Our perception of the world is multi-sensory, even though sometimes we’ll focus in on one sense when we need to; for instance, we smell the milk when we’re trying to work out if it is off or not. Our experience and interaction with the world around is created by our senses working in unity, it is a multi-sensory experience. This premise inspires me and thousands of other practitioners in the world to explore and delve into Sensorial Practice.
Five years ago I founded BitterSuite to change the way we listen to classical music. I wanted to create concert experiences where audiences were actively and imaginatively engaged throughout the piece.
I wondered if we could stimulate the senses of audiences in ways which evoke the same sensations being communicated by the music… Will this deepen the experience of listening?
Since then we have developed four choreographed sensory concerts each using sound, taste, touch, smell and movement.
In a BitterSuite concert every audience member is paired with a dancer who blindfolds and leads them through this choreographed sensory experience. The experience moves in synchrony with the live music. Audience members are moved, danced, fed and surrounded in smells – each sense intentionally stimulated to deepen the way they listen to that moment. Our experiences are designed to feel seamless, where the music and sensory is wholly intertwined.
The process of making is a complex and lengthy process – and a true feat of collaboration bringing together dancers, somatic practitioners, musicians, composers, perfumers and chefs.
What have we discovered about touch?
Though we work with smell & taste our journey has allowed us to discover the uniqueness of touch.
Being touched, when it is at its most affecting, can mute the sounds, colours and world around us. Everything else dissolves and we want to focus purely on the touch itself. Who can forget the electrifying and full body sensation of touching someone, or being touched by someone that we love or are attracted to?
When we come to curating musical sensory experiences we quickly notice that human touch and movement offer a number of uniquely affecting things.
Touch can be soft, loud, strong, emotional and rhythmic.
And we can train this sense of touch like a masseuse or somatic practitioner to communicate these ideas clearly and effectively through the body of another.
Touch is communication.
When we touch someone in with intention in a specific part of the body we have the power to communicate emotional ideas, directions and instructions. If I tenderly hold the base of your skull it communicates a different emotion than if I coldly press two fingers into your sternum.
Touch is intimate.
It can release emotional information that people didn’t know was there, and as such it requires consent. It demands that the person touching is trustworthy and careful.
Touch breaks down barriers and forms trusting and deep relationships.
Once you are blindfolded and being touched it puts our dancers in a position of responsibility and care. They are the guide. This means that the relationships formed between dancer & audience member are deep.
Touch can move in perfect synchrony with live music.
Because human touch is obviously controlled by a person, it can ebb and flow as freely as a live musician. It is for this reason that tactile experiences, greater than any other sensorial experience, can feel seamless. The touch can move and flow with the music at whatever change of tempo or phrasing the live musicians have in the moment.
Touch is music
When we break it down touch is as nuanced and rhythmic as music itself. It feels loud, it communicates; the difference is that it is the body of the person being touched that is ‘being played. And, when we think about it, all sound comes down to touch anyway. Sound physically touches the tiny hairs within our cochlear and causes them to translate the vibration / frequency heard into our auditory cortex.
For this reason, I feel that touch is an under-looked and incredible tool for new music experiences. When used wisely, just like sound, touch can communicate emotions non-verbally and deeply.
What about taste & smell?
In our experiences we include the careful stimulation of the other senses. But taste & smell offer less musical nuance because fundamentally we cannot control the timing. We cannot insist that somebody chews and releases flavour at a certain time.
So if we select a flavour for a specific moment but the audience member doesn’t chew it in time – there is a chance that a flavour designed for one very particular passage of the music may be tasted late or early.
Likewise with smell it is very hard, without disrupting the flow to get somebody to sniff – short of saying “Smell this” or giving a gesture. But … that’s not really the all encompassing experience we want.
Learn the language of touch ! Learn it because it can communicate and unlock emotions in a beautiful and meaningful way, it’s rhythmic and packed full of subtleties. Learn it because most of all use human touch is intimate, it reminds us of something fundamental – and it can communicate profoundly.
Wanna find out more?
There is a wealth of literature and work exploring these ideas in depth.
Buzz words: Crossmodality, Synaesthesia, Embodiment, Tactile experience, Snozelene rooms and Playbased education.
Top names: Prof. C Spence, Bauhaus, Prof. A Furse, Scriabin “The Clavalux”, Prof. B Smith, Prof. D Howes, Daniel Levitin, Allen Weiss, Sarah McCartney, Emilie Baltz, Adam Thomason, Open Senses, Verity Stanton, Tereza Stehlikova, and more.
The people behind BitterSuite: Stephanie Singer, Anna Pearce, Eileih Muir, Ashraf Ejjbair, Adam Thomason, Sarah McCartney, Linz Nakorn, Marah Wilson, Lawrence Becko, The Phaedra Ensemble, Phil Grannel and many, many more.