shadowing the patterns of the music. She wants to create illusions. She demonstrated a belt, for example, that seems to send a continuous pulse around your body.

Joanne wants to reveal a kind of presence beyond the music, what she calls “uncommunicated and unapparent things, a sensation of otherness.”  She takes inspiration from the work of Daphne Oram herself, who wrote: “while the notes are being worked out, this beyondness comes into being.”  Oram was writing about live performance; Joanne’s work extends that ambition into the digital arena, so that the audience taps into the performer’s flow state at the moment of composition. She absorbs the body further into her own compositional process, so that the listener (or feeler, perhaps) becomes completely immersed.

One audience member hoped that her research might help people with hearing impairments. Joanne would like to work in that area. But her real love is hacking: transforming the possibilities of the technology she’s working with. And when it doesn’t work – call it ‘disruption’ – well, that’s all part of the improvisational process.

The lecture didn’t exactly end. It kind of transformed itself into an experience. Everyone wanted a go.

Read an interview with Joanne Armitage here.

Alan Barker is a writer, coach, training consultant and academic proofreader. Find out more about his work here.