Sound commitments: ethics and politics

“If ethics without politics is empty, then politics without ethics is blind,”1 wrote the philosopher Simon Critchley. For him, at the heart of radical politics there has to be an ethical moment – which he calls meta-political – that provides to the subject “the motivational force or propulsion into political action.”2 However, although ethics and politics are not heterogeneous domains, their interrelationship is not self-evident. The analysis of this relationship must be based on specific situations and processes. The issue 28.3 of the journal Circuit, musiques contemporaines aims to explore the links between ethics and politics in musical creation in the 20th and 21st centuries.3 Its objective is to examine the political dimension of the situations in which musical action takes place, as well as the way in which composers, musicians and listeners mobilise ethical reflection within events that force them to think in a new way about their relationship to the world.

This is therefore, twofold. Firstly, this issue examines the relationship between music – works and musical practices – and politics, more particularly what Jacques Rancière calls the ‘distribution of the sensible’ [partage du sensible]:4 the distribution of places and identities, the division of space and time, of what is visible and what is not, of what is audible, of noise, of speech and silence. By thinking of politics beyond the exercise of power and the apparatus of maintaining law and order, the relationship between music and politics is revealed in the way in which musical works and practices “contribute to the constitution of a form of common sense that is ‘polemical’, to a new landscape of the visible, the sayable and the doable.”5 The moment of this reconfiguration of the sensible is the ‘dissensus’. The contribution of musical works and practices to this moment of changeover lies in their ability to provoke ruptures in the political order, inventing “new forms of collective enunciation” and “new ways of making sense of the sensible.”6

Secondly, it is a question of studying how musical creation is embedded in singular processes that require ethical reflection with the aim of seeking the common good and social justice. This has nothing to do with a desire to subject works and musical practices to utilitarian evaluation or moral judgment.7 Rather, these processes show particular ways of engaging in a situation, of being faithful to it, by treating it “right to the limit of the possible.”8 This means drawing “from this situation, to the greatest possible extent, the affirmative humanity that it contains.”9 Thus, according to Alain Badiou, the purpose of ethical commitment is to contribute to the development of “unexplored possibilities for our situation.”10

Silvana Gallinotti, Profugos, 2018
Photo: Sergio Santamaría Borges. Image courtesy of the artists

At the heart of the relationship between musical creation, ethics and politics, is the reflection on the means and possibilities of listening and music, and more broadly, the sound of acting on reality. Generally speaking, this reflection is based on and developed in connection with an event that “brings to pass ‘something other’ than the situation, opinions, instituted knowledges.”11 Laurent Feneyrou’s article, which opens the thematic dossier in this issue, explores Helmut Lachenmann’s opera La Petite Fille aux allumettes (1997) in relation to the outbreak of terrorist violence in West Germany in the 1960s and 1970s. It shows how the actions of the Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF) are part of a situation that forces the composer to rethink his work with sounds in a political way. He responds with new musical gestures that reject conventions, with new ways of listening that upset consensual frameworks. It is impossible for Lachenmann not to take a position, with the means specific to his profession as a composer, within this new configuration of violence.

Wars are events that have permanently disrupted political order in the 20th and 21st centuries. As Hannah Arendt stated, “wars and revolutions […] have shaped the basic political experiences of the twentieth century. To ignore them is tantamount to not living in the world in which in fact we live.”12 The article by José Luis Besada and Ainara Zubizarreta explores the resonances of the bombing of the city of Guernica – which took place on 26April 1937, during the Spanish Civil War – in the works of three Basque composers, written between 1966 and 2013. The authors study the symbolic function of this war crime within these works and show how the political dimension of music emerges within the conflict framework defined by the memory of the Spanish Civil War, the authoritarian power of the Francoist dictatorship and the terrorist violence carried out in the Basque Country by Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Basque Homeland and Liberty, ETA).

