In Conversation with Libby Van Cleve



Libby Van Cleve and Vivian Perlis
Photo by Robert Lisak

  • READ an interview with author Vivian Perlis.

    Anna Reguero: How did you get involved with the Oral History American Music (OHAM)?

    Libby Van Cleve: It’s been about 14 years. There are two answers. There is the crass, obnoxious answer and then there is the idealistic answer. The crass, obnoxious answer is that I was working as a freelance oboe player with a specialization in contemporary music, and I bought a house and needed money. Vivian needed someone to work with her. I was in the right place at the right time. The idealistic answer, which is in a way more of the truth, is that I was always someone, and I still am someone, with a great passion for contemporary music and a determination to bring it to a wider public—to use my skills, as a performer and as a scholar, to help people understand this music that I’m so passionate about. That’s something that’s been my main agenda since I got out of college. A lot of performers run away from music history, but I always found it totally fascinating. But I felt that a lot of scholarly work was a little dry and dusty. I was absolutely thrilled with the idea of creating primary source documents. It’s a very lively way to engage in the scholarly world.

    AR: What do the composers’ own voices bring to the information that just a book might not?

    LVC: I’ll never forget the chill up and down my spine when I first heard the words of Nadia Boulanger. I remember that one in particular. When I heard that voice, I said to myself, “Think of all the people who sat with this voice and heard this voice.” Even though she has been dead for many years, there was a sense I was connecting with her spirit, her essence—who she really was—which was beyond anything I would have felt or sensed from reading a transcript of her interview. Anybody who is a musician would understand that sounds convey a certain kind of message that’s indescribable. That’s the whole point.

    Sometimes the voices are so different from what you would expect them to be. I remember the first time I heard John Cage’s voice I was absolutely flabbergasted. Another example is Roy Harris. He made a big deal out of being very American and growing up on a farm—and he sounds like some guy who grew up on a farm. He was pretty articulate, but he still had a certain kind of rustic quality.

    AR: Speaking of composers such as Roy Harris, who aren’t as well known as, say, someone like Copland, how did you choose which composers to highlight?

    LVC: We evoked something that William Schuman had said to Vivian, which is, “you let the material dictate the form; you let the material dictate the structure.” Sometimes it’s the accident of how long people live, and the accident of who was available early on when the project began. We had certain interviews with people, and we worked with our strengths. We went with the people who were represented in the Oral History Archive. This is not necessarily meant to be a complete compendium of 20th century music. It’s instead a unique way of portraying the early 20th century with some of the most important creative figures. Some of the people weren’t available for interviews or died before the project got started, so there are certain people who aren’t there who we would’ve liked. And there are other people who are there who are more obscure. I hadn’t heard of Leo Ornstein before I started working for the Oral History Project. Now I realize, in certain circles, there is a lot of interest in Ornstein.

    AR: That’s interesting because there are certainly composers represented here that I had never heard of, and after reading, they seem so essential and important to the history of American music.

    LVC: At one point, before Henry Brant won the Pulitzer, he was featured in a concert at Wesleyan, where I teach. One of the composition teachers at Yale asked the composition seminar, “I’m just curious—how many people here have heard of Henry Brant?” About three people raised their hands. Okay, maybe he hasn’t the stature of someone like Charles Ives or Stravinsky, but anybody who is a composer should know something about Henry Brant. It’s absolutely astonishing to me. There are people who are not as much a part of the academic tradition, someone like Rudhyar would be a good example, Ornstein too, even Henry Cowell. There are a lot of people doing interesting work who aren’t as well known.

    AR: The book feels like it has a lot of interconnectivity to it. You have everyone in the book commenting about each other.

    LVC: That was certainly one of our points. I think we were struck by how, especially in the early part of the century, these people are always discussed as mavericks, independent thinkers. But there was a tremendous amount of interconnectivity and we tried to show that. One way was through the boxes and sidebars. We also wanted to show the cross-pollination between the early part of the century and the later composers. It’s interesting to see what John Adams has to say about Ellington, for example.

    We had not intended it but it was a happy accident that today’s readers, especially young people, tend to do a lot of their research and live a lot of their life on the web, which is a kind of learning that is non-linear. There is a lot of connectivity and jumping from one thing to the next in the book. In a funny way, we achieved with the book something like what one can do by touching on a web link and going to something related. So I think it is interesting that its slightly non-linear quality is akin to what people are doing on the web.

    AR: You highlight ragtime and jazz as an integral part of American music.

    LVC: Yes indeed! These days, many composers are highly influenced by popular music. You have someone like Michael Gordon who has had a band [The Michael Gordon Philharmonic] and is frequently writing pieces that use popular influences. That’s something that’s happening in 2006. But Charles Ives was writing pieces that were influenced by ragtime in the early part of the century. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

    AR: Vivian has done a large portion of the interviews for the first volume. I assume you have interviewed the more recent composers for the future volumes.

    LVC: We have four volumes planned, and they’re loosely chronological. Even though I’ve been working for a fairly long time at the Oral History Project, I didn’t start interviewing right away. Eventually I started interviewing my contemporaries, people I’ve known as schoolmates, for instance. I interviewed the whole Bang on a Can group: Julia Wolfe, David Lang, Michael Gordon, also Evan Ziporyn. I picked up the younger people and that was natural. My interviews will be featured more in later volumes.

    AR: In 1992 when you started working at OHAM, was the book in the planning stage at the time

    LVC: Not even close. The Oral History Project has gone through many changes. I think this book has always been in the back of Vivian’s mind. She wanted to do something with the material that she had been generating for decades, but it really wasn’t until we had a situation we could only dream of if you’re in a grant-centered, not-for-profit world. There was a funder who, out of heaven, gave us money. All of a sudden we didn’t have to be scrambling for every penny. That gave us the means to pursue this dream. When I started in 1992, I was only working about ten hours a week and it was really a sideline, part-time job for me. But I got more interested in this direction, and then I became a mother and wanted to spend more time at home and less time on the road—it all worked out. It took a long time to figure out the form of the book. We started in ’96 or ’97 talking to the [Yale] Press, and it took a long time from the first ideas to what it has now become.

    AR: When can we expect the next volume?

    LVC: We are hopeful that it will be soon. There is always something coming up, but I hope we turn it around pretty quickly. It takes a long time even after one turns in a manuscript, about a year, to actually have a book in hand.

    AR: Will the future volumes be similar in form?

    LVC: As we go through the century to more figures that are closer to us, it will not be as obvious who the central figures are; who the Aaron Copland will be 50 years from now. We have more figures and it will differ a little in form, but we hope it will still be as captivating. It will be fun because there will be more people that we know.

    When we started working on this volume, we hoped for a huge single volume with four to eight CDs. At a certain point Vivian and I looked at each other and confessed that this wasn’t going to be one volume. We not only had to rethink and restructure the whole thing, but we had to have the contract rewritten with Yale Press. It was huge. It was interesting because when we had it restructured, we ended up doing what many people recounting the 20th century have done. The first half of the 20th century is more chronological, and then as you get towards the middle of the century and on, there is less in chronological organization and more in terms of topics. You get into the topics of performance art, world music influence, or minimalism, because it seems to divide better. It’s funny because we struggled with this. When we finally presented it to our editor, he said “oh yeah, sure, that’s what everybody does.”

    One of the things I think is really exciting, even though it’s counterintuitive, is that by volume three and four, 40 years after the volumes come out there will be people in there who you might think, “Who is that?”. Nobody knows them anymore. On the other hand, there are probably others who are not getting much attention right now, but who will blossom and will end up being really well known. I like the lack of predictability that the future volumes are going to have.