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An interview with David Del Tredici
David Del Tredici sits at a piano
David Del Tredici at his home in New York (Photo: Alan Baker.)

Audio Listen to the interview (34:49s)

TOM VOEGELI: David tell me the story about how you as a young pianist, how you became a composer.

DAVID DEL TREDICI: It was a dramatic event in my life. I went to the Aspen music festival to study with a famous pianist and he was so mean to me. He yelled at me and was very severe, and I didn't realize, coming from California, that all he really was, was a New Yorker. I was so unhappy with that, that I thought "I have a whole summer here, what can I do to have fun with music, that's no longer playing the piano." I thought I could either sing or I could compose. So I started to write a piece. It's my Opus 1 that I still own, and a friend of mine Robert Morgan, a composer then, said why don't you play it for our composer in residence Darius Milhaud. I went to the seminar, played it for him; he turned to me and said, "My boy, you are a composer." That somehow was a seminal event. I went back to my senior year at the University of California at Berkeley and enrolled in the graduate composition seminar. That was the beginning.

What or who were your earliest influences?

Well, actually my biggest influences on my composing were my piano teachers rather than my composition teachers. The earliest one being Bernhard Abramovitch, a wonderful pianist who I worked with mostly, and later with Robert Helps, who just died. I studied piano with him. With each of them, somehow, I got the real experience of what it was like to compose. With Abramovitch it was playing pieces that were long. Having a sense as a player of how to hold it together served me much later in writing long pieces, which are my specialty, since I had experienced physically what it's like to hold a piece together, it helped me to compose pieces that were long.

Robert Helps was very helpful in composing in that I could see how he trusted his instinct when he composed. That he in effect knew nothing, but once his instinct was engaged, he trusted it. That I picked up on because I had a very strong musical instinct.

A lot of my composition teachers on the other hand had kind of cerebralized the process. There wasn't a lot of talk about "Trust Your Instincts." I got a much clearer feeling of how to compose through the players in my life.

Fast forward a little bit to Aaron Copland.

Aaron Copland was a wonderful influence on me though I never studied with him formally. I was a good friend of his for at least 20 years. I met him when I went to Tanglewood in 1964, and knew him until he died. With him again, it was his attitude toward composing which was so helpful. Again, he very much trusted his instincts. He seemed to make it a simple process. "David," he would say, "I just sit down and, well, I start to compose". I was at the time teaching at Harvard, which was an intellectual hotbed, and it was a very different proposition of how you composed. It was the day of serialism and cerebration. It was very difficult, though. At the same time at Harvard, I was a colleague of Leon Kirchner. He, like Copland, was very much devoted to his instinctual responses, and he trusted them. He also modeled the way to compose for me.

So you started out as most folks your age, in the serial world? You began as a modernist?

It's fair to say. How can I say? I was enormously attracted to dissonance. It was so exciting in the early sixties. It was like we had to do it. It wasn't a doctored thing it became in later years. It was just very exciting and Schönberg was the any man of contemporary music. Any man? Eminem. (laughter) Schönberg was the Eminem of contemporary music. Anything bad appeals to any young composer. That drew me into it.

That's a question that I have just as a sidebar, and you just answered it. It seems like everybody composed à la Schönberg. You know, studied serialism... you had to write that way.

It didn't feel like you had to. It was what was exciting. There was a huge battle between the tonalists on the one side, the Americana kind of tonalists, and the new emerging thing. After University of California, I went to Princeton University, which was the center then of contemporary music, dissonance, and Schönberg, so I got a heavy dose of it. On the other hand, after one year I quit. I felt too threatened by all of this intellectualism. I had only been composing one year. What did I know?

I did know that my instincts were all I had. If they were going to be somehow threatened, I would have to get out of that environment. I don't know how I did it, but I did trust my instinct enough to quit. Do you know how hard it is to quit when you have a fellowship at a major university like Princeton? Very difficult! Then I bummed around New York for two years, and wrote whatever occurred to me. Free of restrictions. Then I returned to Princeton with a little more confidence under my composing belt, and did all right.

I've always been a composer dependent on texts. For a number of years I set James Joyce because I was a lapsed Catholic like Joyce. I was drawn to his tortured life, which fit my musical style at the time, which was dissonant and nearly atonal. Gradually, mysteriously, I became drawn to Lewis Carroll. I read the stories and thought that they were nice but not enough. Then, a friend of mine introduced me to the book called "The Annotated Alice" by Martin Gardner. There for each of the Carroll slight poems were the poems of the day. Poems that Carrollparodied. So suddenly, I had two poems for one. One reflecting the other, sometimes a contrast, sometimes humorous, when I read that it suddenly occurred to me that this was a special composing circumstance. I began.

