The Journal of Sonic Studies

To refer to this article use this url: http://journal.sonicstudies.org/vol04/nr01/a12

Journal of Sonic Studies, volume 4, nr. 1 (May 2013)


Michelle Lewis-King


Pulse Project (2011 - ) is a performance series exploring the social interfaces between self and other, art and science, contemporary western music composition and traditional Chinese medicine. This performance-study series aims to interrogate the axioms that underpin contemporary medicine and digital technology through the exploration of its corollary “other” - traditional Chinese medicine and music theory - in order to generate a new approach to embodiment and soundscape composition.



Figure 1: Pulse Reading 1 (2011) © Michelle Lewis-King. Photo: Barbara Butkus.

Through using pulse reading to programme bespoke soundscapes, Pulse Project positions the haptic and somatic into play with the digital. Drawing upon my experience as a clinical acupuncturist (with training in biomedicine), I use intuitive “active” touch together with traditional Chinese medical and musical theories and SuperCollider (SC), an open source real-time audio synthesis programming language, to compose bespoke algorithmic soundscapes expressive of the interior aspects of an individual’s embodied being.

By employing the artist as a medium through which to conduct sonic art as “research,” Pulse Project also provides a new method for synthesizing artistic, scientific and technological skill sets. Pulse “reading,” case history, graphic notations and the programming of personalised soundscape compositions are all used as methods for extending the intimate possibilities within the social encounter between artist and audience.

The sonic works of this study are not simply sonifications of western principles of the circulatory system but offer another perspective from which to conceive of and listen to the interior spaces of the body. Pulse reading in the context of this study acts as an instrument of convergence between art and medicine, east and west, self and other. My approach counters recent trends within “interactive” sonic art which increasingly relies on heuristic measures of participant’s vital signs, i.e., sonifying data from biosensors as the golden mean for representing the interior of the body and embodiment.

In order to determine the ways in which Pulse Project offers a new approach to the study and contextualisation of sound, I first outline a history of “listening” within the construct of the clinic in sections 1 and 2. Then following these sections, as my study takes the experience gained within a clinical setting into the public sphere, I outline Pulse Project in section 3. In section 4, I position Pulse Project within a contemporary framework of sonic research by outlining artists working along similar lines with my study. In section 5, I discuss the themes presented throughout this article and compare the aims of Pulse Project in relation to other artists’ works in order to make the case for why Pulse Project offers a unique approach to sound study in section 6.

1. Historical Underpinning of the Study

In regards to the act of listening to the body of others within the contexts of modern medical encounter, a prescriptive relationship has been repeated continuously, with little change to the dynamic of the clinical encounter itself. The clinical consultation predominantly functions to assess a subject in relation to diagnosing and prognosticating possible pathological outcomes. According to Foucault, the “medical gaze” within the modern clinic privileges sight over other senses and serves to objectify the other. In The Birth of the Clinic (Foucault 1973), Foucault contends that within the sight/touch/hearing “sensorial triangulation” of “anatomo-clinical perception,” its main emphasis “remains under the dominant sign of the visible” and that the diagnostic relationship is powered by the “triumph of the gaze that is represented by the autopsy: the ear and the hand are merely temporary” (Foucault 1973: 165). Given Foucault’s anthropological account of medicine, what is significant in terms of this study is that the epistemic roots of modern clinical diagnosis and prognostication originate from the autopsies of the Enlightenment, particularly Descartes conception of the body as an assembly of mechanical processes (Vaccari 2012; Foucault 1973). From this point onwards, the discovery of anatomy has forever shaped the power relationship between doctor and patient as well as the scope of clinical inquiry in that they developed their stratagems of knowledge, measurement, diagnostics and intervention in relation to securing a rational/visual vantage over chaos and the pathological processes of death (Foucault 1973: 167). Furthermore, Foucault affirms that auscultation of the patient was developed under the auspices of the medical gaze, remarking that “the medical gaze is now endowed with a plurisensorial structure... that touches, hears and... sees” (Foucault 1973: 164). This “gaze,” formed from the privileged vantage point of peering into the passive body via autopsy has since afforded the clinician an autonomous distance from the pathological threat of the patient’s body (Foucault 1973). This approach to the body created the fundamental theatre that the modern clinical encounter continues to play out.

