Music Heard Through Utopia

An eclectic look at British composers, performance artists and bands through themes found in Thomas More's 'Utopia' published in 1516

Utopia by Thomas More by Thomas More and British LibrarySound and Music


Raphael Hythloday, our narrator in the second part of Thomas More’s book, Utopia (the satirical, traveller’s tale written way back in 1516), mentions that Utopians love to listen to music after dinner, but never actually tells us what the music sounds like. And despite telling us that Utopians are as musically skilled as the Ancient Greeks, Hythloday doesn’t say how they became so, or even what types of instruments they used. This points to the fact that for More, his book Utopia was not a blueprint for the future, but rather a playful vision of a future world. In Utopia, a name which comes from two Greek words meaning ‘no place’ and ‘good place’, More leaves it up to us to imagine what Utopian music could sound like. 

Utopia 2016 Door, Somerset House, From the collection of: Sound and Music
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For this exhibition, we have chosen six songs from a variety of artists, to illustrate six themes from More’s ground-breaking book. From Sound and Music’s New Voices composers of 2016, to bands from the 70s, all the artists featured in some way epitomise themes including communal living, travelling, governing, making, wealth, and working.

Curated to celebrate the wealth of talent amongst the British music community, as well as the 500th anniversary of the publication of Thomas More’s Utopia, this exhibition showcases artefacts from the British Music Collection, amongst others. It is part of Utopia 2016: A Year of Imagination and Possibility. A collaboration between The Courtauld Institute of Art, King’s College London and Somerset House, Utopia 2016 is four seasons of events, all of which aim to give us the opportunity to dream for a better future.

The Special AKA by ECOSound and Music


The Specials AKA – Free Nelson Mandela, 1984. 

Specials AKA lyrics, From the collection of: Sound and Music
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‘Democratic’, ‘free’, ‘harmony’, ‘equal’, these are all words which epitomised Nelson Mandela’s idea of a utopian society, a society for which he fought and, some would say, succeeded to make a reality. Whilst Mandela was imprisoned by the apartheid government, the British songwriter Jerry Dammers wrote and recorded this song with his two-tone ska band, in solidarity with the South African’s ideals. It is a classic example of a protest song, a song which stands up for the belief in a ‘right’ way to govern. For more protest songs, check out Ruth Ewan’s A Jukebox of People Trying to Change the World in the Utopia Treasury at Somerset House.

More’s Utopia is said to be a sophisticated form of democracy. Every year Utopians elect their leaders, called syphogrants. These syphogrants then go on to elect a governor by secret ballot. Unless accused of tyranny, the governor holds his position for life. To prevent oppression of the people, all new schemes which concern the wider public have to be debated in front of the senate or the popular assembly.

Nelson Mandela, The Specials, 1984, From the collection of: Sound and Music
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Portrait of Bobbie-Jane Gardner by Bobbie-Jane GardnerSound and Music


Bobbie-Jane Gardner - Many Hands Make Light Work, 2014. 

Live Performance of Many Hands Make Light Work by Bobbie-Jane GardnerSound and Music

Many Hands Make Light Work - Bobbie-Jane Gardner

Bobbie-Jane Gardner composed Many Hands Make Light Work in 2014, in collaboration with Anton Clarke, James Douglas and Laurence Hunt. Gardner is one of Sound and Music’s current young composers. She often works in schools and in the community—collaboration is hence key to how she makes music.

Collaborative ways of making are also an important part of day to day life in Utopia. Utopians work together to make their food, tidy their gardens and build their houses. They ensure that they keep up the maintenance of their buildings, in order to save the effort of rebuilding. Their high productivity means they only work six hours a day, three in the morning, and three in the afternoon.

The Incredible String BandSound and Music

Communal Living

The Incredible String Band - Empty Pocket Blues, 1970. 

Empty Pocket Blues, Incredible String Band, 1970, From the collection of: Sound and Music
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During the 60s and 70s many music groups from the US and UK started to experiment with communal living arrangements, not only for financial reasons but also to cement their bond as a band and heighten their chemistry when they composed and performed. The Incredible String Band was one of these groups, a hugely popular and diversely influenced UK psychedelic group who lived communally in farmhouses all around the UK, from Glasgow to Newport. They cited their living arrangements as a huge influence on their later albums.

