Identity is a concept that has fascinated me since I first began thinking of myself as a musician in my youth. What did it mean and how would I go about creating my own identity? Is it connected to culture, musical style, upbringing, environment or education, for example? In my previous publication, Forming a Sonic Identity through the Integration of Transculturality and Technology (2019), artist-researcher Otso Lähdeoja and I examine my emerging personal identity as a double bass player through the integration of technological and transcultural elements. Building on that research, this exposition turns its focus to examine the effects of intercultural collaboration on musical identities.
In their chapter What are Musical Identities and Why are they Important, Hargreaves, Miell and MacDonald point out that, ‘rather than having a singular, core identity, we may construct multiple identities, each of which is created in interaction with other people’. They go on to relate this to social constructionist theories, ‘where identities are always evolving and shifting - each interaction can lead to new constructions’ (Hargreaves et al, 2002, p. 10). The musical case studies offered in this exposition illustrate this line of thought, whereby each new musical situation I encounter gives rise to a slightly altered version of myself. I find myself responding and interacting in different ways depending on the environment, collaborator and the needs of the music at any given moment. This gradual forming and re-forming of an identity is an ongoing and fluid process, where some core elements may stay the same, while others shift and transform around them. A further key element impacting on the shaping of identities in the following musical case studies is the enabling of a transcultural environment, whereby the musicians engaging in dialogue bring with them unique, hybrid identities, entering into collaboration with the conscious aim of merging ideas and discovering new, shared musical territories that are unique to the encounter. Music educationalist Alexandra Kertz-Welzel discusses this notion within the context of children’s musical cultures, noting that their innate ability to merge elements of local and global cultures is far more evolved as a skill in comparison to adults. She goes on to state that ‘they know how to use music for their own purposes, learn from others, and share music and can design a transcultural musical identity that matches their feelings and beliefs’ (Kertz-Welzel, 2018, p. 90-91).
In order to understand the process of identity formation, we must first reflect on how a musical identity might be defined in general and the possible implications of such definitions. The connection between musical performance and identity formation has been a central thread in ethnomusicology over the past three decades, including influential discussions by Bruno Nettl (2010), Thomas Turino (2008) and Christopher Small (2011), to name but a few. All of these scholars have contributed to questioning the nature of how an identity may be perceived within their rapidly evolving fields. In his discussions on the history of ethnomusicology, Nettl (2010) points to a virtual turnaround in thinking, whereby ‘ethnomusicologists became (and now are) much concerned with concepts that help us to understand the role of music in enabling individuals to negotiate and maintain various kinds of identity — ethnicity (the group of which you’re most essentially a part), nationality (membership in a larger, imagined community), hybridity (recognition of simultaneously holding several identities), gender, class, and age group’ (Nettl, 2010, p. 206).
Turino (2008) emphasizes the individual and individual identity as beginning and end points in ethnomusicological field research and social analysis, suggesting that theories of artistic processes, expressive cultural practices and musical meaning reside ultimately within the individual. Offering a description of identity, he states, ‘identity involves the partial selection of habits and attributes used to represent oneself to oneself and to others by oneself and by others; the emphasis on certain habits and traits is relative to specific situations.’ Furthermore, Turino makes an important conceptual distinction between identity and the self, due to the ways individual and collective identities function in the social world. ‘The self is the composite of the total number of habits that determine the tendencies for everything we think, feel, experience, and do. By contrast, identity involves the partial and variable selection of habits and attributes that we use to represent to ourselves and to others, as well as those aspects that are perceived by ourselves and by others as salient´(Turino, 2008, pp. 101-102).
For some musicians, an identity may be clearly connected to a particular musical language or genre, whilst for others it may be pluralistic, constructed of multiple changing languages, for example. Hargreaves et al (2002) describe various ways in which musical identities may be formed, tackling these questions from a social psychological perspective, noting that ‘our musical tastes and preferences can form an important statement of our values and attitudes, and composers and performers use their music to express their own distinctive views of the world’ (Hargreaves et al, 2002, p.1). Regardless of the combination of elements, I argue that attempting to define a musician within the confines of a singular, ethnocentric perspective may not only be unjustifiable but also no longer relevant. Ethnomusicologist Francesco Giannattasio questions last century’s problematic notions of ethnocentric categorising, warning that this may lead to encouraging false identity labelling (Giannattasio, 2017, p. 20).
With this line of thought, if we are to move away from ethnocentric labels of identity, the concept of resonance can be acknowledged here as an important part of forming a personal musical identity. One aspect of this concept appears to connect with one’s relationship or resonance with the world, as alluded to in Hartmut Rosa’s book Resonance: A Sociology of Our Relationship to the World (2019). Rosa describes the multiple ways in which we establish our relationship to the world, stating as the most concise formulation of the central thesis of his book ‘if acceleration is the problem, then resonance may well be the solution’ (Rosa, 2019, p.1). Rosa makes reference here to acceleration as a problem in terms of endless compulsion toward escalation, leading to ‘problematic, even dysfunctional or pathological relationships to the world on the part of both subjects and society as a whole’ (Rosa, 2019, p. 2). This endless escalation can result in both individual and social issues such as personal burnout or environmental crises, for example.
Rosa analyses the wide range of areas in which we seek out resonance, from culturally distinct worldviews to family, politics, work, sports, religion and art, to name a few. As a musician, pivotal moments of unexplainable connection to particular musical aesthetics and other musicians have been crucial in the formation of my own identity. In essence, the very nature of a personal musical identity is the manifestation of points of resonance we have formed with the world around us. This area is vast and of course deserves a larger discussion beyond the scope of this exposition. However, for the purposes of this particular exposition, I intend to focus on the ways in which the following musical case studies formed threads of resonance and in turn have affected my own musical identity in various ways, as well as reflecting on the pathway that has led me to this moment so far.