In Conversation with Vivian Perlis



Libby Van Cleve and Vivian Perlis
Photo by Robert Lisak

  • READ an interview with author Libby Van Cleve.

    Anna Reguero: When did you decide that you wanted to publish a collection of your interviews?

    Vivian Perlis: I had done a book on Charles Ives after the Ives Project called Charles Ives Remembered. I had not thought of myself as an author but as a musician and a historian. After the Ives book, I got to work with Aaron Copland. After I interviewed him for the Oral History American Music (OHAM), I worked with him as co-author of his autobiography. In addition to being the life story of Aaron Copland, it was a history of American music in the 20th century. That’s what he wanted. Since American music is my field in musicology, that was the kind of cultural history I was interested in doing. As the Oral History Project progressed, it became more and more rich and full of material that I knew did not exist elsewhere, and it was directly in the voices of those who created this music and music history. In the back of my mind was this sense that I would like to do a book that was not as primarily biographical as the Ives and the Copland, but that would paint a picture of time, making use of a wide range of voices in the Oral History Archive. Though I had not any specific plan to proceed, it certainly was in the back of my mind. Also, there was a sense that it was important to give these unique interviews broader accessibility. It was so exciting to collect and preserve source material of that kind that the impetus for the book publication really came from wanting to share it with the public.

    AR: You started off with Ives and Copland, but this collection includes many more composers, some not nearly as well known. How did you go about choosing which composers would be highlighted?

    VP: That’s not too difficult because the material already exists in the Oral History Archive and the book derives from the materials that we have, which include major figures and other people who are not as well known and people who round out the picture of a period of time. For example, with this first volume, we looked at the period of time at the turn of the century knowing that the popular music was ragtime, so it was very natural to include Eubie Blake. And early jazz and symphonic jazz were very much part of the music world in the ’20s and ’30s and so of course we would include these subjects from the interviews with Copland, Gershwin, and Duke Ellington. Virgil Thompson was working at the same time as Copland. Roy Harris was an important person on the scene. What was difficult was to shape all of this material and try to include as much as possible without it becoming overwhelming. Obviously Nadia Boulanger was so much a part of the picture of the early years, and so much an influence on composers, we naturally decided to include her. Someone like Minna Lederman and Claire Reis (director of the League of Composers), all were contributing to a period of time when American music was coming of age. Prior to that time, American music was Europeanized to such a great extent.

    AR: There is such individuality to the composers, yet they all seem very interconnected.

    VP: Each person is so individual and so different from the others, yet they all experienced the same period of time. They heard the same popular music and experienced the technology that was available then. These people had a great deal in common, yet they each wrote a very individual kind of music. Certainly the early modernists—Ornstein, Dane Rudhyar, Henry Cowell, and Charles Seeger—each one of them worked in a different place but in the same country and time frame that influenced them and their musical decisions.

    AR: What does hearing these composers’ voices bring to readers that reading their words in a book might not?

    VP: The emphasis on the two CDs that are included with the book is different from any publication I had done. Previously, I tried very hard to keep the integrity of the sound of Copland’s voice in written material, for example, and have it come through from edited transcripts. In this new book, from the very beginning, I wanted to emphasize the actual sound of the voice and to have users be able to turn directly from the book to a CD to get a sense of who the composer was and to hear their musical ideas. I hope that perhaps this would lead people to the music and to a stronger interest in new music. I think we all have found working in this field that knowing something about the composer, or knowing what that person was like, how they spoke and what their lives and influences were, does make a difference to the music, which is really what we’re all most interested in.

    AR: Are there any interviews that stood out as being really special to you?

    VP: Certainly seeing Aaron Copland over a long period without the pressure of time was very satisfying. Nadia Boulanger was a challenge because I had only a very short time with her, and she was 90 and not well. I was trying very hard to get some sense of why she meant so much to so many musicians. I did get a sense of that, and more about that interview is in the book. Some interviews took detective work, for example, Leo Ornstein, who had disappeared from the world of music for a long time. When I did talk to him it had been over 40 years since he had spoken to anybody about his music. This is a good example of stimulating interest in musical performance: the interviews caused the Ornstein manuscripts to come to the Yale Library; I then produced the first recording of his music and performances and more recordings have followed.

    As the next volume proceeds, I think of people such as John Cage who was incredibly interesting to work with. We didn’t do a traditional Oral History interview as a chronological life, but worked through a piece of music he was working on at the time. We taped all of the ideas and compositional decisions as it went along. I have interviewed people in the middle of their careers like Steve Reich, John Harbison, John Corigliano, Ellen Taafe Zwillich, and John Adams, and younger ones to whom we return periodically.

    AR: It must have been quite incredible to meet with these composers.

    VP: It has been a great pleasure for me in my life to know some of these people and have them become friends as well as colleagues.

    AR: Do many of them become friends?

    VP: Yes, but althought it sounds a bit grim, almost all have died except for Elliott Carter and George Perle. It does point out the urgency of time in preserving this kind of material. If I started to do this work now, I would not have access to them. I keep in touch with younger composers who are in the midst of their careers and lives and many are friends. Libby and I are both very active in many areas in the world of new music and feel that’s an important part of our work and that it contributes to the success of the OHAM.