3,000 Interviews. 50 Years. Listen to the History of American Music.
Vivian Perlis founded Yale’s Oral History of American Music in 1968. Today, the project continues her mission to record the voices of American composers.
By William Robin
April 23, 2020
Vivian Perlis, the founder of Yale University’s Oral History of American Music, facing Leonard Bernstein (far right) and Aaron Copland.Yale University
In 1968, Vivian Perlis, a research librarian at Yale, knew that she needed to talk to Julian Myrick. A man who had spent his life in the insurance business was not the most likely of musicological sources. But Myrick’s business partner had not only been significant in the field of life insurance, but was also one of the most important figures in American music history: the composer Charles Ives, who had died 14 years earlier.
“He was writing music at the time when I first knew him,” Myrick recalled to Perlis, in a Southern drawl. “He worked very hard at it, but people couldn’t understand it.”
Myrick was only the beginning of what became Perlis’s landmark resource, celebrating its 50th anniversary this season: Yale University’s Oral History of American Music. Over the following years, Perlis sought out more of Ives’s friends and acquaintances. “I searched for the oldest and most fragile Ives survivors and often found myself in hospitals and rest homes waiting for an aged Yale classmate or Ives relative to wake from a nap to tell his story,” she would later recall.
She even tracked down the barber who cut Ives’s hair: a man nicknamed Babe, who hadn’t known that his patron was a composer but did remember that Ives once yelled at him to shut off the radio. Perlis assembled these and other recollections into a groundbreaking 1974 book, “Charles Ives Remembered: An Oral History.”
Charles Ives: “You know, Babe? Your work reminds me of mine”
Yale Oral History of American Music
For the most part, the Oral History of American Music, known as OHAM, has focused not on insurance salesmen or barbers, but has instead gone straight to the source: living American composers, who sit for interviews that can last many hours. The archive has grown to encompass recordings of around 3,000 interviews with major voices in American music.
“When you talk to people, they have this sense of their own value in a way that they haven’t before,” Libby Van Cleve, an oboist and the director of OHAM, said in an interview in January at her office at Yale. Perlis died last year at 91; Ms. Van Cleve became director of the oral history project in 2010, when Perlis retired.
Ms. Van Cleve still frequently conducts interviews with composers, one of her favorite parts of the job. “My husband used to joke, ‘If you weren’t a musician, you’d be an investigative reporter,’” she said. “If I meet somebody new, I’m always asking a lot of questions.”
Perlis, with a similarly inquisitive temperament and an elegant presence, made it her life’s mission to record the voices of American composers. She conducted many hours of interviews with Aaron Copland; after he saw the transcripts, he realized they could form the basis for the book he always meant to write, which became a two-volume autobiography.
She spoke to Nadia Boulanger, the famed French composition teacher, on her 90th birthday in 1977. Boulanger claimed at first that she was too tired to talk, but once Perlis mentioned that she brought greetings from Copland, the grande dame described her pedagogical philosophy in detail.
Nadia Boulanger: “One must respect the personality of the other”
Yale Oral History of American Music
Perlis foraged for mushrooms during a rainstorm with John Cage. She talked with ragtime composer Eubie Blake, who recounted growing up the son of slaves and bringing his pioneering musical “Shuffle Along” to Broadway in 1921. (He refused to use the word “jazz” in the interview because he believed it was uncouth to say in front of a woman.)
Perlis managed to track down Leo Ornstein — who had been renowned for giving recitals of his radical piano works in the 1910s but had long since vanished into obscurity — in a trailer park in Texas. After Duke Ellington died, OHAM conducted more than 90 interviews with friends, family, and collaborators, yielding a rich collection of essential jazz arcana. (Excerpts from these and other interviews are compiled in the 2005 book “Composers’ Voices from Ives to Ellington,” by Perlis and Ms. Van Cleve.)
Eubie Blake: “As a kid, I could always hear something else”
Yale Oral History of American Music
In its early decades, the project had a tenuous relationship to the academy — traditional musicologists, dutifully focused on archival texts, were skeptical of oral history, and rarely investigated contemporary music — and a complicated relationship with Yale, where it was continually under-resourced. But through Perlis’s single-minded dedication, the collections expanded. Until the coronavirus outbreak intervened, anniversary celebrations at Yale this spring were to include an exhibition, a public interview with the composer Julia Wolfe, and “reVox,” a multimedia installation of newly commissioned pieces that remix OHAM interviews. OHAM recently started “Alone Together,” a series of short interviews with musicians about their experiences during the pandemic.
