Our world through rhythm

I never paid attention to the sound of footsteps. The rhythmic thuds of feet patting against dry concrete, crunching through heaps of snow, or gliding between blades of fresh cut grass. These sounds are often mundane, muddled and missing within the noise of everyday life. In between the crowds of students rushing through my university campus, the lineups in front of Starbucks, and the cycle of city buses weaving around and past institutional buildings, many sounds become muted. Back in my first year, three years ago, sound had no meaning.

Henri Lefebvre, a French philosopher who critiques humanity’s connection to city life, writes about sound in motion. “To grasp a rhythm, it is necessary to have been grasped by it; one must let oneself go, give oneself over, abandon oneself in its duration,” reads a quote from Lefebvre’s Rhythmanalysis. From traffic, tourists, and clocks ticking, each sound has a different rhythm. Each sound has a purpose.

For many years, I only considered rhythms in music. I could not hear soundtracks apart from repetitive drumbeats, guitar chords, and lyrics. The rhythm of life was insignificant. Lefebvre discovers that movement, whether it is inside the body or in existence around us, can be heard through an approach that binds motions and sounds. These patterns and routines that create the sounds in our everyday lives—like car tires galloping against miles of streetcar tracks or the 5pm Friday laughter from office workers—helps us identify and understand the way we use rhythm to structure our lives. It is through the repetition of similar sounds and the patterns of movement that we build daily routines.  

Spending time in isolation forced me to listen. I occupied myself by embracing the outdoors, even on the days when I felt like the outdoors did not embrace me. I walked every day, aimlessly trotting along the grounds of Colonel Samuel Smith Park in Etobicoke, watching birds perched atop maple trees, and inhaling the damp aroma of melting snow and muck. I listened, carefully seeking rhythms in new forms, and sounds from near, far, and within. My newfound curiosity allowed me to notice the crashing of Lake Ontario’s waves against muddy shores, the crunch of bicycle tires on gravel roads, the pounding of my heart as my steps quickened and slowed. I wondered: how do the sounds around us relate to one another? What makes a sound alive?

In his writing, Lefebvre makes a fundamental observation: rhythms, like all things living, are diverse. Some develop in cycles—repetitive noises from schoolchildren, supermarket customers, and tourists. Others are brief—sounds of sirens, screams, and church bells—noises that pierce our ears in the most unexpected moments. These rhythms are external; these sounds are around us daily. Still, I often struggle to hear them. In a world where visual aesthetics supersede the auditory, where the flashy images we see on our phones, in movies, and along billboards on the freeway capture our attention instantaneously, daily noises become just that—daily noises. They lack significance and their diversities cannot be identified. It is only in moments of shock—like when ambulance sirens scream or babies cry—that we stop and listen.  

My recollections of my university campus are mostly visual—noiseless pictures played in fast motion. I visualize students zooming to class like colourful Nascar cars. I can smell the slow-roasting campus shawarma. Back then, I wore headphones, drowning out the life around me for overplayed pop playlists. I fell into a rhythm of my own: wake up, trek to campus, go to class, leave. I could only hear the repetition of this dull routine. The rest felt silent. 

Although often fear-inducing, silence awakens the soul like a loud thud, or an unexpected call. Silence is the off-beat in a cyclical rhythm, a beat that makes me wonder and reflect. It is in these moments, when the cars and the voices in front of my apartment pause for a short minute, that I discover what lies within me—my breath, my heartbeat, my stomach’s growl. I learned that silence is not soundless. Bodily rhythms chime like a never-ending orchestra. Breathe. Pause. Listen. Repeat. 

Pauline Oliveros, an American composer, writes about the “sonosphere.” The term “sonosphere” represents “the sonorous or sonic envelope of the earth.” In her writing, Oliveros enlightens readers about the human connection to sound, and how “all cells of the earth and body vibrate.” To me, the earth is a badass woman with continents and oceans tattooed all over her brittle skin. She’s “Mother Earth” after all. Even within the silence, the earth tells us her story. She binds us to her trees, winds, and oceans through sombre rhythms. She lets us know that her glaciers are melting, that her rainstorms appear in unpredicted patterns, that she needs help. She wants us to listen. But do we?

