Composer / Pianist David
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
Sometimes things which are perfectly correct look odd or simply cannot
be used because of circumstances beyond the control of any and
everyone. Some of these blockages are good, some are bad, and
some are simply amusing when given any thought.
As readers of my interviews will know, after the first introduction
using the full names, I indicate who is speaking by way of their
initials. Bruce Duffie always becomes "BD," and Joe Musician
would be "JM." In the case of today's guest, David Del Tredici
should be listed as "DDT," which, unfortunately, is known these days as
a pesticide that has been banned! I toyed with using "DdelT," but
that simply looks odd and cumbersome. I even thought of using
"D-13" (since "tredici" is that special number in Italian), but decided
against making the reference. So this time, I have listed our
last names in lieu of the usual initials.
No matter how things are laid out on the page, this turned out to be a
very enlightening interview. My guest
talked openly and frankly about the composing process, and in turn
revealed a great deal about music in general, as well as himself and
work habits. Quite a number of my guests have given insights, but
looking back over a quarter-century of material, this one seems to
shine a light over more area and in more detail than most.
A brief biography of the composer,
taken from his
official website, is reproduced following the interview. One
note before starting, however, that aside from performances with major
orchestras and chamber groups, and recordings of many of his pieces,
Del Tredici is the winner of the Pulitzer Prize.
At the beginning of 1990, Del Tredici was back in Chicago to
participate in a concert of chamber music. We met in a dressing
room downstairs at Orchestra Hall in Chicago during
the afternoon rehearsal before a concert of chamber music that
evening. Following the concert, I moderated a discussion among
the four composers (!) who were there. It was a long, but
wonderfully lovely day for all concerned.
Bruce Duffie: I'd like to
begin by asking about the joys and
sorrows of writing for the human voice.
David Del Tredici: Oh,
what a nicely phrased question. My relation to the voice has been
as idiosyncratic as my
composing. That is to say, the first real piece I wrote
for voice was called I Hear an Army
[(1964), for soprano and string
quartet], and it was extremely difficult. I'm not a singer and I
really didn't know singers, but I wrote a terrifically
hard part. By coincidence it was for the Tanglewood Music
Festival, and the singer they had hired was a young girl named Phyllis
Bryn-Julson. She'd never sung before, so they put
my piece together with her accidentally. She was terrific!
She did it so easily that I
said, "Well, I'm gonna write her another piece. This is easy
vocal writing." I wrote Night
Conjure-Verse [(1965), for
soprano, mezzo-soprano (or counter-tenor), and chamber ensemble] which
was a little harder. Then the next year
I wrote something called Syzygy
[(1966), for soprano, horn, and
orchestra] which is just unbelievably difficult. But Phyllis did
them so easily that I really thought that was what singers did.
[Both chuckle] After they were all done and I had a little more
world experience, I realized I'd
created three white elephants and wondered if anyone else in the
world could even sing them. So really in a way,
Phyllis shaped my vocal style because of that burst of being able to
write high, low, and jumping around like an instrument. I've
always somehow thought of the
voice in terms of that kind of variety and extreme
Duffie: Now do you find
that other singers are up to those
Del Tredici: Oh,
yeah. There are always some singers who can do it; in fact there
are more and more.
Duffie: Can they do it
Del Tredici: Well, you
know, it's like anything else.
[Laughter] There are some, but not too many. What I always
find interesting is that first summer at Tanglewood, when I
hadn't met Phyllis, I'd met a more conventional singer who took
my part and said, "This is impossible." She tried to sing it and
it sound horrible. So I wonder, would I, in fact, have gotten
conservative with my vocal writing and never developed the way I would
have? "What if" is really
interesting to me, and I think it points
out the fact that a performer can enormously shape a
Duffie: Have there been
other performers now who have also
shaped different directions for different instruments, or even
different ways of singing?
Del Tredici: No, not
nearly to the
extent that I would say Phyllis had because once we hear somebody do it
and know that
it's possible, we composers just do it. It's like a
computer button — I'll just push that high A
again! [Both chuckle] When you
you are so
involved with creating music, you don't think about — at
least I don't
think about — little problems like are there too
many high A's, or
does it lie too high. The hell with it! I'm not
interested. When I came to writing Final Alice [(1974-75),
for soprano (amplified), folk group, and large orchestra] for the
Chicago Symphony, I thought, "Well, high A is a normal note."
What I hadn't realized is that 200 high A's in a row is
an increasing problem. I mean, it's only one human
being, but luckily, again, I had
Barbara Hendricks, who did high A's easily.
Duffie: Are you, then,
guilty of treating the voice like
an instrument? You can just push the buttons on a keyboard
instrument all the time and it's always right there.
