Musical performance is an encounter. It is an encounter between sounds, bodies—both human and otherwise—and ideas. All these actants are affected by this encounter, just as the encounter itself is influenced by the actants involved. Consequently, this encounter co-determines how the performance will continue. Put differently, an encounter is disruptive: it disturbs the actants’ state of rest and incites them into action, into doing something that they did not intend to do before the encounter.
Gilles Deleuze suggests that disruptive encounters between bodies, objects, sensations, and thoughts can be conceptualised in ethical terms. He asserts that bodies and thoughts can be defined as capacities for affecting and being affected. For Deleuze, ethics is the study of the relations of speed and slowness, of the capacities for affecting and being affected that characterise each thing. These things can be anything: an animal, a body of sounds, a mind, or an idea. According to Deleuze, this amounts to an ethics of joy, in which the production of joy is a positive expansion of affective capacity, while sadness is a negative stagnation of feeling.
In my presentation I will propose that a musical performance, being a disruptive encounter itself, also always has an ethical dimension. Through an analysis of a performance by my free improv trio Molloy, I will argue that musical performance is an act that infringes the autonomy of the performers, instruments, and sonic bodies. Because of its intrusive nature, it is a performance that influences the capacity of these bodies to undergo joy.
I will analyse the recording of a collective improvisation by Molloy as well as my own and my fellow band members’ impressions of this performance, using autoethnography and interpretative phenomenological analysis. In this investigation I will focus on interaction: interaction between performers, performers and instruments, sounds and performers, sounds and instruments, and so on, and the manners in which these interactions contribute to the improvisation as it develops during performance. As these interactions are responsible for the infringements on the autonomy of all actants, human and non-human, that are involved in the performance considered as encounter, a proper examination of these interactions may lead to a greater understanding of what musical performance is, or can be.
My aim is to demonstrate the productivity of Deleuze’s theory of ethics in the analysis of musical performance. Following authors such as Suzan Kozel (2007) and Anthony Uhlmann (2009, 2011), and building on the ideas I introduced in Meelberg (2011), I will argue that interaction is the core of those encounters we call performance, and that Deleuzian ethics is able to articulate the specificity of the interactions that constitute a performance. Conversely, I will suggest that musical performance may be a very productive means to teach us what ethics is really about. It is about the way we human subjects deal with encounters between bodies, ideas, sounds, and minds, and vice versa.
Kozel, Susan. 2007. Closer: Performance, Technologies, Phenomenology. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Meelberg, Vincent. 2011. “Moving to Become Better: The Embodied Performance of Musical Groove.” Journal for Artistic Research (JAR) 1. Accessed 18 October 2015. http://www.researchcatalogue.net/view/?weave=16068andx=0andy=0.
Uhlmann, Anthony. 2009. “Expression and Affect in Kleist, Beckett and Deleuze.” In Deleuze and Performance, edited by Laura Cull, 54–70. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
—. 2011. “Deleuze, Ethics, Ethology, and Art.” In Deleuze and Ethics, edited by Nathan Jun and Daniel W. Smith, 154–70. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
about the author(s)
Vincent Meelberg is a senior lecturer and researcher at the Department of Cultural Studies at Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands and at the Academy for Creative and Performing Arts in Leiden and The Hague. He studied double bass at the Conservatoire of Rotterdam and received his MA both in musicology and in philosophy at Utrecht University. He wrote his dissertation on the relation between narrativity and contemporary music at the Department of Literary Studies, Leiden University. Meelberg has published books and articles about musical narrativity, musical affect, improvisation, and auditory culture, and is founding editor of the online Journal of Sonic Studies. His current research focuses on the relation between musical practices, interaction, and creativity. Beside his academic activities he is active as a double bassist in several jazz and improvisation ensembles as well as being a composer.