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Tactile Thinking

Musique concrète and marble carving


The term musique concrète was coined by Pierre Schaeffer in 1948. He believed that traditional classical music always begins with an abstraction - the musical notation - that later takes form as audible music. Musique concrète is the opposite. It strives to start with concrete sounds that spring from base phenomena and then the sounds abstracts into a composition. Musique concrète is in its essence about breaking down the structured production of music through traditional instruments, harmony, rhythm, and music theory itself - it attempts to reconstruct music from the bottom up. It has to begin with the sound.

Schaeffer had the ambition to include any sound into the vocabulary of music. At first he was working with sounds other than those produced by traditional musical instruments, but when he did include them, he continued removing the familiarity of the sounds and abstracting them further. He was among the first musicians to manipulate recorded sound and use it in conjunction with other sounds in a composition. Schaeffer’s practice paved way for not only a new way of composing music, but for a new understanding of what music is and potentially can be. 

The sound identities in musique concrète are often intentionally obscured and appear completely unconnected to their source. The sounds that we hear do not have any audible connection to where they originate from. That means that not only musical instruments, but literally all objects potentially have musical composition embedded in them. And that is one of the spectacular beauties in musique concrète. The potential of things. 


Michelangelo is considered the greatest of the universal artistic capabilities of the High Renaissance, equally significant and influential as a sculptor, painter and architect. He was born in Italy and worked mostly in Florence and Rome. He was often called Il Divino - the divine one - and sculpted two of his most iconic works, the Pietà and David before he was thirty.

Among his unfinished works, referred to as the non finito, is the marble sculpture St. Matthew, that he worked on in 1505 and 1506. The non finito works are not finished partly because of outer physical circumstances and inner metaphysical circumstances. Among the physical reasons is the ambitious extent of Michelangelo’s projects. Some of the visions were simply too monumental to realise in his lifetime. While he was working on St. Matthew in Florence, the Pope wanted Michelangelo in Rome to work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel as well as sculptures for his tomb. An other obstacle was that Michelangelo spent months in the Carrara marble quarries picking the right blocks for his work.


The non finito has become very important in Michelangelo’s afterlife, because they let us approach an understanding of his otherwise secretive work process, but also because they point to his metaphysical understanding of the work. Influenced by the platonic and neoplatonic views on the world and its conditions, he describes in his sonnets how the artist’s work is to seek for and discover the idea. He writes how the artist with a God-given intellect is equipped to find the idea, that is already inherent in the matter, the nature, the marble. Because the idea is already slumbering in the fabric, the artist is freeing it. Michelangelo believed that his work was to carve away the redundant matter with his chisel, and the sculpture he was setting free in the process would remain. 

A sculpture like St. Matthew is very present in the marble, but is just not finished in our understanding. He looks like he is struggling to escape the marble, but was never entirely set free. And that represents an artistic problem: The interest for the individual sculpture fades when the answer to the idea is revealed. The artist is more interested in the problem than in the final work, and that could also help explain the non finito. 


Michelangelo describes a disunity between the idea and the actual hand that is to perform the task. If we want to release the idea in the matter, we need to turn to the tactile. What ever we want to achieve in the world, it is not enough to imagine it, but with force we have to break through the matter. Give form. When the hand and the chisel meet the marble, only then it is possible to release the idea, and work beyond what we understand inside our heads. It is a physical search for the idea in the matter, a tactile type of thinking and understanding.

The 1980 film La Sculpture: Techniques de la taille examines the traditional tools of marble carving, and while the film observes the sculptor working, the different chisels and their functions are examined. The way the marble bursts under the point chisel when roughening out the shape within the marble. The way the tooth chisel swims through the material when modelling form. How the process is very tactile, and the idea is being reviled gradually by every blow. How the tools allow you to jump into a piece of space. How the physical work allows the sculptor to discover the form inside the marble.

Simply staying inside our head is limiting ourselves, what we can understand and what we can achieve. Staying inside our head, does not allow us to make change in space. It is the hands that interact with the object that are releasing the change. The transformation lies in the engagement with the matter. 

When working with futures, a tactile way of thinking helps us illustrate and understand what a possible future could look like. The right object in the right context, and the interactions with it, can serve as a speculative manifestation of the future. Tactile thinking paves a way to explore and understand the future, and move away from only the intellectual exercise of imagining the future.

Tactile thinking goes beyond merely understanding, and is much more about the physical approach, much more about the actual contact, the touch. It is an invitation to park our intellect on the side and do a physical search for the idea that already inhabits the matter. An idea that can expand and inspire how we step into the day that comes after today.

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