Music and architecture: Rhythm-studies

© Catarina Heeckt, Aldeburgh Music
© Catarina Heeckt, Aldeburgh Music

Music and Architecture is an ongoing workshop series organised by Theatrum Mundi, a professional network of academics, architects, planners, performing and visual artists, hosted by LSE Cities. The aim is to bring together a diverse group of practitioners to discuss in small and informal groups, the relationship between physical space and musical space. The first workshops were divided into four parts: Harmony, Rhythm, Melody and Narrative, and Porosity.

Rhythm-studies by Laura Marcus forms part of a publication that will be published by Theatrum Mundi in January 2014.

‘Rhythm is the fundamental and vital quality of painting, as of all the arts – representation is secondary to that, and must never encroach on the more ultimate and fundamental demands of rhythm’
Roger Fry[i].

The critic John Middleton Murry, writing of his conversations with the Scottish painter J.D.Fergusson in the early decades of the twentieth century, recalled (in his autobiography Between Two Worlds):

‘One word was recurrent in all our strange discussions – the word “rhythm”.  We never made any attempt to define it; nor ever took any precaution to discover whether it had the same significance for us both.  All that mattered was that it had some meaning for each of us.  Assuredly it was a very potent word.’

‘For Fergusson [rhythm] was the essential quality in a painting or sculpture; and since it was at that moment that the Russian ballet first came to Western Europe for a season at the Châtelet, dancing was obviously linked, by rhythm, with the plastic arts.  From that, it was but a short step to the position that rhythm was the distinctive element in all the arts, and that the real purpose of ‘this modern movement’ – a phrase frequent on Fergusson’s lips – was to reassert the pre-eminence of rhythm’[ii].

In Fergusson’s reported sentiments there is the suggestion that ‘this modern movement’ had come into being, or had found its true function, in the reassertion of ‘the pre-eminence of rhythm’.  In this account, modernism rediscovers or recovers a rhythm, whose centrality, it is implied, had become submerged.  Fergusson (in Murry’s account) represents ‘rhythm’ as the ‘quality’ which cuts across the divisions between the arts, although the fact that they made no attempt to define the ‘quality’ leaves open the possibility (perceived by the more cautious Murry) that ‘rhythm’ in the various and different arts is to be understood as a homonym rather than as an identity[iii].

The absence, or refusal, of strict ‘definition’ alluded to by Murry has as one of its context the vitalism (with its resistance to classification and differentiation) to which ‘rhythm’ was central, and which is part of that ‘great hymn to energy’, in Jacques Rancière’s phrase, sung by artists and thinkers in the early twentieth century.  Rancière brings ‘rhythm’ into this energetic field in his quotation from the modernist writer and critic Blaise Cendrars: ‘Rhythm speaks.  You are …  Reality has no meaning any more.  Everything is rhythm, speech life…  Revolution.  The dawn of the world today’.  Rancière comments: ‘The new common term of measurement, thus contrasted with the old one, is rhythm, the vital element of each material unbound atom which causes the image to pass into the word, the word into the brush-stroke, the brush-stroke into the vibration of light or motion’.[iv] In this passage from image to word to brushstroke to photographic/cinematographic image (these technologically mediated forms being one way of interpreting ‘the vibration of light or motion’) we find a desire to (re)connect artistic or aesthetic forms which had been artificially divided into the arts of space and the arts of time, or into the verbal and the plastic arts.  (The desire for ‘a new Laokoön’ is one aspect of this newly constituted field of connections).

Murry, Fergusson and Cendrars were writing from the perspectives of a modernity in which ‘the dawn of the world today’ was the beginning of a new century.  Fergusson’s ‘little magazine’ Rhythm (1911-13) emerged from this context, and reveals the influence of a vitalist philosophy strongly influenced by the writing and thought of Henri Bergson. A full understanding of the meanings of ‘rhythm’ for the modern period requires, however, a longer historical perspective, beginning with exploration of the late nineteenth century in a range of contexts: philosophy, experimental psychology, science, music, aesthetics, art and literature.   The analysis of ‘rhythm’ was central to all these fields. As or more significantly, ‘Rhythmics’ was in the process of formation at this time as an area of study, or a discipline, in its own right. As in the case of ‘ethology’ (the science of the study of character, which John Stuart Mill had worked to develop as an independent discipline), ‘rhythmics’ could be understood as a field of thought or a science which failed to achieve the institutional or conceptual status imagined for it.  It was at once all pervasive and, in disciplinary terms, homeless.  It eluded definition in ways which, in the field of poetics as well as science, produced in some contexts ever more detailed and determined attempts to take its measure, though in others its very amorphousness as a concept was its most significant, productive and creative feature.

