Identifying ethics

a brief text on a first project mapping


by Jonas Sjøvaag

PhD, University of Agder




My project is one where I seek to figure out, through artistic research, what kind of music that comes into existence when combining three distinct and personal artistic practices. The keyword here is personal, as I base my question more or less entirely on my own prior knowledge, which I argue has been divided, because of ‘some acting component’: which might be a commercial need or artefact, something personal, practical, or an ethical question, or something else altogether. There are many ways to think about this, but I choose to put that to rest in this project by simply stating that I have had a diverse practice that has been quite strictly delimitated, and it turned out this way because, as is fairly common, I had to make myself available to whoever makes the decisions; people or institutions of power. These decision-makers can be promoters, record labels, Norsk Kulturråd or similar funding partners, other musicians, the general idea of what’s what within a community, and so on. In short: identifying as a freelancer, my understanding of the situation is that it pays off to not operate on a broad spectrum within a project, due to the fact that the number of projects within almost any genre is huge, and if you do not immediately stand out in one way or another you loose. That usually means not trying to sell an totally eclectic image as a drummer + vocalist (but not a singing drummer) + lyricist (but not author) + producer and studio engineer + pianist and composer .. etc. … even though there are examples where this approach has worked. 

With that as an introduction, one can argue that quite a lot of ethical questions might come into play. The one most obvious to me deals with the fact that this might be seen as a very personal project, and on the surface of it I seemingly am being paid by the government to do nothing but “play and sing as I see fit”, coming up with ideas that might or might not become anything of worth. Within political parties of a specific persuasion, the idea that I’m somehow a hindrance of an extra bedpost for an elderly person is an argument that might be used, and even though it is not a very good one, it still resides in a basic ethical question, and probably the one most people come to think of first: Why do we, as a society, spend money on this?

My answer is obviously biased (as are all answers), but I fail to see the harm in exploring the arts and having the government spending money on me doing it. After all, we are all part of a community, and communities have a need to be entertained, to be shown something new, and to experience different things, for the sake of helping the collective thought along, in any direction, away from a possible stale status quo. These values are easily applied to the arts; after all, even the most introvert of artistic results have "reception” as a fundamental property.

Even the failed ones give food for thought, maybe even more so than the successful ones, where the artistic content is often clouded by the measuring of their commercial value. Also, only allowing projects that are commercially self-sustainable, might seem to be a great idea to begin with, but I think we only need to look to FIFA and the ethics they choose to apply in their ongoing effort to expand the reign of football to agree that it is better to have diversity even though we have to pay for it from our communal tax chest.

Next, I am male, I am white, and I’m in my mid forties. It is something I am very much aware of, and lately I have noticed that in this demographic group, where I have most of my friends and colleagues, discussions are very often started, ended or includes a remark along the lines of “not all are [as lucky to be] white men in their forties”, in the sense that we, in all our assumed success, state clearly that we are aware of the fact that someone might struggle more than us, that they have different realities to face, and therefore might see the world differently. Which is a fact, obviously. I have no issues with acknowledging that at all. Not all people were born in Norway, and not all people are men. At the same time, I see the privileges I have as something connected specifically to being a Norwegian, and further as privileges most Norwegians have access to if they make an effort chasing them. After all, being an artist is not easy no matter where you live, although it is probably easier in Norway because of the sheer amount of funding that one can apply for.

It is my general perception that the way this funding is handled in Norway is based on an understanding of the value of diversity and also by acknowledging that the result should be something that “does something beneficial, seen from a communal vantage point, which will, at any given point, have some sort of political value connected to it as well. It might be seen as a tool for building communities, which in itself is an argument that could be attacked and debated, so can the opposite: funding The Arts for the sake of art itself.

The discussion of ethics connected to national privilege is most likely an endless one, as the scope can always be broadened. Because this text is not a long one, and my project is not researching ethics and privilege in itself, I choose to trust that the funding bodies in Norway have a good understanding of these issues, and in my own project I narrow the scope, and identify a possible connected ethical issue to the fact that the gender balance in the PhD AR-program at my institution is 0% female - 100% male, in more or less all ways of thinking of it. As a response to this, I asked a female to become my supervisor, but she unfortunately could not accept, so the situation is still the same. It is not ideal when gender balance is considered, but I assume there are lots of good reasons for how this came to be. I know from experience that ideal situations are not always possible, no matter the reasoning behind, but I also know that I usually find different viewpoints more interesting, both when discussing and when creating. 

Before moving along from this observation, I’d like to state that I do not have the necessary insights, nor an administrative position, that could enable me to come up with a solution other than making a remark of this in a future evaluation. As I also mentioned a few sentences back, there might be good reasons for how this came to be, but I have no further knowledge on the topic.

