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

The Process of Orchestrating

FRANK J. OTERI: When you begin a piece that is going to be an orchestral piece do you begin at the piano? Do you begin conceiving the melodies and rhythms first, or is orchestration always there?

DAVID DEL TREDICI: I never want to know what’s in the orchestra. I refuse to think about the orchestra. I write just the music. It’s so hard and so engrossing to create a harmonic, rhythmic reality that will last over time—just the music. That is the enormous cake and how I frost that cake is secondary. So I never want to know, and I’m always surprised. Once I write the music, the so-called short score, I start all over again and think what colors can I put this in?

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s almost an act of re-composition.

DAVID DEL TREDICI: It is totally an act of re-composition. I often add things; it’s like a second stage. When I wrote a recent piece for treble choir for this wonderful Young People’s Chorus that Francisco Núñez conducts—it was so simple! I just had 3 lines: soprano, soprano, alto. That was it. There was no orchestration. I felt liberated! I wrote a piece for the Elements Quartet and the same thing, just 4 voices—you mean that’s it?! Whereas this band piece—you know, because I wrote for it all out—the orchestration… I love to compose! I hate orchestrating. It’s sort of the reverse of what a lot of other composers say.

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s weird to hear that coming from you, because you seem to revel in the orchestration. It seems to be like…

DAVID DEL TREDICI: It’s hard work, very hard work.

FRANK J. OTERI: You do everything by hand, or do you use any of these computerized notation programs?

DAVID DEL TREDICI: It gets computerized, but I don’t do it.

FRANK J. OTERI: You don’t do it?

DAVID DEL TREDICI: No.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now there are these computer programs where you can actually orchestrate and hear…

DAVID DEL TREDICI: But they don’t work. It’s ridiculous because everything you hear on a MIDI mockup is balanced. Everything has this sort of strange equal footing. Part of the problem of writing for orchestra is balancing. How do you bring things out? How do you balance the brass against that? All of that is eliminated in these MIDI mockups.

FRANK J. OTERI: It is possible to simulate orchestral placement and balance, say what the Philadelphia Orchestra would sound like vs. the New York Philharmonic, or this seating arrangement, that many violins, this balance, they’re sitting here, they’re sitting there…

DAVID DEL TREDICI: [laughs] Sounds insane. It sounds totally insane.

FRANK J. OTERI: There’s a little bit of alchemy in there.

DAVID DEL TREDICI: Alchemy is the nicest word you could put on it.

FRANK J. OTERI: [laughs]

DAVID DEL TREDICI: Having come from hearing a band playing my piece, a lot of orchestration is making your parts survive. If you write it all contrapuntally, let’s say three lines and you want an inner line to come out, you sometimes have to do enormous things to make it just be heard. I don’t care what color it is. I’m talking about when you’re in a loud thing. Like in Mahler when you have a bunch of counterpoint things going on at once, you just want the 3 lines to survive as separate lines. It’s sometimes very gross what has to happen, and the amount you have to put out to hear the middle line. You can have one trumpet and you need 20 woodwinds to balance that, depending on where they are. You can’t theorize about it. So the MIDI thing is a kind of theory of how things ought to sound—and there’s no way they can approximate that. If they don’t even site it as a problem, they can’t present a solution.

FRANK J. OTERI: And of course every orchestra is different.

DAVID DEL TREDICI: No, they’re all the same in this respect. They’re all the same. The brass is enormous, the woodwinds are a lot weaker, and the strings are another thing. It’s always the same problem: dealing with the brass. These three disparate groups, along with percussion, how do you handle them? It’s the same of everybody. It also depends on the kind of music you want insert into this strangely unbalance group called the orchestra.