Thinking Big: David Del Tredici, a conversation in 13 parts
FRANK J. OTERI: Let’s talk about some of the recent pieces, like the pieces on the recent CRI disc. You’ve been writing a lot of short songs recently. We’ve been talking a lot about long form pieces.
DAVID DEL TREDICI: Right. It’s been a new epiphany since 1995. Also non-Lewis Carroll texts
FRANK J. OTERI: Right, and texts that deal openly with being gay.
DAVID DEL TREDICI: That’s true. My life took a dramatic turn. When I became very successful with the big pieces, I became an alcoholic. A big surprise to me. For about 10 years I was in that state. Then I got into recovery and sort of had to put myself together again. During that period, around the early ’90s, my output was kind of low. I was still composing, but I felt like it wasn’t the main thing. I thought maybe that’s the trade off. You give up your vices and you get to have a more balanced life. You get to be a better person, but you give up the high of composing and the wildness. Then I went away for a week to a place called the Body Electric School for gay men. There was all kinds of erotic massage. They deal with sex and sexual energy very directly. A lot of stuff I had not really done. During this workshop a couple of people had written poems to say “I love it here.” Whatever. I was staying at Yaddo, the artist colony, before I went away for the week. When I got back to Yaddo I was suddenly lonely from this wildly, thrilling, sexual, erotic environment. I was back in the artist colony being a good boy. So I took one of these poems that had been written and I set it to music, just because I missed the place. Then I set another one. I told people all about the experience. Chana Bloch said, “I just did a sexy new translation of The Song of Songs, do you want to see it?” So I set some of that. I started setting these poems so fast, way faster than I composed before, and I wasn’t setting Lewis Carroll. I just couldn’t set enough. It continued for years. I think I set a hundred songs over a year or two. I could not stop. A lot of them, as you suggested, celebrate being gay. I decided I’m just going to let it hang out. What have I got to lose? I’ve been a good boy for a long time, so I let my Lewis Carroll out of the bag. I always wondered why I was setting his stuff over and over again. What is it? I mean I didn’t even read the book all the way through. I never sat down and read Alice in Wonderland.
FRANK J. OTERI: That’s amazing.
DAVID DEL TREDICI: But I played the white rabbit when I was 12 years old. See that picture over there? [laughs] I never had time. I’d simply look through the book, find something I liked, and it would possess me. I was that way about poetry in this new period, too. I would just see a poem and I could tell almost immediately if I’d set it.
FRANK J. OTERI: I would posit a theory about these Alice pieces. In a way Lewis Carroll’s cerebral love affair with Alice was this very closeted…
DAVID DEL TREDICI: Closet is the word. Thank you for putting me back on the point. In a way I identified with Lewis Carroll the man, not Alice, but this man with a secret. He has to hide it by being charming, brilliant, and witty. I identified with that. Through music I could hide being gay, even though I was sort of out, as a lot of people are here in New York City. But somehow it was still a secret. I decided to give that up and see what would happen—or it was decided for me. This changed things. There is a lot of lip service too when the erotic and the creative connect. They are connected. It felt very much like this became an experiential reality. Something happened to me and it actually has persisted to this day. I’ve gone back for other workshops like this, but it did open up a part of myself. I compose much more quickly and with sureness. I’m not afraid to write anything. It’s strange. Last week I wrote this piece for treble choir, four heartfelt anthems in three voices. This week I just heard my enormous In War Time band piece. It couldn’t be more different—this huge massive thing.
FRANK J. OTERI: In War Time? So this was written about something right now.
DAVID DEL TREDICI: Yes, it was written during the past 4 months—the whole Iraq war. So it’s a timely thing, although I’d still say the music is tonal, but it’s a new out-ness that I’ve embraced since Alice.
FRANK J. OTERI: I want to talk about the piece that was done at the San Francisco Symphony last year.
DAVID DEL TREDICI: Gay Life.
FRANK J. OTERI: There was some talk at the time that the symphony wasn’t promoting the name of this piece as actively as perhaps they ought to.