What I didn't realize was, was the very different mood of Carroll from Joyce. The whimsy, the wit, the humor was going to change my musical style. Or so it felt. Somehow dissonance didn't seem appropriate for this charming whimsical crazy world. So I began to use tonal things. It seemed as though when I did this, it was only to illustrate the stories. For example, I used "Twinkle, twinkle, little bat, how I wonder where you're at," this Carroll text is a parody of "Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are." I had to use the famous tune. In different ways I started to interject tonality without thinking anything of it. It was just making the story vivid. Three-dimensional. Then, when Final Alice came along which was my biggest most public commission, commissioned by the Chicago Symphony and Georg Solti and Barbara Hendricks, when that came along; I just happened to be writing my most overtly tonal piece. There again I used tonality as metaphor. For a lot of the Lewis Carroll nonsense poems, they are actually based on poems that very clearly talk about the love of a man for a girl named Alice. So Carroll was hiding his love in this nonsense. So again, I juxtaposed the poems, and for the forbidden non-Carroll texts, the secret ones, I set them in very lush tonal ways-because tonality at that time was a forbidden language just as Carol's texts were. Hidden and forbidden. So again it was just a metaphor, but it was huge sections. Instead of the occasional appearance of a tonal tune, now it was like a whole piece would be in tonality. This was not the tonality that had been around, the Americana advanced tonality. I was going back to Schumann and Brahms! A tonal system centered tonality. It shocked me!

After about halfway through my composition of Final Alice I thought, "People will think I'm crazy, my colleagues will laugh at me, you cannot use tonality in modern music, it's not possible." After my little nervous breakdown, I again as I've always done, I said my instincts are saying that this is as exciting as your dissonance was. The excitement level is the same. You must go with it. I did not want to, but I had to. I felt I had no choice. The rest is history. The piece was done, it was a huge success, and completely surprised me. I really did think I might easily be jeered off the stage. You never know. (laughter) There were no models for doing this. As far as I knew, I was the first one to do this and it was a frightening experience and a thrilling experience and ultimately a reaffirmation of instinct.

Tell me about Adventures Underground.

I wrote Adventures Underground for Michael Tilson Thomas. He commissioned it for the Buffalo Symphony. I chose a poem because of the way it looked, "The Mouse's Tail." A famous, so called emblematic verse, a poem in the shape of something, in this case it went down the page like a tail. I wanted to reflect the shape of the poem, the tail, in the music. I wanted to do this without changing the normal layout of the orchestra. For a long time I just drew tails on a page, different kinds of tails—narrow thin ones, filled in ones—and then I had to make it sound good. Someone hearing the piece would not know it was a tail. It was a visual conceit for myself. I've never had a more complicated problem. It must sound good, but look a certain way. It gave me a hugely narrow working range.

It worked out. Every page was tall and completely unwieldy. Crazy idea, but it's actually one of my favorite pieces. It comes out sounding like perpetual motion. Kind of crazy. I use a lot of devices in my music like this, or things that go backwards and forwards. For me, they create a kind of energy that can be employed. I don't do it because it's somehow a mental idea; there is a real energy in devices of a peculiar kind, which goes with my peculiar personality.

You and I can understand that picking restrictions and then having to work within that restriction can drive creativity.

Yes. Well, it's like, necessity is the mother of invention. When you're narrowed in your prison cell you get very creative. For me it works.

My maverick-icity depends much more on the fact that I went backwards to tonality rather than continuing the atonal frontal assault on music. I got drawn to tonality on the surface because of the texts. More deeply I realized, as I went through my process, my first experience with music as a pianist was playing huge Romantic works. I loved them. Without knowing it, I developed a skill in writing tonally. I didn't know that, I didn't know it counted. I had done it in harmony and counterpoint classes. I could always just do it, and loved doing it, but I didn't think it counted. Somehow that skill reemerged in the Alice pieces as I embraced tonality and I call it my secret music. It was something I could do but I didn't think counted. My insides were saying, "Look, you can do this thing, find a way to use it now." After my thrill with dissonance waned, this other skill surfaced. So many composers, young composers particularly, have musical skills don't think count. It's very important to encourage that. What's forbidden or superfluous or "too easy."