Del Tredici: To a certain
extent, although all the music I love is high-kind of soprano
writing. I love Strauss, I love all of
that kind of vocal writing, so it's just a question of degree. I
push it and I ignore
the human factor. I want this vocal line,
and that's that.
Duffie: Do you feel that
it's the responsibility of a composer
to utilize every possibility of a voice or an instrument that you're
Del Tredici: No. I
think the responsibility of a composer
is to find what aspect of a voice or an instrument is them, that I as a
composer can turn into me. For some reason, that kind of very
agile high-lying vocal writing
is something I can put my personality into. I've
never written for male voice; I have no relationship to the male
voice. I've written for chorus, but that somehow was
shouldn't admit these sins, but I don't really consider
seriously how the words fall, even, in my vocal writing.
Duffie: Well, then what
do you consider?
Del Tredici: The
melody. The melody has to be right. I'm sure many more
this than admit it: I will write a piece, and I won't
know what's sung and what isn't sung. It's all a line with other
subsidiary lines and harmonies,
and depending on how the poem goes, how I will divide it with
the music. For example, Acrostic
Song from Final Alice,
which is certainly vocal, I began composing just as music; I didn't
know what it
was. I got halfway through it and I thought, "Oh my
God, this is a song! I've got to find a text." So I
went to my Alice in Wonderland,
and luckily the
"Acrostic Song" simply fit it. I shaped the end to
really go with it, but that's another thing you can do
with the kind of texts I deal with — that is to
say strophic song,
where if one line fits and the music is very regular, the other
lines will more or less fit. If you're setting something very
modern, like e. e. cummings or Joyce, each line is idiosyncratic, and
it wouldn't work. So for me to say the things
I'm saying, it makes sense in the context of the kind of music I write.
Duffie: You don't feel
that you're a reincarnation of Lewis
Carroll that's still working on the same piece?
Del Tredici: Oh, I am the
reincarnation too, but we won't talk about that. [Both laugh]
Duffie: When you're
writing a piece of music — either for voices or
instruments — are you always in control of that
pencil, or are there
times when that pencil is really guiding your hand?
Del Tredici: Again, I
love the way you phrase that question. I
fight for the times; I try to create an atmosphere where the pencil
is guiding me. Those are the highs you like, when it's
involuntary and comes out of you, and you sit
and watch. I always loved the description Stravinsky gave of how
he wrote Le Sacre. He
said, "I was the vessel through which Le
poured," and that's a very good description of the ideal. When
it's happening to you, you sit back and watch it.
At the same time you're not passive; you're just very much
alive and you're very alert to every little thing that's going on
in your mind. The problem is
getting it down fast enough. It's somehow going
through your brain or your system, or your fingers if you're at a
keyboard, and you think, "How will I remember this?" I always
know when I'm hot composing, and whatever I
write when I'm in that state will be good. You just grab it when
those times are there, because you know you can't predict when it will
Duffie: Are there enough
of those times?
[Chuckles] Knock on wood! [Raps on table with knuckles
Duffie: When you're faced
chore of composing — and I use the term "chore"
advisedly — do
you know how long it will take you to write it, and then, also, do
you know how long it will take to perform the piece once it's out on
Del Tredici: Actually I'm
a very poor estimator of the length of a
piece because I tend to think of my pieces as the succession
of ideas contained. If one movement is one idea, I think it's
short. It's one! And also, because I'm
a pianist, I play it on the piano much more quickly than an
orchestra would play it because of the lack of sustaining power.
I think I played Final Alice
at 40 minutes, and in fact it
came out to 55 or 60. So I'm not a good judge. Composers, I
notorious for not estimating correctly.
Duffie: Do you know how
long it will take you to finish writing a work once it is underway on
Del Tredici: Oh,
no. That's completely in the lap of
the gods. I find that I compose more
quickly than I orchestrate and finish. Orchestration
and writing the whole thing out takes longer than the actual time from
blank page to essential lines and harmonies, which is really the
essence of the piece.
Duffie: When you've got
that you're going to write a certain piece, does it come to you
as a piece, or does it move along linearly?
Del Tredici: [Pondering a
bit] Because I write such odd
pieces... Something like Final
Alice is a
kind of mix of many texts. In
Memory of a Summer Day [(1980), for soprano
(amplified) and orchestra, from Child
Alice, Part I (1977-81)] is also
an hour long. No, I never set out to write the pieces that
have come out. I began Final
Alice as a five-minute encore.
