Tag Archives: Vivian Perlis

Remembering Vivian Perlis

Vivian Perlis — a longtime Westporter, noted musician and transformational musicologist — died last week. She was 91.

Perlis was a renowned harp player with a master’s in music history from the University of Michigan when she began studying for a doctorate at Columbia University in the early 1960s.

Living in Westport with 3 small children — her husband, Dr. Sandy Perlis, was a psychiatrist here — she was “turned down flat” when she asked for flexibility in her studies.

The Perlis family (clockwise from top left): Mike, Sandy, Vivian, Lauren, Jonathan.

“I could either orphan my children or give up the Ph.D.,” she told the New York Times in 1997. “That would never happen today.”

Instead, she became a research librarian at the Yale School of Music. While working on the Charles Ives collection, she conducted more than 60 interviews with the Danbury composer’s former colleagues.

She “faced disdain from traditional musicologists who thought recorded interviews would be merely anecdotal, overly subjective and prone to factual inconsistencies,” Perlis’ Times obituary says.

But she went on to found Yale University’s Oral History of American Music. The project — described by the Times as “an invaluable archive of audio and video interviews” — includes 3,000 interviews with figures like Aaron Copland and Duke Ellington.

Vivian Perlis interviewing (at right) Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein.

Perlis directed the program for more than 40 years. She also wrote several books. For many years, she was a harpist with the New Haven Symphony.

The Perlises moved to Westport from Stockbridge, Massachusetts. She worked at Tanglewood, and her husband was studying at the Austin Riggs Institute.

“The town’s reputation as a mecca for artists and writers appealed to both of them,” says her son Mike.

She was very involved in Friends of Music, the local organization championed by Ruth Steinkraus Cohen. She played with the Westport Madrigal Singers, and contributed to holiday events, Staples High School Orphenians and Staples Players.

She was also active in the Westport Arts Center.

Vivian Perlis in 2005. (Photo by C.M. Glover/New York Times)

Her son Mike recalls Coleytown Elementary School principal Lynn Odell announcing “a very special treat” one day. To his surprise, it was his mother playing Christmas carols on her harp.

He remembers too “the great pleasure of falling asleep listening to her practicing ‘Greensleeves’ into the night.”

Vivian Perlis was part of a cohort of talented, well-educated and energetic women who overcame barriers to achieve professional and personal success. They helped mold Westport into the artistic, volunteer-driven town it is today.

In addition to her son Mike, she is survived by her daughter Lauren Perlis Ambler; another son Jonathan; her brother Irwin Goldberger, and 5 grandchildren. Her husband — a professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine — died in 1994.

(Click here for the full New York Times obituary.)

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.)