David Del Tredici by J. D. Dolan

BOMB 60 Summer 1997
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David Del Tredici. Photo by Mel Rosenthal.

David Del Tredici is perhaps best known for being at the front of classical music’s Neo-Romantic movement—a return to compositions that are lush, melodic and, most notably, tonal. For this, Del Tredici’s work has been derided (his Final Alice symphony at the New York Philharmonic was booed as well as cheered), and lauded (he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1980). Del Tredici is also known for his fascination with Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderlandbooks, which he has been setting to music for the last two decades. These compositions include, An Alice SymphonyAdventures UndergroundFinal AliceChild Alice, and Haddocks’ Eyes. The world premiere of his most recent composition, The Spider and the Fly, will be performed by the New York Philharmonic for its 150th Anniversary Commission.

When I first met David at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in 1993, he was carrying a dead squirrel. I’d arrived at dinner the night before, and got stuck at a table where a certain well-known, overbearing writer was holding court. David was sitting at the next table—where everybody was laughing, gossiping, telling stories. The next morning, David introduced himself and shook my hand, then held up the dead squirrel and grinned. “C’mon,” he said, and I followed him to the sliding-glass door of the well-known writer’s bedroom and watched David position the squirrel just so on the threshold. David said, “I want it to look as if the squirrel died trying to escape.” David got a bit more serious for this interview, which took place on his 60th birthday at his apartment in Greenwich Village.

J.D. Dolan Tell me about your fascination, or what some people might say is your obsession, with Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.

David Del Tredici I’ve been setting Alice in Wonderland to music for more than 20 years now, so I guess it has become an obsession. I’ve taken separate chapters, different poems, and made complete pieces out of them. The two Wonderland books are for me source material—a collection of stories and poems from which I can draw—much, I like to think, as Mahler dipped repeatedly into Des Knaben Wunderhorn for text and inspiration.

JDD Were you always drawn to Carroll’s work?

DDT Not always. When I first looked at Alice in Wonderland, I said to myself, these poems are too slight—not enough to work with. Then I discovered Martin Gardner’s Annotated Alice, which makes clear that all of the Carroll poems are also parodies of existing Victorian ballads; those are in Gardner’s book too. This seemed unique. I’d never set a poem that had its parody written. So, then, I began …

JDD Did your process change over the course of 20 years?

DDT Yes, definitely. Gradually I was drawn into the story behind the story—why Lewis Carroll wrote the book and for whom. This eventually led me to his infatuation with Alice Pleasance Liddell.

JDD Infatuation?

DDT Lewis Carroll adored little girls. And this was not without its sexual aspect. He had a whole series of them, but Alice seemed to be his favorite. When I came to write Final Alice for the US Bicentennial in 1976, I’d just discovered the love interest and I wanted to put that into the story-setting as well. I felt I needed a new kind of music to show this real Lewis Carroll. And so I instinctively went back to the music I love most—to tonality—the language of Schumann, Chopin, Brahms, which I’d played as a kid. In 1974, this was an unheard of thing to do.

JDD Did you make that break from atonal to tonal music all at once?

DDT No. I dared to do it only step by step. I allowed the “needs” of the story to guide me, to hypnotize me. For example, in my piece Vintage Alice, there’s a little Carrollian ditty: “Twinkle, twinkle, little bat, how I wonder what you’re at,” which of course parodies the Victorian poem, “Twinkle, twinkle, little star … ” This “Twinkle” poem, I felt, could not be separated from its famous “Twinkle” tune—so, you see, I had to use a tonal bit! However, in the early pieces—Pop-PourriAdventures UndergroundAn Alice Symphony, the tonal music would emerge, then recede behind a more dissonant scrim of notes—”proper” atonality restored. It was like opening the window for a moment, letting tonality in, then shutting it again. That was still okay.

JDD Okay with whom?

DDT Good point. When I began composing in the ’60s, the composing world was militantly atonal. As well, dissonance and atonality were exciting. It was the forbidden thing. Schoenberg and company had already transformed European music and were beginning to do the same in America. My generation wanted nothing to do with so-called “Americana,” with its bloated tonal means.

JDD So you wrote atonally in the beginning. Tell me about your pre-Alice work.

DDT As a young composer, I wanted to be daring and wild, to write something in no key with weird notes—use Schoenberg’s 12-tone system.