[Sings] "Dah-deee, dah-dahh, da-da..." It's a short poem, so I
thought I would set that, but somehow in my
setting it didn't have a closure. So I thought maybe
I'll do a variation on it. Well that led to a set
of many variations, and then that led to something else, and on and
on. In fact, all along the way I fought it. I
thought, "This is enough! I've got to bound this piece and make
it reasonable. Okay, instead of five minutes, let it be
ten." I've done this in all of my long pieces. Finally, at
a certain point I have to surrender, and realize that
in fact there's this sprawling something that I'm creating. [Both
Duffie: It's growing like
Del Tredici: Yeah!
And I have no idea why. Often when I'm composing I keep a
just jot down any ideas — the way you would do a
journal, without any
connection or association or judgment. Then after a few months I
begin to see a pattern in these jottings. Different musical ideas
tend to go together and then I begin to have
a suggestion of form. That's how a form of my
pieces evolves. I like not knowing; I
don't want to know. If I have a preconceived idea about the
piece, I know it'll never turn out that way. It never has.
Duffie: So it's an
exploration for you, really.
Absolutely! That's the fun.
Duffie: Is it, then, an
exploration for the audience?
Del Tredici: Oh, it
always is. What can they
Duffie: Perhaps after
they've heard it several times, does it then lose something knowing how
it's going to work
Always. That's life! [Both laugh] But then
you have the reward of being able to hear details and things you
would've missed in the first rush of a piece. There are all kinds
It's interesting for me because I like very much to
write pieces that are very long. I often have in my mind the
image of a thriller. If it's a good thriller, you can read two
pages and know you won't put it down. It always turns out that
that's true, and that's my ideal image for writing one of
my long pieces — that after a minute, I've
caught the audience
and it all seems inevitable. They can't let it go 'til
it's all over. I love that idea, the sense that it just had to be
that way, and
it's irresistible. The creation of
inevitability is what a composer tries to do. You want the
illusion that it dropped from
heaven and could be no other way. But it's an illusion.
Duffie: So is the ending
of the piece really inevitable and you know exactly where it's going to
Del Tredici: Yeah.
I had a teacher, Roger
Sessions, who said to me, "There are certain places
in a piece you can't work on. One is the climax and one is the
ending. They have to just come to you."
Duffie: Once you get to
the end of the piece and put the
double bar down, how much tinkering do you do? Do you go back
and fiddle with the score and make adjustments?
Del Tredici: When I first
think I've finished a piece, then I have to play it all the way through
again, and that's very hard because you lose your
freshness. So what I often will do is get up in the morning
and play through it once from beginning to end, and that's
it. Then I just associate with that feeling. Where did I
think it was too long? Where is it
short? Where did it sag? Then I just work on
that and do my corrections. But I only do it once a day because
if I play it
again, I'll lose those feelings and I'll be used to the way it
is — uncorrected. The next day I'll try it
again in this new
corrected version, but then something else will be wrong or the
corrections won't be right. So I'll make another adjustment, and
I'll do that for a long time, not that it's perfect, but until
I can't think of a better way to do it. There are always
places that just are never right from my point of
view. I just sort of abandon it. Like what Mallarmé
said, "I never
finish poems; I abandon them." It's true! I know there are
solutions somewhere, but I can't think of them.
Duffie: Do you ever come
back a couple of years later, or even
after the score is published, and make adjustments?
Del Tredici: Sometimes,
if it's a horrible thing and something better does come to me
later. But when it comes is after I hear it for the first time
because actually all this
composing and tinkering is not the first degree of reality. You
still haven't heard it — if it's not for piano,
which I can realize exactly. But when I hear that rush
of orchestra, when I finally hear it all, that sometimes jogs my
imagination especially in terms of orchestral color
and orchestration. That is something I tinker with enormously
after I hear it. And no matter how much experience I've had
— and I've had a
lot — with writing for orchestra, each piece is
the first time. It's all new for that
piece. I always redo the orchestration once or twice
to some degree after I hear it.
Duffie: You say you
always work in large forms and write big
pieces. Do you have any small pieces at all? Even Acrostic Song that is for flute and
sort of out of Alice.
Del Tredici: Right.
Duffie: You've taken a
little piece of it, but it's not really a
Del Tredici: I think I'm
in a little bit of the
Wagnerian idea where Siegfried Idyll
is a little something out of The Ring.
much sort of that way, and I don't know why! I began
as a normal composer. I wrote little piano pieces and a few
Duffie: [With a gentle
nudge] Is there such a thing as a normal composer?
[Chuckles] Well, I think it's more "normal" to feel natural in
the forms which have had a certain tradition — the
the symphony, etc. I would like to be that way; it's so much more
practical as well. Orchestras
are waiting, quartets are waiting, but nobody is
waiting for an hourlong piece for amplified
soprano and orchestra, nobody!
Duffie: And yet yours get
done with regularity!
