What kind of utopia does our music call into being?
There are two ways to answer such a question. The first is prefigurative and focuses on the political practices of our the interaction between those of us making the music. So there is a focus on the fact that our music is spontaneously and nonhierarchically generated without reference to any predefined goal. It is both immanent and immediate: a merging of utopianism (the politics of striving for a utopia) and utopia itself. Such a view rejects the possibility of ever reaching a state of perfection; constant flux is demanded in order for the utopia to avoid ossification.
The second is a variety of ‘blueprint utopianism’, with a focus on the utopia and not the utopianism and considers the affect of our music. It asks the question: when hearing our music, what worlds do you imagine? Unlike classical blueprint utopias, the utopia is created in interaction between the musicians and the listener, rather than the authority lying wholly with the author. It thus goes further in sharing the task of creating the utopia than the utopian function ascribed to science-fiction by the likes of Darko Suvin and Fredric Jameson (where the utopian vision of the text returns the reader to the present with a heightened sense of capitalism’s impermanence and forces them to engage in their own utopianism).
As Rouges Foam repeatedly points out, music is not an object to be passively observed. We ‘musick’ when we listen: interact with the sounds. Sometimes physically (dancing, tapping) and sometimes mentally. So some music makes us horny, and we contemplate fucking. Some makes us angry, and we contemplate revolution. Some makes us imagine other worlds when we hear it, or emphasizes certain locations in this world.
Some band’s whole raison d’etre is built around creating other worlds. Kraftwerk create a utopia of benevolent technology: the motorway, the express train, the computer. For the future! There is, of course, a teutonic detachment (which can be read as irony) and allows more dystopian reading of their music. On Radioactivity that line is blurred even further, but perhaps that’s just how it seems through the lens of Chernobyl (though we must note that the live version of the track Radioactivity on Minimum-Maximum supports this view).
How do we discern this utopianism? It would take a brighter mind than mine to explain satisfactorily, but I’ll offer some suggestions. The creation and identification of these tropes is negotiated by the musician and the listener. Some favour the former, others the latter:
-Technology. Think how new, how alien, how wonderfully other the theremin must have sounded when it was invented. Think of the worlds of possibility the synthesizer beckoned. And now we are seeing a strange nostalgic utopianism: the yearning for a future never realised- a dream which looks to the past in order to look to the future. Conversely, a lack of technology may point to a primitivst utopian future.
-Onomatopoeiac sounds and sampling. Guitars that sound like space rockets. Propulsive 4/4 rhythms that call to mind an effortless cruise down the autobahn. The sampling of a babbling brook.
-Musical referencing. Drawing on the music of other cultures (or other times, as in the use of nostalgic technology mentioned above). Or perhaps on musical tropes associated with a certain kind of film genre.
-The madeleine/hauntological function. Sound involuntary unlocking memories of an imagined utopian past.
I primarily see ‘musical referencing’ in our music. Not that we seek to create a simulation of other musics, but we have clearly internalised them and create something that speaks to a communal way of life. Technology has a part to play too; straddling the boundary between the futuristic embrace and the primitivst rejection.
Enough background. How does our utopia look?
I see a post-capitalist society. Perhaps after a climate catastrophe, a war, a virus, a revolution. Perhaps after a peaceful transition. Who knows? A reluctance to detail the method of transition is central to classic utopianism. Hence Marx and Engel’s hostility to utopian socialism. The details of the society, for me, are a little clearer. It is anarchist. People live for themselves and create their own culture. Folk rituals have emerged; communities come together to celebrate, to morn; to share in ecstatic experiences. Musicians are not just musicians: they are farmers, educators, builders. There is no division of labour, there are no full-time artists: art is not separated from everyday life. It is not something to be objectified and considered in reverent awe but something to participate in.
Traces of our present society remain in this utopia. Our technology is occasionally utilised, but in ‘incorrect’ ways. Guitars are played out of tune; keyboards are re-wired incorrectly. Sometimes reference is made to the musics of the days gone by; a poppy melody, the faintest trace of a riff. Some recordings must have survived. Some people perhaps like them. Occasional bluesy melodies pop through. Maybe the tales of suffering retain a resonance in this utopian future. There may still be hard times for many.
This may be a dystopia to you. A dystopia, of course, is just a utopia that you don’t like. That’s fine. There was no higher complement paid to us than by a promoter who described our music as dystopian. It’s certainly dark at times. Perhaps this post-capitalist society isn’t so friendly after all. Perhaps the community uses music as a kind of therapy. Maybe its darkness just stems from the fact that the human psyche contains some dark desires.
But if Jameson, Zizek and Fisher are right and it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism then I proscribe our music to everyone. Even a dystopia shows that other worlds are possible.
Ben Anderson- A Principle of Hope: Recorded Music, Listening Practices and the Immanence of Utopia
Rouges Foam- The Musical Revolution will not be Released on CD: Towards a Utopian Music