Sounding Out Musical Ethics

Wed, 6 October 2021 | 12:00 – 2:00pm GMT+1 | Panel

Chair: Ariana Phillips-Hutton

Session abstract

Contemporary musical life is saturated with ethically significant issues, from evaluating Spotify’s business practices to the function of copyright and intellectual property law, from distinguishing cultural appropriation to confronting structural inequality in music, and from choosing to perform Wagner in Israel to choosing to perform in Israel at all. Despite this interweaving, working out the relationship between music and ethics has historically been fraught with questions: does music carry ethical content? If so, how and in what ways could it be said to be ethical? Alternatively, how might the structures and relations of music influence conceptions of ethics? The challenge of bringing ethics and music together has been addressed with increasing frequency in recent years by authors such as Marcel Cobussen and Nanette Nielsen (Music and Ethics, 2012), Michael Gallope (Deep Refrains, 2017), and Jeff Warren (Musical and Ethical Responsibility, 2014). A recent essay by Kathleen Higgins (‘Connecting Music to Ethics’, 2018) suggests strategies for applying music to ethically positive ends, yet questions over the viability and desirability of such a project remain unexplored. This seminar-style session includes submissions that engage with broad questions of music and ethics in the contemporary world as well as focused studies of particular repertoires, events, or ethical questions.

Victoria Aschheim: What Hate Can Do to a Choir
What Hate Can Do to a Choir: Vocal Ethics and Ted Hearne’s Animals

In May 2018, President Trump attended a California sanctuary policy roundtable. There he said, about undocumented immigrants, “These aren’t people. These are animals.” Moved by these sentences, the Los Angeles-based composer Ted Hearne wrote Animals, a piece for SATB choir, commissioned by The Crossing and premiered in September 2018. Donald Nally, conductor of The Crossing, explained his motivation for cultivating socially committed, technically ruthless music such as Animals: “I hate pretty. I can’t stand listening to pretty.” Animals, then, was born of hate twice over—hate of very different stripes: xenophobic speech, aesthetic revulsion. My presentation (joining recent studies of vocal materiality) takes Animals as an occasion to raise a question of musical micropolitics and aesthetic judgment: what is the ethical potential of antipathy to vocal beauty?
In Animals, comprehension of racism transmutes the voice, which volleys Trump’s words back to listeners for scrutiny. Performance directions demand the affect of “grotesque, a hellscape.” Hearne prescribes “frantic breathing” through “closed teeth,” and “constrict[ing] the laryngeal cavity” for “extreme squeal[s].” Bodies morph; the choir seethes. Thinking with philosophies of affect and injustice (Srinivasan) and timbre (Nancy), as well as the video recording and score, I argue that these changes reveal the aptness—the fitting nature—of vocal distortion as a musical response to prejudice. Animals shows how bending the voice beyond convention is a just artistic ethic. Such plasticity (bearing avant-garde genealogies, including Steve Reich’s rejection of bel canto) gives language new sensory shape, and clarifies the power of music as resistance.

Uri Agnon: Between Critique and Judgment
Between Critique and Judgment – Reviewing New Music

This paper investigates the discussion of ethics in the reception of political New Music. I examine what philosophical frameworks are being employed (implicitly and explicitly) in reviews of such work and to what ends. Through studying the reception of pieces such as Johannes Kreidler’s Fremdarbeit (2009), Chaya Czernowin’s Adama (2006) and Elaine Mitchener’s SWEET TOOTH (2017), the paper explores the strengths and limitations of critiquing and analysing New Music from viewpoints such as ‘utilitarianism’, ‘deontology’, ‘value’ and ‘virtue’ ethics.
Following Adorno’s argument in favour of “responsibility” rather than “conviction”, and Foucault’s call for critique not based on judgment but rather on bringing ideas to life, the paper suggests a different approach to reviewing the political and ethical in New Music. To these ends, I engage with the writings of Levinas, Butler and Gilligan, exploring their “relational ethics” as an alternative way of discussing political New Music. Rather than attempting to define the ethical value of a composer or a piece, I argue for a critique which strives to articulate the diverse readings of musical works and the political possibilities they harbour.