JDD So you were a 12-tone composer?

DDT Actually, I never really did hard-core 12-tone technique, though the sound that that kind of system produced was in my ear. I’d played Schoenberg, Webern, Berg early on, and I loved the music. So when the time came, that’s how I composed. You are what you eat.

JDD Was this the time of all your James Joyce pieces?

DDT Yes. I connected with this dissonant language of the tortured, lapsed Catholic James Joyce. I’d also suffered the Catholic trauma. Del Tredician/Joycean anguish were, in my mind, one. So from 1961 to 1968, I set Joyce. Each successive piece got longer, more elaborate, more dissonant: Six Joyce SongsI Hear an ArmyNight Conjure-Verse, and, finally, Syzygy.

JDD I’d like to go back to Final Alice, which is your best known work. How was it different from the earlier Alice pieces?

DDT The weight shifted. Final Alice was much more tonal than atonal. It wasn’t just momentarily opening a tonal window—now I was breaking all the glass! I’d write long sections of tonal chords, and there was no scrim of dissonant notes. About halfway through the composition, my socially conscious brain spoke to me. It said, This is not okay. You will be laughed out of the concert hall. Your colleagues will think you are nuts. I stopped composing and had sort of a musical nervous breakdown, and thought, Can I really go on like this? Where are the wrong notes? But none came to mind. And finally I had to say, this is what my instinct—which had produced all of the atonal music—is producing. I’ve got to go with it. If not instinct, what else can I rely on? And so I continued. When the piece, an hour long, was finally premiered by the Chicago Symphony, I was frightened and then stunned by the enthusiastic reception it got from audiences and critics. It was played by every major orchestra in the U.S. and many smaller ones as well. Then the Chicago Symphony did it again, and recorded it with Sir Georg Solti and Barbara Hendricks.

JDD But weren’t you criticized because it was popular?

DDT Well, that happened a little later.

JDD Why do you think that happened—beyond simple collegial jealousy of success?

DDT Final Alice upset the idea of what was avant-garde. All of us composers have witnessed in the 20th century the steady increase of dissonance in music. It seemed almost God-given that this must always continue. But I went backwards and took a “worn out” tonality and said, This is okay to do. There is still life here. That was shocking, and threatening. Going backward became going forward—avant-garde.

JDD How do you feel about being credited, or cited, as being the leader of New Romanticism?

DDT Well, I was certainly the first to do it on a grand scale.

JDD With such attachment to literary texts, how important is the narrative element?

DDT I try to create a world through which the poem passes. That’s why my Pulitzer piece, In Memory of a Summer Day, can go on for an hour and use only a six verse preface poem as text. Actually, in that piece the compositional process helped me discover the dramatic narrative. As I collected my musical ideas in notebooks, I found I was setting lines of the text twice—with different emotions in each version. This confused me until I realized I could set the same poem from two points of view: the child’s is eager, innocent, perceptive; and the storyteller’s—Lewis Carroll’s—is poignant, ecstatic.

JDD So you reinvent the poem.

DDT I guess I do, and I use poetry that can be reinvented. I like my poetry to be strophic, rhymed, and/or nonsense. I enjoy setting nonsense especially—there’s no expectation of how it should go. I would never reinvent a modern poem, where every line is dense, irregular, the emotions complex, fractured. For me, it only works in this Carrollian world of rapture and regret.

JDD You obviously respond to more than the texts. Do you identify with Carroll the man the way you had with Joyce?

DDT Well, with Lewis Carroll, I did begin to wonder, Why am I so obsessed? I felt I could set anything you told me was by Lewis Carroll—even his laundry list! It was, indeed, the man I most identified with. Carroll was a man with a secret which he so inventively and charmingly hid with his books, stories, puzzles, nonsense. His art was a kind of embroidered secret. And it seems to have been a sexual secret, too. As a gay man, I can certainly identify with that: the feeling that there is something wrong with me. Covering it up, hiding it away, transforming it into art, but still feeling, somehow, lonely—not enough.

JDD Sounds like a complex situation, with music at once an outlet for your emotions, and at the same time an evasion …

DDT Yeah, that’s a good point, and it makes me think of my earliest connection to music, playing the piano at age 12.