DAVID DEL TREDICI: [laughs] Really?
FRANK J. OTERI: I guess there was some fear about maybe offending some board member, or offending somebody somewhere. It still presses some buttons with people.
DAVID DEL TREDICI: Absolutely, especially people in the higher realms of classical music. The last bastion of conservatives is the symphonic board. Those people with the money and the clout are usually very conservative.
FRANK J. OTERI: Yet, this is the world you want to write music for.
DAVID DEL TREDICI: Well, they got the cookies I want to eat. [laughs]
FRANK J. OTERI: [laughs] So how do you strike that balance?
DAVID DEL TREDICI: They did the piece! There was a certain amount of reluctance I’ll have to say. I was even asked to rename it. But I didn’t and they went ahead. Part of my mission is to bring being gay as a celebrated musical thing into classical music. The piece exists. Now you can sing about the life of a gay man. Gay Life is five songs: there’s an AIDS poem, there’s an “I’m trying to meet a man” poem, there’s “I’ve lost my lover.” There are all kinds of different aspects to being gay. It’s not just one thing. I want to create a literature that makes gay acceptable. For some reason, I’m the one to do it. I lament the fact that there were so many wonderful gay composers in America—Copland, Barber, Menotti, Bernstein—who all kept it hidden. People say it was the times. Nonetheless, they kept it hidden in a public way.
FRANK J. OTERI: Lou Harrison was an exception.
DAVID DEL TREDICI: He was an exception but he did not have the public impact at that time. He was out. John Cage never came out. Merce Cunningham is still not out. I think someone like Copland could have come out. He would have nothing to lose in a position as impregnable as his is and was. I think he should have.
FRANK J. OTERI: I wonder because he was also very politically left of center and kept that quiet, too.
DAVID DEL TREDICI: Well, that was different. That is related to the McCarthy Era. He was basically apolitical, I mean, when I knew him. I knew him from the age of 65, maybe earlier. Lou Harrison did come. He’s the one person I can think of. But there is this enormous history of wonderful gay composers and it certainly isn’t celebrated.
FRANK J. OTERI: Ned Rorem is certainly out.
DAVID DEL TREDICI: Yeah, that’s true. Ned Rorem is out. That’s another exception.
FRANK J. OTERI: But more in his writings than in the themes of his music.
DAVID DEL TREDICI: That’s true, but I think just coming out and saying, “Yes, I am a gay man and it’s great,” or “it’s painful.” It’s also another thing today that somebody is gay and they don’t ever acknowledge it. That is different. I don’t call that out.
FRANK J. OTERI: Yes. It’s interesting when we say that Ned’s pieces aren’t necessarily about being gay. Gay Life is about being gay. In a wild kind of way the Alice pieces—we were talking about this notion of closets—are about being gay. Lou Harrison is the only other composer I can think of who wrote works like Young Caesar, that celebrate being gay.
DAVID DEL TREDICI: Really? The trouble is that nobody has ever heard it.
FRANK J. OTERI: They tried to do it at the Lincoln Center Festival…
DAVID DEL TREDICI: I know. Was it the gay aspect that quashed it?
FRANK J. OTERI: That’s the rumor.
DAVID DEL TREDICI: Oh, I can’t believe it. Also, the thing about my Lewis Carroll pieces is that they are really about being out. In the sense that when they were done in England—this whole idea of having the love songs come out all tonal (or atonal I can’t tell which he said)—they took great offense at my treatment of Lewis Carroll. They thought it was horrific that I let the erotic out of the bottle, or suggested that there was this whole other side to Lewis Carroll. In America we don’t care. It’s not really our book. Somehow it was more proprietary in England. I was amazed by this different aspect. My settings are also very emotional, which is not really the way the book is commonly perceived.
FRANK J. OTERI: In a weird way tonality at that point in time was the musical language that dare not speak its name.
DAVID DEL TREDICI: [laughs] I like that. That’s exactly right. Great.