On my strolls during lockdown, I let my mind wander. From winter into spring, the lake ebbed and flowed in lively patterns. It never took a break. In mid-May, I crossed along a path covered in multi-coloured stones, my Converse-wearing feet wobbling towards the mud-rock shore. I scanned the filthy lakeside, its rhythms so cyclical yet its appearance so demolished. Coca-Cola cans, disposable face masks, condoms, and paper-thin pebbles ravaged by erosion bordered the shoreline like patches of green-grey sewage. Pedestrians passed, laughing with their friends, smoking, eating chocolate bars wrapped in plastic, the same plastics that tumbled along the mud they walked along. Through its continual movement, the lake spoke. It spewed grotesque, polluted waters. Its tempo sped up and slowed down through the movements of winds and speedboats and Sea-doos and rocks and plastic water bottles—a solemn symphony that many ignored.

Daily rhythms and vibrations connect us with the environment and others. In her work on the “sonosphere,” Oliveros explores her reliance on sound as a guide; a sense that brings faith to her existence. She writes, “We live in a sonorous environment. Most of the time we shut out sound that is extraneous to our current purposes. It takes energy to ignore sounds.” 

Growing up, my dad and I always blasted music in our silver Honda Fit. The bass boomed through the dotted speakers on the interior of each door, rattling the car as if we were inside of a pepper shaker—coarse and gritty. We listened to rambunctious disco, clattering hard rock, and elegant Italian ballads—even though we weren’t Italian. One of my dad’s favourites was “Piccola e fragile” by Italian rock singer Drupi. He would “ooo” and “aaa,” sing-shouting and mispronouncing the words in the chorus while playing air drums on the base of the steering wheel at every red light and stop sign. 

“Why are we listening to this?” I asked, poking fun at my dad’s passionate and raspy voice. “You don’t even know what he is singing about.”

“I don’t have to know,” my dad said. “I can feel his emotion.”

I’ve always wondered why songs like “Despacito” and “Gangnam Style” became international hits. With billions of streams and YouTube views, these dance tunes written in Spanish and Korean received traction worldwide and they have not been forgotten. The reason? Well, the first ten seconds of each song features unique instrumentation. The use of ear-catching, finger plucked Latin strings and four-on-the-floor kick drum patterns make each tune memorable. Every beat inflicts some sort of bodily response—tapping feet, bobbing heads, arms high, fists pumping. It doesn’t matter what language a song is in; the rhythms can often tell its story. It is the everchanging movement of sounds that unites listeners. 

Lefebvre describes rhythms in the present. He explores social media as a space that unites rhythms but creates false images for spectators. “You are there [when viewing a live broadcast], but no, you are not there; your present is composed of simulacra; the image before you simulates the real…”

I think about action movies—Baby Driver, Red Notice, everything James Bond. I hear all the explosions, the flames, and the cars flipped upside down and over. It’s interesting how these movies tell us stories of experiences that many have never encountered—how each noise is either produced by a special effect or by a foley artist crashing tin cans in a recording booth. Amid the falsehood and the intentionally over-dramatic booms and bangs, these fictional rhythms illustrate worlds that invite viewers in. We feel the emphasis of each cry, rip, shatter, and gun shot through our own responses—quickened heart beats, dropped jaws, fervid swearing at the TV screen. Although we are not there, we are present. 

Through the daily sounds of moving vehicles, footsteps, winds, waters, music, movies, and silence, we understand ourselves and others. We connect with our world. Paying attention to rhythms is often tedious. It takes contemplation and frequent awareness to connect with the meanings behind sounds—an aspect of listening that is often puzzling. Regardless, rhythms are not universally heard but they are universally felt. Like music, the patterns of sounds in motion display a language of their own. The unbelievable becomes believable. The inanimate becomes alive. If we pay more attention to sounds, if we take moments within our days to stop and listen, maybe the rhythms of the world can tell us something new. Something revolutionary.

Arts & Entertainment Editor (Volume 49) | arts@themedium.ca — Julia graduated in 2022 with a major in English, and a Professional Writing and Communications and Drama double minor. She previously worked with The Medium as Theatre Erindale Correspondent for Volume 48. As the A&E Editor this year, Julia cannot wait to explore the wondrous world of arts and spark creative conversations amongst student writers. If she’s not writing, working, or spending too much money on overpriced iced coffees, you can find Julia singing tunes with her guitar, bingeing Netflix shows, or going on nature walks with her doggo Benji. You can connect with Julia on LinkedIn or Instagram.


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