"Too easy" is where your gift is. (laughter)

That's great. Wonderful statement. You're answering some of the questions I have naturally. Talk to me a little bit, sort of related to tonality, in terms of musical influences, you like many composers have used some popular forms, popular sounds. Rock and folk. Talk about some of that stuff.

Well another maverick side of me, is I was always drawn to crazy combinations of instruments from the very beginning. For example, I set a text called "The Last Gospel." It used to be the end of the Catholic Mass. I used a rock group in that. Most of the Alice pieces, I created a kind of folk group of odd instruments. Two saxophones, a mandolin, an accordion, a banjo. I didn't really know anything about them. I just knew that they would not sound like an orchestra. I needed things which would never be confused with the rest of the instruments. I also, maverick-wise, have done bizarre things to the soprano voice. Giving it lines high and low and asking for a flexibility which really was kind of unprecedented, unless you go back to Bellini and Donizetti. Even there, it's more conservative. It was really inadvertent that I did that.

The first piece I wrote, "I Hear an Army", which was difficult-all over the place for the soprano, was written for Phyllis Bryn-Julson. A wonderful soprano who was on her first job at Tanglewood as was I, on my first commission. So we met at the very beginning, I wrote her this piece, she sang it with supreme ease, said it wasn't hard—I wasn't smart enough to know how hard it was—so I wrote her another more difficult, and then a third, "Syzygy", which is practically impossible, and she did it so easily that my style developed around her. Only after that did I realize, "Can anyone else ever sing this?" I was developed in that direction. Without care, I recklessly went on in the style of "elaborate soprano theatre" things. It's strange. For me it's interesting how the interface of the right performer came to me when I needed her. If that first piece had been greeted by, "You can't do this, it's impossible!" I think that would have definitely toned me down and changed me. Reality has its effect on a composer.

Go back to instrumentation for a minute, were creating a whole show called, "What's so great about the Orchestra?" Why do contemporary composers still write for the symphony orchestra?

Composers love to write for symphony orchestras because the symphony is the Rolls Royce of musical instruments. Where else can you get a hundred people to do your bidding? The problem is interfacing with rehearsal time which is narrow and often with conductors, and symphony programs that are very restrictive and not sympathetic, but it is a wonderful thing.

Writing for orchestra honed my style. I began like all composers, writing for small groups. Chamber groups. When I first wrote for orchestra, I didn't realize, when you have 20 people playing a violin line, that is very different than one person playing that line. I would write too difficult things, things were too hard. The other thing is, there's only so much rehearsal time. If I was going to hear my piece sounding good on four hours' rehearsal, I had to simplify. Mainly in the area of rhythm I had to get rid of what I call vanity rhythms. Rhythms that look great are the purest expression of the rhythm, but kind of unplayable when you add multiples onto the part. It forced me to get rid of all of that and to simplify. I also tried to learn how to write indestructible orchestrations, that no conductor, however bad, could ruin.

I won't say conductors—but I just said it—but orchestras no matter how bad would somehow not have to balance. It would balance itself because there was no time. Often times, you got your piece on there because they had to do it. They had to do two or three pieces a year on a program. Mine came up, and ahhhhh! We've got this thing, let's get rid of this piece as quickly as possible- and the conductor often wasn't interested-wouldn't do anything but beat time. So I learned. I've got to survive alien atmospheres somehow. In a way, looking back on it, it really forced me to learn how to orchestrate in a way that was surefire.

By the time we get to Final Alice that's changed. Not so much in programming, but conductor's turn to you now. Do you feel you're given more respect, more time?

It all depends, certainly Michael Tilson Thomas was an enormous exception in my life. I learned a lot from him about orchestration, and he was extremely supportive, interested, and challenging. Like Phyllis Bryn-Julson, he very much was a power in shaping my style, and in encouraging me to be a maverick.

Do you have a definition for maverick in general?

(laughter) Well, I think a maverick somehow is someone who trusts their instincts no matter what conflict they may come in contact with, or what trend in music they go with. Sticking to it even though a lot of the world says, "You can't do this. It's wrong. It doesn't sound any good." A maverick feels like he has no choice however difficult his choice of expression. In my case, it was going backwards into tonality. It seemed so wrong. The idea that progress is going into the past in a new way is very strange, even though there are precedents. Certainly, Stravinsky, after the Rite of Spring he started writing his neo-classical pieces people said, "This is ridiculous, he's gone flaccid, he's lost his edge," and now these pieces sound quintessentially Stravinskian, but different. He changed. It's very confusing. People who hear my music, they hear tonality and their ear shuts off. This is tonal, therefore old-fashioned or something, or doesn't count. It's not in the progress stream. It's very hard to get around that prejudice. Whereas atonality, since it's all sort of unfamiliar, you have a different reaction. Maybe if I keep listening, I'll start to love it. I don't know, the problem of style is really interesting. Style has its own restraints.

