Discourses in Music: Volume 1 Number 1 (Spring 2000)

Toronto 2000: Local, National, and Global Intersections

By Karen Pegley

In the fall of 2000, fifteen musical societies from across North America will flood Toronto for a joint meeting of their annual conferences. The large scope of "Toronto 2000: Musical Intersections," was designed in part to reflect the breadth of music scholarship at the end of one century and consider some of the avenues that will constitute the next. While the date and place of the conference might not be in the forefront of attendees' minds as they disembark at Pearson Airport, these specifics are significant: many (if not most) participants' first meeting of the new millennium will be held in a country other than their own.

The perception of Canada as a country politically separate from the United States, however, is something many American visitors forget and perhaps with good reason. American media frequently situate Canada within two realms: evicted from the cultural mainstream as a sort of a northern underdeveloped entity, or, occasionally, domesticated as part of the American nation-state. This latter relationship, in fact, is the policy of the Society for American Music (SAM, formerly the Sonneck Society for American Music), one of the visiting societies to the 2000 conference. The society's stated mission, like that of its former namesake, is the study of American musics, which includes those of United States, Canada, Central America, and the Caribbean (although in fact negligible attention is paid to musics beyond the borders of the U.S.).

The problems with the society's mission have not gone unnoticed. While Canada has fallen under the "American" umbrella, for instance, members have inquired why so few Canadians have joined the society. Accordingly, as a former member, I wrote a letter to the society asking that the executive consider more carefully their position on national "inclusivity" and suggested that if the society was sincere in its exploration of this range of musics, then recognizing national boundaries might be a way of understanding how economic structures, media industries, and socio-political narratives differentiate some of them. The committee responded by stating that they were comfortable with the label "American" and felt no need to change it (but thanked me for expressing an interest in the society).

While a small point, I do not believe this type of assimilation is as innocuous as it initially might seem: Canadian domestication previously has been part of American cultural policy, with sometimes significant effects. Take, for instance, the film industry: before free trade, major American film distributors purchased a supply of English-language films by independents as well as the North American rights to independent feature films produced in the United States. Canadain companies, considered part of the domestic American market, were unable to acquire rights to key films. The situation worsened in 1980, when several major distributors bought entire libraries from distributors outside Canada, called them "Classics Divisions" and shut down the supply of these films to English Canadian distributors, resulting in the demise of a number of key firms.1

The effects of Canadian domestication, of course, are often not so negatively determining and are therefore easily overlooked on economic grounds. But what are their effects on our seemingly endless search for a coherent "national identity"? Cultural theorists provide some direction here. Ian Angus argues that within modern nation-states there exist three parameters for national identity. First, the institution of a nation necessitates that the inside must be distinguished from the outside whereby the inside communication is intensified; second, there must be an accumulation of symbolic markers that provide the content of a national identity (the rhetoric of a nation); and finally, there must be a national actor, or a people who act on behalf of a national identity.2 When we consider SAM's inclusive politics alongside Angus' criteria, we may gain partial insight into why our musical identity is so vague: while we have discursively produced a Canadian 'content' within the academy (Beckwith, MacMillan, Schafer, Somers, and Weinzweig, among others), we lack both national actors and the inside/outside markers in the form of musicological societies (or distinctions within societies) that provide the intensification necessary for coherent national style(s) to emerge. (Of course, we also need national actors within our cultural media to support Canadian composers and their frequent marginalization on the CBC does not help in this endeavour). Unless academics are willing to acknowledge the importance of insider/outsider distinctions, the question of a Canadian musical identity will likely remain an elusive one.

Of course, it is an impossible task for any Western nation to manufacture an identity "separate" from that of the United States, let alone one that is both distinct and unified. This is a particular challenge for Canada, for, as Robert Kroetsch argues, Canada is a postmodern state that lacks the meta-narratives that would provide a national coherence.3 Compare this with our neighbours to the south who have manufactured the most pervasive meta-narrative on this continent--The American Dream--from which clearly coherent narratives stem: the frontier, expansion, the immigrant experience, individual freedom, a place where both criminals and free-spirits can become heroic in the forms of the outlaw and the cowboy (even in space).4 If one of the functions of art is to explore and expand such meta-narratives, we gain extra-musical insight into the iconographic staying-power of scores by Copland, Gershwin, and Bernstein. But in postmodern Canada, where perhaps the only meta-narrative is the attempt to construct one, we are uncertain of our (questionable) heroes--both fictional and non-fictional--who are eclipsed by those whom they meet at the border. It's where Louis Riel falls to Billy the Kid.

