Noise of the Spheres: ethical choice and experience in (experimental) improvised music

Department of Music, King’s College London


Many commentators in jazz and improvised musics have often concerned themselves with the ethical dimensions of musical practice. Approaches have varied socially and rhetorically, from the archetype of the jazz freedom fighter to the ecofeminism of Pauline Oliveros to the pedagogical experiments of the Scratch Orchestra. However, they have often shared a common normative strategy: to identify virtues enacted in musical practice as exemplary for life and politics beyond. In this view, improvised music represents an idealized space in which participants can develop ethical possibilities that are rarely so accessible elsewhere, such as mutual listening, egalitarian power structures, changing personal and community narratives, and celebrating difference.

Indeed there is much to learn about “the good life” from musical improvisation. But the approach described above raises host of difficult questions. Foremost among them: to what extent can one really speak of “improvisational” virtues in music, when even practitioners in the same community disagree about what those are, not to mention differences across communities and over time? (Musical) habits, understandings of (in)equality, and perceived objects of responsibility can differ to an incompatible degree, in word and deed.

In this presentation I will address this question by way of philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s notion of “spheres of ethical choice”. Rather than idealizing musical improvisation in order to pursue norms which may – or may not – be at work in actual improvisations, we might look more closely at situations endemic to improvised performance which require choice on behalf of participants. In this way, we could identify “spheres” of experience within which musicians address a shared set of ethical questions contiguous with broader ethical topics, without settling on answers of merely personal or local relevance. Music thus becomes an example of ethical striving found in a variety of practices, rather than a specialized metaphor for other practices in which those answers may or may not hold.