Interview Process: Technicalities

Regular readers know that I’ve conducting a lot of interviews lately with people that knew Luther Henderson — nine interviews, totaling sixteen hours, in the past two weeks alone. I’ve met with Sheldon Epps, director of the Pasadena Playhouse and creator/director of Play On!; the wonderful golden gal, Bea Arthur, who Luther coached in her ingénue days; actress Armelia McQueen, who was in the original cast of Ain’t Misbehavin’; Luther’s daughter, Melanie; and composer/arranger Billy Goldenberg,who was a Broadway colleague of Luther’s is also a good friend of Bea Arthur and accompanist for her one-woman show. By phone I’ve talked with Liza Redfield, the first female conductor on Broadway; David Alan Bunn (mentioned here a few days ago); Polly Bergen, who, from the mid 1950s until Luther’s death in 2003, would not work as a singer without Luther as her musical conductor; and Susan Birkenhead, the lyricist/collaborator who, with George Wolfe and Luther, created Jelly’s Last Jam.

I know a few writers who have the ability to either take extremely comprehensive notes and/or retain everything they hear, including the best snatches of dialogue. I take notes, but I don’t feel so skilled, and I don’t need the pressure, so I record all of my interviews. For years I used to use a cassette recorder and rejoiced when they came out with a model that had auto-reverse, thus saving me from having to stop and turn over the tape. My euphoria evaporated on the day of a particularly long interview when I lost track of the time and auto-reverse kicked in for a second go round, recording over the first side of the interview. I didn’t even notice until I got home. A year or so ago, I asked Maria Schneider what she was using to record her audio notes and interviews for her ArtistShare website and she showed me her Sony mini disc recorder. I bought one, a Sony MZ-NH1. It’s small (3-inches square and half inch thick), lightweight (4.5 oz with a disc inside), each disc holds a few hours of audio (depending on speed) and the rechargeable batteries are long-lasting as well. Even better, the recording is digital and the sound quality is terrific. The microphone, which is only an inch long and the thickness of a pencil, picks up everything. For the telephone interviews, I use a Radio Shack gizmo (this one or that one) that connects the telephone to the mini disc microphone jack.

It’s the post-interview process that becomes a bit cumbersome. I want to save the interviews on compact discs so that they will last for a very long time (longer than audio tape) and take up very little physical space. Unfortunately, the mini disc recorder is not meant for uploading files to one’s computer, so in order to store the audio on my computer (and subsequently burn the files on CDs) I have to run a cable from the mini disc headphone jack to the microphone jack of my computer, launch my recording software, hit play on the mini disc and “capture” the sounds. Once the whole audio file is on my computer, I can save it in smaller pieces, making each a track to be stored on an audio CD. (I could save the files on a data CD, but then I would not be able to listen to them on a CD player.) Ironically, once I have burned the CD (I use the discs that hold 80 minutes of audio), I turn around a dub a 90-minute cassette tape that I send off to my transcriber – she likes her foot-pedal-driven cassette transcribing machine. (Radio Shack foot pedals don’t work with portable CD players or the mini disc player….Yes, I did try it.)

It might seem like it would be a waste of time, a triplication of effort, but I find it useful. I don’t listen avidly to an interview while it’s being copied to tape — I’m usually multi-tasking, reading articles, making appointments, following up on this or that — but I do hear it on some level, and snatches of it often grab my attention prompting me to jot down occasional thoughts as they occur to me. And, I might add, these are the kind of thoughts that seldom if ever come to me when summoned — flashes of insight, connections between seemingly disparate events or people, ideas for structure, shape, and transitions….answers to questions I otherwise might never have thought to ask.