Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Music, Musicology Graduate Program
The central argument of this dissertation is that virtuosity is a socially constructed phenomenon. It does not reside solely in the bodies of performers, nor in the opinions of listeners (whether lay listeners or professional critics), nor the works of composers. Instead, virtuosity occurs within the relationships that connect these various actors, and understanding it requires attending to these relationships as well as the values that shape the cultural and subcultural contexts in which they take place. I explore the social construction of virtuosity through three case studies that demonstrate how different understandings of skill are formed and made apparent through performance, discourse, and media. Each traces how electronic media shape the contexts of virtuosity and the modes of presentation and attention that give rise to it. Because these case studies vary widely in genre and historical era, the specific methods and materials employed in each vary as well. I draw broadly on archival, ethnographic, and media sources to explore how virtuosity is constructed in its particular time and place. The first case study considers virtuosity from the disciplinary viewpoint of disability studies, exploring how bodily difference in the forms of disability and gender contributes to the construction of virtuosity. I argue that virtuosity and disability are similar, both departures from normative embodiment that are intensely personal yet irreducibly social. The second case study considers the construction of “downhome” virtuosity in the early country music radio broadcasts of the 1930s. The third deals with the cosmopolitan virtuosity of Ravi Shankar and Yehudi Menuhin and the ways that skill and cross-cultural adaptability become both especially prized and mutually dependent. By arguing that virtuosity is not a simple fact about a performer’s body that audiences encounter but a social experience that they help construct, I foreground the cultural performance of value within virtuosity. Even in the mediated listening of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, many people continue to value music not as an independent “sonorous object,” but as a particular type of human labor that performs a confluence of values through which they experience the world and develop a sense of self.