Art inspired by composers’ oral history interviews on view in ‘reVox’

“reVox,” a new art installation at the Center for Collaborative Arts and Media, celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Oral History of American Music archive.
Vivian Perlis with composer Aaron Copland

Vivian Perlis, founder of Yale’s Oral History of American Music archive, with composer Aaron Copland. A new multimedia installation, “reVox,” marks OHAM’s 50th anniversary with a series of pieces drawn from the archive’s collection of more than 3,000 interviews with prominent composers and musicians. One-piece, “Holy Moses!” is based on an interview Perlis conducted with Copland.

For 50 years, Yale’s Oral History of American Music (OHAM) archive has collected and preserved in-depth interviews with composers and musicians who have shaped America’s musical landscape.

The archive’s more than 3,000 audio and video recordings — including conversations with luminaries like Aaron Copland, Julia Wolfe, and Quincy Jones — are fertile ground for music scholars. Recently, a selection of interviews inspired “reVox,” a multimedia art installation that celebrates the archive’s 50th anniversary while paying homage to those who shared their stories for posterity.

Yale composers and visual artists collaborated on “reVox,” transforming portions of specific interviews into art pieces that blend musical and video elements with the subject’s voice. Their work is on exhibit through Feb. 13 at Yale’s Center for Collaborative Arts and Media at 149 York St.

We thought that the creation of new work was the best way to celebrate OHAM,” said Libby Van Cleve, OHAM’s director. “We produce primary-source material for scholars, but our work also serves and celebrates composers, and it has the capacity to inspire creativity as well.”

The installation features 10 pieces between 5 and 10 minutes long. They are arranged on screens arrayed down CCAM’s central hallway. Viewers can don headphones and engage with the audio-visual presentations.

The folks at CCAM brought a can-do spirit to the project, and I’m extremely grateful to them,” Van Cleve said.

Composer and bassist Jack Vees, director of the Center for Studies in Music Technology at the Yale School of Music, curated “reVox” with composer and percussionist Alexis Lamb, a graduate student in composition at the School of Music. The curators invited students, faculty, and friends to create pieces using interviews as their source material.

There’s a long history of composers plundering things, creating sonic art objects out of source materials,” said Vees, who is married to Van Cleve. “Think of how pop and hip-hop artists sample music to create something new.”  

The composers edited the interviews and added soundtracks to them. Then CCAM teamed the composers with artists to add a visual component.

The visual artists had the freedom to choose material they really liked and felt they could run with,” Vees said.

The pieces reflect the archive’s depth and breadth. Women, men, and artists of color are represented along with varied genres. Jazz legends, such as saxophonist Wayne Shorter, are featured alongside prominent avant-garde figures, like electronic music pioneer Pauline Oliveros.

Vees’ contribution, “Placerita,” is based on an audio recording of his friend Arthur Jarvinen, a composer, percussionist, and founding member of the California EAR Unit, a chamber ensemble that performed contemporary classical music.

Jarvinen and Vees became friends in the 1970s while students at California Institute of the Arts. Years ago, Jarvinen sent Vees a cassette tape he had made while hiking in Placerita Canyon State Park, where the two often hiked while at Cal Arts. Jarvinen strums a banjo and shares thoughts and quips. Vees tightened the audio and composed a harmonica part.

Primal harmonica goes well with Art’s primal banjo,” he said.

Vees set the audio to a photographic slideshow of the park. (His was one of three pieces composed by a single artist.) The piece closes with a photograph of Jarvinen, who took his own life in 2010, crouching on the hardpan near Placerita under blue skies.  

It’s not every day that you get to create a piece about someone who was close to you,” said Vees, who had donated the audio recording to OHAM, which also has an interview with Jarvinen.

Tanner Porter ’19 M.M. performs “The Making of  Memory,”
Tanner Porter ’19 M.M. performs “The Making of Memory,” a song she composed to honor the 50th anniversary of the Oral History of American Music archive. Porter worked at OHAM while she was a graduate student at Yale. The performance took place on Jan. 29 at the Center for Collaborative Arts and Media. (Photo credit: Kaitlyn Fox)

Two pieces memorialize Vivian Perlis, OHAM’s founder, who died in July 2019. Perlis was a harpist and music librarian at Yale in 1969 when she recorded her first oral history interview. Her subject, Julian Myrick, was a friend and business partner of Charles Ives, one of America’s great composers, who died in 1954. Myrick said he had materials that might interest the library, which holds Ives’ papers. Perlis seized the opportunity to capture the memories of Ives’ close friend. OHAM grew from there.

The 50th celebration also includes “The Making of a Memory,” an original song by composer Tanner Porter ’19 M.M., that the Irving S. Gilmore Music Library commissioned for the anniversary. Porter, who worked at OHAM as a graduate student, wrote the piece for harp, oboe, and electric base — the instrumental specialties of Perlis, Van Cleve, and Vees, respectively.

As the archive enters its next half-century, OHAM continues to document the insights and inspiration of major musical figures.

Imagine if we could know Bach’s thinking when he wrote an aria; if we could know his inspiration,” Van Cleve said. “That’s what we’re doing at OHAM with contemporary composers and musicians.”

The installation is open to the Yale community daily, 9 a.m. to midnight. Visit the music library’s website for details on OHAM’s 50th-anniversary celebration.

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