Bud Kliment, a part-time OHMA student, reflects on his recent conversation with composer Julia Wolfe, and some of the challenges (and benefits) of conducting a public interview.
For most of us working as oral historians, an interview is typically a personal but private exchange, an occasion for building an intimate dialogue with someone that remains unshared until necessary. But as we learned in Fieldwork class, honed interviewing skills can lead to other opportunities, including the chance to conduct interviews in public.
When I was invited to interview composer Julia Wolfe for the public portion of Workshop class I knew it would require me to use a different set of oral history skills. Over the past two years I had done more than fifty interviews. But except for the occasional videographer (busy with a camera), no one had watched me conduct them. In Workshop, my interview would have an audience, strangers as well as peers. I felt up to the task, but still a little nervous. I’m normally like the producer I had heard speak a few weeks earlier, “I’m a backstage person,” she’d said, “not an onstage person.”
Because I enjoy and contemplate things performed on stage (including theater and live music) I’m conscious of how different public performance is from private. The usual responsibilities of an oral history interviewer to an informant would be bifurcated to include the audience: Will the conversation be meaningful to them? Entertaining? Can they hear us? Will they learn anything? Will they care? Improvising a recipe means there’s no telling how the meal will turn out.
It helps if there are plenty of good ingredients. I was fortunate that we had prearranged a discussion topic — two specific pieces of Wolfe’s music, Steel Hammer and Anthracite Fields — which centered our conversation without limiting it. I had to navigate to those pieces logically, and gracefully; still, they were goals. I was fortunate to be interviewing a composer who is also a seasoned performer. Most artists are performers. Some might be less verbal than others, but all of them usually have the impulse to show, to tell, to dazzle. Writers, it is joked, sit in a room and talk to themselves, so it’s often a pleasant surprise to hear how well-spoken they can be in person. Luckily for me, Julia is warm, witty and engaging. Best of all, she’s a generous musician who enjoys collaboration and improvisation, and I felt that reassuring give-and-take immediately.
If I had to offer advice on my experience, I would suggest being over-prepared. One of my own cures for nervousness is research: you can never learn too much about your interviewee. The more you know ahead of time, the more you’ll be ready for the twists and turns your conversation will take. And, no matter how much you plan your interview, you will have to improvise. I even brought props: records, books, cds, just in case. I wound up discarding at least half of my prepared questions, opting instead for the spontaneous follow-up; the chance direction. Yet I felt most at ease when I was winging it, possibly because it seemed the most like normal conversation.
Would I have done anything differently? I wish I hadn’t needed to rely on paper. With my questions and some background information printed out, I sometimes resorted to reading things during the interview. Unfortunately, a script in hand can easily morph into a security blanket, and breaking eye contact with your guest or audience to read can look clunky and unprepared. But short of memorizing questions or using a teleprompter (unlikely in Kent Hall!), notes are the only option, and it does help to map the interview. I think that a map, even a sketchy one, is where a public interview diverges most from one that’s private, and inches towards journalism: There’s a story you have to cover; that’s why the seats are filled.
Once the interview was over I felt relieved, but also pumped by the experience. I remembered useful advice a friend, a former newspaper editor, customarily offered for any kind of public speaking: “Be yourself, plus 15%.” That percentage felt about right. I also realized how our primary responsibility as oral historians is always to the interviewee, whether or not an audience is present. During the public interview, I experienced the same exposed vulnerability we ask of all our informants: Am I talking too much? How do I sound? Why am I saying this? To be reminded of that identification is always a welcome and useful lesson.
Bud Kliment's master's thesis for OHMA will be about American song collecting and the development of oral history. A native of Philadelphia and a graduate of Columbia College, Bud is a Deputy Administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, founded and based at Columbia University. Julia Wolfe won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Music for “Anthracite Fields.”