Study Day Report – Music, Hope and Reimagining Society: the role of music in thinking around Utopia.

How does Utopia sound? How can music instill hope in a Post-Truth world? How do established structures challenge and get challenged through acts of everyday utopia? The enquiries of our Study Day go on, shifting the attention towards multiple locations around the world, inviting us to reflect upon historic events, and current undergoing developments, and foregrounding diverse initiatives each of which situates music in a unique place, urging us to think around its interconnections with Utopia. After all, our Study Day discussed the role of music in thinking around Utopia, by considering how it interlaces with its capacity to encourage hope and re-imagining society.     

The Study Day was hosted by the School of History Anthropology Philosophy and Politics, Queen’s University Belfast, and took place on 16 June 2023, at the Lanyon Building, and was funded by the Society for Musicology in Ireland (SMI), the British Forum for Ethnomusicology and the Royal Musical Association. The organization was led by Dr Chrysi Kyratsou (signing this report), Dr Ioannis Tsioulakis (Senior Lecturer at School of HAPP, QUB), Dr Dave Robb (Reader at School of AEL, QUB), Dr Franziska Schroeder (Professor at School of AEL, QUB), and Dr Matthew Warren (Independent Scholar).

Hosting it in a hybrid manner enabled us to accommodate speakers and viewers from around the world, and most importantly, tackle any last-minute change of circumstances setting an obstacle to the smooth conduction of the Study Day. (And thanks to the excellent coordination of our team, and our speakers’ enthusiasm, we went through a power-failure in the area, that threatened to eliminate the hybrid element at all -thank you all!).

The Roundtable marked a notable moment of our Study Day, which was endorsed by the audience, and the speakers themselves, for bringing into the academic contexts the real-world experiences and insights of community arts organizations. David Boyd of Beat Carnival, Darren Ferguson of Beyond Skin and Paul Kane of Oh Yeah Music Centre, shared inspiring examples of their long-term work with diverse groups and their insights of what it takes to enact utopia in the everyday world through musicking. The challenges posed primarily by the chase for ensuring adequate funding to fulfil their objectives for inclusion through music, counter-balanced the hopeful examples of achieving the (utopic) goal of inclusion despite any adversities, thanks to the individual initiative and persistence.

The first panel revolved around masses, rituals, and classical music ensembles, exploring how musicking enables visions of utopia in current social spaces. Julian Day (Yale University) foregrounded how utopia can be envisioned through the sonic frame offered by projects such as the ‘Super Critical Mass’. Adam Havas (University of Barcelona) transferred us to the small collectivist bookstore “La Social” and the social center “Ateneu La Base” that host free improvisation sessions at Barcelona’s Poble Sec district, and explored how radical musical experimentation creates an utopistic realm of musical encounters. Finally, Caryl Mann (King’s College London) examined utopia as a project of creating more inclusive social spaces and a sense of belonging, enacted by contemporary classical musicking in Brixton, South London.

The musicking instances showcasing utopian visions and enactments, were followed by a reflective second session, foregrounding the critique, symbolism, and meaningfulness of utopia, as framed through philosophy and aesthetics. Wolfgang Marx (University College Dublin) focused on the complexities underpinning critical thinking (and its critiques) in a Post-Truth World, foregrounding the Hope emergent from musicking. Ellan A Lincoln-Hyde (SOAS London) argued for the capacity of music to maintain and transmit visions of utopias across generations, by focusing on the controversial example of Valkyrie, and its ambiguous symbolism through time, as mediated through various cultural forms. Stan Erraught (University of Leeds) considered the established avenues for the production and dissemination of music nowadays, arguing for their predicament to the ‘deferral’ of utopian visions, and maintaining hope for the potential of certain somewhat ‘marginal’ practices. Finally, Yundi Li (University of Oxford) focused on the entanglements of utopia with technology and digitization, as exemplified by the popular internet micro-genres ‘hyperpop’ and ‘indigenous pop,’ arguing for the liminality of utopian and dystopian visions traced in these genres’ sound-world.

The final session explored uses of music to organize interventions underpinned by ‘utopian’ objectives. Ving Fai Chan (Queen’s University Belfast) shared his insights from co-creating with patients an arts-based eye health education strategy in Zanzibar, highlighting its effectiveness in countering any socio-cultural hindrances to eye healthcare uptake. Lydia Barrett (University of California, Santa Cruz) conveyed her vibrant experiences from the anarchist food relief organization Food Not Bombs (FNB) in Santa Cruz, California, elaborating on how sharing food and music among unhoused guests, contributes to building a community of equality and safety, materializing glimpses to a utopian world.

The Study Day end was marked by the live act of Behnam Ghazanfaripour on sandoor and Omid on setar and guitar, who performed Iranian Art music, guiding us through its history and aesthetics, and the versatile symbolisms entailed in its musical elements.

Author bio: Chrysi Kyratsou is an Anthropologist/ Ethnomusicologist, and currently an IRC Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the School of Music, University College Dublin.

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