Arts News: Musical Opinion Straight from the Source

“Performing Music History: Musicians Speak First-Hand about Music History and Performance,” edited by John C. Tibbetts (Palgrave MacMillian, 2018). (cover artwork by John C. Tibbetts)

“Performing Music History: Musicians Speak First-Hand about Music History and Performance” is an instructive assemblage of musical opinion straight from the source. Compiled from decades of interviews, this collection of 55 in-person conversations is a wide-ranging display of examination and expertise from some of the leading music-makers of the day.

Editor John C. Tibbets conducted most of the interviews, between 1983 and 2017, though co-editors William Everett and Michael Saffle contributed a few, with forewords by Emanuel Ax and Lawrence Kramer. Though most of the interviews took place when a touring artist was in Kansas City or Lawrence, before or after a concert, often backstage, others happened at festivals, in master classes or in the artists’ homes or studios.

Here’s just some of what you get: Benjamin Bagby reflecting on “Beowolf,” John Eliot Gardiner discussing the music of George Friderick Handel, John Cage talking invention, Philip Glass dissecting film scores, and perspectives from violinist Ann-Sophie Mutter, vocalist Elly Ameling, pianist Garrick Ohlsson, composer Jennifer Higdon, jazz pianist and band leader Jay McShann and composer John Kander. There’s an interview subject for nearly every musical interest, tracking the Western tradition of classical music from the Medieval to the current era.

The book follows a somewhat historically chronological format, with chapters grouped by topic and era. Everett and Saffle contributed most of the introductory statements for each chapter, contextualizing the key points, describing the style and connecting each section’s content. Each segment received additional background information on the individual, as well as the location and date of the interview.

Tibbetts, along with his duties as associate professor of film and media studies at the University of Kansas, served as an arts journalist for decades, often with KXRT, a classical radio station in Kansas City (it ceased operating in that function in 2012). He is a prolific writer and editor and recently signed on as a contributing writer for “KC Studio.” Tibbetts’ own drawings illustrate most of the interviews, a portrait or sketch of the interviewee signed by them at the time of the conversation. This is something of a hallmark tendency of Tibbetts, and a collection of his original works is housed at the Kenneth Spencer Research Library in Lawrence.

Not every segment is a direct interview (Tibbetts throws in a descriptive review of Max Morath’s “Livin’ the Ragtime Life” performance), though in some cases the segment is a melding of multiple interviews. Generally, there is no distinction between interview sessions, with a few exceptions: Eugenia Zukerman in 1986 and then 30 years later in 2016; both film composer Carl Davis and Kander were interviewed in 1997 and 2017.

The text is peppered with footnotes, explaining musical terms or otherwise, and bracketed clarifiers (often listing composer/artist first names and life dates) since, in association with the vernacular nature of the conversations, composers are often casually referred to only by last name. Many of these insertions could be considered unnecessary for a scholarly audience, who presumably know, say, Shakespeare’s first name and can place him in an appropriate time period. Perhaps this was at the insistence of the publisher, but the practice interrupts the “voice” of the interviews.

The interviews themselves, for the most part, extend to a general, but generally informed, musically knowledgeable audience, further removing the need for the disruptive brackets, especially considering that many of the interviews were originally broadcast on the airwaves.

This barrage of secondary information makes it seem as though the volume is intended for a non-academic audience, unfamiliar with specific musical terms or persons. However, the hefty price tag (hardback $99.99/ebook $79.99) cannot assume a casual reader. Though useful for the performing student (the interviews about the art of accompanying are especially interesting) or ardent fan, the volume sits as an unsteady hybrid between academic and general audience.

Tibbetts leads two presentations in support of the book release, supplemented with pertinent video clips of the artists, including violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, Peter Schickele (P.D.Q. Bach) and the landmark recording of “Show Boat.” The first is at 5:30 p.m. Jan. 9 at Hall Center for the Humanities, University of Kansas. The second is at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 15 at the Plaza Branch of the Kansas City Public Library.

Libby Hanssen

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. She maintains the culture bog "Proust Eats a Sandwich."

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