JDD Tell me about that.

DDT The moment I began piano lessons, I loved it and would sit for hours practicing. I never had to deal with problematical people again. My rageful father left me alone. By practicing I could avoid school sports at recess and was free of the cruel schoolyard taunts that usually accompanied my athletic performances. And I was so good at playing the piano. I was so musical, so “mature,” as my seventh grade piano teacher had always said.

JDD What did your family think of this?

DDT My family was totally unmusical but completely supportive. They were interested in me doing music, but not music itself. I was an old child prodigy, starting at 12, and by 17 I was giving recitals and playing with orchestras. I had a budding career.

JDD In what ways?

DDT I played with the San Fransciso Symphony several times, and I won something called the Kimber Award, which at the time—this was 1955—was the largest piano prize in the world! I was totally focused on playing the piano. It never occurred to me to compose, until I went away to the Aspen Music Festival. There, I had a new rude teacher who yelled at me. I thought he was a monster, but actually he was only a New Yorker. (laughter) He took the fun out of music for me. And so I thought, What do you do if you don’t play the piano? Compose or sing, I decided. And so I wrote a piano piece that summer and played it for the famous composer Darius Milhaud, who was composer-in-residence. “My boy, you are a composer,” he said after my performance. And something about that recognition transformed me. From that moment on, I wanted to be a composer. I went back to my senior year at the University of California in Berkeley and enrolled in the composition seminar.

JDD Was that a difficult transition for you, from piano to composition?

DDT There was terror. I’d worked so long at becoming a pianist. Had been successful. How could I give all this up? Again, I was forced to follow an instinct that had completely shifted, though I’d hardly composed anything. After graduation I was awarded a composition fellowship to Princeton. At the same time I played for the legendary pianist Dame Myra Hess, who offered to teach me in London. I chose Princeton. The die was cast.

JDD What was the academic environment like at Princeton?

DDT Most people were talking about music from the intellectual point of view, about a “system” of composing. How the music sounded seemed less important than the theoretical construct. Even though there were two excellent “musical” composers there—Roger Sessions and Earl Kim, with whom I’d studied — the place scared me. After all, I’d only been composing a year. I knew nothing, really. But I had powerful instincts which said, “David, either you quit or you die. Get out of this environment.” So after that first year I did quit.

JDD What else was going on in your life then?

DDT I was coming out as a gay man.

JDD Did Aaron Copland become an influence around this time?

DDT Yes, he did. A friend of mine who knew Copland suggested I send a tape of my early Joyce Songs and Fantasy Pieces—which was all I’d written. I did. Then—this was 1964—mysteriously, a commission from the Tanglewood Music Festival was offered. Of course, Copland was behind it (though later he never admitted it). So I went that summer, met Copland, and that was my first big break. For the next 15 years, Copland was a wonderful friend and mentor to me.

JDD How did he help you as an artist?

DDT Aaron helped me understand that the theoretical stuff was not important. All you ever needed—could trust—was a strong, healthy musical instinct. He would talk about composing music as something that was fun, something he enjoyed, and at the same time something he didn’t know how he did or from whence it came. And here he is, the best. At about this time, I got a job teaching at Harvard, where music was a very complicated affair, indeed, with much alien theoretical speculation. Then I would go visit Copland and music would suddenly seem simple, natural. So I thought, I’m going to go with the person who seems to enjoy life, write wonderful music, and call it simple.

JDD It does seem to be true, doesn’t it, that the middle range has the theoretically minded people who are very good at what they do, and very systematized about it. At the high end, everything changes.

DDT Yes, the high end is full of surprises. It’s so confusing to be involved with middle rung people because they are usually good at what they do and powerful in what they say.

JDD And they’re usually running things!

DDT (laughter) But, I’d rather sit at Mother Theresa’s feet. And, you know, if you have the courage, the top is really where the answers are. Sometimes, you can’t stand the answer because you can’t do it, but, at least, you sort of know what it’s really like.

JDD Let me ask you something else about Copland. What other ways, what personal ways, did he influence or help you?

DDT You mean about being gay? Aaron was my successful gay composer role-model. On weekends he was totally open and relaxed about being gay. Lots of gossip and fun.

JDD Only on the weekends?

