Composers’ voices preserved for perpetuity at Yale

Brian Heim, a graduate student at the Yale School of Music, spends several hours each week at Sterling Memorial Library listening to influential American composers and musicians reflect on their work, their mistakes, and their lucky breaks.
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The Oral History of American Music archive is based at Sterling Memorial Library. From left to right, Libby Van Cleve, director; Anne Rhodes, research archivist; Sarah Ford, YSM student studying French horn; Aaron Krumsieg, YSM student studying trumpet; Brian Heim, YSM student studying composition. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

Brian Heim, a graduate student at the Yale School of Music, spends several hours each week at Sterling Memorial Library listening to influential American composers and musicians reflect on their work, their mistakes, and their lucky breaks.

These insights do not come via a weekly lecture series, seminar, or mentorship program. They come through his student job. He transcribes and proofreads interviews for the Oral History of American Music archive at Yale University — a trove of more than 2,600 recorded interviews of major figures in American music.

“It’s one of the best jobs that I’ve ever had and one of the most interesting,” said Heim, a master’s candidate in composition. “Listening to the interviews helps me to deal with a lot of the anxiety I feel as a young composer about the decisions I’m making and whether mistakes can ever be positive.”

The archive was founded in 1969 and its collection continues to grow. Established and emerging artists regularly sit for in-depth interviews about their lives and craft. School of Music students do most of the transcribing.

“You need people who know music and understand the terminology to properly transcribe an interview,” said Libby Van Cleve ‘92 D.M.A., the archive’s director and an oboist.   

The archive’s Major Figures in American Music collection houses the recollections of many of the past century’s most-celebrated composers, including Aaron Copland, Leo Ornstein, Virgil Thomson, John Cage, and Carl Ruggles. Holdings include interviews with renowned contemporary composers, such as John Adams, David Lang ’89 D.M.A., Steve Reich, and Julia Wolfe ’86 M.M. The collection also contains interviews with jazz greats like Eubie Blake, Dave Brubek, and Quincy Jones.

The interviews are prized primary source material — including a recording of a figure’s voice — for scholars, journalists, musicians, and composers.  

Heim, who started working at the archive in November 2014, has transcribed interviews of composer Herbert Deutsch, the co-inventor of the Moog synthesizer, jazz pianist Joanna Brackeen, and Wolfe, whose oratorio “Anthracite Fields” won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Music.

“I’ve taken a lot of things that people have said in their interviews to heart,” he said. “It gives me a perspective on what really matters in the end with respect to artistry and being a good person.”

Built on a shoestring

Vivian Perlis was a music librarian at Yale in 1969 when Julian Myrick contacted her. Myrick was a friend and business partner of Charles Ives, who is widely considered one of America’s first great composers. Ives, who was born in Danbury, Conn., died in 1954. He and Myrick had co-owned an insurance company. Myrick told Perlis that he had some materials that might interest the library, which holds Ives’ papers.

Perlis, seeing an opportunity to capture the memories of Ives’s close friend, recorded an interview with Myrick. The Oral History of American Music archive was born.

Van Cleve said the experience of speaking with Myrick, who died shortly after the interview, taught Perlis the value of documenting American music through oral history.

Perlis, a harpist, subsequently interviewed others who had known and worked with Ives. She compiled those interviews in “Charles Ives Remembered,” which was published in 1974 and remains in print. 

Perlis pitched the idea of an oral history project to the Yale University Library but was turned down. At the time, studying current American music based on audio recordings, rather than the written word, was too radical to be considered by the university librarian, Van Cleve said. 

Then Perlis approached the Yale School of Music, which offered to provide her an office and Yale affiliation, but no funding. Perlis accepted the offer and went about arranging and conducting interviews while also raising money to pay for the work.

“She was preserving some of the most important aspects of American musical history that would otherwise have gone unnoticed or uncelebrated, and she was doing it in direct contact with the people who made American music,” said Martin Bresnick, professor of composition and coordinator of the composition department at the Yale School of Music. “That she did it on a shoestring makes it all the more moving.”

Bresnick, a member of the archive’s advisory board, said Perlis was non-ideological in how she developed the collection and whom she approached for interviews, resulting in a broad representation of musical styles, ideas, and genres.

A series of extensive interviews that Perlis conducted in the 1970s with Aaron Copland, among the most-celebrated 20th century American composers, was an early success. She worked with Copland, who died in 1990, to transform hundreds of pages of transcripts into a two-volume autobiography: “Copland 1900-1942,” published in 1984, and “Copland Since 1943,” published in 1989.

Perlis and Van Cleve, who joined the project in 1993 worked to introduce the archive to a broader public. In 2005 they published “Composers’ Voices from Ives to Ellington,” which contained highlights from the archives, focusing on early 20th century composers.

