Thinking Big: David Del Tredici, a conversation in 13 parts

The Piano

FRANK J. OTERI: I want to talk a little bit about the piano. You started out as a composer/pianist. Years ago I was at a dinner with La Monte Young who talked about being in classes with you and what a great pianist you were. Talk about wanting to be a fly on the wall, to have been in this composition class with you, La Monte Young, Terry Riley, and Pauline Oliveros all together in the same room.

DAVID DEL TREDICI: That’s right, it was Seymour Shifrin‘s composition class in 1959. I had just begun to compose the summer before, and Seymour let me in. I was very good friends with La Monte—this total weirdo! Before hippies existed, he was this total in-flower hippy. He was so strange. My mother used to say, “can’t you find a more normal friend than this person?” He used to walk around in a cape. I was such a straight arrow. I don’t know why we became friends. I did play an early piano piece of his. I remember being in his apartment and smelling this strange smell for the first time in my life. It was pot [laughs].

FRANK J. OTERI: His memory of you to this day is as a pianist. He said, “David is such a great pianist.” And he’s sitting there looking at me and asked, “What ever happened to him?” I told him you’ve won a Pulitzer Prize. You’ve had this piece done by this orchestra. And he said, “Really?”

DAVID DEL TREDICI: Yeah, La Monte…[laughs]. He sounds like my old piano teacher who kept wanting me to return to the piano.

FRANK J. OTERI: But you still play.

DAVID DEL TREDICI: Yes.

FRANK J. OTERI: I saw you at Joe’s Pub last fall. It was wonderful.

DAVID DEL TREDICI: Oh, you were there for that.

FRANK J. OTERI: Of course.

DAVID DEL TREDICI: Yeah, I play. It seems to stay, but my ego is not in playing. I don’t care about playing. I only play my own stuff. I also play Bob Helps‘s music because he was a dear friend.

FRANK J. OTERI: But you never use the piano in the orchestra.

DAVID DEL TREDICI: I never have. I don’t know why. I use it in small ensembles. I have a lot of pieces for like eleven instruments with piano, which is the smallest orchestral sound group I can find.

FRANK J. OTERI: And never anything like a concerto.

DAVID DEL TREDICI: No. I’ve never written a concerto, which would be a natural. I don’t know. It doesn’t interest me. There are so many good concertos. I’d rather write a piece for which there is no tradition. I love that idea. Like all of my Alice pieces, there is no tradition for doing this. I felt out there. I like being out there.

FRANK J. OTERI: The move toward tonality, and away from serialism, kind of paralleled your stepping away from being an active performer.

DAVID DEL TREDICI: Well, no. There is no connection. When I began to get interested in composing, atonality was simply in the air. As a kid I had played Schoenberg, from the age of 15. My piano teacher played at the Composers’ Forum. I always knew this music. It was in my ear and part of my experience. So that was the way that I composed. You are what you eat. Actually, when I returned to tonality a number of years later, I realized that my great interest in being tonal was hooking back to when I was a pianist and playing all this Romantic music. I always had a lot of skill in counterpoint classes. I always could do it. I always could write it and I didn’t know why, but I didn’t count it. It just seemed like something you do. When I got to the Alice pieces, I allowed myself to count that I could write tonally. That this was actually real composing was an epiphany. The skills that I had learned just by playing Schumann, Chopin, and Brahms, without knowing I was learning it, I brought it into my active compositional life. In a sense, I had hooked into the piano in a composing sort of way.

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