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Introduction: the once and future orpheus.

Ernst Bloch, the most significant theorist of the concept of utopia, reserved a particular place for music. He had studied music at university, alongside philosophy and physics, and played the piano; in 1974 Bloch said that he "would probably have been a mediocre Kappelmeister but for ... a certain talent for philosophy." (1) A large part of his early work, Geist der Utopie, is dedicated to an essay on the philosophy of music, and he returns to the subject in the third volume of The Principle of Hope. The impact of Bloch's early work was considerable. Otto Klemperer (Bloch's exact contemporary) was introduced to Geist der Utopie by Georg Simmel and thought it brilliant; he and Bloch became close friends. In the 1920s, Klemperer was appointed conductor of the avant-garde Kroll Opera in Berlin. Bloch was closely integrated into the intellectual circle around the Kroll and wrote the introductory program article for its first production, Beethoven's Fidelio. Besides writing articles for the Kroll programs and contributing to the music journal Anbruch, Bloch allegedly danced a minuet with Igor Stravinsky at the Kroll's opening performance of Oedipus Rex. (2)

At all stages of his life, Bloch insisted that music had a particular utopian role in articulating the Not Yet and, indeed, bringing the future world into being. He makes three distinct claims about music. One is that music's capacity for direct human expression produces a capability of expressing the suffering, hope, and desire of oppressed people. However, like all art, music is socially conditioned--and more so than other cultural forms. There is clearly a tension, if not a contradiction, between these statements. But much of The Principle of Hope can be read as an attempt to recover or expose the residue of concrete utopia in culture, art, and religion. Those elements that are detachable from, or exceed, the immediate conditions of production Bloch describes as cultural surplus, and music, he insists, is particularly rich in this. It is perhaps the existential rather than cognitive response that is crucial; thus Bloch writes that "music is one great subjective theurgy, ... a theurgy that proposes to sing, to invoke, that which is essential and most like proper human beings" or that which expresses "adequateness to our own core." Moreover, "experience of music provides the best access to the hermeneutics of the emotions, especially the expectant emotions," and thus "music is that art of pre-appearance which relates most intensively to the welling core of existence (moment) of That-Which-Is and relates most expansively to its horizon;--cantus essentiam fontis vocat [singing summons the existence of the fountain]." (3)

Most studies of Bloch acknowledge the claims made for music, but few pursue them very far. Wayne Hudson notes that "for Bloch, music is the most utopian of the arts. It is speech which men can understand," and "music expresses something 'not yet." It copies what is objectively undetermined in the world.... In this sense there is a pre-appearance ... of the realisation of the realising factor in music: a proleptic promise of a new heaven and a new earth"; yet his book devotes less than two pages to the issue. (4) Fredric Jameson records that for Bloch "there exist ... existential experiences which may be understood as foreshadowings of what the plenitude of ... an ultimate Utopian instant might be like: this ... is the most genuine function of music as a limited and yet pure feeling of that unity of outside and inside which Utopia will establish in all the dimensions of existence.... [M]usic is profoundly Utopian, both in its form and in its content." (5) The main exceptions are David Drew's thirty-page introductory essay in the 1985 edition of Essays on the Philosophy of Music, which sets out the social, intellectual, and institutional context of Bloch's writings on music, as well as stressing its uniquely utopian content; and a body of work by Maynard Solomon, especially on Mozart and Beethoven, which draws explicitly on Bloch's approach to music. Within utopian studies, however, notwithstanding the general acceptance of Bloch's importance, there has been limited attention to music.

Happily, that situation seems to be changing. This current special issue of Utopian Studies reflects a growing interest among utopists in a range of aspects of the relationship between music and utopia. In both the North American and European utopian studies conferences, conversations have arisen from time to time on this matter. On the one hand, the discussions revolved around whether there is something distinctly utopian in the objects related to music (be it the music itself, the lyrics, the performance, and/or the social constellations clustered around the production and reception of music); and on the other, conversations queried the potential for utopian readings or interpretations of music. This exploration became more focused at the Ralahine Centre for Utopian Studies almost from the beginning of its founding at the University of Limerick in 2003. Prompted by conversations between Tom Moylan and Micheal O'Suilleabhain (the composer and musician and director of the University of Limerick's Irish World Academy of Music) and by work on music and utopia by Ralahine colleagues Michael Griffin and Mary Lou O'Donnell, steps were taken in 2007 to organize a seminar on utopia and music that would be jointly sponsored by Ralahine and the Academy of Music. Consequently, on March 5, 2008, a seminar was held with the title of "'Lines and Spaces: The Role of Music in the Creation of Community," and papers were given by Robert Hunter, Ruth Levitas, and Mary Lou O'Donnell. Then at the annual European Utopian Studies Society conference in July 2008, also held at Limerick, the three papers were given to that larger community of utopian scholars. The session, and the later evening reception, included the performance by the paper presenters on flute, harp, and clarinet of Irish airs "Silent O'Moyle" and "Has sorrow thy young days shaded" and an arrangement of Kurt Weill's "Youkali." Several other papers on music were presented at that conference, including a keynote presentation by Bernard Gendron on jazz and utopia and shorter presentations by Lorna Davidson, Luis Romero, Peter Webb, and John Lynch. Two years later, we offer this collection of essays, developed from some of those conference papers, as an initial contribution to what we hope will be an ongoing project in the field: a project that will explore the utopian dimensions and the utopian interpretations of music.

Inevitably, as we embark on a new area of inquiry for utopists that has not been systematically addressed before, the essays both individually and collectively raise more questions than they answer; but they do begin to map potential lines of inquiry as well as commonalities of content. These take us back beyond Bloch to classical sources, for two Greek myths recur in discussions of music and its utopian aspect: the myths of Syrinx and of Orpheus. In The Principle of Hope Bloch reprises Ovid's account of the myth of Pan and Syrinx. Pan pursues Syrinx to be left with only reeds in his hands, which he makes into pipes. Syrinx has both vanished and not vanished, remaining in--or as--the sound of the flute: "Thus music begins longingly and already definitely as a call to that which is missing.'" Bloch locates the origin of music in the invention of the panpipe or shepherd's pipe, whose purpose is to reach the distant beloved. Thus "the panpipe ... is the birthplace of music as a human expression, a sounding wishful dream." (6) The mysterious character of music is also here at the start, originating in a hollow space. Bloch's account is more romantic than that of Robert Graves, whose version implies that Pan was pursuing Syrinx in order to rape her, in accordance with his habitual behavior.

The second myth, that of Orpheus, generates the emblem of the lyre or harp rather than the flute and also involves a woman fleeing from rape. It is retold thus by Graves:
   Orpheus, son of the Thracian King Oeagrus and the Muse Calliope,
   was the most famous poet and musician who ever lived. Apollo
   presented him with a lyre, and the Muses taught him its use, so
   that he not only enchanted wild beasts, but made the trees and
   rocks move from their places to follow the sound of his music. At
   Zone in Thrace a number of ancient mountain oaks are still standing
   in the pattern of one of his dances, just as he left them.

   After a visit to Egypt, Orpheus joined the Argonauts, with whom he
   sailed to Colchis, his music helping to overcome many
   difficulties--and, on his return, married Eurydice, whom some
   called Agriope, and settled among the savage Cicones of Thrace.

   One day, near Tempe, in the valley of the river Peneius, Eurydice
   met Aristaeus, who tried to force her. She trod on a serpent as she
   fled, and died of its bite; but Orpheus boldly descended into
   Tartarus, hoping to fetch her back. He used the passage which opens
   at Aornum in Thesprotis and, on his arrival, not only charmed the
   ferryman Charon, the Dog Cerberus, and the three Judges of the Dead
   with his plaintive music, but temporarily suspended the tortures of
   the damned; and so far soothed the savage heart of Hades that he
   won leave to restore Eurydice to the upper world. Hades made a
   single condition: that Orpheus might not look behind him until she
   was safely back under the light of the sun. Eurydice followed
   Orpheus up through the dark passage, guided by the sounds of his
   lyre, and it was only when he reached the sunlight again that he
   turned to see if she was still behind him, and so lost her forever.

Music here, played on the lyre, has the capacity to inspire dance, to comfort and console, to remove pain, to persuade to kindness, to lead toward the light; but the Orpheus myth, like Bloch's reading of Syrinx, is also one of yearning and in the end irreparable loss. The figure of Orpheus recurs through European musical culture. Romero's essay in this issue refers to Claudio Monteverdi's L'Orfeo or La favola d'Orfeo, written in 1607. Hunter refers to Kurt Weill's setting of the myth in his I925 setting of a poem by Iwan Goll, Der neue Orpheus. Here,
   Orpheus is the Everyman of music, hard at work in the Underworld of
   the modern metropolis, who must bring the redemptive force of music
   both to soothe the spirit of an imprisoned humanity and to entice
   this latter-day Eurydice to the fight of liberty. He is, by turns,
   a piano teacher; a performer in music hall, circus, cinema,
   military band; a church organist; at home in the concert hall and
   the airwaves of the radio--the musical idioms all figured
   effectively in Weill's score. To the strains of a harp ... Orpheus
   breaks the condition not to look upon his beloved Eurydice as his
   music leads her out of the underworld. He turns to look upon her at
   the threshold--here a railway station--and she remains imprisoned,
   lost in the crowds.

In the intervening three centuries, settings of the Orpheus myth recur. Christoph Gluck's 1762 Orfeo ed Euridice, a "theatrical action for music," was revised in 1774 as Orphee. Volumes of Henry Purcell's music published between 1698 and 1735 call him Orpheus Britannicus, the British Orpheus. Franz Joseph Haydn composed a four-act opera in 1791, L'anima del filosofo, ossia Orfeo ed Euridice, with a libretto based on Ovid's metamorphoses. Other treatments include a symphonic poem by Franz Liszt in 1853-54; two versions of Orphee aux Enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld) by Jacques Offenbach in 1858 and 1874; a ballet set to music by Igor Stravinsky in 1948; and works by Jacopo Peri (1561-1633), Stefano Landi (1586-1639), Josef Benda (1724-1804), Johann Christian Cannabich (1731-98), Gian Francesco Malipiero (1882-1973), and Ernst Krenek (1900-1991). (8) Most recently, there has been Harrison Birtwhistle's prizewinning The Mask of Orpheus (1984) and, in a quite different musical genre, Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus (2004) by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, an Australian rock band. The utopian capacity of music embedded in the Orpheus myth is thus a recurrent trope in Western culture. And, as O'Donnell's essay shows, this classical source is reinforced by the biblical image of David's harp.

The first of the essays included here, "In eine bess're welt entruckt: Reflections on Music and Utopia" by Ruth Levitas, is the most general. The title is taken from Schubert's lied "An die Musik" and its assertion of music's capacity to transport us into a better world, where the harp also makes its appearance. Comparing approaches to the utopian inflection of music and text, the essay distinguishes two complex areas of difference: abstraction and performance. Abstraction implies being nonverbal and nonfigurative, characteristics shared with abstract art. Music, however, does not produce a material object but is essentially evanescent. Its dependence on performance is therefore absolute. The essay identifies a range of different ways in which music in performance may be "utopian." Daniel Barenboim, like Bloch, both insists on something in "the music itself" and, like others, raises the potentially utopian social relations that may be prefigured in the social practice of music-making. This, certainly, lies at the root of a contemporary emphasis on music education in the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra founded in the Middle East by Barenboim and Edward Said, Venezuela's E1 Sistema, and projects in the United Kingdom loosely modeled on E1 Sistema. The utopian character of these projects is ambiguous, for there is an element of social control rather than anticipatory prefiguration in the intention behind them, if not their execution.

