Victoria Tzotzkova

Sounding Music, Cultivating Agency: Musings on Concepts, Discourses, and Practices in Present-Day Traditions of Classical Music Performance

“[Listening to Cortot …], one was suddenly in the pure presence of the music itself. With Horowitz […] one was in the presence of, well, Horowitz…” These terms of speech, quoted from a 1983 Boston Globe review, may sound both completely natural and decidedly odd: natural, because they are perfectly in line with common ways of thinking about classical music performance, but also odd, because the requirement that the presence of the performer remain unnoticed during a performance is hardly self-evident apart from such common but singular ways of thinking.

Taking its cue from work in critical ethnography (Thomas 1993), this presentation aims to highlight the interdependence between ways of thinking and ways of doing, tracing the dynamic trajectories of conceptual formulations in classical music in tandem with practices they support and engender (Goehr 2007, Hamilton 2008, Kingsbury 2001, Clifford & Marcus 1986), arguing for a conscious, continual negotiation of both beliefs and practices in the enaction of living traditions (Boudon 1992).
It specifically considers ways in which agency – as one’s own sense of authorship of one’s own actions and influence over one’s own circumstances (Sztompka 1994) – is routinely downplayed in classical music discourse, sometimes fueling unproductive confusion, as in the case of a young conservatory student documented by Kingsbury.
The presentation also explores particular concepts and practices as ways to cultivate a sense of agency during performance, focusing on pianistic experience for the sake of precision and particularity. Drawing on statements by pianists, past and present, as well as personal experience, it aims to contextualize and open for discussion practical insights into discovering and maintaining a real-time experience of agentic presence in the act of creating musical sound (Neuhaus 2002, Sandor 1995).