- Music and Ethical Responsibility by Jeff R. Warren
Although bubbling nearly to the surface, in retrospect the ethical goals of the new musicological critiques have perhaps been under-articulated: surely the central point of their critiques was that positivist musicology and theory and analysis were in some sense unethical or amoral, and that, once replaced, a more just musical–academic society would emerge. After the exhaustion—or absorption—of the new musicology, however, most music academics seem to have declined to articulate the ethical foundations of their scholarship. As musicologists and theorists search for ways forward after the hermeneutic critiques of the new musicology, phenomenological approaches to music present an attractive area for further research, promising to take individuals’ experiences of music seriously, to locate musical meaning in those experiences, to harness the power of philosophy for addressing musical concerns, and, as expressed by Jeff R. Warren in Music and Ethical Responsibility, to install ethics at the center of musical experience.
Warren’s stated aim is to argue that “musical experience involves encounters with others, and ethical responsibilities arise from these encounters” (p. 1). This Lévinasian thesis should lead Warren to display his interactions with music and others or as an other by describing these experiences. Emmanuel Lévinas’s most fundamental argument is that all of my experience is ethical because it most fundamentally involves encounters with others—to whom I am beholden and limitlessly subordinate, to whom I show concern and care in an asymmetrical relation of gift-giving, the alterity of whom I cannot absorb into myself—which displaces metaphysics as the foundation for philosophy and instead establishes ethics in that foundational role. Part of the beauty of phenomenological discourses is their ability to describe experiences, descriptions which do much of the intellectual work of argumentation, through evocation, through searching out the unheard. Following Lévinas, Warren’s argument should unfold by describing many of the ways in which musical experience unfolds ethically for him.
But we must wait until pages 104 to 107 to hear what musical experiences sound like for Warren. The scene is a small jazz gig at a corporate gathering during which Warren plays double bass for the standard “The Blue Room.” We would expect Warren’s description of this experience to unfold, in a Lévinasian reading, from his encounters with either the music-as-other, his bandmates-as-others, or the audience-as-other, and emphasize the slippages and irreducibility of this encounter, the music’s strangeness, whence arrives its lesson: I am not knowable, thus you must respond ethically, [End Page 546] with the hospitality and yet distance afforded the stranger. His own acts of analytical writing, too, might be placed under pressure, as they fail—yet wonderfully—to capture his fleeting experiences with the quintessentially temporal art form. But Warren’s description—by his own account (p. 104 n. 10)—dispenses with the messiness of any actual improvised experience, and instead reconstructs an idealized performance with him at its center. Warren undertakes such a reconstruction in order “to make description of improvisation reflect the lived experience of improvisation, instead of relying on a theoretical ideal of what improvisation is,” but he admits that his “account is fictional” (p. 107), which we might normally take to be, precisely, theoretical—that which is not experiential. Indeed, we discover that Warren’s concern is not with any inimitable, non-repeatable experiences of music, but rather with what he calls “the experience” of music. This locution updates “the ear” as the seat of cognition and knowledge of music, but at the cost, I would argue, of a phenomenology that can do justice to what must surely be Warren’s own complexity of musical experience and that can serve as the foundation for a Lévinasian reading of musical ethics. During Warren’s subsequent analysis of his description he acknowledges that it is not until the third level or type of his listening that “listening to and...