Though Pulse Project situates itself in the public domain, it is the intimacies and methodologies of the “clinical encounter” as a means for developing knowledge of others that provides the original context for this study. During my clinical training, I was taught to regard the “other” (patient) from the perspectives of two different rubrics simultaneously. One mode of experience was directed by the western model where the patient is assessed from a certain distance, within the lexicon of pathology. Whereas within the traditional Chinese medical model, the clinical relationship between the practitioner and the other (whom I consider the “querent”) is less clear-cut and more intersubjective. The practitioner has a more intimate physical/emotional relationship with the other/querent and actively feels for subtle qualities within their pulse, palpates the “skin viscera,” i.e., touches local sites along the body, along the “channels” as well as employing other clinical methods for gathering information (e.g., clinical questions regarding the querent’s condition, emotional state, listening for certain sounds within the voice and body, associated smells, visual observations, etc). When compared with the occidental medical model, tactility features as the primary mode of relating and diagnosing in the clinic of the Chinese physician (Hsu 2005).

2. On Clinical Auscultation and Diagnostics

With regards to auscultation practice within the western clinic, the dynamic of the medical gaze is echoed in the way in which instruments are used to “listen” to a patient’s interior world. Scholar and musician Jonathan Sterne remarks on the clinical use of the stethoscope in his book The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Sterne 2003) that, “until the discovery of x-rays at the end of the 19th century, auscultation was the only available method for approaching the interiority of patient’s bodies without physically cutting them up” (Sterne 2003: 123). He further asserts that, as Stanley Reiser argues, the stethoscope allowed the physician to “in a sense, autopsy the patient while still alive” (as cited in Reiser 1981: 36). This was “a strategy that makes sense only given the status of the autopsy in the acquisition of medical knowledge: while dead patients lay forever muted, their bodies could yield up immutable truth through the empiricist’s skilful use of the scalpel. The body of the patient was a whole network of anatomo-pathological mappings” (Sterne 2003: 124).

Sterne states that the stethoscope introduced a modernity into the consultation, giving the physician a “clean” distance and autonomy from the patient, and goes on to remark that “the physicians’ withdrawal from such person-centered signs of illness was increased by the fact that the auscultation process required the physician to isolate himself in a world of sounds inaudible to the patient” (Sterne 2003: 123) which facilitated the physician’s reliance on methods which could “yield data independent from the opinions and appearance of the patient” (Sterne 2003: 123). Foucault considers the stethoscope to exemplify “solidified distance” between the doctor and patient (Foucault 1973: 164). The very notion of “listening” to others in the context of the clinic becomes a form of listening that conforms to the “rules of method” (Latour 1987: 17). That is, that the data extracted from the patient is of superior import than the patient’s subjective experiences when clinically composing a “picture” of the patient’s condition.

Elisabeth Hsu writes in Tactility and the Body in Early Chinese Medicine (Hsu 2005), “If visual inspection of corpses was central to the development of anatomy in modern Europe, one may ask which of the senses was important for the emergence of the predominant currents of scholarly medical knowledge and practice in third- and second-century B.C.E. China? This article argues that it was tactile perception prompted by a tactile exploration of living bodies” (Hsu 2005: 7). From Hsu’s reading of medical texts from the second century BCE, the Mawangdui medical texts and the Huang Di nei jing classic on medical difficulties, she states that “Chinese physicians of early dynastic times became interested in subtle changes that are not directly visible to the onlooker” (Hsu 2005: 12) and asks, “How can we explain their scientific interest in subtle, often invisible changes?” (Hsu 2005: 12). Hsu traces the approaches to which early Chinese physicians explored human ontology in both its physical and immaterial forms (which is what Hsu refers to when she mentions the “subtle and invisible changes” in the body). In regarding living phenomena, she illuminates Chinese physicians’ “extensive tactile explorations” for understanding, measuring and debating the dynamics of interconnected (living) matter in motion and how this occurred within their subjects (Hsu 2005).

Chinese physicians thus developed a compendium of texts on the network of organs, vessels, and energetic pathways of the body. The texts describe detailed methodologies for both active and perceptive touch, i.e., lists for applying different types of touch as well as extensive accounts as to what the types of energetic expressions of each organ-vessel ideally should feel like (see Hsu 2005: 19-21). Early Chinese physicians’ use of active touch to study the living body contrasts the importance placed on vision as the primary mode for observing the (dead) body in occidental medicine. By privileging visuality over tactility, occidental physicians of the Enlightenment created an objectifying and distancing approach to live phenomena that enabled them to banish that which could not be heuristically fixed, calculated and placed into a monistic tautology (Vaccari 2012). For this reason, Hsu argues that the tactile approach of Chinese physicians made them more sensitive to certain aspects of “human experience” than occidental medicine (Hsu 2005: 28). It is not my intention to set up a false binary argument between occidental and asian medicine, nor to give a flat portrayal of biomedicine in this article, as much of my critique already exists within the medical community (Broderick 2011).