DDT It’s true, he never publicly came out and that was a loss. He would have been a terrific gay advocate. Even though the most powerful people in music were gay, not one of them came out. They say that gay composers tend to be more tonal, and straight composers more atonal. (laughter) This is not true, but certainly in Menotti, Barber, Copland and Bernstein, there is something very touching, in tune with feelings, and certainly in dramatic distinction to the more atonal music of Babbitt, Carter, and Sessions. This is perhaps too easy an analogy, but it’s provocative. Maybe the sense of alienation, which every gay man of every generation has felt, does yield another kind of music. I like the image of the grain of sand in the oyster: the irritant that somehow turns into a treasured asset—a pearl. You are definitely never part of any system when you’re gay. You never feel that the world was designed to support your emotional needs. You are alone. That’s partly why, early on, I learned to isolate at the piano, and I’m sure this contributed, years later, to my becoming an alcoholic.

JDD When did this happen? Do you feel comfortable talking about it now?

DDT Yes, J.D., I’m okay about it. It feels good to hear myself speak the difficult truth. I became an alcoholic when I became a success. Around the time of Final Alice. For about 10 years I was a runaway drunk. I think that when I was striving, coming up the ladder, practicing so hard, all this was in check.

JDD What is “this”?

DDT My addictive impulses. All my energy was channeled into composing and “making it.” Workaholism and perfectionism were my addictions then. When I actually did make it—won a Pulitzer Prize, got big commissions and lots of performances—something in me relaxed and I started drinking. But that’s not all. After five years of sobriety, I realized I had been and still was a sex addict. That was in fact my first addiction. From very early on it was my pattern—a very alienating, dangerous behavior. I was always going from good boy to bad boy. I was a saint at the piano, and the devil in some compromising sexual setting.

JDD Sounds like the same thing again. The outlet for some feelings was the evasion from others.

DDT Exactly. I used art to get my feelings out, then, as well, to keep me separated from people. It’s paradoxical for sure.

JDD Which is the same with Lewis Carroll.

DDT Uh huh. His obsessive connection to little girls shielded him from other non-connections like grownups, appropriate women.

JDD Do the alcohol addiction and the sex addiction go together?

DDT Yeah, for me they were like twin snakes climbing the same pole.

JDD So to speak. (laughter) Seriously, though, that must have been a difficult time for you.

DDT I was living in New York City, and in the gay community it really was a common way of life. Everyone I knew did the same thing. Just as a drunk knows only drunks …

JDD So …

DDT A sex addict only knows sex addicts. My addiction was progressing from “simple” sex addiction to sex addiction plus liquor. I had to stop it. First, I got sober, then when I stopped acting out in a sexual, anonymous way; suddenly, my feelings came back to life. At the same time, I started to feel terrible. I was in withdrawal. Eventually, I discovered my spirituality and intimacy with people as people—not as sex objects. So I began at age 55 to have real friends.

JDD Did all this hurt your work?

DDT Well, yes, in the sense that my emphasis went off composing. I started to worry about myself what was going on inside me. My interior life became more important than externals. I didn’t care so much about composing, and I did it less. I needed to recover somehow, to move in another direction. I’d grown so much in one way. The personal side of me had just been dying.

JDD So workaholic, sexaholic, alcoholic … Some people might be suspicious that you’re giving all of these activities a sort of clinical, unhealthy name. How do you feel about that?

DDT Well, it was a great relief for me to name it. (laughter) To say this is this and that is that. Of course, it’s always hard to say these things. But, it’s also a relief. It’s a surrender. It’s real. It was also a process. I didn’t do it all in one day. And it’s been a very harrowing journey, but I do feel drawn to speak about it now because I’m sure it’s happened to a lot of people. During my recovery, I thought that maybe the price of recovery was that I could never be as creative as I was back then. I was most successful when I was in my addictions, doing all the Alicepieces; maybe that would just never happen again. Maybe you need to be an addict to be creative.

JDD I’ve heard you talk about something called Body Electric. What is it?

DDT Restored to creativity was the latest gift of recovery and almost an accidental residue of my Body Electric experience.

JDD What happened?

