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BOOK REVIEWS

Composers' Voices from Ives to Ellington
Vivian Perlis and Libby Van Cleve
Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-10673-4. £30.00. 476pp, with two CDs

Composers' Voices from Ives to Ellington
"There has never been a project to rival this accomplishment," says Ned Rorem. He's right. Here are generous, lively, surprising, and often moving interviews with most of the giants of American music: Eubie Blake describes the birth of ragtime, Elliott Carter puzzles over the exact date when some of Charles Ives' scores received their last dose of dissonance and polyrhythm, John Adams speaks about Duke Ellington, Ellington speaks at length for himself, and Edgard Varèse discusses Charlie Parker's desire to study with him. Much background concerning Henry Cowell's imprisonment in San Quentin is given, and here are the thoughts of John Cage, Leo Ornstein, Carl Ruggles, Charles Seeger and Virgil Thompson.

More than two hours' worth of interviews is provided on the two accompanying CDs, giving us a truly golden opportunity to hear the actual voices of Nadia Boulanger, Roy Harris, Lou Harrison, Mel Powell and Dane Rudhyar.

Aaron Copland receives generous treatment, as does George Gershwin. Only a few words of Gershwin himself are available to us, but there are wonderful insights from his sister Frances, brother Arthur, George's aunt Kate Wolpin, and from others who were close: Morton Gould, Burton Lane, Kay Swift, and the original Bess and Porgy, Anne Wiggins Brown and Todd Duncan.

One surprise is who knew whom. Here's Copland, in Paris:

"Nadia [Boulanger] had these Wednesday afternoon so-called déchiffrage classes, where she read over new things at the piano and they'd be discussed or enthused about or dismissed. You'd find the latest scores of Stravinsky on her piano (still in manuscript) or those of Milhaud or Honegger, and you felt you were living right in the midst of live musical happenings in Paris in 1921. At the tea the musical greats came - I remember meeting Roussel there and Stravinsky, The group of Les Six - Poulenc was there, and I even shook hands with Saint-Saëns. I remember him very vividly. He seemed quite lively for so elderly a gentleman."

In my naivety, exactly how I used to imagine university might be!

At least I have the book - an essential purchase, unhesitatingly recommended.

This review first appeared in Classical Music magazine, June 10th, 2006. Reproduced by permission.

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