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

Recordings of Orchestral Performances

FRANK J. OTERI: That gets us to a larger question. In today’s climate, the climate of the orchestra, the world of the orchestra, is it a healthy environment for a living composer to be in?

DAVID DEL TREDICI: Oh, I don’t know. What does that mean? Are there many orchestral opportunities available? I mean there aren’t that many.

FRANK J. OTERI: No.

DAVID DEL TREDICI: What’s come to life is opera. There used to be no operas, now there are a lot of operas. So that seems to be the more happening place. Opera companies have gotten non-conservative, and orchestras have gotten conservative. I mean, I don’t get many orchestra commissions. They’ll have commissions around some centennial or something.

FRANK J. OTERI: Then there’s this whole question of when a piece gets premiered, it’s wonderful, but when does it ever get done again?

DAVID DEL TREDICI: Right. There are a few great conductors around right now that are interested in this, like Robert Spano, Leonard Slatkin, and Michael Tilson Thomas. They do things. Well I don’t know, a second performance? A lot of things are out of your own hands. [laughs]

FRANK J. OTERI: And then there’s the question of recording, none of the American orchestras are recording these pieces.

DAVID DEL TREDICI: That’s right.

FRANK J. OTERI: So if you write a piece for orchestra and you don’t go to, say, the Slovak Radio Symphony or the Bohuslav Martinu Philharmonic, you don’t get a recording.

DAVID DEL TREDICI: That’s true.

FRANK J. OTERI: What do you do? You said, when we were off camera beforehand, a big issue for so many composers today is, even in a live performance situation, they won’t even get an archival or promotional recording of the piece to be able to hear it, to be able to learn those lessons of orchestration

DAVID DEL TREDICI: Well, they’ve learned the lesson hearing it. They want the use of it. It’s an enormous investment for grants and all kinds of things: this is my piece.

FRANK J. OTERI: And it’s how the piece can have a life beyond the premiere, but you’ve never had that problem.

DAVID DEL TREDICI: They’ve always given me recordings, if I remember correctly. Except that last year the New York City Opera did not. Through some union negotiation, the agreement was that if they did the operas there would be no recordings. But now of course it’s a moot point. This should be noted since technology is so simple that you can simply hold a recording device in your lap and get a good recording.

FRANK J. OTERI: That’s great, but then if the orchestra finds out about it, let’s say there’s a lawsuit. Then what do you do?

DAVID DEL TREDICI: Well, theoretically. Has it ever happened?

FRANK J. OTERI: Actually there have been some cases. I was never given the full story, but there is a case with some chamber group where a publisher had a recording of a performance of a chamber work. The group got wind that this recording went out all over the country. I think what happened was they were sent their own recording; they were being solicited to perform it… [laughs]

DAVID DEL TREDICI: [laughs]

FRANK J. OTERI: They said, wait a minute. It ended up going to court.

DAVID DEL TREDICI: It must have been a rich chamber group that could bother to do that.

FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah, I don’t know the full story. Perhaps it was an orchestra. I’m hoping that Jody and his article fleshes out some of this stuff.

DAVID DEL TREDICI: It’s all such small potatoes, basically who’d care?

FRANK J. OTERI: Obviously some of the smaller groups have a vested interest in what performances of theirs go out into the world. And, with an orchestra, you’re really dealing with two entities. You’re dealing with the administration of the orchestra, which is in essence “the orchestra” and the entity that is going to fight for the name of the orchestra, and then the people who are actually playing the music, who are treated as musicians for hire. It’s work for hire, they ‘re part of the musicians’ union; their names often don’t even get in the program, and almost never get mentioned in the recordings. They don’t feel connected to the music that they are in fact performing and making into music, which I think is the root of this problem. I think if the musicians were given more of a sense of ownership over part of the process—pay an extra amount of money to the printer and have 10 more pages with the players’ bios in there. It will give them something so they feel that they are more connected to this thing, rather than “oh, why should we give a tape to the composer?”

DAVID DEL TREDICI: But isn’t it the union that makes these decisions, not the players?

FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah, but the players vote in the union. The union is supposed to be serving the musicians.

DAVID DEL TREDICI: But it always seems like it’s presented like the union decides and the players follow.

FRANK J. OTERI: The union officers are comprised of the orchestra players.

DAVID DEL TREDICI: But it’s so silly. Like with the New York City Opera, since nobody is really recording much anyway why have such a grip on the tape, as though someone is going to grab this performance and, what? Make a record of it? Make a lot of money for which the players would not be paid? I mean there’s no reality.

FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah, there’s totally no reality because obviously if this thing were ever made into a commercially released recording the numbers would be renegotiated.

DAVID DEL TREDICI: And it’s not going to happen, there is no audience. Nobody is buying records like that. It’s such a minuscule part of record sales.

FRANK J. OTERI: There’s a fear, as well. I’ve heard comments from orchestral players along the lines of, “Oh, these composers. They’ve got this big commission and then they’re going to get this recording—the work that we did, this labor that was our labor. They’re going to get another commission off of this and we get nothing.”

DAVID DEL TREDICI: That sounds very paranoid.

FRANK J. OTERI: It is very paranoid, but it’s an extension of this whole work-for-hire ethic.

DAVID DEL TREDICI: I don’t have much sympathy with that whole aspect. I don’t have any feeling of that. I don’t have a comment on that. I mean we’re all composers for hire. We’re all at the low end of the totem pole in a certain sense.

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s this weird sort of “us and them.” But there is no them!

DAVID DEL TREDICI: There is no them. Perhaps there may have been once. I guess there was more of a reality of making money off recordings. A lot more people bought classical recordings 30 or 40 years ago. I don’t know, probably.

FRANK J. OTERI: Presumably. Classical music has sort of held its own as a single percentage of sales. There was a minor blip when the CD first came out, and when the LP first came out. People were buying the standard repertoire and when they completed their collections the sales slacked off.

DAVID DEL TREDICI: What’s is like now?

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s not good.

DAVID DEL TREDICI: No. I’m sure it’s getting worse and worse.

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s absolutely terrible.

DAVID DEL TREDICI: It’s very strange that after it gets worse the unions make their grip tighter. Is it a kind of desperation?

FRANK J. OTERI: In a way, yes. They feel all these opportunities have dried up.

DAVID DEL TREDICI: They should say the opposite. Yes. Take us, and show us to the world. Maybe someone will be interested in making a recording based on this pirated whatever.