However, I know by experience that assembling an administrative structure in any institution is not an easy thing to do, and to make it work, one sometimes have to accept ending up with a situation that works well in an administrative context, even though it might fail when looked upon in another context. After all, the list of people willing to work within these institutions, is not an endless one. Neither are the budgets to fund these positions.

In my research project, where I have the power to control the properties it consists of, I have made an effort in selecting participants from a diverse group of people, because that is a quality that in itself makes for a good starting point when researching. For me, the goal is to look from a new angle, ideally discovering an angle unknown to me now, so it it feels completely natural to look for new collaborators from “elsewhere”, and outside of my existing collegial circle.

Maybe that is the male, personal, privileged or white benefit that I cannot see myself; the fact that I absolutely do not care who or what someone is, as long as they deliver what I need from them. If it is, I would certainly agree that it is beneficial, though I do think that it might as well be attributed to being positively attuned, being used to employ and hire people for work, being used to deliver the product, and lots of other more or less standard practices that in a freelance situation would apply to everyone.

 Still, having participants brings more ethical perspectives, in my case relating to how I intend to analyse and study the results I get, and how musical building blocks might come from their efforts. I intend to use those, after all. Maybe I get something that is deeply rooted in something personal, cultural or something else that makes it problematic to change and re-use, maybe the participant have misread the instructions and want to withdraw from the project even though the results are very good – maybe this, maybe that.

I do not expect reactions like this at all, but I am aware of them, because I have failed at this once before… the short story is that I found some leftovers from a string recording, done in my studio, and started experimenting with it in various ways, through a tape machine, through digital processing, etc., and having lots of interesting things happen, I swiftly went on to produce a record where this became a rather vital part. What I failed to do was to mention this to the player, so there were lots of surprises for both of us on release day. Needless to say, this was a complete fault on my part, and I have no intentions of doing it again.  

     With this as a background, in the proposal sent to the collaborators, I have tried to state as clearly as possible what will happen, and what will not happen.

On a larger scale I currently see no see several immediate ethical dilemmas in my project, already visible in the very first actual and musical example of my theoretical machine, which I intend to use when researching, both with and without active participants. It came from a text that I wrote, and it was based on, or maybe even a rewrite of, the first paragraph of W. Burroughs “Pook the destroyer”. 

The idea came to be after first having tried to work with content generators and AI for sparring and going down different and, to me, unknown paths. It quickly became tricky because the content generator (claiming AI) started delivering results that had to come from books, probably scraped directly from online libraries by an unscrupulous machine, and the very idea of being caught while singing sentences written by Peter Handke, without knowing it was written by him, was not comforting, not to say ethically challenging.

Then, ChatGPT came about, and delivered the blandest responses to text I have ever seen. It was not interesting in any sense at all, and as we know, also based on unscrupulous usage of existing text for the machine learning system. So, I abandoned the idea completely, and ended up with a cut-up technique that first Brion Gysin, and later W. Burroughs, used in the fifties. As Gysin & Burroughs are both deceased, I have no way of asking for permission directly, though their publishers might have a thing or two to say when it comes to the interpretation of copyright law. What is more interesting to me, and even more out of reach, is knowing what their thoughts on my usage and resulting text are, but that will forever be a mystery. What I do know is that I employ a technique they frequently used, and if Burroughs were to argue, we would be sitting in glass houses, throwing stones at each other, a competition he would most likely win.

What is ethically more intriguing, are the meaning of the words, or rather names, in that first paragraph. I do not know where they come from, what they mean, or how they relate to anything other than my personal conception of them, which was, before this venture, unequivocally linked to Burroughs sinister way of communicating. My perspectives are purely sound, words, and atmosphere, to be honest. But, as I was rewriting the lyric, I became aware of the obvious, which is that Burroughs borrows from Mayan mythology, and then, in the later paragraphs, moves on to working with cutups of his own texts.

Exactly which mythological reference he used I have no idea, but he talks of Itzama, Ixtaub, Ixchel, which I have researched and now are more or less convinced are Mayan gods and goddesses, in addition to some others that I cannot find information on at all.

 That leaves me with what could be a dilemma, because I know nothing little of Mayan culture, if these names means something to someone still, or if the god-desses are given the wrong connotation in my lyric, or possible in Burroughs writing. I am more or less inclined to think that what I have done cannot possibly be interpreted in a way deemed inappropriate, but then again…: I am a white Norwegian male, citing the writings of a white American male. In a colonial sense, neither Burroughs, nor my background, align well with the backgrounds of indigenous people anywhere in the world, and although nobody means any harm, a lack of understanding might be enough. 

