Tuesday, February 24 at 3:00pm, Kaity Volpe and I arrived at David’s studio in the West Village – far too much equipment in hand – to conduct the first in a series of interviews with David for the biography. Kaity came along initially just as a photographer, more for our photo project than for the biography, though her role dramatically changed over the course of the next two hours.
My expectations were frankly low for the first interview – I have little experience in this area, and I had no idea what to expect. Although I tend not to expect the worst, I certainly didn’t expect anything amazing to come out of this first foray into grilling another person on all aspects of his life. I’d planned to generally cover David’s childhood up through his solo piano debut in his late teenage years. This is a particularly under-documented time in his life (at least in published sources), so I knew it would be more than a little difficult to start with, but I thought it might be a good way to “set the stage”, as it were.
The interview started off rockily at best. None of us was particularly relaxed – this was uncharted territory in David’s and my personal dynamic, and David had forgotten that I intended to video the interview, which put him off-balance, and his tension quickly had me very uncomfortable. After taking far too long to set up the damned camera (which I had borrowed, and was only using for the second time) and a few tense words, I decided not to video after all, but instead to turn the camera away and get only the audio. We were all uncomfortable enough as it was without the intimidating camcorder lens staring down at us, as if in stern judgment. Add to that the constantly-ringing telephone and our unfruitful attempts to turn off the various ringers, and we were all fidgety and ill-at-ease.
When we finally sat down to start, I led off with some questions about his piano studies (not where I intended to begin, but I was off-balance and needed to work with something that I had at least some minor grasp on), which at least got us going. After a minute or two, things flowed a little better, though I was still clammed up, question-wise, and had made a few minor blunders in dates/chronology, which made me squirm more than a little.
The point at which the interview departed from the plan is the point at which it really started to work. We passed from the realm of childhood/adolescence quickly, on to much better-charted territory, and anecdotes that have been recorded before. This is what we needed. Start somewhere comfortable! Duh!
At this point, Kaity started chiming in and began asking a few questions – little follow-ups to David’s anecdotes, things that I certainly wouldn’t have thought to ask, but that completely opened up the conversation. We passed through David’s twenties, and took a quick break. David stepped out of the room for a minute, and Kaity asked, “I’m not getting in your way, am I?” “Absolutely not! This is wonderful – keep going!” It had dawned on me during one series of her follow-ups that her training as a social worker was invaluable here – she’s trained to talk to people in a way that I’m not always comfortable doing myself. And, too, she knows so comparatively little about David and other major figures in 20th Century music that she was at a major advantage in asking the right questions; my knowledge of our subject, and of so many composers of the time had me at a distinct disadvantage – I had too much perspective!
By 5:00, David had given us a broad overview of his life, with some really interesting, funny, and touching stories along the way. This was the interview that needed to happen. I had expected a lackluster result at best, and we left having had a wonderful time and having opened the door for so many more in-depth sessions. An extra little reward was that we’d left David smiling.
After walking and talking excitedly for two blocks from David’s door, Kaity and I had already made plans to bring her further into the project. We sat in Art Bar for about two hours and decided to make her essentially a co-biographer. I’m very excited to have her on-board!
Our next interview with David will be on Tues., March 10, covering the years of the Joyce works.