A Symphony of a Book

Composers “An enthralling new book,” says the Boston Globe in its recent review of Composers’ Voices From Ives to Ellington: An Oral History of American Music, by Vivian Perlis and Libby Van Cleve. The book and the two-CD set that accompanies it present a host of interviews with and about the most significant musical figures of the early twentieth century, including Charles Ives, Henry Cowell, Virgil Thomson, Eubie Blake, Aaron Copland, and Duke Ellington, drawn from the extensive collection of materials contained in the Oral History, American Music archive at Yale University.

The review continues:

In a sense the book is a glorious scrapbook–full of pictures, reproductions of letters, manuscripts and other documents, and edited transcripts of interviews with the composers and their families, friends, and associates. But it is also a symphony of voices, and one of the best things is that the CDs that come with it allow the reader to hear the actual voices and unedited words of all these people, to feel the force of their personalities.

All of them sound upbeat, optimistic, rooted in American soil, even if they weren’t born in this country. The late Lou Harrison sounds like the right jolly old elf he was; Copland says he wanted his music to describe what it was like to grow up in Brooklyn, and you hear his Brooklyn accent. The symphonist Harris grew up on a farm in Oklahoma and repeatedly mentions the beautiful potatoes his father grew. ”I don’t by any means believe that my music is as good as those potatoes were,” he remarks, and later adds, ”A creative artist doesn’t examine himself. It’s sort of like digging up the potatoes to see if they’re growing. He must not examine his own processes.”

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The recordings have of course been edited, and for the most part skillfully intercut with brief examples of the composers’ music, often drawn from their own performances or ones representing historic interpretations….Composers’ Voices From Ives to Ellington represents a job well done, and in the case of nearly all the composers in the book, it was done in the nick of time.

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