The archive became part of the Yale University Library in 2010 — about 40 years after Perlis’s original pitch. Perlis, who retired in 2010, was honored at a special concert on March 11 during the Society of American Music’s 42nd Annual Conference in Boston.

What sounds beautiful?

Van Cleve, who became the archive’s director in 2010, said her goal when conducting an interview is to create a chronological history of the subject’s life.

To prepare for an interview, Van Cleve spends weeks reviewing a subject’s music, compiling a career chronology and quotes from critics and others that might spur discussion.  The interviews can last up to three hours. Subjects are often invited to sit for multiple interviews over the course of their careers.  

First-time subjects are asked to describe their early lives.

“There is often a fair amount of information available about celebrated figures,” Van Cleve said. “What’s not generally known is information about their early musical influences, their musical education, and their family background. This is all becomes really valuable for scholars, composers, and musicians in years to come.”

Perlis’s early interviews with Copland cover the composer’s childhood and the three years he spent in the early 1920s studying in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, who taught many of the 20th century’s leading composers.

“I cannot imagine what I would have done in Paris those three years if I hadn’t met her,” Copland said of Boulanger. “In fact, I can’t imagine my entire career if I hadn’t met her. It would have been different in some ways, in some very essential way.”

In that same conversation, Copland recalled seeing James Joyce in Sylvia Beach’s famous bookstore and described the “desperate” challenge of finding an apartment. (He bribed someone to find a place to live.)

In a 1972 interview Perlis recorded in Brooklyn with 88-year-old Eubie Blake, the ragtime pianist and composer talked about his parents, who were former slaves from Virginia. He described how his father would show him his scarred back but still admonish him not to hate white people.

“Oh, he told me once, ‘hate anybody,’ he says, ‘you suffer more than the hate,’” Blake said. 

Blake also discussed ragtime’s initial reception among the musical establishment.

“Ragtime was simply supposed to be nothing. It wasn’t art,” he said. “Do you know why it wasn’t art? Because the powers that be couldn’t do it, so they cried it down.”

In an interview with Van Cleve in 1997, Wolfe reflected on the many musical styles that influenced her circle of composers, including folk, rock, non-Western music, as well as an openness to find music in noise. 

“And here’s what excites me as a composer … is this kind of openness about music,” she said. “Keep your ears open. What sounds fresh? What sounds beautiful?”

Van Cleve interviewed Wolfe again in 2014 after the composer had completed “Anthracite Fields,” in which she employed a variety of musical styles to evoke the plight of coalminers in Pennsylvania.   

Wolfe discussed her research into the lives of coalminers and how it became an oral history project in which she interviewed miners and their families. She described how she integrated her research into the piece’s five movements. (She also mentioned that her children grew sick of her obsession with mining: “Do we have to hear about the miners again? Stop talking about the miners.”)

“Every so often, the people whom I interview seem to find that they make connections they haven’t thought of through the act of the interview,” Van Cleve said. “It’s very intense. People say it is more exhilarating and grueling than they expect.”

Bresnick — whose awards include the Rome Prize, a Fulbright grant, and a Guggenheim Fellowship — has sat for interviews with Van Cleve on several occasions. He says an oral history interview is a good exercise in rumination and reflection. 

“For me it has often been an occasion for self-examination and reflection as the questions stimulate me to think and rethink aspects of my intentions as a musician, as a composer, as a teacher, and so on,” he said. “It’s useful from time to time to do that: to reset the compass and see where you are. It’s not necessarily a pleasure, but it’s been useful and salutary to do it.”

An “invaluable” resource

The recorded interviews are copied and transcribed. Each transcription is audited for accuracy and reviewed by the interview subject. Cosmetic edits are not allowed. The archive requests copyright permission, which is usually granted.

In 2004, Van Cleve secured a federal grant to pay for digitizing the hundreds of reels of taped interviews — a project that preserved the interviews and made them more accessible. 

Scholars, journalists, composers, and musicians regularly access the archives. Materials can be requested and delivered via email. Researchers need only sign a request form and pay a $5 fee.

“You could live in a yurt in Timbuktu, and if you have an Internet connection, you can access our material, ” said Van Cleve.

Since becoming the archive’s director, Van Cleve has focused on interviewing more jazz artists. She has also initiated a program in which School of Music Students sit for video interviews.

Bresnick said there is no way to calculate the archive’s value.

“Invaluable is an appropriate word,” he said.  

Heim said the opportunity to work at the archive is a treasured secret among the composition students.

“Sometimes I have to pinch myself while I’m working there,” he said. “It seems so unimaginable that there would be an archive at the school I attend that focuses solely on interviewing important people in my field.”

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