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

Succeeding Within Practical Constraints

FRANK J. OTERI: Earlier on you talked about practicalities, like not writing 7 in the time of 10 for a group of first violins. What are some of the other things you wouldn’t do with an orchestra that you can do with smaller groups?

DAVID DEL TREDICI: Well, the lines just have to be simpler. As I’ve said, the rhythm has to be simpler. I don’t know. Those are the two major things I’d say.

FRANK J. OTERI: What would be the ideal rehearsal time or a piece of your music?

DAVID DEL TREDICI: It entirely depends on the skill of the conductor.

FRANK J. OTERI: Not on the players?

DAVID DEL TREDICI: No. If the conductor is good enough he can drag players into anything. On the other hand, if you have a great orchestra the conductor can be increasingly minimal. I’ve worked with great orchestras and so-called great conductors, but many of the great conductors who did my music just knew the pieces minimally. All a conductor really has to do is the time changes. That’s it. That’s not a high order of art.

FRANK J. OTERI: Not bringing out the inner voices or anything like that?

DAVID DEL TREDICI: No, nothing. Again if you have a good enough orchestra and the music is written right, it comes out. My goal in writing orchestra pieces, after I got a little experience, was to write indestructible orchestration. No matter how dumb the conductor was, it would still sound good [laughs]. It’s not that they’re dumb. They’re just on a schedule. They have no time. You’re the one new orchestral piece they have to do for the season, so it gets really short shrift. Basically all they do is the time changes.

FRANK J. OTERI: So that brings us back to the question of secrets. What are some of these foolproof things that you put in scores that guarantee that it’s not going to be a train wreck?

DAVID DEL TREDICI: It’s a little bit like Ravel versus Debussy. Ravel plays itself. Debussy has to be balanced. I tried to write orchestration that did not have to be balanced. I had the balance already there. You either do that by having the dynamics very realistic—which often means that a p in one instrument will be balanced by ff in another because one was weak and the other loud. Just trying to somehow make it so that the conductor can just beat time and everything will come out. That’s it. I’ve just been burned so much, and there is no time. That’s the reality.

FRANK J. OTERI: Frequently you get two rehearsals, three if you’re really lucky. If it’s an hour-long piece, that’s probably not going to happen.

DAVID DEL TREDICI: You’re fighting time. If it’s a one-hour piece, it just has to be able to read through and done. Another terrific problem with me was that I often had voice, which has to be amplified. I made another impractical decision, which is if I write for voice without amplification there is so little that I’m allowed to do, so as not to bury the voice, that I can’t be me. I need to have this swirling, wild animal orchestra that I like, and hear the voice—like you’d hear on a recording. I wanted that thing, so you had to amplify the soprano. In the early days, when I first did this in the mid-70s, orchestras didn’t have microphones, or they had the crudest PA system. It was a nightmare, and I’d be blamed. All that would ever be reviewed would be the amplification. It’s gotten somewhat better, but it’s still a problem in a lot of halls.

FRANK J. OTERI: And there are still some music journalists who have such a hobgoblin about amplification in classical music.

DAVID DEL TREDICI: Oh, they’re little spinsters about it [laughs]. Or if it’s too loud…

FRANK J. OTERI: Behold they’re delicate ears…

DAVID DEL TREDICI: Yeah, there’s a lot of preciousness! I’m like the devil to a lot of critics. [laughs]