You just touched on something, what's your attitude about the audience? Do you consider the audience as a composer?

Yes. I want people to love me. Whether I'm speaking or playing or composing, yes definitely. There's always an implication of pandering to the audience. After the success of Final Alice and the first big audience that really liked me, it's a feeling of support. Oh, I don't just have to do this for myself or a few colleagues. There I'm surviving in a kind of arid climate. I'm trying to live with what little water there is, but when you have a bigger audience, there's a lot of water. A whole sea out there that wants to support you. I find that naturally, what's the word...great. I find that enlivening.

You're known for really using all the resources of an orchestra. Everything. Bringing in other instruments too. Is there anything you want to say about shaking everything out of the tree?

I do like to make every orchestral player earn his or her money. It's based on an early trauma I had with the orchestra. I had my first European premiere, it was the Lobster Quadrille, Aaron Copland had agreed to do it, chosen the piece. I was so excited. We came to the rehearsal, and the first violins refused to play. I said, "What happened?" and they said, "There are only twelve measures in this entire piece where we play. We are not going to sit here for that." I was so shocked. I had never noticed that I hadn't used the violins except for this one place. I had forgotten about the violins. It was so traumatic, that now I'm extremely aware of keeping everybody happy, busy, and wage earning.

That's the way the playwright has to look at his cast. That's great, that's a wonderful story. You are an American composer. Is there anything fundamentally unique about being an American composer?

Well, American composers are the best composers. At this time in the world, we are where the energy is. We are the most diverse, the most iconoclastic, the most maverick, and the most skillful. As far as I can see most of Europe is still locked in a kind of atonal vice. They've had very poor parents—if you think of Stockhausen, Boulez, Nono, all of these people die-hard hangers-on—whereas in America, we are just blown apart. We are all kinds of things. Minimalism, tonalisim, atonalisim, pop connected with contemporary music. It's a vast cauldron that's very alive. It reminds me of the early 20th century when so much was going on in Europe. It was diverse and exciting.

Young composers now who come to me to study feel they can do anything. They are all very different. When I was a student you had to do pretty much atonal, or you weren't acceptable. There was a lot of pressure, unspoken, like so many very effective pressures, but it operated. So this is a better time, and I think it's paying off. Look at opera, look how opera has bloomed. It was impossible to write an opera in the old days.

Have you written an opera?

I have written an opera, in fact a scene of it was just done by the New York City Opera in their festival of first contemporary opera performances.

I should know that. Now you are turning to do lots of song cycles.

Oh good, let's go to the now. I'm still very much attracted, post-Alice, to texts. Now, somehow, I'm drawn to setting very explicit gay texts. Sexual texts. I've had kind of a coming out for myself. I like to have no secrets.

I set Lewis Carroll I think because he was such, in a way, a closeted man. He was a man with a secret passion. He learned to hide it, and to nurture it in a kind of sideways way with his book, but he loved little girls. That was not O.K. then. I, as a gay man, was going the other way. There is so much conservatism in classical music. It is the last refuge of conservatism. When you think of plays, poetry, pop songs, there is all kinds of sexuality thrown in there, and it's O.K. In classical music—FORGET IT! So I like to set really provocative texts and I think, why not?

For me, like any composer, if you feel like you're going in a place that has not been gone, it's very exciting. I think that when I set a text that's shocking, I'm thrilled. You can set love poems, but you can't set sex poems, or gay poetry. It's still not O.K. As an out gay composer, I kind of mourn that fact. All the great gay composers of our American past, there has been such a huge number, not one came out. Even today, none are celebrated as gay composers. Copland, Menotti, Barber, Bernstein, Cowell, it goes on and on. It's a remarkable similarity. Why are all these gay men such great composers? Today there are as many distinguished composers who are gay. I just think it's something to be celebrated.

I can do it because I choose to do it by setting gay texts. Creating a body of work which revolves around a "gayness". In fact, last year I wrote "Gay Life" for the San Francisco Symphony. It was a major length song cycle for baritone and orchestra. I've become a militant "out" gay composer, in contrast to Lewis Carroll who was not "out". He was a closeted Victorian young girl lover. (laughter)

Wonderful. I'm going to ask you two other questions and get out of here.