Del Tredici: [With amused
pleasure] Ironically it's true. It's interesting, when
somebody really wants to do
something special, they do a piece of mine because there aren't that
many white elephants roaming the musical
Duffie: Do you feel you
are performed enough?
Del Tredici: No composer
is ever performed enough!
[Both chuckle] But it's interesting; it goes in
cycles. With great big pieces it just
depends. To do a big piece of mine is a
real commitment of a budget of a symphony; or when I write with such
difficulty, that cuts out many kinds of singers. So I make
life difficult for myself. There's no getting around it, but it's
what I do!
Duffie: Is it all worth
Del Tredici: I don't know
if it's worth it or
not, but it's what I do.
Duffie: Something else
that you do is your teaching. Have you
been teaching most of your career as well as composing?
Del Tredici: Mm-hmm.
Duffie: Do you get enough
time to compose amongst your classes and lessons?
Del Tredici: My
relationship to teaching has always been love-hate. On one hand
the teaching is an
enormous threat to composing, partly for time because it
just takes a lot of time, but more for energy because teaching is an
immediate energy drain. You go to class,
you teach three or four hours, those students want something and they
get it right there. Something like composing and sort of
following your muse and having vague ideas of a piece seems very
insubstantial in the face of these young sparrows waiting for their
worm. So I tend to
put composing on the back burner when I do heavy
teaching. I've experimented and tried to teach one
semester and not the other. The nice thing about teaching is that
a very secure financial basis, and I need that. Commissions can
pay very well, but they're not
regular. So I have to teach and I enjoy teaching, but it is
another profession. Composing is a profession
and teaching is a profession, and when you combine the two it is at
your own risk.
Duffie: Do you feel
schizophrenic about it?
Del Tredici: Yes, I
do! Definitely, particularly in the
beginning. My first job was at Harvard, and it was such a
thrill to teach there. I enjoyed it, but I stopped
I would compose in the summer only, and after about two or three
years of that, I thought, "Wait a minute, I'm a
composer!" So then
I did start the idea of teaching every other semester, but that also
makes life hard because schools aren't geared
to having you there every other semester.
Duffie: So you have to
carve out your
Del Tredici: Well, it
helps to win the Pulitzer Prize. When
I got that, then I could much more call my own
teaching tune. That was one of the enormous benefits of winning
something like that, not that you
No, I often ask about that, so that's fine;
I'm glad you brought that up. Coming back to the teaching
just a little bit, are you pleased with some of the talent that you
see coming along in composition students?
Del Tredici: I've had
some extraordinary talents. In fact, my first year at Harvard one
of my students
was John Adams. I teach now at City College in New
York, and I've had just some amazingly diverse kinds of
Interestingly enough, I can remember very much how
students are now as when I was a student, and there's so much
more diversity of styles. I'll have a minimal composer,
a tonal composer, a serial composer. I think I
almost envy students now; they can sort of do whatever they
want and it somehow is acceptable, whereas when I was a student at
Princeton, there was a very strong sense that one had to be
an atonal composer, or not be a composer. At that
time I suffered from that.
Duffie: Who is it that
ultimately decides what music should be
written? Is it the composing community, is it the audience, is it
Del Tredici: It's the
composer, I think, and he hopes to find some
resonance in the audience. It's not the composing community,
really. You just have to do what you do. It sounds kind of
trite, but you have to have a sense of yourself. I had composed
in my senior year at college. That
was the beginning, my first attempt. The next year I went to
Princeton, so I was very young, an untried composer. I had
written very little and that
first year at Princeton was just too high-powered for me. I had
very clearly the sense that if I stayed, something
in relation to composing would die, so I quit! But I often
wonder; I don't know where I
got that sense — 'cause I'd written so little
of myself — that
there was something there that to be killed or not killed. I
don't know whether it was real or not real, but it turned out to be
true in the sense that by stopping going to school, I lived in New York
for a couple years and I did just do what I wanted to do
without too-early or too-critical judgement. Then I went back to
Princeton and got a degree, and
it was not a threat. Not from the teacher's point of
view, but as a student, studying composition in school is a mixed
blessing. The "academicizing" of something
as disorderly as composing has its risks.
Duffie: On whose
shoulders is the burden
of sorting out the risks? Is it the teachers, or is it
Del Tredici: Since I
really do compose, one of the things I like about teaching composition
is that I try very very much not to
inhibit their composing. I try to have sense of letting 'em do
what they want. Even when you're a composer, you still wanna
somehow organize the other person... depending on how much of a control
freak you are! But if you're not a composer at all, then you
don't have any idea what's involved. I think students
learn incorrectly because there's such an emphasis on
analysis in school; they think composing is analysis reversed.
