foghorn fisterra

Introduction to Rhythmanalysis: Psychogeography
and the Phenomenology of Acoustic Atmosphere

by Alyce Santoro

This article was published in Tsonami's Revista de Arte Sonoro y Cultura AURAL: Geografías Audibles, July 2015

Whether by conditioning or innate sense, our perception of space (while inside a home or at the market, in a city or in a forest) and time (when walking, riding a train, working, or watching a movie) – and hence our entire impression of reality – varies according to the “atmosphere” within which experiences occur. Atmospheric conditions influence emotional states – we are constantly receiving cues from our surroundings as to whether it is appropriate to feel rushed, safe, warm, gloomy, uplifted, or alienated. By maintaining awareness of this seemingly obvious but often-overlooked phenomenon, we can begin to notice the kinds of ways we are being affected (whether by accident or design) and adjust our thinking and actions accordingly.

Since atmosphere is an aesthetic experience, determined intuitively through a combination of sensory input, memory, and other intangible factors, it can be difficult to analyze or define it in concrete terms. It is this kind of visceral, spontaneous understanding that makes atmosphere so compelling and complex. The potentially consciousness-altering effects of that which can best be described as poetic – the subliminal, the subtle, the sublime – can be used by those with mastery of a medium (i.e.: words, music, painting, or architecture) to convey a feeling, inspire awe or inquiry, or to influence.

Sound and music, while ephemeral, are unique in the ways in which they occupy both space and time. The atmosphere of a particular moment and place can be instantly transformed – dramatically or subtly – depending on the sounds that fill it. Such effects have long been well-understood and employed by religious groups, marketing specialists, despots, shamans, restaurateurs, armies, movie directors, and social and political well as by musicians and composers themselves. The potential impact of the poetic has been well understood by those with motives – malicious, altruistic, benign, profiteering, or otherwise – throughout history (ironically, it is often those who publically decry the value of art and arts education who are among the first to advocate the control and suppression of acts of creative expression).

Through the capitalist lens, even the most basic elements of everyday life can be viewed as potential commodities. When the markets detect a broad public interest in a particular form of creative expression, the attractive artifact is immediately isolated, analyzed for profitability, and subjected to a process of distillation into its basic components for ease of packaging, advertising, and distribution. In the case of sound and music, inadvertently (or not) our ears (and our psyches) can become “attuned” to standardized rhythms, tones, and structures. The familiar may take on an air of the comforting or nostalgic, while the unfamiliar may be construed as invasive and habitually avoided if the vague (or overt) challenges it poses to expectations, values, or aesthetic sensibilities are interpreted as overly discomfiting, time consuming, or provocative (rather than interesting, exciting, or stimulating).

Examining the possible influences and mechanisms behind one’s gut reactions may lead to new appreciations or allow for access into deeper realms of personal creativity. The poet Allen Ginsberg famously advised, “Notice what you notice”. In light of this suggestion, so obvious as to seem almost nonsensical, suddenly one’s own curiosity becomes a unique and intriguing phenomenon. Through deliberate, detached observation, that which dwells in the unconscious mind percolates into consciousness. A honed ability to interface between these two “worlds” is the strength of the artist, shaman, inventor, or any individual concerned with the materialization of intuitive impulses. Amidst a barrage of stimulus, determining what is being noticed freely, as opposed to what we are being coerced to notice (or overlook) is often the first step in this process.

In most populated areas in the United States, a human-made soundscape consisting of airplanes, traffic, and the drone of electrical appliances and machinery (incidentally, the US electricity grid is tuned to 60 Hz, which translates into a hum that falls between B and B flat in Western tuning with A = 440 Hz – in much of the rest of the world including Europe, Africa, southern South America, Australia, Russia, and India, the grid is tuned to 50 Hz, or close to a G) is nearly ubiquitous. Many grocery stores, shopping malls, restaurants, and major radio stations provide listeners with predictable, innocuous fare that is designed to relax and reassure the consumer (or, in some cases, the sonic environment is carefully calculated to speed up eating, drinking, or shopping[i]); most “popular” music is deliberately written in keys (major) and time signatures (4/4 or “common time”) that are broadly considered palatable.

Upon developing an acute awareness of the psycho-social effects of atmosphere, we become what 20th century philosopher Henri Lefebvre (and Gaston Bachelard and Pinheiro dos Santos before him) termed “rhythmanalysts”: “Everywhere there is interaction between a place, a time, and an expenditure of energy there is rhythm”.[ii] “[The rhythmanalyst] is capable of listening to a house, a street, a town as one listens to a symphony…”[iii]

Once we recognize the “rhythm” of a particular circumstance and begin to notice the ways in which our moods and views are being shaped by it, what can be done if an adjustment is deemed necessary?

