On the self and ethics in musical improvisation

what can we learn?

November 24, 2023

Henrik Frisk - henrik.frisk@kmh.se


Anxiety about the validity of improvisation

Improvisation is still the rebel (?)

. . .

It should be the norm, not the fringe alternative…

structurally enforced


The discussion has a tendency to excluded many non-western types of improvised music

  • Kamoche & Pina E. Cunha (2008)
  • Frisk & Östersjö (2013)

Improvisation as a stylistic delimiter is problematic

Four themes

  • method
  • ethics
  • play
  • knowledge


The practice of improvisation as a method with which different values may be proposed


The practice of improvisation reveals a certain possibility for ethics

Focus is on what happens, not how to make it happen


Play, or free-play, is the activity that is not bound to a particular concept


Whether musical practices can give rise to knowledge outside of its own field

  • it is not the art object as knowledge (though it could be), it is the doing of art


Control or giving up the control?

When improvising, am I creating material when I play or do I find it?

Creating/Finding: problematic metaphors, but useful methodological tools


Foucault: Practices of freedom

In this method a particular development between self and others is at the core

Inspired by Foucault's notion of the care of the self, a self that is rooted in "practices of freedom"

ethics, freedom and reflection

Freedom is the ontological condition of ethics. But ethics is the considered form that freedom takes when it is informed by reflection.

Foucault, Rabinow & Hurley (1997) Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, New Press, New York.


As long as I care about the relation between myself and the other, and the larger context, I can be free to follow my artistic and ethically informed intentions, which will enforce my freedom

The care of the self as practice

The care of the self is not a solipsitic activity



When you take care of the body you do not take care of the self. The self is not clothing, tools, or possessions; It is to be found in the principle that uses these tools, a principle not of the body of the soul.


You have to worry about your soul–that is the principal activity for caring for yourself. The care of the self is the care of the activity and not the care of the soul-as-substance.


You have to worry about your improvisation–that is the principal activity for caring for yourself. The care of the self is the care of the activity and not the care of the improvisation-as-substance.

The principle that uses the tools of artistic practice is in essence the aesthetics of the creative act: the practice itself.

The care of the self: a focus on the world around me

  • connections exist, matter, and need to be good and respectful
  • a developed sense of ethics comes from a deep understanding for the relations I'm engaged in
  • maybe paves the way for a artistic knowledge claim
    • through these connections knowledge may be developed

Ethics: motivation


moral questions

  • the power relations between the arts and the control structures of capitalism are, in an understatement, unequal
  • the possiblity for interpretations of moral questions is shrinking.
  • the panoptic control structures of social-media become second nature and they offer an understanding of ethics that is both normative and irrational.


Both music and ethics lack clear definitions - yet, they are incredibly important

Ethics in artistic practice, that is, the moral values that are expressed through artistic practices in music, may complement traditional views on ethics.


  1. social and musical ethics in conflict

    Frisk (2014). Improvisation and the self: to listen to the other, Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

  2. acting upon the freedom given by the situation

    Frisk (2013) The (un)necessary Self, Lund University Press.


  • ethics of artistic practice is described here as a form for play
  • the artistic practice enables new ethical perspectives.
  • the play is for the sake of playing
  • the bi-product is knowledge and the discovery of the meaning of concepts outside of the play.


  • play is the antidote of capitalist consumption, which is always transactional.
  • the former creates freedom and the latter consumes it.


this free play of associations is perhaps best described by Susanne Langer (2009) as a uncritical fusion of impressions, that exercise the powers of symbolic transformation


  • judgments such as right and wrong are useless to employ in music
  • they are equally difficult to determine in ethics
  • in both cases there is a need for a framework through which the judgements may be applied
  • Artistic practice, developed through the care of the self, is proposed as such a framework

The interactions are the primary interest

It is the interactions that are made possible by engaging in an artistically driven play with the objects:

  • a free play with no particular meaning

In this free play I can engage with certain questions in a way that would otherwise not have been possible. Improvisation is part of the method that allows me to do this.


Knowledge in artistic research

many attempts to draw wide-ranging conclusions on the knowledge gained

  • Nooshin (2003) Improvisation as ‘Other’: Creativity, knowledge and power–the case of Iranian classical music, Journal of the Royal Musical Association.
  • Holdhus, Høisæter & Mæland et al. (2016) Improvisation in teaching and education—roots and applications, Cogent Education.

Knowledge in artistic research

  • Vera, Nemanich & Vélez-Castrillón et al. (2016) Knowledge-based and contextual factors associated with R&D teams’ improvisation capability, Journal of Management.
  • Kamoche & Pina E. Cunha (2008) Improvisation and knowledge: the challenge of appropriation, Management Research: Journal of the Iberoamerican Academy of Management.

Improvisation develops networks

  • the various parts of the system are interrogated in a playful manner
  • the moral values that are expressed through artistic practices in music, specifically improvisation, may complement traditional views on ethics
  • rooted in a relational ontology

central question

how thinking about improvisation in this way may allow me to understand the ways I may approach the other in and through this practice

I will attempt to devise a method with which I can understand and explore these processes from the inside of my own practice, well aware of the potential limitations in scope that this will carry.

improvisation as method

improvisation is a method with which musical and human relations can be explored and with which new music can be found and created.

knowledge claim

The knowledge lies in the connections between the various agents involved in the practice


  • improvisation, is a good method for investigating this ethics of practice
  • it can provide us access to important knowledge about relations through relations
  • this knowledge transcends biographical information


  • the knowledge claim, I argue, is in the way the various parts of the system is organized
  • it is through the practice that the knowledge is revealed
  • it is through new connections that it is conveyed
  • it is the way that the network grows that shows its epistemological potential

Thank you!


Henrik Frisk