Oral History of American Music (OHAM) is the preeminent project in the field of music dedicated to the collection and preservation of oral and video memoirs in the voices of the creative musicians of our time. It is a special kind of history, one that captures sights and sounds and recreates the spontaneity of a moment in time. The sound of a voice is an immediate link to the past--gestures, speech patterns, laughter--these are vivid reminders of the unique qualities of a personality, and they reflect the atmosphere of his or her time and place in history. About 2,200 audio and video recordings make up this unique and valuable collection.
Since the invention of the tape recorder in the 1950s, oral history projects of many kinds have proliferated, ranging from the "man-on-the-street" type of interview to the more formal Presidential archives. Music, the art of sound, lagged behind other disciplines in applying oral history techniques. This was due in part to the basic nature of musicology, a discipline traditionally dedicated to the study of music of the past. Oral history, on the other hand, presupposes contemporary or recent activities. Also, America's role in the arts was questioned by historians who had inherited a negative attitude from Europe about American artists. Furthermore, the tape recorder was considered the exclusive territory of ethnomusicologists for the purpose of collecting folk tunes in the field. It was not until the success of the Charles Ives oral history project in the early seventies that oral history was recognized as a valid method of research and a new and interesting approach to biography.
Following the Ives Project, it was evident that no systematic scholarly research was in progress to document creative musical figures by means of tape-recorded interviews. Several composers had spoken about Ives, and in so doing, about themselves as well. (It is not a good idea to ask a celebrated composer to talk only about someone else.) These formed the nucleus for a broader-based project, Oral History of American Music (OHAM). Included were Elliott Carter, Lou Harrison, Nicolas Slonimsky, and Dane Rudhyar. Through the decades since the founding of OHAM, composers have continued to be the project's primary focus.
OHAM is divided into several series: the core unit, "Major Figures in American Music," consists of about 1,000 interviews directly with the primary source. OHAM's earliest efforts were toward those most fragile in terms of age and health, such as Eubie Blake, Nadia Boulanger, Aaron Copland, Charles Seeger, Harry Partch, and Virgil Thomson. Other senior musicians of the project's first decade were John Cage, Ernst Krenek, Mary Lou Williams, Leo Ornstein, George Perle, and William Schuman. Since then, many composers have been added, young and old, from various parts of the country. Interviews are updated periodically. For example, John Adams was thirty-five when first interviewed in l983, prior to "Nixon in China" and other works that made him famous. OHAM picked up again with Adams as he turned fifty. Both sessions represent John Adams, but at dramatically different times in his life and career. The contrast between the emerging young talent and the celebrated mature artist adds a dimension to the Adams material. Among many other recently-updated interviews are: William Bolcom, John Corigliano, George Crumb, David Del Tredici, Lukas Foss, Philip Glass, John Harbison, Lou Harrison, Ben Johnston, Pauline Oliveros, Steve Reich, George Rochberg, Ned Rorem, and Morton Sobotnick.
One of OHAM's favorite activities is to document emerging young talents and to later track their careers as they develop. Targeted early by OHAM were several composers who have since become well-known. To name a few: Robert Beaser, Aaron Kernis, Michael Gordon, Arthur Jarvinen, David Lang, Christopher Theofinidis, Michael Torke, and Julia Wolfe. In their interviews can be heard the growing pains of aspiring young composers as they enter a difficult, almost impossible field. Each story is fascinating unto itself, while a series of them evokes the Zeitgeist of a particular generation and its musical attitudes and aesthetics.
In addition to the core unit of oral histories with the primary subject, OHAM includes units that present many secondary sources about one important artist: the Ives Project consists of sixty interviews with people who knew the composer; the Duke Ellington series includes ninety-two memoirs from many of the foremost jazz artists of the century; the project on Paul Hindemith holds seventy-five testimonies on the emigre composer forced to leave Europe for America during World War II; the oral history of Steinway & Sons history, undertaken when it lost family ownership, includes keyboard technicians, colleagues, family, and concert pianists.
A collection of videotapes add sight to sound in the OHAM archive. Videos are considered additions to the more complete oral histories; ideally, they are made "on location" in order to place the composer in his milieu. Virgil Thomson, for example, was videotaped in his apartment at the historic Chelsea Hotel in New York City, and Leo Ornstein in his trailer at Sierra Mobile Trailer Park, Brownsville, Texas.
OHAM's complete holdings include acquisitions from donors interested in preserving tape recordings in their possession. They range from memoirs of individuals to large collections, such as the WQXR Great Artists Series, the Margaret Fairbank Jory composer interviews, a Blues collection, and others.
At the dawning of the Millennium and the start of the 21st century, it is natural to take stock, to evaluate where we have been, and to think about where we are going. OHAM will continue to add new and updated interviews to the archive, to maintain and process the extensive library of recordings and transcripts, and to provide service to users. Original recordings will be moved to a climate-controlled atmosphere at Yale University Library to ensure their preservation into the future. The time is appropriate for bringing the archive's unique holdings closer to the public. Toward that goal, OHAM has added an exciting new project to its activities--a multi-volume publication derived from interviews in the collection, will be published by Yale University Press. Each volume will include a book and two compact disks presenting 20th century American music in the voices of those who have made our musical history. The first volume, Composers' Voices from Ives to Ellington, was released in October, 2005. We look forward to the opportunity of sharing many highlights from the OHAM collection with you.