Says Lefebvre (emphasis his), “Objectively, for there to be change, a social group, a class or a caste must intervene by imprinting a rhythm on an era, be it through force or in an insinuating manner. In the course of a crisis, in a critical situation, a group must designate itself as an innovator or producer of meaning. And its acts must inscribe themselves on reality. The intervention imposes itself neither militarily, nor politically nor even ideologically.”[iv]

“Without claiming to change life, but by fully reinstating the sensible in consciousnesses and in thought, [the rhythmanalyst] would accomplish a tiny part of the revolutionary transformation of this world and this society in decline. Without any declared political position.”[v]

A single, notorious example of a rhythmanalytical intervention is American composer John Cage’s 4’33” (the average length of one unit of commercially-produced “canned” music). When the piece debuted in Woodstock, New York in 1952 (and still on occasion during contemporary performances), unwitting audiences were taken aback by four minutes and thirty-three seconds of a pianist seated at a piano without striking a key. Confronted by something not resembling their established expectation, some listeners felt annoyed or duped, while others, upon hearing the ambient sounds that occurred in the room during the duration of the piece (rain, wind, shuffling, etc.), came to understand and appreciate Cage’s point: any sounds can be listened to “as if” they are music. Over the course of 4 minutes and 33 seconds (an eternity to some early listeners), by simply inviting people to hear with open ears, Cage turned audiences into rhythmanalysts.


Rhythmic (asymmetric and polyrhythmic) and harmonic (microtonal and polyphonic) complexity that is typically lacking in popular Western European and North American music is entirely integral to traditions with roots in other parts of the world. To unaccustomed ears, these musics may seem unusual – whether oddly or refreshingly so.

One of the first to develop a microtonal system of music in the west was 20th century Mexican composer Julián Carrillo who believed that the common 12-tone chromatic scale could have limiting effects on the psyche. He developed Sonido Trece (13th Sound) a theory, notation system, and associated instrumentation (including specially-tuned pianos and fretted stringed instruments) that could accommodate an infinite range of tones and tonal relationships. According to Carrillo, “This is what the revolution of the 13th Sound means: new tones, new intervals, new scales, new rhythms, new timbres, and new instruments to produce sensations. The epoch of the New World is in sight. The theory of the 13th Sound will produce the new music.”[vi]


When influences are exchanged between regions, sonic revolutions can occur spontaneously. Such was the case at the beginning of the 19th century when jazz was born out of the traditions brought to the young United States by Africans who had been delivered to the deep south by the slave trade. Radiating out from New Orleans, this developing musical form spread throughout the country, adopted and augmented by people of various ethnic backgrounds, taking on unique regional flavors. The rhythms, improvisatory elements, and harmonies unique to jazz reflect the principles, customs, hardships, and yearnings of people in the process of crafting a new cultural identity. Jazz imprinted a rhythm on an era that resonates still.

Among many notable examples of cultural cross-pollination and continued resonance is the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s 1959 Time Out, one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time in spite of a reluctant release by the record label – their hesitation stemmed from the fact that all the pieces on the album employ “uncommon” time signatures inspired by rhythms the quartet encountered during a trip to Turkey. Over half a century later, these compositions still sound fresh (“timeless”?), and continue to intrigue and delight listeners and players around the world.


About 70 years before Brubeck released Time Out, French composer Erik Satie was particularly concerned with the time- and space-altering properties of music. He coined the term “furniture (or furnishing) music” (musique d’ameublement) in 1917 to describe a form of live performance that was not intended to be focused on by the audience – an extremely odd project for the day, considering that “chamber” or “parlour” music at the time was typically afforded an attentive audience. Satie’s furniture pieces are generally short, to be repeated for as long as needed to punctuate common events such as guests’ arrival at a party, sitting at a cafe, or for a luncheon or civil marriage.

Vexations, one of Satie’s most space-time-altering – and most well-known, though it went unpublished during his lifetime – works was performed for the first time by John Cage and associates in 1963. This work, like Satie’s furniture pieces, consists of a short, repeatable theme – except, due to a rhythmic and harmonic structure devoid of predictable pattern, Vexations is exceptionally challenging for both players and listeners. Satie left vague instructions to play the piece very slowly, and offered preparatory advice for those planning to repeat the piece 840 times. When this at last occurred, the performance required eighteen hours and forty minutes, with eleven musicians working in 20-minute shifts. “Those who sit for all eight hundred and forty repetitions tend to agree on a common sequence of reactive stages: fascination morphs into agitation, which gradually morphs into all-encompassing agony. But listeners who withstand that phase enter a state of deep tranquility. “Vexations” veterans often say that reentry into the natural world is thrilling because they are able to hear sound as if for the very first time.”[vii]


With the doors of perception cleansed[viii], we can begin to rhythmanalyze our current place and time. We can ask ourselves whether the dominant rhythms of today reinforce our senses of alienation from, or our connectedness to, one another and our environments? By identifying the ways that everyday patterns and tempos are fortifying established mindsets and behaviors, we can begin to compose appropriate rhythmic responses in our lives as well as our art. The poetic is a universally accessible instrument with subtle yet powerful revolutionary potential.

[i] Buckley, Cara, “Working or Playing Indoors, New Yorkers Face an Unabated Roar”, New York Times, July 19, 2012

[ii] Lefebvre, Henri, Rhythmanalysis, Continuum, 2004. p 15

[iii] p 87

[iv] p 14-15

[v] p 26

[vi] Carrillo, Julian, “Is the Epoch of the New World in Sight?” Musical Advance XII, no. 4, November 1926.

[vii] Sweet, Sam, “A Dangerous and Evil Piano Piece” New Yorker Magazine, September 9, 2013.

[viii] “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern.” – William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell