An experiment in musical dreaming

BLOG: Utopian Pulses

Musical opening of the 14th International Sustainability Transitions (IST) Conference – 30th August 2023, Utrecht

“There is something within each of us that wants to limit the power of the imaginative to touch us, for that may open us to our deepest fears and most regressive yearnings... it perhaps is only when we feel the power of music to bruise us that we can discover its enchanted healing power as well.”
Maynard Solomon, 1995,[1]

Music surfaces our deepest longings. It can narrate a lost past or lost future; offer a glimpse of what is not yet but could be; even compel us towards transformation, or revolution. It is this unique capacity of music to create emotional resonance yet without foreclosing meaning which can give us the courage to turn towards “cracks under the social surface” where our latent hopes and dreams for change lie[2]. As Ernst Bloch put it “this world is not that which has already become but that which circulates within it, which… is imminent only in future, anxiety, hope”[2]. In this piece, we explore the question: can music deepen our reflection and imagination in global spaces?

— by Josie Chambers in dialogue with Steve Williams & Noor Noor

When offered the chance to perform a live musical opening for the 14th International Sustainability Transitions Conference, we wanted to stage a different kind of feeling than your typical academic space. Connecting to the conference’s theme of responsibility and reflexivity, we sought to connect emotionally to where we are with sustainability transitions, yet also offer a glimpse of what could be.

We met in a renovated farmhouse on the outskirts of Utrecht for three days to experiment with our different musical styles, from live techno (drusnoise–Steve Williams) and funkadelic bass (Noor Noor) to melodic vocal harmonies (Josie Chambers), and create something new together. As researchers and practitioners ourselves working towards more sustainable futures, we were curious to experiment with the power of music as a medium to explore “cracks under the social surface” and foster social dreaming towards the future. Three movements emerged – both in the musical sense, as well as how we might consider moving together as a collective of people concerned with sustainability transitions.

The making of the musical opening of the 14th International Sustainability Transitions (IST) Conference

Movement 1. Reversal of doom

The first crack, or rather chasm, we chose to engage with stems from the sense of doom that many of us feel these days when imagining the future. A fictitious form of certainty[3] that holds an insidious grasp on us, squeezing out and drying up our imaginative juices. We mused: why do we often choose to predict endings that performatively flatten our expectations?

We sought to get this predilection out into a shared space at the start of our performance. We thought, what if we ask the audience to predict three possible end scenarios of our performance – happy praise, annoyed frustration, apathetic silence? By inviting the audience to prefigure these possible scenarios, and experience the ridiculous yet shared emotions encapsulated in them, we sought to foster a more open orientation towards the unimagined possibility of what might come next.

The ‘doom, doom, doom…’ vocal loop that follows invites the audience into a melodious and enjoyable enough line, yet one that feels increasingly repetitive and leaves us longing for more. This serves as an allegory for the traditional role of the sustainability scientist – cautioning of impending doom, not only as prophets of doom, but also profits of it, readily accounting GDP (Gross Doomestic Product) – far and wide, in papers, classrooms, public, yet without offering an alternative narrative.

We keep saying we need a complete system transformation, yet we seem caught in a linguistic loop. We keep saying it, but little happens. We ask the audience: do we enjoy doom too much? What happens when we take the reverse of doom, what are we left with? Mood. Repeating the initial question: ‘How are we feeling?’, we seek to give it a deeper sense of expression and meaning.

Movement 2. Mirrors or dreams!?

The second crack is that which we usually do not see. The glossy mirror that gives us a perfect reflection of who we think we want to be, based on who we already are. The cracks are too minute to see. It’s a reassuring orientation, comfortable, feeding our own egos. Yet it does not challenge us to see who we could long to become, and in doing so, feel the uncomfortable lack of who we are not yet.

We wanted to know what kind of mirror we are dealing with in sustainability transitions. We asked the conference organizing committee to send us all accepted abstracts in the conference – 458, it turns out. We pored over the words, and noted the most common words which appeared thousands of times: sustainability, transitions, research, policy, energy. But what especially intrigued us were the cracks in the mirror – the words situated on the margins, appearing once or twice.

We crafted these words into poetic form. Noticeable discomfort built up during this movement. After all, how was it possible that some of these words were not more common in abstracts: migrants? youth? decolonize? feeling? Or what might happen if some of these words became more central to our global sustainability spaces: love? dreams? rebellion? zeppelins? Yes, many wonderful words were also prevalent among abstracts: transformation, justice, diversity, governance. Yet how to make sure these do not become empty signifiers? Can longing for more radically diverse language help us turn our linguistic loop of transformation into a performative one?

To guide us through this discomfort, we opened up the space to emotions. We invited audience member Joost Vervoort on stage, to turn away from the synthetic beat that began our music, and towards a form of rhythm rooted in our shared humanity – the heartbeat. As the uncomfortable words washed over Joost’s heartbeat, they built a sense of resistance and tension in the audience, which Joost released through a black metal scream that reverberated throughout the hall.

Movement 3. Wor(l)ds paint wor(l)ds

With an enlarged social crack, this next movement spoke to ‘where do we go from here?’ How do we grapple with and possibly even embrace, or dare to enjoy this plurality of expression? We admittedly struggled to do this justice within the confines of the performance. We dreamed of getting the audience to physically take part, breaking into spontaneous dancing. Yet this seemed far-fetched, especially for a room of 550 (mostly) strangers at 9 am, not even expecting a musical opening. We instead articulated the diversity of sounds we had built up throughout the performance, including sounds of the audience captured by drusnoise. This was built into a shared funky tune to enjoy together.

After the performance, we engaged with a small part of the audience in a two-hour session “Musical Transformations”. People shared experiences of connecting their musical passions to their sustainability work. Discussions shifted into electronic play, such as when Dan Lockton connected pieces of fruit to a Makey Makey so that people could play notes by touching different fruits. This transformed into an improvisational jam where spontaneous dancing broke out and people courageously stepped into an entirely unconventional way of being and relating within such a conference setting. We took this utopian feeling and electric energy we embodied and co-created in the session, and post hoc included glimpses of sound and visuals in the performance video.

Musical Transformations session at the 14th International Sustainability Transitions (IST) Conference

This experience made us wonder: what are we generating when we meet each other in these global spaces? What kind of connections, emotions, hopes, energies, and dreams? And how can we all be a bit more creative and subversive in how we stage our spaces meant to foster vital reflection and agency to address the enormous sustainability challenges of our time?

Our performance ends with the phrase ‘words paint worlds, worlds paint words’. This encapsulates our longing to not only recognize our plurality of dreams for the future and have the courage to navigate tensions among them, but to also be attentive to the power of language and emotions to hinder or enable us. Most importantly, do we want to spend our energy realistically painting the worlds we already know? Or do we want to engage words and feelings that can help us paint the worlds we can possibly imagine?

For a deep dive into the performance with interviews and excerpts, check out the first episode of  "Sustain: Harmonizing Sound and Sustainability" a new online radio show at hosted and curated by drusnoise/Steve Williams.

A special thank you to Joost Vervoort, Dan Lockton, Taneli Vaskelainen, Sophia-Marie Horvath, Adriaan van der Loos, Simona Negro, and all other participants who contributed to discussions and music-making in our musical transformations session.