When you revisit your own books long after their publication their weaknesses stare back at you, clear as daylight. The principal casualty of my book on Liszt is performance, and specifically performance history. The problem is partly that the historical dimension of the ideal types I proposed in that book was not adequately explored, but it is also that, despite the title, I focused on prescriptions for virtuosity rather than on virtuosity itself. My intention in this chapter is to offer a corrective to this by reflecting on virtuosity as a dimension of performance rather than of composition.
When Nicholas Cook announced that “we are all (ethno)musicologists now,” he invited us to reflect on labels and on borders. In the end, his provocation served only to confirm that although practitioners may resist the tendency of labels to control and conserve, the labels somehow endure and with them a bundle of associated, and deeply embedded, research curricula. Subdisciplinary borders are not that easily erased, but the borderlands have become more interesting. There has been a convergence of interests and methods, and this has allowed for unusual cross-flows and challenging adjacencies. This chapter takes as its starting point one such borderland exchange. At the very time it was commissioned I was working on traditional epic singing in the meta-regions surrounding the Black Sea, a topic about as far removed from pianism as one might imagine. Could there be anything from my work on epics that might have a bearing on traditions of pianism? At the very least there might be a handful of suggestive prompts.
Epic traditions draw upon an oral repository that remains for the most part inaccessible to us. Of course some of that repository has been captured on record, but its fluid, variable character is prone to be compromised by the recording medium, which also imposed specific constraints. And anyway we did not always have recording. How much do we really know about epic singing in a prerecording age? Now all of this could apply in more or less every particular to traditions of pianism. And we could take the analogy a stage further.