3. Pulse Project

Here I present Pulse Project which explores the tactility of Chinese pulse diagnostics of Elisabeth Hsu’s study and posit it into the contemporary context of the sound study. This project investigates the use of intimate touch as a means for connecting with others and for producing embodied sounds that explore the intersubjective space/time between self and other. My study takes on the notion that the participants in the research are of equal importance to the researcher (Koski 2011). This examination explores the sonic possibilities of the interior of the body when considered from a perspective alternative to standard practice in western medicine and technology.


Figure 2: Pulse Reading Detail (2013) © Michelle Lewis-King. Photo: Nick Fudge.

Touch as Instrument of Convergence

In this study I enact sonic research through physically becoming an instrument or medium (in the sense of an alembic) between myself and others and between cultural traditions for understanding and mediating the body. As stated above, this study attempts to explore “touch” as an instrument between art and science, east and west, self and other. As medical anthropologist Elisabeth Hsu writes in, Towards a science of touch, part I: Chinese pulse diagnostics in early modern Europe (Hsu 2000), in order to obtain research on tactility in relation to diagnostics or even a “science of touch” in the west, one must search backwards into pre-modern “psychophysics” (Hsu 2000: 251). The cessation of the development of a science of touch into the modern era was attributed to a problem of “subjectivity” and the blurring of subject and object through direct touch which was deemed unsuitable for “establishing a descriptive science” (Hsu 2000: 264).

In comparing the european pre-modern “science of touch” to traditional Chinese medicine texts and practices of pulse reading, Hsu establishes that (western) psycho-physicians kept within the lineage of Galenic medicine and conceived of a “two-point threshold task for mapping the different bodily sensibilities with respect to discrimination of sensation, localisation, temperature, and … pain onto different skin regions” (Hsu 2000: 261). This determines that development of clinical touch in pre-modern europe was determined by a flat or “passive” approach, confining itself to the surface of the skin instead of the more “active” and haptic types of tactile explorations recorded by early Chinese physicians in their detailed analyses of the patient’s pulse qualities and other vibrations that stirred beneath the surface of the skin (Hsu 2000: 263).

In an attempt to bridge these ancient and pre-modern developments of a “science of touch” with contemporary praxis, I adopt an active touch with participants engaged in this study to obtain the signature characteristics and vibrations of each person’s pulse. The “informed” touch I use is based on the lexicon of Chinese medicine pulse diagnostics which states that each (participant's) pulse contains a unique set of oscillating sound-waves and images, a complex set of twenty-eight + waveform images that correspond to mental and physical states of being. There are six positions and fifteen different levels at the wrist (see Figures 3 and 4) from which to take an impression (Flaws 1995: 19; Unschuld 1986), as opposed to the one position of modern biomedicine which simply measures heart rate.


Figure 3: Chinese Pulse Positions (2013) © Michelle Lewis-King.


As demonstrated in Figure 3 above, the left and right wrists each have three positions where the practitioner’s fingers are placed to palpate the pulse. Each position (indicated by the dark circles) registers at least two levels from which the pulse waveform qualities can be felt which are understood as “superficial” and “deep.” These levels are also associated with organs and networks (see Figure 5). It must be noted that the organs discussed in this study are not equivalent to those in biomedicine (this is further elaborated on in the “Composition” section). For the purposes of differentiating the traditional Chinese conception of the organs from those of occidental medicine, Chinese “organs” are capitalised in this text.

Given the vast historical practice of Chinese medicine, Chinese pulse diagnostics affords practitioners a wide assemblage of methods and concepts from which to develop and train their palpation skills. The palpation of pulses requires many years of practice to develop the sensitivity to enable the practitioner to read pulses with accuracy (Hsu 1999). I began my training in 2002, and each instance deepens my understanding. So much so, that the study of the pulse waveforms of others has impelled me to take pulse reading from the hidden processes of clinical practice into the participatory and audio-visual realm of social art practice in order to develop Hsu’s “science of touch” in a wider context.


Figure 4: Nan Jing Pulse Classic Diagram (2013) © Michelle Lewis-King.

In Figures 3 and 4 above, each of the black disks display the positions where pulse waveforms are palpated, interpreted and compiled together to produce an overall “portrait” unique to each participant.

