Rhythmanalysis: An Audio Postcard

by Poppy Moroney

17 May 2023

Inspired by Henri Lefevbre’s ‘rhythmanalysis’ (Lefebvre, 2013), I have been experimenting with audio recorders to explore how rhythms of automated women’s voices punctuate and guide experiences of public and private space in London.

I was interested in automated voices as one of many infrastructural rhythms in London’s ‘sonic ecology’ (Battesti and Puig, 2020). I was curious about its effect on the listener, beyond the notion that women’s voices are perceived as gentle and non-threatening. I experimented with engaging passively and directly with the voices. What was the difference between being subconsciously guided by vocal rhythms on the overground, to needing them to provide a service on a self-checkout? I also experimented with leaving the machine to speak to itself in a call centre call.

Amongst the sounds of automated voices, patterns of bleeps, ticks, clicks, chugs, clangs and sirens can all be heard. These are layered with continuous ascending and descending tones of passing trains, cars, aeroplanes and helicopters. Organic sounds of birdsong, breezes in bushes, chatter, shuffling, zipping, coughing, rustling diffuse the rhythms throughout. Changes in acoustic fields can be heard in the opening and closing of train doors, and between the different recordings. 

The affects of rhythms are well documented in urban, cultural and sound studies, from bells in 19th C rural France to bleeps underwater in a US submarine (Helmreich, 2007) and high frequency youth repellent devices in underpasses and shopping malls (Goodman, 2009). Across these examples sonic rhythms orient people in place; they shape their relationship to place through the semiotics of sound. 

In most of my recordings, the rhythms are so sparse they are almost indiscernible as rhythms. We receive each voice in isolation, a situated experience of functional instructions delivered in a specific time and place. Rhythmanalysis elucidates the temporal and spatial scale at which these rhythms operate. It makes visible otherwise ephemeral connections between embodied experiences and rhythmic pulses and patterns in the city. Bringing this into a sonic ecology, we can imagine ourselves and the disembodied voices not as distinct but as lines and speeds, moving away and towards each other stochastically in the urban environment. 

References :

Battesti, V. and Puig, N. (2020) ‘Towards a sonic ecology of urban life: ethnography of sound perception in Cairo’, The Senses and Society, 15(2), pp. 170–191. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1080/17458927.2020.1763606.

Goodman, S. (2009) Sonic warfare sound, affect, and the ecology of fear. Cambridge, Mass. ; London: MIT Press (Technologies of lived abstraction). Available at: http://www.vlebooks.com/vleweb/product/openreader?id=Goldsmiths&isbn=9780262258838 (Accessed: 28 December 2022).

Helmreich, S. (2007) ‘An Anthropologist Underwater: Immersive Soundscapes, Submarine Cyborgs, and Transductive Ethnography’, American Ethnologist, 34(4), pp. 621–641.

Lefebvre, H. (2013) Rhythmanalysis: space, time, and everyday life. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

︎ credit : Poppy Moroney

Poppy Moroney (aka P~WAVE) is a researcher and curator of sound and music. She is currently studying for an MA Visual Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London and working at London/New York/Hamburg publisher and radio Montez Press. She is co-founder of DJ collective of Synaptic Island and previous curator of public programmes at Auto Italia

︎ @odd_spiral @synapticisland @montezpress