In More’s Utopia, each street is lined with a communal garden. Every mealtime, the families living in each street gather on a long table and share food together before socialising with music and games. No doors have locks and families are moved from house to house every decade so that no one ever fully feels ownership of their houses and possessions.

Cornelius Cardew by Igor Toronyi-LalicSound and Music


Cornelius Cardew - Revolution is the Main Trend in the World Today, 1974. 

Revolution is the Main Trend, Cornelius Cardew, 1974, From the collection of: Sound and Music
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Equal wealth for all—this was the driving force behind Cornelius Cardew’s compositions. A staunch Marxist, throughout his life Cardew campaigned tirelessly for an end to international capitalism. This song is an example of one of his later works, a song composed after he rejected his avant-garde leanings, in favour of compositions he believed could rouse the working classes. Poverty, wealth, class based stratification, and private property do not exist in Utopia. When Utopians are children, they are given rubies and pearls to play with, and so when they become adults they think of jewels as childish, and laugh at those who wear them. All money is shared, and saved in the Treasury until a national emergency.

Tradesmen Choir by Laura EldretSound and Music


Laura Eldret - Song For a Tradesman Choir, 2011.

Song for a Tradesmen Choir, Laura Eldret, 2011, From the collection of: Sound and Music
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For this 2011 scratch performance, Laura Eldret brought together six tradesmen who worked in the Camden area of London, to perform a song inspired by traditional folk music, which could act as a ‘surreal advert’ for the participants’ trades. Two handymen, a builder, a labourer, electrician and a heating engineer made up the performance, which combined two different types of folk songs—the antiphon and the sea shanty.

All those who live in Thomas More’s Utopia are educated in different trade skills. These include blacksmithing, carpentry, spinning and weaving. Unless the city is in need of people with particular skills, children begin by learning the trade of their father, switching trades later if they would prefer to learn another.

Tradesmen Choir, Laura Eldret, From the collection of: Sound and Music
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Tradesman Choir performers: John Carlye, Andre Cole, Marcus Hunt, Mihhail Sibul, Orlando Toror and Asen Vodennicharski. Created as part of a residency at Camden Art Centre, curated by Ben Roberts, song written in collaboration with Faye Gostick and filmed by Renee Vaughan Sutherland.

Young Fathers by Felicity McCabeSound and Music


Young Fathers - Shame, 2015.

SHAME, Young Fathers, From the collection of: Sound and Music
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Young Fathers, the alternative hip hop group made up of Massaquoi, Bankole and Hastings, all grew up in Edinburgh. Massaquoi began living there after the Red Cross helped his family move from Liberia, and Bankole splits his time between Scotland, Nigeria and the US. The group met and bonded over a love of hip hop, which was fuelled at an under-18s hip hop night in Edinburgh. Here, they saw people trying to represent US culture, which in their view “was all fake. It was all emulation”. They cite travelling and moving as influencing their shape-shifting genre-bending style, and a sense of discomfort which comes from not being fully “at home”.

Utopians on Thomas More’s island are permitted to travel freely throughout the Island but only with a passport. Those found without one or trying to leave without express permission are punished, and sometimes put into slavery. Each city shares its produce with other cities in need. Only when each citizen has enough will they sell surplus food abroad.

Utopia 2016 Logo (2016) by Fraser Muggeridge Studio and Jeremy DellerSound and Music


The ideas seen in Thomas More’s Utopia can be found across a variety of musical practices. From travelling hip hop groups and communal living, psychedelic bands to young composers and two tone ska groups, experiments in Utopian thinking have seeped their way into the tunes we hear and admire.

But like More, who was clear that his Utopia was not the only possible version, this eclectic playlist is surely not the only vision of what ‘Utopian music’ could sound like—if you wish to share your own ideas for songs which fit the Utopian mould, please tweet us at @UtopiaOverhead and pass the message on to other Utopians.  

Utopia 2016 Partner Logos, From the collection of: Sound and Music
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British Music Collection Logo, British Music Collection, 2014, From the collection of: Sound and Music
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Credits: Story

This exhibition was curated by Emily Medd and Ayumi Konno, as part of Utopia 2016.

Thank you to Angharad Cooper at Sound and Music, the artists featured for their help and assistance, Grace Perrett and our fellow Utopia 2016 Treasurers, Kate Turner, Marina Jurjevic and Rosie Hudson.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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