Though the diagnostic approach to pulse taking is consistent in terms of where and how pulse investigation is conducted, i.e., the positions of the fingers on the wrist, the ideal forms of wave-images for each organ-network, etc., there are multiple methods for pulse diagnosis in Chinese medicine. For example, according to the Huang Di nei jing (cited in section 3), each pulse has a position and depth at which it is ideally palpable (Adams 2006; Unschuld 1986: 117). For example, at one end of the spectrum, the Lung waveform is ideally palpable at the pressure level of three “beans” and at the other, the Kidney is ideally at the pressure level of fifteen “beans” (see Figure 4). If the wave-image expresses itself in the “wrong” place, i.e., at other levels than where it is ideally meant to be, this has significance as to the condition of the organ-network. For instance, if a percussive “bowstring” sensation, which ideally belongs to the register of Liver/Gall Bladder waveform expressions, can be felt at the level of 3 beans (which is at the level of the Lung/Large Intestine) instead of the location of 12 beans (the ideal level of the Liver/Gall Bladder pulse), this means a discordant relationship is developing between the Liver and Lung organ networks (Adams 2006: 26). Each of the organs and networks (known as zàng-fǔ) are also associated with an element, colour, tone, etc., which is further discussed in the “Composition” section below.


Figure 5: Acupuncture chart from the Ming Dynasty: The Pericardium Meridian of Hand-Jueyin. Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). Public Domain Attribution.

Performance Procedure and Recruitment


Figure 6: Pulse Reading 2 (2013) © Michelle Lewis-King. Photo: Nick Fudge. Participants appear with consent.

The performance itself is staged in a public space using the simple props of a table, chair, note paper, ink, brushes, acetate, a laptop and a white coat. This performance is easily introduced into most public spaces (given proper permissions, etc.) and always attracts the attention of onlookers. In the interests of conducting my study ethically, those interested enough in the event are asked to review the participant information sheets before active participation in the performance study, circumventing any ethical issues. Participants’ pulses are individually recorded and interpreted. The collection of data is modelled on a medical history or “case-study” basis. Clinical impressions of the pulse are first notated (see Figure 7), e.g., “bowstring,” “slippery,” “replete,” with the speed, vibratory qualities, fullness, emptiness, etc. Each organ-network (channel) is characterised and hand-drawn into a graphic notation. Each participant is given an individualised graphic notion during the performance and a SC soundscape file composed uniquely for them post-event (see Figure 8). The graphic notations and “clinical” notes are used post-performance to translate each person’s pulse into algorithmic compositions of modulated sine waves using SC (refer to Figures 7, 8 and 9). The notations and compositions of each participant constitute individual samples of the overall research project which is archived online. *


Figure 7: Clinical Notation 1 (2011) © Michelle Lewis-King. Photo: Barbara Butkus.


Figure 8: V&A_1 Graphic Notation (2013) © Michelle Lewis-King.


Figure 9: Leeds_3 SC Composition Code Sample (2013) © Michelle Lewis-King.


According to Chinese medicine theory, there are five zàng 臟 organs: the Heart (including the “Pericardium”), Spleen, Lungs, Kidneys and Liver; and six 腑 organs: Small Intestine, Large Intestine, Gall Bladder, Urinary Bladder, Stomach and Triple Heater. These organs have an associated energy reservoir or “network” (refer to Figure 5) that runs between the organ and the outer periphery of the body (Unschuld 1986: 408). This brings the total networks (or channels) to twelve when including the Pericardium. These twelve channels form the fundamental structural basis for my graphic notations and SuperCollider compositions.

The zàng-fǔ pairs are also each associated with the five elements: Fire, Earth, Metal, Water and Wood, and each element has a fundamental musical tone associated with it, i.e., Stomach/Spleen = Earth, Lung/Large Intestine = Metal, Kidney/Bladder, Water, Liver/Gall Bladder = Wood, Heart/Small Intestine = Fire, Triple Heater/Pericardium = “Ministerial” Fire. They are also associated with fundamental colours: Fire = Red, Earth = Yellow, Metal = Silver/White, Water = Indigo/Black, Wood = Green (Unschuld 1986: 256).