The way you would look at a Beethoven sonata, with all of the
order and organization one can see after the fact, is in fact NOT the
way Beethoven composed! Composing is much more chaotic, and you
have to surrender
yourself to your impulses — which one might do
naturally and not think two cents about outside of an academic
situation. But it's the old thing — schooling
brings a self-consciousness that has its price.
Duffie: Do you have any
specific advice for the young composers coming
Del Tredici: Hang on to
your fantasies, whatever they
are and however dimly you may hear them, because that's what you're
Duffie: You receive lots
of commissions. How do you decide which ones
you'll accept, and which ones you'll either push back or decline?
Del Tredici: I always
know the piece
I want to write next, or the kind of thing, so I always choose a
commission that will allow that piece to be
written. For example, no one ever commissioned an Alice work
as such from me. I would get an orchestral commission.
For example, Georg Solti asked me to write a piece for
the Chicago Symphony, and it was just that — a
piece for the Chicago
Symphony. [See my Interviews
with Sir Georg Solti.] I said, "Can I have a soprano?" and he
said, [in a
somewhat grudging tone of voice] "Okay." I then asked, "Can I
have a folk group with saxophones, mandolin,
banjo, accordion?" Well, they were very nice and said yes, but I
knew that that was the kind of ensemble I wanted, so that's why I
Duffie: He didn't look at
you in horror because of those requests?
Del Tredici: No, no; he
said to me, [in a disinterestedly agreeable tone of
voice] "Do whatever you want." But the Chicago Symphony has a
very enlightened view of such things. Thinking of more
traditional expressions of
music — like the quartet or the symphony
or the brass quintet — I wish I felt
like writing them because a lot of groups ask
me, and I want to be able to, but at this point, somehow, I'm
afraid to say I will, for fear... I don't know what I
fear... that I won't be able to do it. I guess that's always a
I've never not been able to write something I wanted to write, it is an
occupation full of superstition. It's not like
composing isn't like something you learn and, "Oh!" . . . you just do
for the rest of your life. When you look at great composers, they
had periods where they were wonderful,
and then some composers just got worse and worse! Think of
someone like Schumann... of course
he went crazy, whatever that means... he deteriorated. With Hugo
Wolf, all those songs come in
a very short span. Someone like Verdi is a great exception.
did everything right — successful, rich, a
patriot, everyone loved him, and he
wrote his best piece when he was in his eighties. [Both chuckle]
Duffie: Hooray for Falstaff!
[Chuckles] Yeah, exactly.
Duffie: Are you looking
writing your best piece when you're in your eighties?
Del Tredici: Well, I
always wonder about Schubert and
Mozart; suppose they had lived to be seventy, would
they have gotten better and better? I'd love to have seen
Mozart gone academic after about fifty.
Duffie: Of course you
one example of that in Rossini. He wrote up to a certain point
and then quit writing. He kept living but he essentially quit
Del Tredici: And so did
Duffie: Yeah, but he came
back to it.
Del Tredici: He came
back, but maybe it has to do with operas,
too. Maybe it's an opera thing; it' such a
horrible thing writing operas, the whole collaborative aspect.
They probably get sick of it.
Duffie: With all of your
stage works and everything, are
there operas in your canon or are they still just mixed media?
Del Tredici: No!
I've been afraid to write an opera when I
think how it's always been a
collaborative element, although I'm thinking about it again. I'm
looking at the world of Italian folktales. I even went
so far as to read Pinocchio,
but I don't know. I'd love to
write an opera! It seems to me that I should have one
Duffie: There's sort of a
resurgence now of people using the Goldoni
Del Tredici: I don't know
those. I just bought a volume of Italian
Folktales edited by Italo Calvino [published in 1956]. I brought
it with me to Chicago, but have
not cracked it.
Duffie: You always bring
your ideas with you; are you always
working on your pieces wherever you go?
Del Tredici: I'm working
on Steps now, which is gonna
be done with the New York Philharmonic in March. I brought the
score with me to look at on the plane, in my
hotel room... Yes, I like to work nonstop, obsessively.
Duffie: Is it just there,
or do you actually get some work done
Del Tredici: What I'm
doing now is orchestrating it without
dynamics, without slurs, without any markings. After that I xerox
it and have it bound like a book. Then I put in
all of those things that are missing. It's like the final
draft. Then I revise it again because when
you try to put in all the little tiny things that people take
for granted, I'm hearing it more exactly. And in hearing
it more exactly I'm less satisfied with it, so it's like a whole
other draft. So that's the score I have brought with me, and
that's a very good thing to do when you're
Duffie: Sure. Is
there really only one way to perform any of
Del Tredici: What do you
mean "one way"?
Duffie: One right way.
