What We Talked About At ISA: Rhythm, Time and History

With thanks to Elisabetta Brighi and Xavier Guillaume for putting together the Rhythms of the International roundtable and their inspiring contributions, to Robbie Shilliam for his song, and Kyle Grayson for his spirited and thoughtful engagement. And by no means least, to the pleasingly sizeable and lively crowd who gave the last panel of the last day such a buzz.

Below is a write-up of my contribution to the roundtable, in which I reflected on the relationship of rhythm and history, and drew out some of the potential disruptions that a different rhythmic sensibility might have on our conception of history.


What is rhythm?

To my shame, colleagues, and partly out of curiosity, I looked it up in the dictionary. Shame, because if you are looking something up in a dictionary before giving a talk on it, you probably shouldn’t be giving a talk on it. Curiosity, because I wanted to know how they would define ‘rhythm’ in words rather than in noises.

The dictionary answers were not particularly edifying. One definition spoke of ‘repeated, regular beats’, another of a ‘regulated succession’ of beats. Thud, thud, thud. Boom, boom, boom. Boom, thud, boom, thud. These definitions felt flat, and rather forbidding. But I suppose this is because they were the generic definitions of all kinds of ‘rhythm’, and not just the samba playing in my head.

Using some thinking developed earlier in some work on music and politics, I started again, with a different question:

What is the relationship of rhythm and time?

This yielded a much more direct answer: it is the production of rhythm that makes time itself knowable. In the making of music, rhythm generates movement and flow, and makes it possible for sounds to synchronise and arrange themselves. Continue reading

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