The modalities of debates on the links between music and politics also frame the reception of musical works and practices. During the period of the international revolts of 1968, the festival Warsaw Autumn [Warszawska Jesień] was a privileged place for exchanges between composers whose activities tookplace within radically different political regimes. Monika Żyła’s article studies the reception of music by British composer Cornelius Cardew at this festival during the 1960s and early 1970s.The author explores the link between the interpretation of the political ideasthat underpin Cardew’s musical creation and the debates that took place after listening to his works in Warsaw. Żyła shows how the distribution of the sensible structures both power relations within the concert ritual and opinions on the political conditions of musical listening.

In fact, listening can be considered as a deliberate activity that constructs the subject in relation to its sound environment. As a process, it is at the heart of political relationships between individuals. Makis Solomos’ article explores how musical listening can be approached as a construction of the commons. Taking as a starting point the theory of the commons and the acoustic ecology, particularly the work of Canadian composer Hildegard Westerkamp, his reflection focuses on ways to repoliticize music from its inscription in the common space. Common listening as a political experience is also at the heart of the issue’s Web Exclusivity. This is an exceptional collection of sounds related to the 2012 spring social movement in Quebec, compiled by Emanuelle Majeau-Bettez and Symon Henry. Presented in the form of an open access research blog on the Hypotheses platform, the collection “Québec : Traces sonores du printemps 2012” allows readers to explore the very special sonic atmosphere of the Quebec spring social movement.

The critical exploration of Quebec’s recent history is also highlighted in the interview I conducted with the Québécois composer René Lussier about his work Le trésor de la langue (1989). Lussier spoke about the reception of his work and his creative process, his motivations and his conception of a sound ethics. By bringing together heterogeneous materials through the technique of sound collage, Lussier created a political work that makes audible the voices of ordinary people within a speech by Charles de Gaulle or the FLQ manifesto. The Cahier d’analyse, written by Ana Dall’Ara-Majek about Le trésor de la langue, develops in a remarkable way the composer’s testimony.

Finally, the artist Silvana Gallinotti has created the illustrations for this issue, taking Hannah Arendt’s political thinking as a starting point. Through his work on the human body, and especially the female body in his series Human Landscapes, Gallinotti explores the idea that “politics is based on the fact of human plurality.”13

Cite this blog post
Luis Velasco-Pufleau (2019, January 18). Sound commitments: ethics and politics. Music, Sound and Conflict. Retrieved June 25, 2024, from

  1. Simon Critchley (2007), Infinitely Demanding : Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance, London, New York, Verso, p. 13. []
  2. Ibid. []
  3. This text is the English translation of, Luis Velasco-Pufleau, “Introduction. Engagements sonores : éthique et politique”, Circuit, musiques contemporaines, vol. 28, no 3, p. 9-12, []
  4. Jacques Rancière (2004), “L’esthétique comme politique”, in Jacques Rancière, Malaise dans l’esthétique, Paris, Galilée, p. 38. []
  5. Jacques Rancière (2013), “The Paradoxes of Political Art”, in Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, translated by Steven Corcoran, London, Bloomsbury Academic, p. 149. []
  6. Ibid., p. 139. []
  7. For a critique of this bias, see Jacques Rancière (2013), “The Ethical Turn of Aesthetics and Politics”, in Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, op. cit., p. 184‑202. []
  8. Alain Badiou (2002), Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, translated by Peter Hallward, London, Verso, p. 15. For Badiou, rather than link ethics “to abstract categories (Man or Human, Right or Law, the Other…), it should be referred back to particular situations.” (p. 3) Therefore, “there is no ethics in general. There are only – eventually – ethics of processes by which we treat the possibilities of a situation.” (p. 16) []
  9. Ibid., p. 15. []
  10. Ibid., p. 33. []
  11. Ibid., p. 67. []
  12. Hannah Arendt (2005), The Promise of Politics, New York, Schocken Books, p. 191. []
  13. Ibid., p. 93. []

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