I bet the previous answer doesn't make the cut (laughter)

You are a very sensitive, obviously beautiful man. I'll just say that having met you.

What a nice thing to say.

Given that, all the emotional stuff of choosing a life of writing music or performing music, what would you say to kids?

What I say to my students who are really serious about it, and want to pursue it for a life, I say, "You must do this because you love to do it, and have no alternative. This HAS to be your way." Everything else will conspire to have you not do it. The world does not need or want a composer around. We are made to feel superfluous. You have to really want it, and follow your instinct. That's so important. To do what you want no matter what teachers or universities or other places say you should do. You've got to go on your individual vision and hang on to it. That's all you've got.

What would you do if you weren't making music?

(laughter) My first artistic passion was flower arranging. I did that as a child until I discovered the piano at age 12. I loved that. I don't know.

What's your favorite thing to do now when you're not at the piano?

Oh God—I can't go there. It's a good question.

I want you to scan this list, but I want to see, is there a composer on this list, other than David Del Tredici, that you just would love to say something about.

How about some young composers I could say something about, or are these people in the show?

Yes, there are some young ones later. Who are the most significant unrecognized young composers right now? Or your favorites.

O.K. I'm going to always forget the ones I love most. That's not fair to ask that out of the blue.

Just scan this list, you talked about Copland.

Did I talk enough about Copland?

Well, do you want to make a statement just about Copland?

What was so remarkable about Aaron Copland—and I knew him for twenty years and he always was this way—was his generosity toward other composers. Supporting them. They would be very diverse. As diverse as Takemitsu, Davidovsky, or myself. He always supported them in ways that they never knew about. Suddenly, for me, fellowships would appear, commissions. I even asked him once, "Did you help me get this?" He denied it, although I know he did. That was one thing, the generosity of spirit and the easy connection with composers of a different ilk.

The other was keeping the act of composing a simple thing which I think it was for him. Not trying to add intellectual baggage. Not trying to make it more cerebral than it was. I so appreciated that he did that because I was so impressionable early. What he said I believed. He kept it simple, and by his trust of his emotions, his instinct, it allowed me to trust mine. I appreciate that, and I am grateful for that.

O.K. back to the list. Duke Ellington—no.

There are a lot of people here who don't need my plug.

There are some wonderful composers who are emerging now and who will be voices of their generation. One is Steven Burke. A remarkable composer. Completely trusting of his instinct, who writes passionate, wild, and completely controlled music.

Another is Olive Barzola, a Russian émigré. She writes extremely colorful, alive, unrestrained music.

Another favorite of mine is Tom Ciofalo. He has already written an enormous, impressive collection of songs. So touching and so gripping that I really think they have the status of "classic".

Let me say something about John Corigliano. One of my favorite colleague composers is John Corigliano. We are so similar in our flaunting of acceptable traditions. We support each other in this, and we appreciate each others music in a way that I find really thrillingly free of jealousy. A mutual support of such a distinguished colleague is something I treasure.

Anybody else who was on the concert series?

I love the music of John Adams, who was my counterpoint student at Harvard a long time ago.

Varèse? Let me say something about Varèse.

Varèse was an early model for me because he used weird instruments—when I was getting into the Theremin, which I used in some of my odd electronic things—he was there first and had done it.

I met Frank Zappa and was charmed and terrified to meet a real rock star. My singer, Phyllis Bryn-Julson would become his singer, so she brought us together. These two worlds happily collided.

I could tell you a story about La Monte Young (laughter).

Tell me a story.

La Monte Young and I were in the same composition class at University of California at Berkeley. I was his best friend for a while. He was a pre-hippie. Before there were hippies. He was the weirdest person I had ever met. I was so thrilled to know him. We became good friends. My mother was horrified when she met him. She asked me, "Who is that weird person?" In La Monte's apartment, I smelled this very strange thing for the first time and always wondered what it was...(laughter)

That's it. (laughter)

I didn't say a word.

So what are you doing now compositionally?

My latest craze is actually experiencing patriotism for the first time. It's really a post 9-11 feeling. I saw the World Trade Center fall, and it was a horrifying experience, but out of that somehow patriotism has come alive as an emotion. It's generated music. I'm setting now the midnight ride of Paul Revere. Something I would never look at, but suddenly it means something to me. I'm amazed at this late stage in my life to find patriotism as an actual deep emotion that I have. It comes out then in music.

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