Ironically, the absence of Canadian meta-narratives (and, subsequently, a clear musical identity) may in fact be the very strength we bring to the new era of postnational globalization. As current nation-states erode, unfamiliar relations of transnational power and cultural influence--with entirely new narratives--are emerging. As Stuart Hall has pointed out, the national is being supplanted from above and below by the global and the local.5 The new global form, dominated by all forms of mass communication from film to television to advertising, we must recognize as decidedly American. Yet, in no way does this designate a homogenization of the image: globalization is not an attempt to erase difference but to absorb and operate through local differences. Following Marx's argument in Das Kapital, capitalization is only effective if it allows for the contradictions it invariably encounters; similarly, globalization as a multi-national, Western movement must be seen as both encompassing and responding to a web of decentered, fractured positions.6

Conversely, local resistance to global pressures comes in many forms, and not all have positive effects: localized positions that are weary of diversification, for instance, can take particularly dangerous forms of exclusivity and defensiveness.7 A case in point vis-à-vis linguistic diversity: in the United States, more than 11%of the population is of Hispanic origin (according to official 1999 government documents which would not include the tremendous number of illegal aliens), Spanish is being spoken at a rapidly-increasing rate particularly along the Southern border states, and it is projected that Hispanics will be the largest minority in the country by 2010. Yet, recently the state of California overwhelmingly voted to stop instructing children of immigrant families to the south in both Spanish and English. The slogan of the opponents was "One Nation" and the sentiment of the leader Ron Unz was that "the unity and prosperity of our society" would be "gravely threatened" unless Americans spoke one language.8 Their defensive attempt to "recover" a unified, nostalgic image of American society will undoubtedly grow as the gap between Spanish and English closes in the 21st century.

Musical "recoveries" can also return us to hegemonic places through back doors, and the emergence of Celtic music within the past several years may be read as part of this trend. I do not believe it is coincidental that as national imaginaries give way to postnational ones, Canada, a nation-state that is in the midst of changing its maps and perpetually on the verge of dismantling, would particularly embrace Celtic music. Where was the interest before the 1990s? While these musics have been cultivated on the East Coast for generations, most Anglo Canadians simply tended not to identify themselves with folklore (and, by extension, folk music) and viewed these traditions as belonging to, as Carole Carpenter explains, the "strange, foreign, or 'backward' people in their midst."9 But during the last decade many Canadians have purchased the musics of Ashley MacIsaac, Natalie McMaster, and Great Big Sea, and celebrated the East Coast contribution vis-a-vis the highly popular East Coast Music Awards, the viewership of which is fast approaching that of the Juno Awards.10 The trajectory of East Coast music from the cultural margins towards the centre was evidenced in 1995 when the video "Run Runaway" by Great Big Sea was first aired on MuchMusic's Cliptrip, a show featuring "world music" videos. Later, this and other East Coast videos were inserted into the general video flow, thus becoming "normalized" within the mainstream repertoire. What I am arguing here is that increasing transnationalization and the proliferation of Diasporic communities, rapidly-changing technologies, and the turn of the millennial calendar have created a new set of anxieties for the Canadian cultural mainstream, thus providing a partial explanation for why white Anglo folklore has been adopted in a form of cultural (musical) nostalgia.

As mentioned previously, the new form of the global post-modern is one full of contradictions, balancing between hegemonic transnationalization and voices from previously marginalized localities, and between conservatism and what Hall calls the desire for "infinite pleasurable consumption" of the exotic.11 What threads all of these forces/desires is the pervasiveness of the American lens through space-bias media. As Harold Innis pointed out decades ago,12 the central objectives of space-bias media are the communication and dissemination over far-reaching geographical spaces which sacrifice both cultural history and memory; in other words, these new media necessitate hypercurrency. This thrust further contributes to the erosion of national identities, for, unlike national cultures, global culture is memoryless.13

In the realm of the local, tradition is a weighty cultural marker used by agents to both reinforce the significance of a selected history, or (as is often the case with youth cultures), used as an object against which rebellion sparks fresh articulations. In a global market where currency becomes the imperative, it may be important to consider new hierarchical systems that are replacing those based on nostalgia/tradition/social memory. One of those systems, I would argue, is based on a mechanism that now pervades American cultural industries: iconization. As stylistic currency and heightened exposure are projected onto individuals (Ricky Martin, Henryk Gorecki), and injected into events (the Grammy Awards) and places (Los Angeles, New York) for mass consumption, these icons are imbued with the necessary cultural capital for transnational profit.

