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Book Review

Composers' Voices From Ives To Ellington

Composers' Voices From Ives To Ellington by Perlis & Van Cleve

An Oral History of American Music

Vivian Perlis and Libby Van Cleve
Yale University Press, 2005. 477pp and two audio CDs
ISBN-10: 0300106734
ISBN-13: 978-0300106732
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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 featured composers.

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 is fascinating.

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.

Highly recommended.

Copyright © 2008 by R. James Tobin