The frequencies I use in SC are calculated using the traditional Chinese pentatonic scale: gōng 宫, shāng 商, jué 角, zhǐ 徵, 羽, each of which represent the five tones of elements (Cheng-Yih 1995: 44-48). The fundamental tone, from which other tones of the scale are calculated, is related to the element which is most present in the participant. For instance, if the vibrations arriving from the Stomach position form the dominant feature of the pulse, then the tuning will be determined by the frequency that represents the Earth tone as the fundamental tone for the pentatonic scale (roughly 440 Hz, as this forms a “central” tone). The tuning calculation for the pentatonic scales can be seen here in Figure 10.


Figure 10: Chinese Music and Gamut and Scales. (2011) Joseph C.Y. Chen and Patrick Edwin Moran.

Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

My use of SC programming language (sclang) is basic, keeping to simple commands so I can intensify my focus on listening to and modulating the sine wave shapes, characteristics and amplitudes within each programming command in order to match the fluid and electric-like nature of the vibrations I feel within people’s pulses. This is so as to match, with as much fidelity as possible, the vibrations appropriate to SC ugen (basic synthesis operators) commands. There is also an interpretative and intuitive element to reading peoples’ pulses which is central to my composing a sonic “portrait” of others, and this allows me to place the “human” within the mechanical instead of the other way around, as a disruption of the posthuman turn in new media (refer to section 5 for further discussion).

For those unfamiliar with SC programming language, an example of the most basic command might be: “{SinOsc.ar(440, mul: 0.1)}.play;” and this simply tells the SC synthesis server (scsynth) to evaluate, expedite and match the code command with a sound object; or put more plainly, SC plays a sine wave at the frequency of 440 Hz at a moderate volume (Wilson et al. 2011). As stated above, in order to faithfully convey the landscape of the body according to Chinese Medicine pulse diagnostics, sine waves are carefully modulated to exemplify the signature qualities of pulse waveforms as described in the notations (as in Figures 7 and 8 above). For example, the command “{SinOsc.ar(440.dup, mul: LFNoise2.kr(4, 3).max(0) * 0.009)}.play;” corresponds to an aspect of a pulse emitting a “fine, slow, and irregular” oscillation along the “Spleen” channel. Each of the channels are associated with a colour (as mentioned in the Composition section) and this is represented in the colour-coded SC text below in Figure 11.


Figure 11: V&A_1 SC Composition Code Sample (2013) © Michelle Lewis-King.

As stated in the “Performance Procedure and Recruitment” section above, the clinical notes, drawings and graphic notations generated from the performance consultation are used to compose each SC command line so that the vibratory qualities of the drawn and painted lines associated with each channel can be rendered as faithfully as possible. Each line in SC represents a wave shape, speed, frequency and overall characteristic corresponding to each zàng- pair in the graphic notations in Figures 7 and 8 above. For example, in Figure 11, the top line corresponds to the graphic notation in Figure 7, which represents the Lung/Large Intestine paired organ-network, the second line in the notations and SC compositions represent the Stomach/Spleen pair, and so on. Also, each of these lines in the graphic notation essentially has two different quality expressions of sound oscillation in its relation to the zàng-fǔ pair (one sound is more “solid” and the other “lighter”). For example, the Large Intestine () channel is represented by the silver coloured text in Figure 9 at 530.29 Hz, which has a lighter cadence and thinner wave sound quality than the Lung (zàng) oscillation (represented by the silver text further down at 530 Hz which has heavier and “rounder” characteristics).

Pulse Project Samples

In the audio files 1-8 below, each sample varies in amplitude as this reflects the strength or faintness of each pulse impression. Some soundscape samples are more layered, and therefore certain sounds will only be audible at certain volumes. Please use headphones and adjust volume to obtain the desired “full” sound.

4. Soundings in the Field

This section presents an introduction to contemporary artists and theorists whose research examines sound in terms of auscultation and listening to the interior of the body as a subject for sonic study, both in the contexts of the clinic as well as live performance, in order to establish a common field of practice for Pulse Project.

In his article Listening as Touching and the Dangers of Intimacy (Rice 2007), anthropologist Tom Rice presents his ethnographic study on the “soundscapes of the hospital” at St Thomas’s Hospital in London. Rice explores in detail the role played by the stethoscope in the healthcare practitioner-patient relationship and how this instrument creates an “acoustical engagement with the world.” Rice views the stethoscope as an object which creates an intimate and tactile form of listening or even as an object which can perform “listening as touch,” calling it an “auditory proboscis” (Rice 2007: 20). In this way the instrument becomes a probing bionic ear intensifying the act of listening. Rice argues that this form of listening is an active form of listening, enabling doctors to direct their (medical) intention via listening. Rice's notion of “listening as touch” is discussed in relation to Pulse Project’s “touch as listening” in section 5 below.

