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Cities and (space)time signatures

Dan Hill points to Walter Hood on landscape architecture:

“I’m interested in how the everyday mundane practices of life get played out in cities, the unheralded patterns that take place without celebration,” he said. “There’s a structure to cities, a 4/4 beat. Designing is like improvisation, finding a sound for each place.”

I’m fascinated by Hood’s suggestion that cities get played out in 4/4 beat…

In Western music, the most common meter is 4/4 time, or four beats in a measure – although more unusual time signatures and rhythms are not uncommon. Between 1912 and 1915, the visual artist Marcel Duchamp experimented with composition and order in music – his Erratum Musical semi-randomly generates music for three voices and his musical sculpture:

combine[s] objects with performance, audio with visual, known and unknown factors, and elements explained and unexplained. A realization of such a piece can result in an event / happening, rather than a performance.

In the 1920s, classical musician Charles Ives also played with notation, harmony and the relationship between the artist, the music and the listener.

In jazz, Dave Brubeck’s 1959 Time Out was the “the first [jazz recording] to consciously explore time signatures outside of the standard 4/4 beat or 3/4 waltz time.” Free and avant-garde jazz rely on complex time signatures, chromaticism and polyrhythms. Crossovers between jazz, funk and hip-hop, like the music of Medeski, Martin and Wood and The Roots also take full advantage of tensions between different time signatures and layers of sound.

Prog rock from the 60s and 70s – including King Crimson, Pink Floyd and Yes – relied on multiple time signatures. Frank Zappa also experimented with layering and folding spaces and times, here describing what was at play in Rubber Shirt:

The bass part is extracted from a four track master of a performance from Goteborg, Sweden 1974 which I had Patrick O’Hearn overdub on a medium tempo guitar solo track in 4/4. The notes chosen were more or less specified during the overdub session, and so it was not completely an improvised “bass solo.” A year and a half later, the bass track was peeled off the Swedish master and transferred to one track of another studio 24 track master for a slow song in 11/4 … All of the sensitive, interesting interplay between the bass and the drums never actually happened.

In early electronic music, artists like Kraftwerk, Faust, Throbbing Gristle and Negativland played with spatial/temporal order, and more recent rock bands like Slint, Dirty Three and Godspeed You Black Emperor also play with unusual dynamics in their music.

Nonetheless, 4/4 or common time is culturally specific, and most traditional African, Middle-Eastern, Asian and Aboriginal music is characterised by alternative time signatures and polyrhythms.


Music and silence .. combine strongly because music is done with silence, and silence is full of music. – Marcel Marceau, mime


In my master’s thesis on the main plaza of Inka Cuzco, I discussed the tensions that exist between several forms of socio-spatial organisation. The Inka divided space into four, three and two parts in relation to a centre. The empire of Tawantinsuyu was divided into four unequal parts with the capital of Cuzco at the centre; the universe itself was divided into upper, middle and lower worlds; Inka social divisions also consisted of three hierarchical categories of people; and finally, the city of Cuzco was divided between two hierarchically arranged kin groups. The central argument of my thesis was that the main plaza was the centre (an axis-mundi of sorts) of all these Inka spaces/times. But this centre – including its volume – wasn’t stable.

The above quote by Marceau reminds me of the open space of the plaza acting as a space of flow – a liminal or non-space – created by the movement of all the other divisions of space and time passing through. If we put it back in musical time signatures, the Inka played in 2/4, 3/4 and 4/4 time – but in a sort of voluptuous, overlapping and never-ending song of relations between parts.


When I think of cities played only in 4/4 time, I think of grids, of efficient systems, of control, of order, of rule, of homogeneity. I do not think of disorder, of appropriation, of mutation, of flow, of heterogeneity.

In other words, the psycho-social-political spatial practices advocated by the likes of Michel de Certeau, Walter Benjamin, Henri Lefebvre and the Situationists actively resist the dominance of 4/4 time.

People play with 4/4 (space)time signatures all the time – sometimes maintaining them, sometimes alternating or overlapping them with other rhythms, and sometimes abandoning them altogether. For example, cross-walks are set up to guide people safely through the grid of streets, as well as negotiating relations between cars and pedestrians. And although penalties are administered for jay-walking, or crossing the street between corners, people often take shortcuts through the city, going between or against established paths. The space/times of cities are produced through the actual and unpredictable movements of people.


This brings me back to the quote by Hood that started me on this long story: “I’m interested in how the everyday mundane practices of life get played out in cities, the unheralded patterns that take place without celebration … There’s a structure to cities, a 4/4 beat. Designing is like improvisation, finding a sound for each place.”

Don’t get me wrong – I love his ideas for creating more public open spaces that honour the histories and peoples of an area – but surely there are many beats to cities, and each place has many sounds. And theories of everyday life are constantly threatened and undermined by the temptation to explain what is really going on under the surface of things…