Thinking Big: David Del Tredici, a conversation in 13 parts
FRANK J. OTERI: Tell me about upcoming pieces.
DAVID DEL TREDICI: I’ve just had my upcomings. [laughs] There was the chorus piece, and the band piece. I’m going to write a string quartet next.
FRANK J. OTERI: Right, for Elements.
DAVID DEL TREDICI: No, I’ve written them their. That’s going to be premiered soon. I’m writing for a group called the DaPonte String Quartet. You may not know them yet. They’re a young group from Maine.
FRANK J. OTERI: How long of a piece?
DAVID DEL TREDICI: A string quartet, you know?
FRANK J. OTERI: Half an hour?
DAVID DEL TREDICI: I don’t know. Then I’m writing my 9/11 piece for Bob Spano and the Atlanta Symphony. I’m making a setting of the midnight ride of Paul Revere for chorus and orchestra. Something I’ve written a lot of just out of patriotism, an emotion I have never felt until 9/11 happened. I saw it happen, and they [the rescue workers] would go up and down my street. Somehow I was overcome by this wave and I began the process of setting this.
FRANK J. OTERI: I’m questioning patriotism and what it means for music, and what it means for art. Patriotism doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing with the government.
DAVID DEL TREDICI: Interesting. I’ve never felt patriotism in my life. It’s one of those things you hear about, or it’s corny, but I felt it. We have to be threatened somehow to feel pride in where you are because it can suddenly be taken away, or is taken away in the way you knew it. So I just experienced it as a feeling. Of course, in those days the government wasn’t as horrible as it is now. [laughs]
FRANK J. OTERI: [laughs] In those days, September 2001?
DAVID DEL TREDICI: Well, there wasn’t this sense of a war coming on. I mean the world changed after that, for me anyway. Bushies were still a more benign force. When was he elected?
FRANK J. OTERI: He wasn’t elected [laughs].
DAVID DEL TREDICI: [laughs] I mean when was he placed?
FRANK J. OTERI: November 2000. He assumed office on January 2001, so he had that little honeymoon until September.
DAVID DEL TREDICI: Boy, has the world changed.
FRANK J. OTERI: The war piece for band, what’s that about?
DAVID DEL TREDICI: Well, I did write in those 4 months from the time Bush was given the power by congress to declare war to when the war actually started. The first movement is a hymn, like a hymn before battle. The second movement is a battle march. I sort of have an East meets West—I use the national anthem of Persia meets the Tristan und Isolde theme. I don’t know how I did this. I like to use quotes. I originally called the piece Christians and Infidels, and then I was told that might cause problems.
FRANK J. OTERI: [laughs] So you changed this title, but you wouldn’t change Gay Life.
DAVID DEL TREDICI: It’s true. I capitulated to this one.
FRANK J. OTERI: Your music is very much about conveying a message and coming away with something. How do you convey those messages without words? What do you do?
DAVID DEL TREDICI: I don’t know. The joy of music is its unspecific quality. It’s emotion, but who knows what it is? It comes out of me, I find the musical equivalent, and I put it on paper. What is it about? I don’t really know. I’m a vessel and the stuff comes out of me. I’m opened to various degrees at different times in my life. Composing is all unbidden. The better it is, the less you know what it is you’re doing. You just surrender. I love the quote from Igor Stravinsky, “I am the vessel from which Le Sacre poured.” I love that passive voice. It really does feel like that. It’s not my business to know the message, and I don’t really write message music. But what I’m excited about, like being gay for instance, I choose texts to celebrate that. The texts perhaps speaks the message, but when it’s a non-text… I don’t know. What is great about music is that you can attribute anything you want to what you hear. Nobody knows!