The role of music in social education is also the theme of the second essay, Lorna Davidson's "A Quest for Harmony. The Role of Music in Robert Owen's New Lanark Community." Davidson has worked at New Lanark for over twenty years and has recently taken on the role of director upon the retirement of Jim Arnold. She thus has access to archive material and newly uncovered references to New Lanark in the private papers of visitors to the mills in Robert Owen's day. The essay draws, therefore, both on Owen's own claims about the importance of music and dance in the education of children and the formation of community and on the views of observers. Views were apparently divided on the quality of the musical performance on some occasions, though less so on the dancing. Owen believed that "any general character, from the best to the worst, from the most ignorant to the most enlightened, may be given to any community, even to the world at large, by the application of proper means"; (9) and physical education was an integral part of the development of character embedded in Owenite education. The emphasis on physical comportment could be seen as a Foucauldian mode of governance. However, what is described is both the social cooperation necessary to collective dance displays and the effect on individual children. They are described, in consequence of this regime, almost as children who "'walk tall and look the world right in the eye": they are upright, poised, polite, and direct rather than deferential. The endorsement of the "upright gait," a metaphor of freedom and dignity recurrent in Bloch, is here given literal embodiment. The significance of this is all the greater in the context of the times--those very times when, as Marx describes in Capital, the bodies of child workers elsewhere were being bent, broken, and distorted. Music here is a means of enjoyment, as in the Orpheus myth; but it is also a means of making the individuals and the social relations that will at least prefigure, if not inaugurate, utopia.

The harp reappears in the third essay by Mary Lou O'Donnell: "A Driving Image of Revolution: The Irish Harp and Its Utopian Space in the Eighteenth Century." O'Donnell eschews the more obvious route of tracing the history of the harp itself and the social practices of its use, which include in some periods the destruction by colonial powers of the instruments themselves and the execution of the bards who played them. Rather, she observes that there is, alongside the actual use of the harp, a largely separate trajectory of its political iconography, deployed as a symbol of the Irish nation. The essay therefore traces the process of cultural reproduction of the image of the harp and the subtle shifts in visual representation and meaning. At different times the symbol may be one of colonial domination by the British or of revolutionary fervor. It occurs both as a visual symbol and as a trope in popular songs. It appears surmounted by a crown, as an angel harp, or topped with the cap of liberty. The image of the harp, says O'Donnell, is in Bloch's terms a "driving image," a contested utopian space that both represents and is actively deployed in the political contest to define the Irish nation.

The fourth essay, "Countess Almaviva and the Carceral Redemption: Introducing a Musical Utopia into the Prison Walls," is a rich and complex discussion by Luis Romero of what we may learn by juxtaposing the "utopian" practice of music with the concrete dystopia of the prison, by which Romero means "specific moments, events, institutions, and systems that actually represent and accomplish organized forms of violence and subjugation." It opens with a quotation from the libretto of Beethoven's Fidelio, whose plot turns on imprisonment and liberation and which Bloch regarded as among the most utopian musical works. The purpose of Romero's essay is to call into question the practice and morality of incarceration through the contrasting liberatory and utopian function of music. Romero draws on Rousseau, for whom music reveals the invisible--night, dream, silence, and loneliness. For Rousseau, singing is a vocal sign of the authentic organ of the soul; thus singing and the hearing of song allow a direct, empathic human connection. As a social practice, and especially in the chorus, music is a model of democracy; it is a privileged, felt community of shared experience in which membership of the whole is reconciled with personal freedom. This latter theme echoes elements of Levitas's essay and especially the claims made by Barenboim that orchestral performance exemplifies democracy in its necessary balance of individual and collective. Romero's conclusion is that "the magic of music reaffirms each prisoner's autonomy and sense of personal worth." More radically, however, "creative listening ... may open the discernment of an internal Not Yet against panopticism," and thus the utopianism of music may cause us to question radically the practice of incarceration itself. The discussion focuses particularly on opera, which, as an obsolete or anachronistic form, has a particular power of estrangement and which also invokes processes of magical transformation.

Opera, or musical theater, is also the subject of Robert Hunter's "The Music of Change: Utopian Transformation in Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny and Der Silbersee." Both these works involve collaborations by Kurt Weill, in the first case with Bertolt Brecht and in the second with Georg Kaiser. In both cases, Hunter insists on the co-production of meaning by music and text, although the utopian functioning of the two works differs. Mahagonny entails a negation of capitalism rather than an illustration or prescription of an alternative; Silbersee prefigures a reconstituted humanity and social order. The exposition and analysis of these two works, originally composed and performed in Weimar Germany, lead Hunter to raise the critical question of cultural reproduction: how, and in what sense, might these works have a utopian function in the present day--especially where audiences are unaware of the historical context of composition or where there has been rewriting of the work to make it more "relevant," more "accessible," or simply less political? Hunter points out that this is a much wider cultural and political question than how certain works are brought to new audiences. Rather, "it would be necessary for artists, producers, critics, and cultural commentators to share that same sense of mission that Weill and his fellow artists had about the possibility of influencing a new cultural formation. They would need to be joined ... with a social movement informed with the hope of an attainable future, one brought under our collective control."

