The politics of performing place

Drawing connections between music and place is one of the ways in which both producers and consumers make sense of music (Bennett 2004: 2). This happens despite that most scholars today reject the popular notion that local place, in the form of some shared knowledge and experience, will inadvertently shine through musical production in the particularity of its sound (cf. Cohen 1994). If we attempt to search for meaning in music, connecting music to the geographical location of its producers can be a frame for interpreting music, just as place can be a resource for musical production (cf. Bennett 2004: 7), but this is more relevant in some cases than others. While Stokes has suggested that “…music is socially meaningful not entirely but largely because it provides means by which people recognize identities and places, and the boundaries which separate them” (Stokes 1994: 5), I suggest that this is truer for some styles at some times than others. In his writing on the Brazilian heavy-metal band Sepultura, sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris has described how the importance of place can change in the field of popular music (Kahn-Harris 2007). While music producers may or may not explicitly try to make music that has a connection to geographical places that are of significance to them, those consuming their music may or may not attempt to imagine such a connection independently of the producer’s intentions, and in some cases the producer and consumer might not share common meanings and symbols that can be used to represent places in music. With music, as with all media, there is no guarantee that the audience will interpret work in the way that the producers intended. Cohen has documented such cases in which connections made between music and place were quite different between producers and consumers (Cohen 1994: 127).

As the following description of trends in Greenlandic popular music over time show, neither bands and artists in Greenland, nor audiences, have consequently showed interest in connecting locally produced popular music to a sense of place. This is probably true for many other places as well. The trend in Greenland in the last few decades (as elsewhere) is however that while some musical forms have been globalized, in the sense that they are produced and consumed in many parts of the world, this has been accompanied by a localization of cultural identity and accompanying claims to authenticity (cf. Cohen 1994: 113). Both music producers and consumers may therefore have an interest in connecting music to a sense of place (and the culture associated with the place), because it can render the music and its producers more authentic. This in turn can rub off on the consumer.

While carving an authentic image might help bands and artists in their quest for commercial success, there can also be a more political side to performing place in music. As musicologist Adam Krims has argued, both producers and consumers can use music to “…help build notions of the world and its spaces” (Krims 2012: 45), which echoes a previous argument by Stokes, that music can be a part of the process of how places are constructed with notions of difference and social boundaries (Stokes 1994: 3). Through its connection to place, music thus engages with political, economic and cultural relations of power around the world. Locality, as Cohen notes, must therefore be viewed as a potential political strategy that exercises territorial power, and frames public and private spaces or domains (Cohen 1994: 133). Based on these observations I then argue that performing place in popular music cannot be detached from the politics of place because music is part of what produces place. Place in music must therefore be discussed in relation to other discourses on the topic, as the following account of Greenlandic popular music will illustrate.

While it is assumed that place can have an impact on music producers and their productions, the notion that music in turn can produce place may seem more abstract. In order to explore this notion, we must distinguish between places in their noumenon existence, and the human experiences and imagining of landscapes and places. While we can sing all we want about a mountain, tree or ocean without ostensibly changing the physical appearance of these, our subjective experiences of these features of a landscape can be highly influenced by music. We can recall music that we associate with such features, and these recollections shape our emotional experiences of landscapes. I am thus taking a Kantian position that we can never know things as they really are, as they exist in themselves independent of our observation (cf. Smith 1983: 31). Different people can describe a tree in a similar way, but their subjective experience, how the sight of the tree makes them feel, how they will recall the tree and what they associate with it, can be quite different and can change over time. Culture is part of what shapes our experiences of the world and how we construct it in imagination, and in that sense is a part of how the world sounds, smells, feels and looks to us (cf. Wilde [1891] 1982: 320).

Sociologist Andy Bennett has written, that one of the most explicit ways music can affect our experience of place, is through narrativization of places. Through this, music comes to play an important role in defining the relationship people have to their local everyday surroundings (Bennett 2005: 2). This, I argue, is a reason why locally produced music remains relevant to many people even in the global media age. Connell and Gibson have speculated that one of the lures of pop songs seems to be their ability to create imaginary identification between producers and consumers, and I expect that speaking the same language and living in the same landscape can strengthen such identification between producers and consumers, and invest places with shared meaning. Identification with sense of place in music, is however not the only lure of pop songs noted by Connell and Gibson, they also consider myths of faraway places mediated through music as potentially part of what makes music appealing, and in some cases these can become myths about the musicality of places (Connell and Gibson 2003: 6, 71, 115). Just think what musical associations cling to places like Nashville, Liverpool and Ireland. We might even associate these places with artists and sounds, and if we would go there, these associations could conceivably affect our experience and behavior.

The place this article is concerned with is mainly a national one, and one of the aims is to illustrate how popular music can be deeply embedded in the creation and maintenance of nationhood (cf. Connell and Gibson 2003: 118), thereby supporting an observation done by others, that music can be a symbolic activity which is highly important to nation-states (Stokes 1994: 15). We would actually need only to think of the triad of official symbols that identify nations (an emblem, a flag and a national anthem) to grasp the potentially strong patriotic value of music (Mach 1994: 61-2), but the role of music in shaping ideologies of nationalism can be much more complex. In Greenland, as elsewhere, popular music can unofficially, and perhaps mainly internally, act as a strong symbol of national culture (cf. Thisted 2011: 569-72). It is also entangled in constructing the meaning of the national by implementation of national symbols into popular musical styles. That which can symbolize Greenland in different ways has however been appropriated through a history of this nation and its music. This history needs to be examined to understand the processes through which symbols and their national meanings have been constructed, and thus to examine the impact of music in constructing the meanings of a national Greenlandic place by use of symbols.