COMPOSERS' VOICES FROM IVES TO ELLINGTON. (An Oral History of American Music)
By Vivian Perlis and Libby Van Cleve
Yale University Press, 2005. 477 pages and two audio CDs.
This is an extremely welcome, readable, well put-together and informative
book. Made possible by the enormous efforts and resources of the Oral
History American Music archive at Yale University, and the first of a
planned four volume series, it features the words of a number of American
composers (some born in Europe) born no later than 1900, as well as
contributions by many other people, famous and obscure, who knew the
This volume is structured around interviews by or about Charles Ives,
Eubie Blake, Leo Ornstein, Edgard Varese, Carl Ruggles, Dane Rudhyar,
Charles Seeger, Henry Cowell, George Gershwin, Nadia Boulanger, Virgil
Thomson, Aaron Copland, Roy Harris and Duke Ellington. Ives and Gershwin
died before the beginning of the oral history project and Ellington died
before he could be interviewed. Supporting interviewees include Bernard
Herrmann, Lou Harrison, Nicolas Slonimsky, Elliott Carter, William Bolcom,
John Cage, Morton Gould, Leopold Stokowski, Leonard Bernstein, Steve
Reich, Philip Glass, John Adams, David Diamond, Ned Rorem, David Del
Tredici, Gunther Schuller, Agnes de Mille, Alvin Ailey and Nat Hentoff.
Some of these are printed as shaded sidebars; others are lengthy. There
are also very substantial introductions to the composers and the movements
or grouping they represent: early avant-garde, the 'Boulangerie,' etc.
The interviews were conducted over several decades. I think the earliest
was as early as 1959, but that was borrowed from Columbia University's
oral history project, and they go up to the present century. The bulk
of the main ones seem to date from the 1970's. Vivian Perlis was the
founder of the Yale oral history project, which she was able to establish
there with some administrative difficulty.
A previous publication she is known for is the two volumes of Copland's
memoirs. Amusingly, Virgil Thomson was quite uncooperative in the first
couple of interview attempts because she was not conducting them herself
and he was, let us say, jealous of Copland.
Much of the book consists of first person or observed accounts of the
composers' lives, careers and characters. My attention was particularly
drawn to accounts by composers of how they saw their own music and
creative processes. Ornstein, Varese, Cowell, Thomson, Copland and
Harris each had interesting things to say along these lines. Alvin
Ailey's account of how Ellington's ballet, The River, was put together
The CDs included both interviews and brief musical excerpts. Some of
the latter are available on CRI, New World and a couple of other labels;
others appear to be privately provided recordings. A few of the voices,
such as that of Ellen Taafe Zwilich, would appear represent a preview
of future volumes. One of the most striking moments is that of Ives'
barber, who was pretty sure Ives was artistic but did not know he was a
musician; he relates an incident where Ives exploded about some music
on the radio which he wanted turned off.
As one might of expect of a volume published by Yale university Press,
there are extensive end notes, a bibliography, index, CD track listings
and recorded music credits.
Copyright 2008 by R. James Tobin
The CLASSICAL mailing list is powered by L-Soft's renowned LISTSERV(R)
list management software together with L-Soft's HDMail High Deliverability
Mailer for reliable, lightning fast mail delivery. For more information,
go to: http://www.lsoft.com/LISTSERV-powered.html