In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • The Force of Noise, or Touching Music: The Tele-Haptics of Stockhausen’s “Helicopter String Quartet”
  • Ryan Bishop (bio)

Curiously, hearing is a way of touching and being touched by one’s space. In intense experiences of listening, hearing cooperates with touch to recall the eyeless belongingness of intrauterine life, when we are given our own shape by the shape of that which surrounds and accommodates us, and early infant life when we are bathed and caressed as much by voices as by hands and fingers.

— Steven Connor, “Noise”

Music is a genuine art of sound vibration.

– Karlheinz Stockhausen, “We in Music are Like Physicists”

My love,/You are so far/Away, that/I can touch you. — Nausicaa Thelmboski “Prelude and Chorale for an Organ in Flames”


One touches on what one does not touch, one feels there where one does not feel, one even suffers there where suffering does not take place, when at least it does not take place where one suffers (which is also, let us not forget, what is said about phantom limbs, that phenomenon marked with an X for any phenomenology of perception).

Jacques Derrida, Spectres of Marx (151)

Apparent to the Touch

The American composer John Adams writes “One needs the stimulation of the tactile contact with the sound” (191). He illustrates this point with a kind of tautology, for he says that Beethoven, when deaf, insisted on composing on the piano, “even if he had to lay his head directly on the sounding board of the instrument to receive the vibrations through his bones” (ibid.). The tautology results from the fact that tactile contact is not only something one needs with sound, but absolutely something one cannot avoid. Beethoven would have been able to feel the music in his bones if he could hear or not, but the reverse is not the case. The fact that the sound could not touch his ears, move the necessary parts of the complex system of the ear, rendered him deaf. Beethoven’s deafness was due to a lack of tactility.

To touch a tympanum, to caress the cochlea, one needs the invisible touch of sound waves. The ear is actually a series of chambers and transmitters that pass along—or tele-project—sound waves that touch and move various sensitive receptors: bones, fluids, membranes, and hairs, before being passed along to the nervous system and the brain. The sound [End Page 25] itself cannot be seen except when rendered graphic through a mechanical process, just as the initial stage of hearing operates as a mechanical process. Later the mechanical energy of sound converts to hydraulic energy as the fluids play a larger vibratory role. Thus at its source, touch operates with and causes sound, and it is only through touch-at-a-distance that we have sound at all. The famous story of Edison’s ears bleeding from his aural experiments makes visceral this tele-touch, which is not always a gentle stroke, no matter how pleasant the sounds, voice or music we might encounter.

The biological sense of touch, as with vision, is confined to surfaces. Anything that can be touched or seen is de facto a surface. In order to move beyond a surface to that which is not yet another surface, a different sense needs to be brought into play: sound. Sound provides the means to access invisible, unseeable, untouchable interiors. If we consider the import of vision to the general sensorium and metaphorization of knowledge, then the general figurative language of “insight” runs counter to surface vs. deep understanding of the world. Sound, it would seem, not vision or touch, would lead us to the more desired deep understanding of an object or text. In fact, our store of terms and concepts for hermeneutical processes is stocked full with surface vs. deep understanding of a text, much of it having to do with the English root “-ply,” (from the Indo-European root “plek”) meaning to fold. The act of folding implies a folded-in section, a section hidden from view by another surface. Hence there is a suspicion of the surface; there is something more there than meets the eye. Thus...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 25-40
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.