Leia Devadason: Is the Limit of Performance...Performativity?
Is the Limit of Performance…Performativity? Musical Ethics in ‘Unprecedented Times’

While ‘performativity’ is both a property of music and an orientation linking music studies to ethical practice (the performative turn), it has become a pejorative term within 21st century social justice discourse, representing the ‘talk’ and not the ‘walk’. Thus far, there has not been a scholarly investigation of how the connotative disjunctures of ‘performativity’ across domains may impact prevailing ideas of music’s ethical content and functions.

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, I question whether musical performances can be or only symbolise genuine ethical acts. I refer to news, footage, and social media commentaries addressing musicking with purported ethical content – from singing rituals for frontline workers to concerts for plants – during March to September 2020 when international mediascapes were saturated with performances of ethics.

From a philosophical standpoint, much of musical performance’s ambivalent place within contemporary ethics springs from uncertainty about whether it is reducible to a linguistic utterance that can function as a performative statement equivalent to action (Austin), or it must stand outside traditional formulations of ethics which trade in language altogether. To this end, I suggest Gilligan and Nodding’s ‘ethics of care’ as a possible model for the idiomatic integration of music into ethical philosophy without reification.

Sam McAuliffe: Improvisation as Original Ethics
Improvisation as Original Ethics: Exploring the Ethical in Heidegger and Gadamer from a Musical Perspective

Martin Heidegger was often criticised for his lack of explicit engagement with ethics. On occasion, however, he alluded to the need for ethics to become ‘original’ again; for ethics to emerge from out of factical existence. Unfortunately, Heidegger himself did not offer any detailed insight into what an ‘original ethics’ may be. Several commentators, however, find evidence of such an original ethics in the philosophical hermeneutics of Heidegger’s student, Hans-Georg Gadamer. In this paper I argue that an original ethics, as alluded to by Heidegger and taken up by Gadamer, depends upon a certain improvisational comportment, such that acting ethically in the world involves spontaneously attending and responding to that which one encounters in factical existence. To substantiate this claim, I draw upon improvised musical performance as an exemplar, highlighting how the responsiveness at issue in musical improvisation is equally present in an original ethics, which is itself demonstrative of a practical, performative, and spontaneous engagement with the world. Not only does this account elucidate the improvisational character of original ethics, it equally illuminates the nature of the ethical at issue in improvised musical performance. Improvisation, for example, calls for an encounter with the other (that which is beyond oneself) such that players take seriously and engage with the other, strengthening the position of the other – engendering a civility of difference – to bring forth a work.

Luis Velasco-Pufleau: ‘Only fear grew inside my body’
‘Only fear grew inside my body’: Ethics, femicide and compositional strategies in Hilda Paredes’ La tierra de la miel

How can music composition engage with femicide? What are the political implications and ethical concerns of sounding out systematic violence against women? This paper explores these questions through the analysis of the chamber opera La tierra de la miel (2013) by the Mexican composer Hilda Paredes (b. 1957). In this work, Paredes tells the story of indigenous Mexican women victims of a human trafficking network between Mexico and the United States. In particular, she explores the representation of the rape and murder of one of these women through the destruction of language in music performance. As with the body of the woman, the language is destroyed and fragments are distributed among the singer and members of the music ensemble. Looking for a dramatic expression of abuse and human exploitation with the inability to voice their trauma, Paredes explores the capacity of sound to tackle death and violence endured by these women. Based on several interviews with Hilda Paredes and music analyses of La tierra de la miel, this paper examines Paredes’ compositional strategies and ethical concerns when she started to compose this work. I study the ethical implications of 1) composing music on such an extreme topic; 2) giving voice to often invisible victims of violence, and 3) listening to these voices. Finally, I conclude with a reflection on how composing and discussing music can enable critical thought and raise awareness about current violations of human rights.

By admin

Sign up for periodic announcements via our Newsletter!