Vivian Perlis’s 40-Year Project On NPR

NPR’s “All Things Considered” considers all things for its afternoon stories.

Today it landed in our back yard.

Vivian Perlis (Photo courtesy of Yale University Oral History of American Music)

Vivian Perlis was the subject of a long story this afternoon.  “Saving the Voices of Composers” described the longtime Westporter’s serendipitous founding of Yale’s Oral History of American Music project.

F0rty years later, it’s still going strong.

And it’s still the only program of its kind in the world.

NPR’s Lara Pellegrinelli reported:

The collection of interviews that became the foundation for OHAM began as a kind of accident. In the 1960s, Vivian Perlis was just an underling. The mother of three worked part time in the Yale Music Library before women were even admitted to the college. A Charles Ives enthusiast, Perlis jumped at the chance to retrieve materials that the late composer’s business partner wanted to donate.

“Somebody said to me, you should really bring a tape recorder,” Perlis says, “because who knows when you’ll have a chance to talk to somebody who knew Ives that well?”

A tape recorder, by the way, was then the size of a suitcase.

“And so I did,” she says. “It was a disaster. I got nothing on there but ‘Yep,’ ‘Nope’ and ‘What did you say?’ ”

It turns out her first subject was hard of hearing. Perlis says she’s still no Barbara Walters, but that her interview skills got better with practice — a lot better. She tracked down Ives’ childhood friends, family members and co-workers, even his barber. It took years to find sound engineer Mary Howard. Howard recorded the few precious demos Ives dispatched to would-be performers of his music.

She concluded her report:

The tapes Perlis collected became the award-winning book Charles Ives Remembered. By presenting transcripts of first-person accounts, it introduced a new approach to the study of American concert music. It offered scholars, performers and listeners fresh insights — which is exactly the tradition that OHAM continues. That’s quite an accomplishment, considering that 40 years ago, oral history existed on the fringes of “serious scholarship.”

Perlis says her peers were reluctant to view oral accounts as legitimate sources of information.

“In fact, the university librarian at that time told me when I wanted to broaden the project and work with many composers that he really did not see that he would want anything but written material in his library,” Perlis says.

Luckily, Perlis had already figured out there are some stories you get only if you’re willing to listen.

Luckily too, stories about people we know end up — every once in a while — being heard by a national audience.

(Click here for a complete transcript of the NPR segment, including a link to listen.)

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