Del Tredici: Oh,
no! That's one of the nice things about
performance. Because I'm a performer, I know
very well it's wonderful to have somebody think of a way that's
better than anything you ever thought of. It's just a dream; you
fall in love with them, you wanna marry them. It doesn't
happen that often, but it's wonderful when it does... or when a
who has real ideas about a piece — about shaping
a piece — that you never
had. The thing which is so discouraging to me is a
performer who's neutral and just kinda does it without any commitment
— especially if they're proficient. I want to
know what's wrong?
Why can't you get involved? It's
sounds like you're equating it with "pedantic."
Del Tredici: Yeah,
because so much is still in a piece that you can't
write in the score! I mean motion and energy which you're
trying to catch when you write down notes and dynamics and
phrases. All those are just meant to
suggest a sense of flow — an ebb and flow
— and if
someone doesn't tune in to that and just literally does what they
see, it doesn't come out right. It's like language
or inflection. I want the performer to get on to my bandwagon,
and somehow I try to give every clue that will help. But if it
work it doesn't, and it's very frustrating because it's like any kind
of simpatico; some people you like to be with,
and some you don't! Some conductors like to be with my music
and it makes others nervous! I think my whole sense of excess and
length and pushing
things to a certain kind of limit and extreme virtuosity makes more
conservative types uncomfortable. I mean my music is unsettling
and it's very loud.
Duffie: Are you pushing
the limits of music?
Del Tredici: Sure, in the
sense that I write very long
pieces that I want to be coherent. It's not as
though I write just to go on. It could go on forever in
a very minimal way, and where you tune in or tune out doesn't
matter. [Emphatically] No! If I write for
an hour, I want to grip the audience for an hour. I want to be
the boa constrictor wrapped around
that pig of an audience for one hour.
Duffie: Now, now...
Shouldn't you be nicer to the audience?
Del Tredici: No, I have a
aggressive view of the audience. It's the composer's way
to have power. I want to be the Svengali that just
hypnotizes the audience and has it under my control for one hour.
Duffie: What do you
expect of that audience that comes to
hear a piece of yours?
Del Tredici: To love it
Mm-hmm! That's all it is.
Duffie: Do you succeed?
Del Tredici: I try!
Duffie: Do they succeed?
Del Tredici: [Thinks for
Sure! Everybody wins. If they love me, I'm very
happy; and if they've enjoyed the
piece, they've had an experience that's pleasurable.
So they're happy.
Duffie: You mentioned
that you're shying away from the collaborative effort. Is that
one of the hidden reasons that your pieces are so
long, that you then don't have to collaborate on a program with
anybody else — it's entirely your program?
Del Tredici: It just grew
up willy-nilly that
way. I began with a simple text, and then it got
longer and longer. I found The
Alice, which is Alice in
Wonderland with annotations by Martin Gardner. Because he
a lot of extra poems on which the Carroll poems are based, he, in fact,
gave me a libretto. So I got used to setting all these
Duffie: But if you write
a piece which is an hour,
you have the half of the program to yourself. If it was a
20-minute piece, there'd have to be something
Del Tredici: Oh no, I'm
not that megalomaniacal. [Laughs] Not really. But Alice in Wonderland has a
story. It's operatic in a sense
that it's a way of getting the audience out of the normal concert
hall format; although I like creating for that format but
changing the terms of it. It's a
little like Romeo and Juliet
or Damnation of Faust by
Berlioz. They are for the concert hall, but yet they're like an
opera; they have a story and a
progression, and I like that. I don't know why, but it
appeals to me.
occasionally staged those Berlioz works; do you ever want
your pieces to be staged?
Del Tredici: Well, they
made a wonderfully successful
ballet of In Memory of a Summer Day.
[This was entitled Alice.]
Glen Tetley choreographed The National Ballet of Canada. It never
occurred to me to do that, but he made it completely visual. I
think my music is very visual and
very three-dimensional. So I would like someone to make me write
Duffie: [Obliging the
request] Write an opera!!!
Del Tredici: Thank
you. [Much laughter]
Duffie: Get all the
managements of the companies together, and collaborate to take it
Del Tredici: I'd love to
do it. It exhausts me to think about all
Duffie: Have you
Del Tredici: Oh,
no. I have two more in my trunk which I've
already mostly written. I have written a lot of
pieces over the years just 'cause
that's what I'm writing, and then I stuff them in the trunk and pull
them out when a commission comes along.
