In this paper we examine the notion that music in public space could be understood in terms of ethical potential, where new sensibilities for thinking, feeling, seeing and being with others might be imagined and practiced. We do this by considering how musical performances by migrants impact on inclusive forms of place (re-)making, affective enactments of public space and emotional accounts of belonging and ‘the other’. The paper draws on an ethnographic exploration of South American pan flute musicians, performing music at Sergels torg, a central square in Stockholm, Sweden. Through fieldwork with a combination of qualitative techniques, including observation, interviews and sensory methods such as photography, video and recorded ‘sound walks’ we trace the affective aspects of encounters with busking and the impact of music on place. We highlight the ethical potential of music in the experience of urban moments and its capacity to reconfigure space. We find that encounters with sound can produce new spaces of conviviality and inclusion; it can soothe, animate and soften urban spaces. However, a positive encounter with difference through sound depends on a favourable social, physical and temporal context, and because busking serves to make marginalised voices heard (both literally and metaphorically), it can be experienced as troubling for precisely this reason. Thus, we need to take into account the full complexity of the dynamics between sound and place, in considering this relationship as a novel window to the ethical potential of the urban encounter.
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