DDT Body Electric has these weekend retreats for gay men. This involves tantric yoga, which is to say full body massage, sexual stimulation. I was at Yaddo last summer, and left midway to do this week-long Body Electric intensive at Wildwood, a resort off the Russian River in California—where else? It was terrifying. Issues of sexual shame, body shame, came up. I fell in love. I got angry. I cried a lot. I opened up. Then I went back to Yaddo, and a creative jag like I’d never known began. I wrote four song cycles in a month—20 songs and a Dracula monodrama. I was channeling song. No more Lewis Carroll. I started to set the poet-people around me, like Hannah Bloch, Collette Inez, Alfred Corn, Peter Davidson, Allen Ginsberg. It felt so good, so easy. I wrote a year’s amount of music in a month! I was back!

JDD Sounds like you’re on a new path. But being that your work is so much associated with Lewis Carroll, do you still plan to do more?

DDT Well, now I’m setting something called The Spider and the Fly, which is like Lewis Carroll. I found it referred to in the Martin Gardner book. But, after that, I think it’s probably goodbye. 20 years in one place is enough. Alice doesn’t live here anymore. (laughter) Time for the title theme!

JDD Where do you see your work going?

DDT I’d like to have it go into the theater. In fact, I’ve written an opera, Dum Dee Tweedle. I wrote it during my difficult years of recovery. It takes a single chapter from the second Alicebook and turns into a dramatic spectacle. It’s all fast, manic music.

JDD When will it be performed?

DDT I can’t seem to get any opera company interested. I’ve tried. It is an odd work.

JDD Do you feel your work has any kind of social impact? For example, your Gay Life song cycle.

DDT Social impact is a new thought. But, yes, I’m proud of the gay poets I’ve set. In this work, I waited to show the diversity, the humanity of the gay sensibility—to get away from the stereotypical.

JDD It seems to be important to you to help other people.

DDT It’s true, recently I volunteered as a counselor for Identity House—an organization which assists gay men and women in the coming out process. It’s a great feeling—being of service. Like they say, you can’t keep it unless you give it away. I believe that. I’ve connected with people as a teacher, a “star,” a piano player, a composer—these are not such intimate relationships. The bond of connection by addiction recovery is very intimate, one on one, human—and terrifyingly unfamiliar.

JDD So, today’s your 60th birthday.

DDT That is correct.

JDD Do you feel now that your different “selves” are starting to move closer together? That you’re on a journey of connection?

DDT Yes! That is my fervent wish. I want to be a healer. It brings a lot of things together. I do have a hard time acknowledging that I have special gifts. That I, in fact, have a gift for connecting.

JDD And you want to share those gifts?

DDT Yeah. Something keeps pushing me in that direction. This healer thing is very important. I still don’t know what it really means. Somehow, I want to use my musical gifts in a healing way, in a recovery way. And I will, I trust, find that way …

JDD What do you see in your immediate future? What’s on your plate these next few years?

DDT Well, The Spider and the Fly has been commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for May of next year. Kurt Masur will conduct. That’s my biggest project. My Gay Life cycle has been commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony, and one of the other cycles has also found a home. There’s a lot going on now musically, but I need my recovery life to keep me whole—I’m afraid of going back to the sitting-in-my-room-all-day-workaholic-perfectionist me. My life can be richer than that. I feel at 60—shockingly—like my life is ahead of me. So much has happened to change it in the last five years. And ageism—the power of a number!—I’m fighting that, too. It’s terrible, the way we’re trained to feel bad about getting older. My life has gotten better. In every aspect. Things have bloomed. I realize now my attitude has changed, and is transforming the way I see the world. At any age that can happen—even 60. It’s true, like they say, don’t quit before the miracle happens. Well, I guess I didn’t quit, and I hope the miracle continues. I want to spread the good word, if possible. Although that sounds too …

JDD Sounds too what?

DDT Preachy. I’m not preachy, but I do feel so strongly that a lot more is possible for me than can ever be imagined. Change is a dynamic roller-coaster ride. I just want to keep on riding.

J.D. Dolan’s fiction has appeared most recently in New Stories from the South. He is at work on a memoir, Phoenix.

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Originally published in

BOMB 60, Summer 1997

Featuring interviews with Barry Le Va, Jane Dickson, John Lee Anderson, Lydia Davis, Judy Davis, Peter Greenaway, Roger Guenveur Smith, David Del Tredici, Alfred Uhry, and David Armstrong.

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