I can never be sure that issues like these are something that can be taken out of the equation, mostly because I am not the one identifying them, and apart from making an effort trying to either avoid complications or be aware when they might arise, I am not quite sure how to go about it. On the one hand, everyone influences everyone else, and most are aware that they are standing on the shoulders of those who came before. On the other hand, cultural appropriation might be seen as an exploit of specific traits that suddenly has a high commercial value, or it might be seen as cherry-picking the most interesting parts of something, and putting together a product that for a time is considered new and exotic, without acknowledging where the elements came from.

Relating this to my one track, aptly named “Itzamna”, a name I am not even sure is spelled with or without the “n” (both varieties can be found online), what I’m doing here is extrapolation in the best sense of the word. But, as I am also a jazz musician, a singer, a composer, educated to what can best be described as American standards, which I in turn would say that really is about being employed with a standardized jazz-toolkit that you can later turn into something personal and specific, I, and all others that have been educated at Norwegian music institutions, are standing on the shoulders of an American tradition that many of us currently have little connection with.

Quite often, musicians build careers on adapting specifics to their music, linking it completely to a site, criteria, or whatever ‘things of importance’ that work. In that span between inspiration and product, I am often wondering when we are dealing with cherry-picking of causes to stand out from a crowd, and when we are dealing with inspiration that makes better music. Is it possible to draw that line? What criteria will be used to decide? What separates a folk musician from a folk musician?

In many ways this is why my lyric “Itzamna” can be considered a good example of an ethical dilemma, because I have no feeling for the background and contents of the goddesses I refer to, but I do like the original and the names sounds exotic and new. I also must admit I am very happy with the resulting lyric, and the method used to write it.

At the same time, through my personal scope cannot see that I have added anything that can be considered offensive to this, so it might be more of a discussion of principles than anything else. I do see, however, that an ethical lens can be applied, but that is always the case and does not really solve anything in itself.

I think that the considerations of these perspectives when making any kind of music is worthwhile, necessary and helpful, simply because it helps avoiding situations where you make music for the wrong reasons. Like for money, at which point, as we know from Quincy Jones, God walks out of the room.

This (yellow block) is an introduction, that I might, and most probably will change. Feel free to skip to this part if you are in a hurry. If you are in a rush, go hereIt is part of this text because this document is an unfinished one, and it shows the process of arriving in new areas of thought. One of my supervisors pointed out that it is potentially difficult having this perceived "personal" basis for the research, because research demands transparency, relevance, transferable values, etc., and these are hard to use in a both in a research context, but also in an ethical context if one, for instance, refuses to try to give The Personal a way of transferring elsewhere and becoming relevant for others. The answer, it was also pointed out, will then be "very easy": simply make sure to achieve these research specifics! But then, will the project perhaps change? Maybe the fundamentals in the project are no longer valid? And then, and then, and then...

The text also came to be because I find it easier to identify ethical aspects while approaching the project as a whole, instead of searching for a) an ethical challenge, b) a research ethical challenge and c) an ethical dimension, as separate entities that exist at different locations. That might obviously change. 

An original text still in progress by Jonas Sjøvaag / UiA, 2023

 altered and refined after feedback from Petter F. Fadnes / (UiS) Ivar Grydeland (NMH)

Needs further thought, if it is to be used.

A possible resource ->

The track: "Itzamna"

Min tekst omarbeidet fra

Pook the Destroyer

Dead City Radio


Spirit of rain
Shows through showers
for hours
Spirit of early mist
Spirit of snares
Of ropes and spiders
you lean against fire

Caught in a web
morning dew
In a new world
Mistress of rare stones
Mistress of ropes
Moonstone and jasper
You lean against rock

Where are our masters?
When will they meet,
Where are our masters?
When will they meet,

Oh, when, will they?
The most dangerous one
The destroyer
The destroyer

Opprinnelig tekst av William Burroughs


Itzamna, spirit of early mist and showers.
Ixtaub, goddess of ropes and snares.
Ixchel, the spider web, catcher of morning dew.
Zooheekock, virgin fire patroness of infants.
Adziz, the master of cold.
Kockupocket, who works in fire.
Ixtahdoom, she who spits out precious stones.
Ixchunchan, the dangerous one.
Ah Pook, the destroyer.

Questioning whether I know Mayan culture good enough to use these names might be an interesting ethical question, that can point towards a connection that can give shape to this project, more than the personal angle I started with in this text. What that is, I do not yet know. I do know, however, that this is written in a very open form, and is more of an exploration through text rather than a final answer to anything. 

What I currently have here is a path from a rather open space, to another more confined place, and I personally find the ending paragraphs more specific and interesting than the beginning. I'm including this note here, because how the end affects the beginning might be something to look at closely. 

Photo by me, of a picture of unknown origin, bought at a flee market. Currently on display in my carpenter's shed.