For many years, OHAM was located in a basement at the Yale School of Music, stuffed with shelves of tape. Today, its headquarters is tucked away on the third floor of the university’s Sterling Memorial Library, through a series of corridors that wind past an Egyptology reading room and an archive for the papers of James Boswell. A blown-up photograph of a young, suave-looking Aaron Copland greets visitors.
OHAM’s relationship with its parent institution is stronger today than in the past — it is officially part of Yale’s Irving S. Gilmore Music Library — and it doesn’t need as much space as it once did, as reel-to-reel tape has given way to digitization.
In a typical session, interviewers for OHAM — a range of journalists, scholars, and musicians — gather a repository of information from composers. “It needs to feel like a conversation, with the flow and the ease and the informality, but it has to not be a conversation,” Ms. Van Cleve said. “It’s not equal.” The resulting recordings and transcripts yield insights far beyond those found in typical media profiles, offering deep looks into how American composers have lived and worked.
In 1986, David Lang, then a 29-year-old grad student at Yale, spoke to OHAM for several hours: The recording provides a full portrait of a whip-smart, loquacious composer who describes his dissatisfaction with academia, his love of Berlioz’s viola concerto “Harold in Italy,” and his earliest experiments in composition: writing trombone parts to play alongside his father’s recordings of Beethoven’s violin sonatas.
A decade later, Mr. Lang talked with Ms. Van Cleve about why he and his colleagues Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe chose to forego conventional career paths in favor of starting their own renegade organization, Bang on a Can. In 2011, he spoke again with Ms. Van Cleve, three years after he unexpectedly won the Pulitzer Prize. “I am now generally regarded as a successful composer, but it was not very long ago that I was regarded as a barbarian,” he says, trying to come to terms with the direction his life has taken. Multiple stages of a composer’s path are captured on tape. It’s a biographer’s dream.
David Lang: “When I was in college, I kept trying to give up being a composer”
Yale Oral History of American Music
There are limits to OHAM’s approach. When the two-volume Copland autobiography was published, it was criticized for being too discreet: It omitted any mention of the composer’s sexual orientation, because Copland didn’t talk about it in the interviews.
Once an interview is completed and transcribed, the transcripts are shared with the subjects. They are allowed make small corrections, like fixing incorrect dates or facts. Not all musicians like to see their candid moments written down. Ms. Van Cleve recalled that, despite her clear instructions, one prominent composer liberally took a red pen to his transcript and completely rewrote large passages — and even invoiced Yale for the work.
As an outfit, OHAM remains slim: Ms. Van Cleve works alongside a research archivist, Anne Rhodes, and is assisted by a bevy of student workers. They have made OHAM’s materials more easily available than ever before: Most recordings and transcripts can be requested, without charge, through their website. (Such requests are temporarily limited to the Yale community because of limited resources during the pandemic.) But while the texts will be sent on request, they cannot be downloaded: While making sure they remain accessible to scholars, aficionados, and the general public, Van Cleve wants to insulate the interviews — in which composers often tell candid, personal stories they wouldn’t necessarily give to journalists — from popping up all over the internet.
Over lunch at Mory’s, the Yale dining club, Ms. Van Cleve, Ms. Rhodes and the composer Martin Bresnick discussed Perlis’s legacy and the role of OHAM. Back in the early 1980s, as a young professor at Yale, Mr. Bresnick had sat for his first oral history interview with Perlis.
“I didn’t think I was worthy,” he said. “I am still not worthy!”
“I had not been taken quite so seriously by anybody,” he added. “And she didn’t make it seem like, ‘Oh, we’re taking you hyper-seriously.’ It was just a conversation about things that seemed interesting to me.”
Ms. Van Cleve said, “The non-intentional quality, I think, is really important.” Mr. Bresnick agreed: “It really does allow people to reveal themselves.”
More than half a century after Perlis began interviewing friends of Ives, Ms. Van Cleve’s main goal for OHAM is to do more of the same: to continue to make its work better-known and more accessible, and to continue to capture the history of American music as it plays out.
“The whole point of this resource,” Perlis once said, “is to give you a sense of the person, the sound of the voice, the attitude that comes through.”
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