But I got very interested in Alice for some reason; in fact, it
started with the Chicago Symphony. My second commission was
for an orchestral piece, and I wrote something called March
To Tonality in 1985. I think it was the first
non-Alice piece. Then I got interested in writing other works
like that, and wrote something called Tattoo
orchestra in 1986. Now I'm writing Steps for
orchestra. When I look at all three, they have
similar qualities but a very different atmosphere than the Alice pieces. It's hard to
characterize yourself, but they certainly are
darker and have a kind of... I wouldn't say
but there's a kind of idea that will run
through the whole piece, a kind of inexorable, repetitive
rhythm. It's just very different to
me than the than the kind of music I wrote in Alice. Also, I
think I'm starting to discover the world of dissonance, and in
a sense I'm going through the history of tonality in my own
music! If you can think of myself beginning
tonally with a work like Final Alice,
which is quite pure in its use of tonic-dominants and other chords, and
gradually I've added more and more
dissonance in these orchestral pieces, so
that I'm doing the progression from Schumann through Mahler within my
Duffie: And yet the rest
of music seems to be going from Mahler
back through Mozart in its tonality and
Del Tredici: Oh, well,
who can tell the direction of music
nowadays? You're speaking in general?
Del Tredici: I suppose
yeah, you're right. Well, I guess it's a normal
thing. Nothing stays the same. I've gotten
used to being tonal. To me it's completely natural.
It just is the air I breathe, so naturally I get
interested in upping the
dissonance level. I write quite weird chords and it
becomes really quite atonal, although I never think about being atonal
or not. I just simply get it to sound
the way I want to, and maybe when it's all over I look and go,
"Jesus, what is this chord?" But I do notice when I
take my own temperature as it were, that it becomes more and more
dissonant. So suddenly I'll end up being atonal in
1996 when the rest of the world has
gone into Mozart-like white notes.
Duffie: Do you think that
heading in a much more simplistic direction?
Del Tredici: Certainly
certain kinds are; look at
minimalism. That's screaming and saying
music can be this simple. We did lose touch with some of the most
elemental transports of music when we got so involved with
atonality and the complexity of musical rhythms.
Duffie: Is there any hope
Del Tredici: Well,
there's always hope, as long as there are
breathing, bloody composers.
Duffie: We've kind of
around it a little bit, so let me hit you with the big philosophical
question — what's the purpose of music?
Del Tredici: The purpose
is pleasure, but I didn't make that up. I always hang
onto this anecdote... Someone asked Debussy, "Mr.
Debussy, what is your method?" He said, "My method is pleasure,"
and it's true. I compose because it
brings me enormous pleasure and excitement. Something comes
out of me I didn't know was there, and I try to capture it and
write it down. Then that is me; somehow I've made permanent some
aspect of my personality. You can tell a
funny story or a joke and see delight on people's faces for
the moment, but then it's gone! Whereas if I can put whatever
that is about myself that
is me into a piece, there it is and that's irresistible! That's
never dying. That's one thing that's very appealing, although
I've never been asked that question. It's just fun to
do! Does it have to be a lot more than that?
necessarily! [Both laugh]
Del Tredici: Can't you
just think of composers as some sort of
Duffie: Is music an
Del Tredici: No, but it
totally involves the body and
the brain. You're very alive, the way I often think of when
somebody is doing a terrifically wonderful dive or running a
race; you're just enormously alive. Especially nowadays, too
often you think of
composing as a mental thing. Nobody really has any idea what goes
on; you just think it up. You try real hard,
you shut your eyes, or you put on incense. You don't
that it's physical, but because I'm a pianist, I
compose at the piano and I run around and jump; it's completely
physical. When I'm on a hot streak, I often wish there
were a video camera on me, 'cause I'd like to see what I'm doing and
much translates into body language.
Duffie: Have you thought
of putting a camera in your studio to catch that?
Del Tredici: [Bursts out
laughing] No! My electronics budget is too
Duffie: Speaking of
electronics, are you pleased with the records
that have been made of your music?
Del Tredici: Yes!
I've been thrilled that long pieces such as Final Alice and In Memory of a Summer Day
were even recorded! But it's funny... I think because I've
had works recorded, in a sense I sometimes compose
with a record in mind. I'll think, "This section won't
really come out unless it's on a record." It's just the whole
idea that you can balance things and get an ideal balance on a record
could never get in a concert hall. Especially for my
works, records are almost essential because I use a
soprano and a very large, active orchestra. In
reality they have to have heavy amplification which distorts the voice
unless it's a very sophisticated hall — which
most concert halls aren't; they're
old, and sophistication in electronics is new. So there's always
a terrible loss because the
voice is distorted! Or if you don't amplify it, you don't hear
it. So a
record is perfect because you hear them in the right
balance and there's no sense of distortion.
Duffie: Does the disc
then set up an impossible standard for future live
Del Tredici: I don't
know; yes and
no. But what I love is if people who want to do my music just
hear the record, they have no idea what's involved when you
really have a roaring 104-piece Mahler
orchestra and a soprano on a low C, and they're supposed to be the same
level. For some
reason I have no regard for realistic balances, and I will write a
soprano on a low C if that note down
there is climactic. And I'll have a big orchestra because
there is amplification and it can be heard. It may
mean I'll have to have very extraordinary amplification, but I take
Duffie: This is what you
want, and so you let the
performers accomplish it?