The concepts of ‘rhythm’ as motion and as connectivity, two of the central topics of emerge in Herbert Spencer’s influential writings on ‘The Direction and Rhythm of Motion’, in his First Principles of a New System of Philosophy (1862).  In Chapter X of the volume, ‘The Rhythm of Motion’, Spencer argued for the omnipresence of ‘rhythm’, building up from the physical world and its laws to the realms of social organisation and human creative activity.  ‘Rhythmical action’ – initially defined through the terms of ‘vibration’ and ‘undulation’ – is to be found in the impact of a rising breeze on a becalmed vessel or, on land, in the ‘conflict between the current of air and the things it meets’: ‘The blades of grass and dried bents in the meadows, and still better the stalks in the neighbouring corn-fields, exhibit the same rising and falling movement’.  For Spencer all motion is rhythmical, and the physical universe exists in a mode of perpetual motion which he defines in terms of ‘a conflict of forces not in equilibrium’: ‘If the antagonist forces at any point are balanced, there is rest; and in the absence of motion there can of course be no rhythm’.

Spencer found rhythm not only at the largest levels (in, for example, geographical processes) but in the bodily processes – ingestion, excretion, pulsation – of each individual organism, and in human consciousness, whose rhythm he defined in the terms of  a departure and return from and to mental states and feelings.  A more conspicuous rhythm, ‘having longer waves’, he argued, ‘is seen during the outflow of emotion into dancing, poetry, and music.  The current of mental energy that shows itself in these modes of bodily action is not continuous but falls into a succession of pulses’.   The rhythmic dimensions of aesthetic expression start from the body, and ‘the bodily discharge of feeling’, and their naturalness is proven by the fact that they are also revealed in the cadences – the rise and fall – of ordinary speech.

Spencer’s terms and concepts are important for two particular dimensions of ‘rhythmics’. The first, exemplified in his focus on the ‘bodily discharge’ of ‘feeling’, is the centrality of ‘rhythm’ to the ‘kinaesthetics’ and ‘physiological aesthetics’ which developed in the late nineteenth century, in the work of thinkers including the biologist Grant Allen, the psychologist Havelock Ellis and the philosopher Vernon Lee.  The second line of exploration is that of the impact of theorizations of rhythm, in its definitions as ‘pulsation’, ‘conflict of force’, ‘continuous motion’ and ‘rise and fall’, on the aesthetic theories and the literature of the period. Walter Pater, in the Conclusion to his collection of essays The Renaissance, famously described Life as consisting of a limited number of pulses, adding:  ‘For our one chance lies in expanding that interval, in getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time.  Great passions may give us this quickened sense of life’.

Concepts of ‘rhythm’ (often linked to ‘periodicity’, as in the theories of Wilhelm Fliess and Sigmund Freud) were also closely linked to models of sexuality and gender at the turn of the century.  Marie Stopes used the concept of  ‘a fundamental rhythm of feeling’ in women (to be represented as ‘a succession of crests and hollows as in all wave-lines’) to argue that ‘woman has a rhythmic sex-tide which, if its indications were obeyed, would ensure not only her enjoyment and an accession of health and vitality, [but] would explode the myth of her capriciousness…  We have studied the wave-lengths of water, of sound, of light; but when will the sons and daughters of men study the sex-tide in woman and learn the laws of her Periodicity of Recurrence of desire?’[v]

Stopes’s insistent metaphorising of the concept of ‘rhythm’ in relation to waves and water indicates the widely held but mistaken view that the etymology of ‘rhythm’ is ‘rhein’, deriving from the observed ebb and flow of ocean waves. In the later twentieth century, linguists (including Emile Benveniste) showed that ‘rhythmos’ was, in ancient Greek tragedy and philosophy,  synonomous with ‘skhema’ or ‘form’, but that whereas  ‘skhema’ is to be understood as a fixed form, ‘rhythmos’  is form in motion, fluid and changeable.  ‘Rhythmos’ is thus to be understood as ‘the particular manner of flowing’.    This understanding of ‘rhythm’ as movement and ‘becoming’ can be traced through from Nietzsche to Bergson and his modernist followers and detractors in literature and the visual arts.  The relationship of late Victorian and modernist writers and thinkers to Classical aesthetics and culture also becomes crucial.  It was fundamental to Nietzsche’s distinctions between the ‘rhythms’ of Classical and Modern thought, which come to define the different concepts of time, historicity and cultural formation in the two periods.