Artist John Wynne has also conducted a study of auscultation in a hospital setting by listening to patients and creating sonic portraits of them at Harefield Hospital in London. Wynne's sonic study, which formed part of the collaborative installation Transplant (Wynne and Wainwright 2010), has a similar approach to Pulse Project in that his field work involved building a rapport with transplant patients which he responds to by creating sonic “portraits” of them. Wynne shapes his soundscapes from the patient’s point of view and takes his material from within the environment they embody. His cacophonous array of sounds, such as monitor bleeps, compressed air escaping from life-supporting machines, erratic metallic sounds of clinical instruments, the awkward shuffle of bodies coming and going and so forth, assemble together into an alarming soundscape interspersed with the sounds of patients’ voices recorded with such intimate fidelity that you can “hear the effects on their bodies of the illnesses within the grain of their voices” (Wynne 2010).

Artist-technologist Marco Donnarumma’s performance series Music for Flesh II, (Donnarumma 2012) explores terrain similar to Pulse Project’s use of sound as a means of amplifying a living dynamic of the interior of the body. The streams of embodied sounds in Donnarumma’s performances create a dramatic soundscape through “playing” the interior of his body while it is in motion. Donnarumma has developed an interface which uses biomedical engineering and informatics to amplify a wide range of muscle “sounds” (mechanomyogram or mmG) not audible to the “naked ear” (Donnarumma 2012). By using wearable XS biosensors sensitive to the biosignals of his muscle contractions and movements together with Pure Data (see Glossary), Donnarumma has created an instrument made of sensors and software that is able to map and play back the data streams triggered by biosignals (via biosensors) into a real-time cascade of unique sound shapes and effects which can sonically perform the “body” live, which he refers to as “Biomusic” (Donnarumma 2012).

Perhaps closest in approach to Pulse Project's use of sound to build an archive of the internal sonic landscapes of others is Christian Boltanski’s installation, Les Archives Du Cœur (Boltanski 2008) where he makes an archive of the recordings of people’s heart beats. Boltanski’s project “might be described as Audio-Cryogenics. He is recording the heartbeats, together with factual details, of thousands of people which will be preserved in an archive in Japan, on the Island of Ejima. There, visitors will be able to commemorate their loved ones through the sounds of their living, beating hearts” (Levine 2012).

The artists listed above provide just a few examples of works that share aims and approaches similar to my study, however, it is where Pulse Project diverges from the direction of these works that will be articulated in the next section.

5. Discussion

When comparing Pulse Project’s emphasis on “touch as listening” with Tom Rice’s ethnographic study on the clinical encounter and auscultation, Listening as Touching (Rice 2007), one of the issues that becomes apparent is that [or: what comes to the forefront is that] while Rice gives a compelling argument for the stethoscope as a “listening touch,” Rice nevertheless adopts the paradigm of the dominant culture of the clinic as described in Foucault’s critique of the clinic in section 1, whereas I try to navigate that relationship differently. By passively adopting the hegemonic dynamics of the clinic (Broderick 2011), Rice inadvertently perpetuates the distancing and mechanical mode of listening to others’ bodies in a way that renders patients into passive objects of study. Rice states that the stethoscope directs the doctor’s listening into an auditory proboscis that transmits the doctor’s (medical) intention, thereby transforming the stethoscope into an “extra-ordinary” instrument of intimacy and listening. Rice’s use of both the intention of the doctor and the active form of listening via stethoscope in his article uncannily echoes Hsu’s writings about the active forms of touch in her article mentioned in section 1, Towards a science of touch (Hsu 2000), as well as her writing on intention as the Chinese physician’s focused thought-projection of their healing “intention” channeled directly into the patient via touch in The Transmission of Chinese Medicine (Hsu 1999: 70). Rice’s study, via a Promethean sleight of hand (Steigler 1998), places notions like Hsu’s writings on these embodied methods and traditions for measurement and medical action via touch into the transcendental realm of the technological. Invariably the stethoscope stands in for and is considered as superior to both the human ear and touch in its ability to focus listening. This reiterates the idea that the body and its agency is improved through technological intervention. This notion, which can be traced back to Descartes, is also echoed in the posthuman turn surfacing in many works in new media that address the human-computer relationship (Vaccari 2012). Philosopher Andrés Vaccari writes comprehensively on the contemporary relationship between the body and technology in his article, Dissolving Nature: How Descartes Made Us Posthuman (Vaccari 2012) and argues that “with the body-automaton thesis, Descartes gestures towards the mathematization of physiology: the measurement, visualization and quantification of the body. Yet this fluid and busy assemblage of micro-biomachinery, by its very nature, escapes representation... The success of our representations is measured by their technological efficaciousness, rather than by how... successfully they fit reality” (Vaccari 2012: 168).

My use of “touch as listening” in Pulse Project is a critique and redirection of contemporary reliance on technology as the ideal representation of and improvement upon the human body and experience. While the “touch” in Pulse Project serves to form (by using the researcher as a medium) an intersubjective connection between the self and others as a means for listening intimately, the “touch” described in Rice’s article legitimates the objective autonomy and aural authority the doctor has over the patient. Rice gives no account of the patient’s experience (in fact they don’t even exist as an entity in his article - which for me constitutes a form of non-listening and reiterates the power dynamics of the clinic) and places his emphasis on the notion of the “dangers” of intimacy in terms of touching and the transmission of disease from patient to patient (Rise 2007). This reiterates Foucault's description of the doctor using the stethoscope to distance himself from the threat of the patient in section 1. In building his argument, Rice cites Foucault’s writing on the stethoscope as a “semi-tactile” instrument, thus developing his notion of tactility of the instrument, but neglects to mention Foucault’s conception of the stethoscope as an object of “solidified distance,” which is located in the same paragraph of Foucault's text as “semi-tactile” (Foucault 1973: 164). In this way Rice avoids Foucault’s strong criticism of the stethoscope as a divisive instrument, keeping the doctor at a moral distance from the (pathological) state of his subject (Foucault 1973: 164).

Along similar lines, though John Wynne’s sonic portraits present more of a challenge to the orthodoxy of the clinic by creating work that is patient-centered, nevertheless, both Rice’s and Wynne’s hospital soundscapes situate themselves within the prescribed dialectics of the stethoscope, which approaches the patient as a totality in stages of illness so that the main focus of the sounds is on their pathological expression. Wynne points out himself the “illness in their voices” as significant, and through his omitting sonic details outside the pathological logic of the clinical scene, the morbid turn of Wynne’s sonic portraits is palpable. Even Boltanski uses a computer, stethoscope and microphone (Demetriou 2010) to make his sonic archive of recorded human heartbeats which he uses as a memento mori for future visitors... the island where the archive is housed itself also functions as a “tomb.”

In the increasing field of collaboration between artistic and medical practices, while it is undeniable that medicine and technology provide rich material for arts practices, the uncritical acceptance of the prevailing control-oriented culture of the clinic (Broderick 2011) by artists, theorists, etc., bypasses the necessary moral/ethical critique that the arts can offer medical practice (Koski 2011). Recent research suggests that through the moral and ethical forms of critique which art practice enacts, art can inform and therefore extend medical practice (Koski 2011). I refer to Kaisu Koski’s findings on the role of artists working with medical themes or within the field of biomedicine: “the artist’s task is not to offer solutions to biomedical dilemmas... arts practices can open a discursive space that can comment and critique the relationship between medicine and society” (Koski 2011). Koski also states that in the artist’s public staging and performing of a critique of medicine by using “her emotional/corporeal experience,” she opens up a more “holistic communication” with society (Koski 2011).

In answer to the question of how my sonic research might inform medicine and diagnostic practice, Pulse Project’s wishes to provide an “alternative to the hegemony of the clinic” (Broderick 2011) by taking its critique of the clinic and placing it outside into the wider context of the public domain. Using (semi-diagnostic) touch to connect with participants, this reassuring presence instantly builds a mutual trust and rapport that no technical “instrument” could produce. This rapport is also part of my methodology, as my study engages with and includes the complex “presence” of participants within its approach to listening and composing. Touch in this study focuses on the tactile perception of oscillations of participants’ pulses instead of using touch to prognosticate. In trying to listen deeply into the internal vibrations of others from the position of intuitive and corporeal experience, Pulse Project takes it sonic inquiry of the clinic and attempts to open it outwards towards the direction of lived experience. As mentioned in the introduction, Pulse Project soundscapes are not interpretative of the western notion of the circulatory system, but the project draws on Chinese medical philosophy to direct its sonic research into representing the body as a living cosmos pulsating with matter and energy. By placing my sonic research into a public setting where the emphasis is on engaging and developing a rapport with others in a live and intersubjective situation, this approach allows me to create unique sonic landscape portraits of human entanglement and complexity that does not go in the direction of memento mori or morbidity.

