Oral History, American Music
Imagine having access to interviews with great artists throughout the ages, hearing not only their words but also the way they spoke and how they reacted to telling questions about their life and work. Peter Shaffer's play and film, Amadeus, annoyed some and amused many, but all are agreed that this was the product of an author's vivid imagination, not the actual words of Mozart and Salieri. Similarly, the wonderful Shakespeare in Love, a most entertaining movie, makes us fairly itch to know what Shakespeare was really like, what he would have said about his world in a probing interview, and how he would have said it.
Thanks to the efforts and boundless energies of onetime harpist and music librarian Vivian Perlis, we and future generations are privy to the thoughts and sentiments of a vast number of contemporary American composers who have participated in the Oral History, American Music (OHAM) project at Yale University.
This ambitious undertaking actually falls into two distinct categories. The first and by far the largest group consists of interviews with composers, and by now there are some 900 individuals who have had extensive taped conversations with Ms. Perlis and her designees; or whose sessions with historians or other interviewers have been acquired by OHAM.
The smaller group is made up of only three personalities Charles Ives, Paul Hindemith, Duke Ellington and one specific topic, the Steinway Project, 120 interviews about the history of the piano-building family. Although these subjects were not themselves interviewed, their identities have been virtually "reconstructed" by the testimony of dozens of people whose lives intersected with theirs. It was the Charles Ives Project (1968-1972) that actually gave rise to the larger-scale program, and it was motivated by Ms. Perlis's wish "to search out Ives's friends and colleagues while they were still alive." The recollections of not fewer than 60 persons ranging from Ives's barber to family members, business associates, and such musical colleagues as Elliott Carter, Aaron Copland, Lou Harrison, Goddard Lieberson, Darius Milhaud, and Nicolas Slonimsky were taped. Since it must be obvious
that so highly diverse a group would have entirely different perceptions, the immense value of the oral tapestry lay precisely in its multi-faceted points of view.
It was only after the Charles Ives Project was completed that it dawned on Perlis that she had developed a new research discipline, a new kind of biography, the first documentary oral history on a composer. Oddly enough, she encountered some resistance from academia and traditional musicology which expressed misgivings about the technique, and skepticism about applying historical tools to material not yet old enough to warrant such investigation. Now, almost 30 years after its beginning, the Oral History, American Music project is not only widely accepted as a valuable primary source, but imitated by other groups.
Auspiciously, it is hosted by Yale University and funded by such august philanthropies as the Burden Trust, Goldsmith Foundation,and the Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trust. Moreover, OHAM has come more and more to be used by scholars and written about in a variety of publications, including The New York Times. Its future as an archive seems assured.
So successful has the project been that it has led to a number of award-winning books, including Perlis's own Charles Ives Remembered: An Oral History, published by Yale University Press and the two books co-authored with Aaron Copland, published by St. Martin's Press, which are as close to autobiography as Copland would allow. A number of television documentaries, including studies of Eubie Blake, John Cage, and Aaron Copland, have been derived from OHAM interviews.
Interviewing is a surprisingly tricky skill, requiring a thorough prior knowledge of the material and an ability to draw out subjects, sometimes even in controversial or highly personal matters. Some interviewees tend to be taciturn at the sight of a tape recorder, others seem to ramble aimlessly and need to be kept on track. But Perlis's vast experience with loosening the tongues of music people has produced an invaluable collection of profiles of virtually the entire community of American composers. In some instances, secondary sources are represented, as in the case of recollections of George Gershwin, Percy Grainger, Charles Martin Loeffler, Quincy Porter,
and Arnold Schoenberg by persons who were closely associated with them. The archive also contains video interviews with personalities that include Eubie Blake, Aaron Copland, David Diamond, Jacob Druckman, Morton Gould, John Harbison, Roy Harris, Otto Luening, Pauline Oliveros, Leo Ornstein, Andre Previn, Gunther Schuller, Billy Taylor, Virgil Thomson and others.
OHAM interviews are available to scholars, researchers, and music students in transcript form, but one needs to go to Yale to hear the actual tapes. Although Perlis claims that most researchers prefer to work from transcripts, it does seem to miss the point because a person's tone of voice is often more revelatory than the words he speaks.
Some of that highly individual tone of voice will no doubt be in evidence when Vivian Perlis's current project is brought to fruition. She and her co-author, OHAM assistant director Libby Van Cleve, are putting together a book with four CDs (Working title: Voices of America's Musical
Century) that will be a history of 20th-century American music as told through the voices in OHAM.
Some 30 years ago, musicologist H. Wiley Hitchcock wrote: "Let us increase our programs of taped interviews with composers and performers.... No culture before ours has had such a fantastic variety of means for creating, not just preserving, the raw materials from which history is written. Let's get with it!"
Oral History, American Music at Yale University is getting with it.