Del Tredici: Yeah!
Exactly. And I think that kind of thing is what feeds the
more imaginative, inventive performers! They're looking
for something; they're looking for a mountain that hasn't been climbed,
or a desert that hasn't been crossed! And, you know, that's
fun! In fact, my music has appealed to performers and conductors
who like a challenge. Phyllis Bryn-Julson has
said to me, "I love singing your music; it opens me up! It's only
your music does that. I don't know what it
is; it's about jumping around like that." She has also told me,
"Nobody else writes that way; I never can do what I can
do. In fact, I didn't know I
could do that until you asked me to do it!" So there's a certain
reciprocity that's quite pleasing.
you for being a composer — for all
of your works so far and for those yet to be created!
Del Tredici: What a nice
interview! You're very good. You make it very easy.
You were able to bring out things I've never said with your good
questions. Thank you.
[Genuinely flattered by the remark] Thank you so very much.
|Generally recognized as the
father of the Neo-Romantic movement in music, David Del Tredici has
received numerous awards (including the Pulitzer Prize) and has been
commissioned and performed by nearly every major American and European
orchestral ensemble. "Del Tredici," said Aaron Copland, "is that rare
find among composers — a creator with a truly original gift. I venture
to say that his music is certain to make a lasting impression on the
American musical scene. I know of no other composer of his generation
who composes music of greater freshness and daring, or with more
Much of his early work consisted of elaborate vocal settings of James
Joyce (I Hear an Army; Night Conjure-Verse; Syzygy) and Lewis Carroll
(Pop-Pourri, An Alice Symphony, Vintage Alice and Adventures
Underground, to name just a few). More recently, Del Tredici has set to
music a cavalcade of contemporary American poets, often celebrating a
gay sensibility (three examples: Gay Life, Love Addiction and Wondrous
the Merge). OUT Magazine, in fact, has twice named the composer one of
its people of the year.
Over the past several years he has ventured into the more intimate
realm of chamber music with String Quartet No. 1, Grand Trio (brought
to life by the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio and recently printed by
Boosey & Hawkes), and — harkening to his musical beginnings as a
piano prodigy — a large number of solo-piano works (Gotham Glory, Three
Gymnopedies, Ballad in Yellow, S/M Ballade, and Aeolian Ballade).
Still, the extravagant Del Tredici remains at large and busy. In May
2005 Robert Spano conducted the Atlanta Symphony and Chorus in the
premiere and subsequent recording of Paul Revere's Ride, recently
nominated for the 49th Annual Grammy Awards as the Best New Classical
Composition of 2006. November 2005 held the world premiere of the
melodrama Rip Van Winkle with the National Symphony Orchestra conducted
by Leonard Slatkin and narrated by world famous Broadway actor, Brian
In recent years several Del Tredici CDs have abounded: on Deutsche
Grammophon, an all-Del Tredici CD (released in its highly-regarded
"20/21" series) featuring conductor Oliver Knussen, soprano Lucy
Shelton and the Netherlands' ASKO Ensemble; on the Music and Arts
label, a pair of recent Del Tredici song cycles featuring soprano Hila
Plitmann with the composer at the piano; on Dorian, In Wartime, a
spectacular new work for concert band; and on Koch, a selection of
piano compositions played by Anthony de Mare. Among past recordings
were two best-sellers — Final Alice and In Memory of a Summer Day (Part
I of Child Alice); the latter work won Del Tredici the Pulitzer Prize
March 2007 marked David Del Tredici's 70th birthday, with concerts
given throughout the year, including the premiere of Magyar Madness, a
chamber piece for clarinet and string quartet, commissioned by Music
Accord for clarinetist David Krakauer and the Orion String Quartet.
Another premiere was S/M Ballade for solo piano which was commissioned
and performed by Marc Peloquin.
Recent publications include a collection entitled Songs for Baritone
and Piano as well as the score and parts for the piano trio entitled
Grand Trio. A second printed volume of solo piano pieces is in progress
which will include Gotham Glory and Three Gymnopedies.
Distinguished Professor of Music at The City College of New York, Del
Tredici makes his home in Greenwich Village.
David Del Tredici is published exclusively by Boosey & Hawkes.
© 1990 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded in a dressing room downstairs at
Orchestra Hall in Chicago on January 8,
Portions (along with recordings)
were used on WNIB in 1992 and 1997. This
made and posted on this
website in 2011.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago
from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of
2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and
journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM,
as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a
century ago. You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.