Thinking Big: David Del Tredici, a conversation in 13 parts
FRANK J. OTERI: You mentioned to me before we began that you have recently written for concert band. There’s the piece that just premiered in Texas. Are there things you can do with an orchestra, a regular symphonic orchestra that you can’t do with any other ensemble? What’s unique about the orchestra?
DAVID DEL TREDICI: The vastness of possibilities. You have all these people that you get to control. The more people doing your music, the more of a thrill it is. I can say how I came to the orchestra. When I got my first orchestral commission it was a piece called Pop-Pourri. It happened to have chorus and a folk group, a lot of things I didn’t know anything about. I heard a performance; it was horrible orchestration but I still liked the music. I never took orchestration, so I rewrote it. I happened to hear it again, luckily. It was still horrible, but I hung onto the music—there is some way of making these notes, this idea, into having an orchestral life. Then I met Michael Tilson Thomas, he had done a piece of mine. He said to me, “You know David, the orchestra is about everybody playing the same thing together.” That awakened in me the idea of octaves. Things have to be doubled. I came at that time in the early ’60s from the world of chamber music where there was no such thing as doubling at the octave. I wrote only for solo lines. So when transferred to the orchestra, I put all these very complicated rhythms times 16, if you’re thinking about the first violins. I learned then that doublings are a necessity, octaves were the blood of the orchestra. Writing for the orchestra purged me of rhythmic vanities. I had to give up 7 in the time of 10—you can write anything for solo players because if you’re wrong it’s only one person and it sounds right. 7 in the time of 10 for an orchestral player is impossible to ever get right. And the reality of orchestral rehearsal hours came into it. If you write a long piece it has to basically, I learned, be sight readable by a major orchestra; they just have to be able to play it. So I really had to get down to the essentials, especially in rhythm, to see how could I fudge it so I get the rhythmic effect that I wanted and yet have it be immediately graspable.
FRANK J. OTERI: You said something very interesting here, that the manipulation of timbre is very different than the manipulation of melody or rhythm or even dynamic levels. As a composer and a musician, you can play a melody, you can play a rhythm, you can play a dynamic level, but you’re dependant on other people to hear combinations of timbres. You said that you’ve never studied orchestration. How do you learn what’s right and what’s wrong?
DAVID DEL TREDICI: Just the way I said, you hear it sounding horrible. You have to decide that you love this music but I hate the garb I gave it—something is wrong about it. It’s the only way you can learn. You cannot learn that in a class, you have to hear it. So it took three things. So when I finally heard Pop-Pourri for the third time with this expanded idea—I had to give up rhythm in the way I’ve known it, I had to give up writing for instruments in the way I’ve know it, i.e. no doublings—then I began to realize what I wanted. All a composer ever learns to do is to orchestrate their music. Each composer has this voice in their head about what they want it to sound like, and nobody knows really what that is so you keep looking until you do, and you sort of fall upon your voice in that way.
FRANK J. OTERI: So what are some of the secret orchestral combinations?
DAVID DEL TREDICI: Well, people always think that there are some secret combinations.
FRANK J. OTERI: [laughs]
DAVID DEL TREDICI: There is a secret I’m going to tell you Frank. The secret is finding a way to hookup every orchestral change with what happens in the music. In other words, I can compose and “not know what I’m doing” enough to understand the music. It comes out and I have an intuitive sense that it is right, but I don’t need to analyze it. So that’s the music without the orchestra. When I have to orchestrate then I, in a way, have to analyze the dynamic of the music very closely; where the climax is, if there is a sudden harmony change. I have to figure out if I want to change the instruments here, how do I make this music sound three-dimensional? How do I highlight what happens in the music? I really have to understand what I wrote if I orchestrate in a way that I never do if I write for piano.