Lastly, it is important to mention that the artists discussed in this article are all male. This is not due to my neglect of the work of other women, but to the fact that conducting searches (at a local level, through literature and online) for artists working along similar lines in electronics and sound produced results that were almost exclusively white male artists and composers. According to composer Tara Rodgers, this is not a rare phenomenon, but a common problem for female and nonwhite composers, stating that even the terms technology and music are marked as white male territories and that these territories become even more exclusive of women and people with diverse ethnicity when these two fields are combined (Rodgers 2010: 2). I do not wish to disparage men in mentioning this, instead I intend to point out the extreme disparity of representation that exists between men and women in the fields music and sound. Rodgers argues that female composers offer a greater diversity of expression within computerised music/sound genres that is woefully underrepresented (Rodgers 2010). In conducting sonic research from feminist perspectives, Pulse Project aims to contributes towards the development of a new audio culture that extends the diversity and visibility of women’s approaches to working with sound and technology (Rodgers 2010).

6. Conclusions

This study seeks to provide a new means for producing and understanding sound relative to embodied experience. This study also offers an examination of the unique means with which sonic research can form a synthesis of different disciplines, e.g., medicine and art, eastern and western practices, etc., or be used as a relational tool (as with using touch as listening and sonic portraiture). Pulse Project questions the Cartesian notion of the body-as-machine through resisting a definition of the living body according to what it is “not” - that is from the perspective of a lineage informed by the primacy of vision and fixity of dissection that is framed by morbid process.

Pulse Project introduces a new method for touching and transposing sound that uses ancient and pre-modern approaches to the body to reconsider contemporary practices. Through my sonic portraiture, I attempt to convey my findings on the “living” body. As human touch bridges self with other, the development of a science of touch based on the model of early Chinese pulse diagnostics is being used in this study to challenge and widen contemporary medical and technological discourse. This method for touching sound (or touching as listening) attempts to create sonic expressions that are faithful to the complexities and mysteries of human experience and existence. Instead of creating another human/machine interface which is “interactive” and “user-focused” (thus mediating participation), this study publicly explores direct participation through using the creation of intimacy between the artist and audience as a context for conducting sonic research. As a response to the participant offering themselves to be read, the graphic notations and bespoke compositions are given freely as “gift” to exist as a unique form of visual and sonic portraiture of the participant, as an aesthetic document of the intimate, and temporally significant, encounter between practitioner and participant.

* An archive of “anonymised” SC compositions of participants can be accessed on soundcloud.


Shāng diao scale - an early Chinese pentatonic scale tuning method using the note shāng as the fundamental tone. (Cheng-Yih 1995)

Zàng-fǔ - Zàng refers to the five yīn organs of the body: Heart/Pericardium, Spleen, Liver, Lung, Kidney. Fǔ refers to the six yáng organs: Large Intestine, Small Intestine, Gall Bladder, Urinary Bladder, Stomach, Triple Burner. These zàng-fǔ each have an associated channel that extends the energy of the organs along points across the body. As simple definition of the functions of the zàng-fǔ: the five yīn organs are said to “store” and produce essential fluids, while the six yáng organs transform essences into production of movements/energy.

Sclang - SuperCollider programming language which uses an object-oriented and functional language syntax similar to C programming language. (Wilson et al. 2011)

Scsynth - SuperCollider synthesis server which supports multiple input and output channels and uses a “bus system” to match programming commands with sound objects. (Wilson et al. 2011)

Ugen - A unit generator which is an argument structure of arrays and and values for functions or classes used in building audio synthesis objects and signal processing algorithms. (Wilson et al. 2011)

Pure Data - a real-time graphical programming environment for audio, video, and graphical processing developed by Miller Puckette. (Di Liscia n.d.)


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Michelle Lewis-King is an artist and lecturer exploring sound in relation to embodiment and was awarded a PhD studentship by the Cultures of the Digital Economy Research Institute at Anglia Ruskin University in 2011. Michelle’s research investigates the convergence between science, art, touch and technology via her creative practice which draws upon her transdisciplinary training in the fields of fine art, audio programming, Chinese Medicine, biomedicine and clinical practice. Michelle shows nationally and internationally. Recent group shows include, ‘Digital Futures’ at the V&A, ‘Artist’s Games’ at Spike Island, ‘Future Fluxus’ at Anglia Ruskin Gallery curated by Bronac Ferran and futurecity and ‘Experimental Notations’ at The Royal Nonesuch Gallery in Oakland, CA.