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

White Elephants

FRANK J. OTERI: When I think of your music, I think of big things. You write big pieces.

DAVID DEL TREDICI: That’s me.

FRANK J. OTERI: You’ve written for all different sizes of ensembles and you’ve written all different sizes of pieces. It’s unfair to generalize, but for some reason when I think of you, I think of big pieces for big orchestra and it’s clear in these pieces that you love the orchestra.

DAVID DEL TREDICI: It’s true. When you want a white elephant of one hour or more, I’m the man to come to.

FRANK J. OTERI: What is it about the orchestra that attracts you again and again to it to say new things?

DAVID DEL TREDICI: It’s hard to say. I’m not an orchestral musician. I’d guess you’d say the color. Since I am very interested in pieces that are long—that go over a lot of time—I’m therefore interested in the biggest ensembles to project an hour. I can’t imagine an hour on the piano as well as I can an hour in the orchestra.

FRANK J. OTERI: That’s interesting because you’re a pianist.

DAVID DEL TREDICI: I’m a pianist and I’ve never, ever used a piano in my orchestra. I don’t know why. I came to the orchestra gradually as a pianist—of course I first wrote for the piano—then I added voice, then I added a string quartet, then 6 players, then 8 players, and then my first orchestral commission came along. Most of my orchestral pieces have been tied to voices. I guess what are best known are all my settings from Alice in Wonderland, particularly Final Alice and then In Memory of a Summer Day

FRANK J. OTERI: Which won the Pulitzer Prize.

DAVID DEL TREDICI: …which won the Pulitzer Prize, both of which are an hour long.

FRANK J. OTERI: Then of course In Memory of a Summer Day is part of an even larger work Child Alice which has never been recorded in its entirety.

DAVID DEL TREDICI: No, it has only been played once. Child Alice is two hours. It’s a whole evening. It was done once by the American Symphony with John Mauceri at Carnegie Hall a while ago. So rather than being interested in the orchestra, I’m interested in controlling musical time in a non-minimal way, in a maximal way.

FRANK J. OTERI: This is interesting in that you feel like you couldn’t conceive of an hour-long piece for the piano. Certainly there have been 2-hour or even 5-hour long pieces for solo piano, but usually those works, like La Monte Young‘s The Well-Tuned Piano, are minimalist pieces.

DAVID DEL TREDICI: Yeah, I don’t count minimal—that’s its own world. You can say play this chord 5,000 times then you’ve got an hour. I’m more interested in the way of controlling time where you’re not actually meant to be lulled into a trance. I try to hold the interest in the way that one might in, let’s say, a Mahler symphony. Perhaps as a composer I ask the audience to have an expanded sense of time. To hear Mahler you have to be generous with time. I just like the challenge that after 45 minutes of an hour-long piece—I can write something and I’ll like it at the moment, but when it comes in the course of the hour it doesn’t fit. The idea of writing all the details of music and having a sense of the long line is a challenge. I’m interested in the long line, the long musical line.

FRANK J. OTERI: In a way your pieces and obviously Mahler’s pieces, which you just cited, along with Bruckner—these are the musical equivalent of the big novels of the 19th century by Trollope, Thackeray, or Dickens: that narrative, the big story…

DAVID DEL TREDICI: Yes I love that—controlling time. I want to stop time. My image when I would write the big Alice pieces was like reading a big mystery story. From the first few pages something about it holds you and you can’t stop until you get to the end. That page-turner quality is something I wanted to do with music. Not really with stories, but with musical continuity. It comes very much out of my childhood. I began playing the piano very late, when I was 12. By the time I was 17, I was giving recitals and playing with orchestras. What I liked playing most were long, romantic pieces at least a half an hour long, which you have to hold together. I happened to have a piano teacher from Germany, Bernhard Abramowitsch, who was very much in the Arthur Schnabel tradition of really making these long pieces hold together. So when I would play something he had a very good sense of where it was lagging. He didn’t care about my technique or about the details, but he did care about the projection of the long line, which is very unusual. I had that as a physical reality when I played the piano. I could feel when I had the audience in the grip of my hand, or I was holding it. So when I came to composition, somehow that ideal of holding an audience for a long period of time continued and carried over.

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