The consequences for music here are significant, not only because it defines the musical repertoire that is disseminated worldwide, but also because it determines the sources of this repertoire. As R. Murray Schafer writes: "culture in New York is no more significant that that in Toronto, any more than that in Toronto surpasses in interest that in Kitchener or Bancroft...what makes central culture apparently more interesting is the way it is fanned about by the culture industries."14 Like many other countries, Canada frequently places more cultural capital on its urban centres than its rural sites; in relation to the United States, however, even the strongest Canadian urban iconography lacks signifying power. This is evident (and perpetuated) in movie scenes that are shot in Toronto but disguised as New York, or how Canadian landmarks and soundscapes are avoided in most Canadian music videos in hopes of airplay on MTV,15 or in names of Canadian places that are elided in Canadian pop songs in order to make the Billboard lists. If the global post-modern favours currency/iconicity, then it is likely that local Canadian musical articulations will have to press hard to be heard in the next century. (Canadians, of course, have an extremely interesting star system: while we are proud when a Canadian is recognized south of the border, success within the American market often results in the loss of Canadian markers and renders these icons 'less Canadian' to their fans here at home.) The relationship I am describing here, fortunately, is not entirely new and by no means final. It is the struggle that Hall describes as the "continuing contradictions of things, which are trying to get hold of other things, and things, which are trying to escape from their grasp. That old dialectic is not at an end. Globalization does not finish it off."16

As we gather in November to explore the future of musics, particularly those that will emerge within the territory currently understood as Canada in the next millennium, musicologists and ethnomusicologists have a new transnational system to consider, as well as their role as academics within that realm. What interests me is not whether we can manufacture a Canadian musical identity but rather how music in Preston, Red Deer, Trois Rivières, or music from the ghettos of Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal--precisely where people lack an international (American) iconographic status and currency--will not only be heard, but flourish. My interests lie in how and when people will engage in the new cultural politics, use technologies to give voice to their marginalized communities, and contribute to the contradictions and tensions of the globalized, postnational, imaginary.

Many thanks to Jody Berland for her helpful suggestions and engaging discussions.

Karen Pegley is a post-doctoral fellow in Music at the University of Toronto. She has published on youth cultures, music consumption practices, and identity formation, and the effects of multi-media technologies on music education. Her current research focuses on the construction of gender, race, and nationality within international music television formats.


1. Manjunath Pendakur, Canadian Dreams and American Control: The Political Economy of the Canadian Film Industry (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1990), 258-59.

2. Ian Angus, A Border Within: National Identity, Cultural Plurality, and Wilderness (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1997), 20.

3. Robert Kroetsch, The Lovely Treachery of Words (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1989), 20-21.

4. Ibid., 28.

5. Stuart Hall, "The Local and the Global: Globalization and Ethnicity," in Culture, Globalization and the World-System: Contemporary Condition for the Representation of Identity, edited by Anthony D. King (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 27.

6. Ibid., 28.

7. Hall, "The Local and the Global," 36.

8. As cited by David Frum, "Too many solitudes: The world looks to Canadian federalism--for what not to do," Saturday Night (Dec. 1999/Jan 2000), 144/10, 39.

9. See Carole Carpenter, "The Ethnicity Factor in Anglo-Canadian Folklorists, " in Canadian Music: Issues of Hegemony and Identity, edited by Beverley Diamond and Robert Witmer (Toronto: Canadian Scholars' Press, 1994), 125.

10. The 1999 ECMAs drew a viewership of 829,000 as compared with the Juno's 1, 195, 000.

11. Ibid., 32.

12. Harold Innis, The Bias of Communication (Toronto: The University of Toronto Press, 1951).

13. Anthony Smith, Towards a Global Culture? in Global Culture: Nationalism, Globalization and Modernity, edited by Mike Featherstone (London: Sage, 1990), 179.

14. R. Murray Schafer, "Canadian Culture: Colonial Culture," in Canadian Music: Issues of Hegemony and Identity, edited by Beverley Diamond and Robert Witmer (Toronto: Canadian Scholars' Press, 1994), p. 234.

15. For more on how place is erased visually and sonically in Canadian music videos, see my Ph.D. dissertation, "An Analysis of the Construction of National, Racial and Gendered Identities on MuchMusic (Canada) and MTV (US)," York University, Toronto, 1999.

16. Hall, "The Local and the Global," 39.