Art as an Excuse? Ethics in New Music

In Alex Temple’s article “Composers, performers, and consent”, she talks about something seldom spoken of in new music: a composer’s relationship to their performers with regards to writing music that is also sustainable for the people performing them. She cites an interaction that Jessica Aszodi had with a composer in which she lost her voice through being urged by the composer to repeat a passage she could “only do safely once” (a detail she told the composer).

Although we have traditional examples of these types of roles (i.e. straight-tone singing, roles like Siegfried or the Queen of the Night that have potential to damage a voice, etc.), the question it poses is poignant: where is the line between a performer being a tool for the composer and the process being an artistic collaboration?

The answer to this question is straightforward: composers should keep on writing what they want while taking into account the limitations of any given performer and recognizing where their intentions may stretch the boundaries. In the same respect, performers can choose which pieces they perform based on their personal limitations, recognizing the difference between a part simply being difficult and it being unsustainable/potentially harmful. This solution gives agency to both parties and does not detract from the artistic intent of the composer, recognizing that the performer is a collaborator, not just a replicator.

As given with the aforementioned examples, this perspective is rooted in concert music traditions of sustainable performance. However, it provides a valuable connection to what ethics mean in art; sure, one can have a performer sing a damaging part repeatedly without disregard for the singer, but when do ethics come into play?

One might read this as a political gesture, but I would consider the power dynamic between composers and performers to be something prevalent even in the most ambiguous types of composition.

Other composers might use their music as a way of talking about ethics, such as the German composer Johannes Kreidler, who frequently speaks about the importance of music as a sociopolitical tool. However, these efforts only appear hypocritical when lectures such as Why Political (New) Music? are paired with pieces of his like Fremdarbeit, for which he hired people from different countries to mimic his compositional style, then published the piece under his own name, making significantly more than he paid them (to quote him, “the level of wages [in the countries they lived in are] much lower than in middle Europe…it cost me about 150 dollars while I received almost 2.500eur for that commission”).

Although he says this acts as a commentary on exploitation and authorship, citing that people who play MIDI keyboards simply ignore the fact that the work to build the instrument was outsourced, I can only see it as a continuation of the exploitation he is trying to comment on. This is because to create this piece he did exploit people—sure, there was consent involved, but because of the socioeconomic conditions under which these people agreed (and Kreidler knowing he would receive much more money than he was paying them for a piece that was only linked to his name through publishing), it comes off as perpetuating the same exploitative xenophobia he attempted to address.

This isn’t an infrequent phenomenon in contemporary art: with visual artists like Marco Evaristti (animal cruelty in Helena & El Pescador) and Santiago Sierra (exploiting sex workers in 160 cm Line Tattooed on 4 People) bringing up other topics around exploitation in their art, it’s clear that the pseudo-intellectual lens art can add to a situation does not remove the context of it being an interaction between people. If this were the case, we would still have psychological experiments that give us valuable information (i.e. the Milgram experiment) at the cost of the mental and physical well-being of participants.

As a composer, I have certainly experienced these dilemmas, albeit on a smaller scale; in writing for various performers, I have learned when it is okay to insist on artistic integrity and when it is necessary to scale back, oftentimes due to it being physically out of that person’s range or comfortability. In my own work I have also learned a lot about the relationship between a composer and their audience, having presented a work that became unpredictably intense in the moment and deeply disturbed a close friend. It took that moment for me to realize that art should be impactful, but shouldn’t hurt others without their consent, and from that point onward used trigger warnings or contextualized my work so that didn’t happen again. I should note that I am not speaking about offensiveness (before someone comments about “special snowflakes”), but rather instances where visceral mental and physical reactions are the result of being shown graphic imagery without prior warning.

Sure, art can (and will) impact people in immeasurable ways. We can’t control this, as much as we might want to. However, providing both our performers and audience with a level of context that gives them agency is a much more conducive way of introducing an artistic lens in a variety of situations. This isn’t to say that thinking about these things halts artistic development: look no further than (in the visual arts) Marina Abramovic and (in new music) our own Moritz Eggert for work that is able to speak about, pioneer, and directly bring intensity together with intimacy in a way that is sustainable for the artist, the performer, and the audience.

This doesn’t mean that people must act a certain way; composers can do whatever they please, but whether or not ethics play a role is something that needs to be discussed. And if we want to write music that is just as impactful as it is empathizable, we should start to speak about the spaces in-between.

The Milgram Experiment was an influential factor on the role of ethics in modern-day psychology.

jake bellissimo
Jake Bellissimo

Composer and Arranger, Violist, Music Producer

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