Thinking Big: David Del Tredici, a conversation in 13 parts
FRANK J. OTERI: I want to get back to something else you said, about the orchestra getting more conservative. I want to get into a stylistic question with you. As a composer you began writing 12-tone music or serial music…
DAVID DEL TREDICI: Not really. It sounds serial-like. It was the environment at the time and I kind of picked it up by ear, although it was never literally serial.
FRANK J. OTERI: Actually, that would explain why it has this really unique sound, it doesn’t sound like any other…
DAVID DEL TREDICI: Well, it has a unique sound because it’s me doing it. Whatever technique I would use it would still sound like me. If it had been 12-tone, it might still sound like me.
FRANK J. OTERI: But you grew away from that—kind of abandoned that—right around the same time you started writing for big orchestras.
DAVID DEL TREDICI: Well, no. When I was involved with James Joyce, the atonal medium seemed to fit his texts, his sentiment of the anguished 20th century person. Then when I got involved in Alice in Wonderland it seemed to be a different emotional environment, which gradually lead me to find other means to express that new environment: whimsy charm, though the first Alice pieces I took were as atonal as my Joyce pieces. For example, I took the setting of the Jabberwocky. I took the monsters from the Lewis Carroll, which could still somehow in my mind be atonal. As I got into the human element of Lewis Carroll, i.e. the man Lewis Carroll actually being in love with Alice Liddell in some way. I wanted to express that. That got me into tonality. In Final Alice I use tonality as the forbidden language—which Carroll based his nonsense poems in the book—which I put into the piece. Those original Victorian ditties, which spoke very clearly of the love of a man for a girl named Alice, I put into total tonality because it was so forbidden to do. I often use tonality as a metaphor. In Memory of a Summer Day is a setting of a preface poem that Carroll wrote when he was much older about these events that happen earlier. So again there was a lot of rapture, regret, and nostalgia. Bringing a highly charged, romantic tonality fit the sentiment. My path backwards into radical tonalism—which I like to call it—was simply an attempt to illustrate texts that meant a lot to me.
FRANK J. OTERI: And it just so happened that those pieces were being scored for larger and larger forces.
DAVID DEL TREDICI: I had just gotten used to the orchestra. Somehow I got enough orchestral commissions and it just felt natural to me. Michael Tilson Thomas had commissioned a number of pieces. I always have written the piece I wanted to write and then found someone to commission it. I never have written what anyone wanted. Nobody ever commissioned an Alice in Wonderland piece. It was always an orchestral piece, and then I would say could I have voice? In the early pieces I would have what I called a folk group: mandolin, accordion, banjo, and saxophones. I’d beg for that, then they’d agree. So I always kind of drag them into my world to varying degrees of unwillingness.
DAVID DEL TREDICI: That’s another example of Alice growing. I’ve used these things to illustrate something in my mind. For me, texts have had a huge liberating effect. They’ve allowed me to do things I don’t think I would have done with my mind.
FRANK J. OTERI: This concept of what you termed a folk group—these are instruments beyond the orchestra, some of which use amplification. There are electric guitars and electric basses in some of these pieces. What was the experience of using these instruments with a standard symphony orchestra?
DAVID DEL TREDICI: The whole point of using a folk group was to have some group of players that would sound like they’re out of Wonderland. They would never sound like an orchestra, so I use them as a concertante group. There’s the soprano solo, this little special, magic group, and then the big sea, the orchestra. They were like 3 things I could counterpoint.
FRANK J. OTERI: But in terms of the practical—working with these different types of musicians—what sort of problems did that create?
DAVID DEL TREDICI: I’ve never written anything where I’ve had any relationship to the practical. I would have this idea that I wanted in the abstract and then write it. The chips of practicality fell where they might. It’s particularly hard to find a banjo player that can count. They never count, or if they can’t, they don’t follow conductors. Accordion players are also very difficult to find. There are a lot of problems. In fact, when I wrote for the accordion I didn’t know how to write for the accordion, so I went to an accordion studio. There, with all these 10 and 12 year old kids, I had a couple of accordion lessons. They looked at me very suspiciously. This grownup not owning an accordion, but wanting to be shown how the accordion worked. I just did what I did.