While Nietzsche, trained as a philologist, must be assumed to have known the derivation of the term, the desire of numerous other writers and thinkers of the period to connect ‘rhythm’ (etymologically and conceptually) with natural and organic processes is highly significant – a ‘creative misprision’ on a major scale.   The metaphors of the ‘pulse’ and the ‘heart-beat’, as well as of waves, come to define concepts of ‘rhythm’ in a very wide range of contexts. One dimension of the fascination with ‘rhythm’ in the period arose from the desire to reclaim or retain human and natural measures in the face of the coming of the machine and the speed of technological development.

Many of the ‘rhythm-scientists’ of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth centuries defined rhythm as the antithesis of both stasis and continuous motion: it was for them not a straight line but a wave.   A similar distinction would be drawn by Henri Lefebvre, whose ‘rhythmanalysis’ rests on a differentiation (though also a relationship) between ‘linear’ and ‘cyclical’ time.   The work of art, he argued:

‘displays a victory of the rhythmical over the linear, integrating it without destroying it.  Cyclical repetition and linear repetition meet and collide.  Thus, in music the metronome supplies a linear tempo; but the linked series of intervals by octaves possesses a cyclical and rhythmical character.  Likewise in daily life: the many rhythms and cycles of natural origin, which are transformed by social life, interfere with the linear processes and sequences of gestures and acts’[vi].

These complex processes would be the subject, for Lefebvre, of  rhythmanalysis, ‘a new science that is in the process of being constituted …  [which] situates itself at the juxtaposition of the physical, the physiological and the social, at the heart of daily life’.   In further and fuller writings in this field of study, Lefebvre argued that ‘rhythm’ was the most fundamental, and the most overlooked, of all the relations that define natural, social and cultural life[vii].  In music, he suggests, there is significantly more exploration of melody and harmony than of rhythm.  In the broader experiential and phenomenological fields, we live within rhythms whose measure we have barely begun to understand.

‘Rhythm enters into a general construction of time, of movement and becoming’ (79), Lefebvre writes, his terms gathering up those of Herbert Spencer, Henri Bergson and other ‘rhythmists’ whose writings on the topic Lefebvre, insistent on the inaugural dimensions of his own ‘rhythmanalysis’, does not take up.  To open up the longer history of rhythm-studies, however, is to see that it has had its own patterns of recurrence, appearing and disappearing as part of a conceptual history whose lineaments have indeed not been fully traced.   Central to this history, and to the (re)emergences of ‘rhythmics’, are the models, or the utopias, of an interdisciplinarity and a synaesthesia in which connections become far more significant than divisions.  As Lefebvre writes, the (future) rhythmanalyst ‘will come to “listen” to a house, a street, a town, as an audience listens to a symphony’.



[i]    A Roger Fry Reader, ed. Christopher Reed (University of Chicago Press, 1996), pp. 105-6.

[ii]  John Middleton Murry, Between Two Worlds: An Autobiography (London: Jonathan Cape, 1935), pp. 155-6.

[iii] Wendy Steiner uses these terms to explore ‘interart analogies’ – in particular the perceived relationship between painting and literature – in her The Colors of Rhetoric: Problems in the Relation between Modern Literature and Painting (University of Chicago Press, 1982)

[iv]  Jacques Rancière, The Future of the Image, trans. Gregory Elliott (London: Verso, 2007), pp.  44-5.

[v] Marie Stopes, Married Love (London: Putnam, 1917), p. 57.

[vi] Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life, Volume 3, trans. Gregory Elliott (London: Verso, 2005), p. 130.

[vii] Henri Lefebvre, Rhythmanalysis: space, time and everyday life, trans. Stuart Elden and Gerald Moore (London: Continuum, 2004).