Why “Sostenuto”

Sostenuto is an Italian word meaning “sustained.” It is used in music in two ways. In general, it simply suggests a sustaining of duration, somtimes implying a slowing in tempo. It is also the name of the center pedal of some modern pianos. Unlike the damper pedal, which sustains any notes played as long as the pedal is down, the sostenuto pedal lets ring only the notes being held at the very moment it is pressed.

The obvious connotation is sustainability. The pedal’s central position hints at this as well, implying balance, equilibrium. Beyond the basic idea, though, it suggests that sustainability will involve life at a somewhat slower pace than the one we’ve been unhealthily pursuing. The fact that the sostenuto pedal is not a standard feature of pianos — that, indeed, many pianos have no central pedal at all — alludes to the present rarity of ideas about sustainability and balance in our society. (Of course, we’re not recommending that music never be played quickly any
more than we’re asking piano manufacturers to universally adopt the sostenuto pedal — this is just a metaphor!) Less arcane than the pedal rarity but more subtle than the core idea of sustainability is the notion that we must actively do something to achieve sustainability. It won’t happen on its own — we have to press the pedal. At the same time, once pressed, the notes last a long time with no additional effort — pursue a different cultural vision, and a long future for humanity will be child’s play. This is one of the key lessons of systems-thinking — little changes can yield big results.

Beyond these specifics, though, the word is, of course, evocative of music — a pursuit so ultimately artificial and beautiful, so utterly artistic and scientific. Indeed, if music can harmonize these ideas which often seem to many to be opposed, it can certainly also stand for the harmony that can exist between people and the rest of nature — or among all of the elements of any system at all.

How’s that for reading into something!? Well, so be it. The systems-thinking approach is about discovering more than meets the eye, about finding the fundamental relationships between simple things and their complex implications. In all the ways outlined here, Sostenuto seems the perfect name for this venture.

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