The Sound of the Voice: OHAM Celebrates 50 Years

This past Wednesday evening, students, faculty, and members of the New Haven community gathered to celebrate—through experimental film, live music, and remixed vocal samples—the 50th anniversary of Yale’s Oral History of American Music project, OHAM. Hosted by the Wednesday Wisdom Series at the Center for Collaborative Arts and Multimedia, or CCAM, an event called “reVox” offered an extravagant night of avant-garde installations. 

During the show, audiences strolled through the wide runway-esque hallway of CCAM, surrounded by about a dozen brightly-lit screens presenting an assortment of new videos, each with a different theme. Some offered surrealist, highly-edited black and white videos reminiscent of David Lynch; others were historical montages of musicians’ lives; others still simply presented gorgeous footage and slideshows of nature. Headphones sat next to each screen, inviting audience members to listen to the original compositions that complemented the visuals. After the crowd spent an hour checking out video installations along the wall, they returned to the modernist open performance space for four electrifying performances—live renderings of the recorded pieces. Mood lighting and projected videos illuminated the wall behind the musicians, mesmerizing the audience. Throughout the soirée, neon lights burst out of the long glass windows of CCAM onto the sidewalk of York Street, inviting passersby and patrons alike to join in.

Founded in 1969 by Vivian Perlis, a reference librarian in the Yale School of Music, OHAM presents an ever-expanding collection of interviews from the past and present. Libby Van Cleve, Director of OHAM, explains: “OHAM captures the life histories of major musical figures, composers, or major improvisers, including a lot of jazz figures.” From day one, OHAM strove to capture the lives of artists in their own words, creating primary sources while simultaneously empowering artists and inspiring listeners. OHAM offered a groundbreaking approach to archives and journalism decades before the podcast. Today, the collection contains over 3,000 audio and video recordings, all housed in the Irving S. Gilmore Music Library in Sterling. OHAM continues to interview working musicians, including current composers in the graduate school.

Expanding the collection has gotten easier over time. “When we started, you couldn’t get information on people’s backgrounds. When I would get ready for interviews, I would have to do major detective work. These days, everybody has a website and all this information is out there,” says Van Cleve. 

Although 2020 presents more widespread access to electronic information, Van Cleve considers the organic human voice more necessary than ever. In age where lonely, abandoned airpods litter campus, Van Cleve makes sure that voices don’t get lost. “Oral history has an interactive aspect and so there are elements that come out through the dialogue that does not come out as someone represents themselves on their own website,” she says. 

Digital media are more fleeting, but OHAM aims to give them a long-lasting element. “Ultimately, we are permanent, while a website changes all the time,” Van Cleve tells me. “Here, we are creating primary source documents that are going to be maintained forever here at Yale. That’s meaningful. There’s a commitment to maintaining the sound of the voice, not just a transcription.”

Initially, OHAM considered hosting an academic conference to commemorate its 50th anniversary, but soon realized that hosting a concert would invite a broader audience and create new work. “reVox” commissioned composers to revisit and remix OHAM interviews and archives. Van Cleve clarifies, “This is a way to celebrate the whole diversity and the whole sense of creativity—just a true celebration of music…that was my real dream!” 

During the live show, Jack Vees, faculty at the Yale School of Music, performed a soulful harmonica ballad. Vees’s tunes, reminiscent of bluegrass, accompanied a slideshow of California wildlife and state parks. Immediately following, Gabrielle Herbst, YSM ’20 sang a pop song with electronic and synth-heavy accompaniment, inspired by legendary performance artist and activist, Laurie Anderson. 

Herbst spent last summer working at OHAM. She enjoyed how she could wholly immerse herself in the work. “When you listen to these interviews, you learn everything about these artists, from their childhood to their creative process,” she explains. Herbst felt honored to live in the head of her idol, Laurie Anderson, through these archives. Following Herbst’s synth-pop vocal performance, Ben Veredy (YSM Faculty) performed a gnarly virtuosic guitar solo that quoted eminent sixteenth century Italian composer Palestrina, twentieth century Japanese composer Takemitsu, and Cuban composer Leo Brouwer. Finally, singer and composer Tanner Porter, YSM ’19 sang, accompanied by a band of Van Cleve on oboe, Vees on electric guitar, and Hannah Lash (YSM Faculty) on harp.

Amid the post-show buzz, Van Cleve radiated with excitement. “This came together in the most extraordinary way,” she said. Van Cleve found the level of buy-in among attendees especially impressive.  

Composer and musician Anteo Fabris, YSM ’19 praised the show: “This comes at a compelling juncture in the history of classical music: many of us who study, create and appreciate it are looking back at the established canon and wondering why it exists in the first place. OHAM’s Voices of America has opened doors for us as a community finally to amend a canon in serious need of editing.” 

“In a day and age when people have too much to do, we started talking with people and it was kind of random, but immediately people were like, ‘I’m in and want to do this,’” she continued.” The Irving S. Gilmore Music Library helped by commissioning a wide variety of original compositions and remixes. 

Filmmaker Audrey Coombe, SY ’23, found inspiration in the multimedia aspect of the exhibit: “The coupling of audio sources and the transportive visuals were both a nostalgic reach into the past as well as something very immediate and physical. The sonic collage that came about was celebratory of past artists and Vivian Perlis’s work, but it was also a compassionate nod towards the current musical community at Yale and the myriad new voices on the ascent.”

As information—both real and fake—grows easier and easier to obtain, consumers often feel overloaded. Instead of drowning amid an abundance of articles and noise, Van Cleve promises,“the sound of the voice has such meaning.” If you’re wandering down York Street, hungry for repurposed historical music interviews, the exhibition is open in CCAM for the next two weeks!

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