The final essay, by Peter Webb and John Lynch, is "'Utopian Punk': The Concept of the Utopian in the Creative Practice of Bjork," which explores the utopian orientation of this contemporary musical genre. The strand of punk rock influencing Bjork was influenced by Situationism and revolutionary anarchism--political movements with clearly utopian aspirations; punk rock therefore became inhabited by a range of transgressive and subversive ideas, and its arenas of operation acted as autonomous zones. The authors argue that as Bjork's musical performance developed, drawing on these traditions, it engaged and refracted transnational, global, and utopian elements through a specifically Icelandic imaginary. This music embeds utopian idealism and forms a key driver toward positive globalization and cultural hybridity. Utopia appears here in many guises: in a romanticization of Iceland itself, the image of the ocean, and most importantly, the deployment of these to enact a process of becoming, an opening up of possibility.

Reading the set of essays as a whole opens up the potential range of research in the field of music and utopia. It also reveals that at least at this stage of scholarship, it remains difficult to identify what is specifically and particularly utopian about music or even what, exactly, it means to describe music as utopian. The contributors circle this central conundrum, looking from different angles at social practices surrounding music, but rarely deal with it directly. This point was raised by several of the reviewers of the essays collected here, to whom both we and the contributors are enormously grateful for their care, generosity, and speed. It is exemplified by Peter Fitting's comment: "The problem for me lies in the passage from what the [musicians] did in their larger social practice and their music. I am still unclear about how music can be utopian. Is it the content of the songs themselves? Or is it more generally a particular musician's ability to express utopian hopes and longings? Or does the utopian lie in a musician's life-style and public positions. I'm just not sure." Nor, even after much discussion with the authors of these essays and others, are we. There are points that come close to identifying what the music does: Hunter's discussion of the Crane duet as a suspension of the dystopian tableaux of Mahagonny echoes Romero's observation that the musical incursion in The Shawshank Redemption serves to suspend the oppressive reality of incarceration. Both echo that element of the Orpheus myth in which the music of the lyre "temporarily suspended the tortures of the damned." And both insist, as does Bloch, that the music is not simply an interlude of consolation but one that drives forward to transformation, rebellion, and revolution. Perhaps the specifically utopian character of music is something that cannot be defined, merely evoked; so that the attempt to pin this down in a conventional academic argument rather than, for instance, in Bloch's expressionist, evocative prose may be doomed to failure. Utopian studies, however, is well acquainted, especially through the work of Fredric Jameson, with the idea of necessary failure. For perhaps the issue is not so much one of identifying a utopian "meaning" carried in music, even though it may enable counterfactual representations. It is, rather, its very liminality, its evocation of something still coming to consciousness, something that is not yet. Certainly the many questions raised by the essays in this issue have not been resolved. They are offered by way of a beginning. If this collection provokes further contributions on this question in the form of papers at utopian conferences, essays in this journal, and doctoral dissertations and monographs, its job will have been done.


(1.) David Drew, introduction to Ernst Bloch, Essays on the Philosophy of Music (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), xiii.

(2.) Peter Heyworth, Otto Klemperer: His Life and Times, vol. 1:1885-1933 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 26.

(3.) Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope, trans. Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice, and Paul Knight (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986), 1070.

(4.) Wayne Hudson, The Marxist Philosophy of Ernst Bloch (London: Macmillan, 1982), 175-76.

(5.) Fredric Jameson, Marxism and Form: Twentieth-Century Dialectical Theories of Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974), 146.

(6.) Bloch, The Principle of Hope, 1059.

(7.) Robert Graves, The Greek Myths (London: Folio Society I996), 112.

(8.) Michael Kennedy, Oxford Dictionary of Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 590, 642, 645.

(9.) Robert Owen, A New View of Society and Other Writings, ed. with an intro, by G. Claeys (London: Penguin Classics, 1991), 28, 12.
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Author:Levitas, Ruth; Moylan, Tom
Publication:Utopian Studies
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jul 1, 2010
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