The Aaron Copland Fund for Music recently donated $500,000 to initiate an endowment fund for the Oral History of American Music project (OHAM), originally an independent project and now a special collection of the Yale University Library.
The Oral History of American Music project is dedicated to the collection and keeping of recorded memoirs of many of the most celebrated musicians and composers of the twentieth century. The organization traces its origins to 1969 when Vivian Perlis, then a reference librarian at Yale’s music library, started to conduct interviews with people who had known and worked with the composer Charles Ives. Her award-winning book based on those interviews, Charles Ives Remembered, was published in 1974 by Yale University Press. It was quickly hailed as an exemplar of how oral history could shed light on the creative lives of musicians and their place in society.
The experience of the Ives project underscored the need for more tape-recorded interviews as a tool for scholarly research. Thus, Oral History of American Music was formed with the testimonies taken by Perlis from several of Ives’ contemporaries—including Arthur Berger, Elliott Carter, Lou Harrison, Bernard Herrmann, Nicolas Slonimsky and Dane Rudhyar—as its nucleus.
Through the decades since the founding of OHAM, composers have continued to be the project's primary focus. The OHAM collection currently holds more than 2,000 interviews with more than 900 subjects, and members of the OHAM staff continue to conduct and record interviews with major figures in American music.
In addition to its recording effort, OHAM functions as an archive, providing primary source materials to scholars, arts presenters, students and radio and television producers. Several respected musicological publications have come directly from OHAM interviews, including “Copland: 1900–1942” and “Copland Since 1943,” both co-authored by Copland and Perlis; and the book and CD publication, “Composers’ Voices from Ives to Ellington,” co-authored by Perlis and OHAM associate director Libby Van Cleve. OHAM has recently produced three podcasts on the composers Copland, Ives and Virgil Thomson.