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Yale's OHAM: Saving The Voices Of Composers

For most people, Aaron Copland evokes a particular kind of American spirit — of rugged frontiers, vast open spaces, the Old West. Hearing the composer himself, however, casts the music in another light: "I was very anxious in some way to express the kind of life I knew in Brooklyn, in American life you might say, in our serious music."

Copland's voice, with its Brooklyn tinge, can reveal different perspectives than notes or words crafted for the page. That's the point of some 2,000 interviews that make up Yale's still-growing Oral History of American Music. Fondly referred to as OHAM, it was founded 40 years ago by librarian Vivian Perlis, and it's still the only project of its kind.

Libby Van Cleve is the archive's associate director. Even though the working collection lives in a single room, its breadth is enormous. You can find recorded interviews from John Cage and Joan Tower to Stephen Sondheim, Quincy Jones and Frank Zappa. Van Cleve reaches for an interview with avant-garde saxophonist and composer Anthony Braxton.

"He's a great talker," Van Cleve says, though that might surprise those who've read his explanations of his music or heard it performed. Van Cleve says hearing Braxton speak makes his work more approachable.

A Happy Accident

The collection of interviews that became the foundation for OHAM began as a kind of accident. In the 1960s, Vivian Perlis was just an underling. The mother of three worked part time in the Yale Music Library before women were even admitted to the college. A Charles Ives enthusiast, Perlis jumped at the chance to retrieve materials that the late composer's business partner wanted to donate.

"Somebody said to me, you should really bring a tape recorder," Perlis says, "because who knows when you'll have a chance to talk to somebody who knew Ives that well?"

A tape recorder, by the way, was then the size of a suitcase.

"And so I did," she says. "It was a disaster. I got nothing on there but 'Yep,' 'Nope' and 'What did you say?' "

Getting Better With Practice

It turns out her first subject was hard of hearing. Perlis says she's still no Barbara Walters, but that her interview skills got better with practice — a lot better. She tracked down Ives' childhood friends, family members and co-workers, even his barber. It took years to find sound engineer Mary Howard. Howard recorded the few precious demos Ives dispatched to would-be performers of his music.

Howard describes the process of recording Ives' demos: "He'd sit down at the piano and play it very loudly, and sing and make running commentary while he was doing it, saying, 'This is how you do it. Now, you're stupid. Don't you know? This is how you do it. I'll play it again in case you didn't get it this time.' It wasn't bad temper, it was just excitement. And I'd just be in hysterics, and Mrs. Ives would be in hysterics."

The tapes Perlis collected became the award-winning book Charles Ives Remembered. By presenting transcripts of first-person accounts, it introduced a new approach to the study of American concert music. It offered scholars, performers and listeners fresh insights — which is exactly the tradition that OHAM continues. That's quite an accomplishment, considering that 40 years ago, oral history existed on the fringes of "serious scholarship."

Perlis says her peers were reluctant to view oral accounts as legitimate sources of information.

"In fact, the university librarian at that time told me when I wanted to broaden the project and work with many composers that he really did not see that he would want anything but written material in his library," Perlis says.

Luckily, Perlis had already figured out there are some stories you get only if you're willing to listen.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Lara Pellegrinelli
Lara Pellegrinelli is a freelance journalist and scholar with bylines in The New York Timesand the Village Voice. She has been the commissioned writer for Columbia University's Miller Theatre and its Composer Portrait series since 2018.