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Through the
Looking Glass

Through the
Looking Glass


American composer David Del Tredici won a Pulitzer Prize for his musical adaptation of the work of Lewis Carroll, and on December 4 he will premiere his latest and gayest masterpiece, My Favorite Penis Poems. The 70-year-old talks to about his relationships with Allen Ginsberg and Aaron Copland and how he transitioned from children's literature to S/M ballads.

If classical music has a living gay icon, it is composer David Del Tredici. Generally regarded as the founder of the neoromantic movement, the California native has garnered numerous awards during his long and busy career. His early output was primarily focused on the works of Lewis Carroll, whose writings he admits he is somewhat obsessed with. Among these works are the opera Final Alice, his best-known work, and his Pulitzer Prize-winning "In Memory of a Summer Day," part one of his song cycle Child Alice.

Since his recovery from alcoholism in the late '80s, Del Tredici has not only embraced his gayness but has celebrated it in his art to an extent that few other gay composers have. Now in his 70s, the still energetic Del Tredici will premiere two new pieces -- My Favorite Penis Poems, a musical interpretation of six gay poets including Edward Field and Allen Ginsberg, and Wondrous the Merge, an interpretation of a work by the late gay poet James Broughton -- December 4 at Symphony Space in New York City.'re known as the father of neoromanticism. Is that a title you accept?David Del Tredici: I accept it, and it's probably roughly true.

Do you feel a connection with Lewis Carroll? Absolutely. He was a little much for that time, he had this love of little girls, took obsessive photos... It connected with my own sense of being a gay pariah. People always ask, "Why did you go on with this for so long?" and I think it's because I made this identification with Carroll.

When did you start embracing gay culture in your art? Well, first I celebrated the work of a "closeted" man, Lewis Carroll. After this I became very successful. Right after the time I wrote Final Alice I became an alcoholic. When I came out of alcoholism I started to explore myself and do a lot of therapy, and in the course of that it kind of opened me up to my own gayness, and I celebrated that in a way I had never done, bringing it into my music. I realized that there wasn't a lot of celebration of being gay in classical music. So many great American composers were gay -- Copland, Barber, Menotti, Bernstein -- why not celebrate it? I was very close with Copland, Barber, and Menotti. In their private life it was one thing, but as soon as they went public there was no mention of it.

Tell us about your relationship with Aaron Copland. I was at Tanglewood, an American institution, sort of a cross between a music school, camp, and artists' colony, and we became friends, but never lovers. For 20 years I guess I absorbed his way. He had a wonderfully direct, uncomplicated way of writing and talking about music. At the time I was teaching at Harvard, which is a very complicated place, very intellectual. Copland was always my mainstay. I thought he was the best composer around.

You also developed a friendship with Allen Ginsberg. I got to know him at a couple of parties. He tried to pick up a boyfriend of mine once -- I was very annoyed. I was a lot younger and cuter, I thought, but [Ginsberg] was very persistent and had a lot of charisma, this sort of Buddhist pick-up technique. Allen was wonderful. I said, "I want to set some of your poetry." He had just [done a reading of] some of his poetry, so he said "Here," and he gave me the book he read from. So I became kind of a fan.

Was that at the point in your life that you were becoming very out? Well, this was when I was drinking. I was looking for gay poetry I could connect with. It all got started because I got very interested in the Body Electric [a San Francisco-based encounter group for gay men], which really opened me up. It hooked up in me the erotic and the creative. I had this ecstatic week with the Body Electric. I started spontaneously setting these poems [to music]...really fast. This was the first poetry I'd set in 20 years that wasn't by Lewis Carroll! It changed my direction completely; I started to write song cycles. This one week at Body Electric did something to me!

You grew up in a time when homosexuality was not something that was talked about. How hard were your earliest coming-out experiences? I was raised Catholic, and I didn't come out until my senior year in college. I went to Princeton and I had a roommate who fell in love with me whom I couldn't stand. It was terrible. I came home and told my parents that I had given up the church and I was queer and I didn't want to go back to Princeton. So they said OK. They were supportive, but they said, "We think you ought to go to a psychiatrist." That was a very depressing year. Then I met a guy and we went to New York together. It was relatively easy; my parents accepted it. I'd always been my own man. I was, in the family, the only queer, and the only alcoholic, so they knew I was from another planet.

As you mentioned, you've been writing lots of songs in recent years. Does this represent a shift in the form of your work? Well, earlier I was writing big pieces with voice -- I really couldn't call them songs. The Alice pieces are like little operas, but more recently, since the Body Electric experience, I've written "real" songs; also I've written, suddenly, again for piano.

Like your recent piano piece S/M Ballade. A wonderful pianist friend of mine named Marc Peloquin commissioned me to write that for him. It seemed like such a tortured, hard piece that it seemed like an S/M experience, so I decided to call it that.

But there are lyrical moments... Well, even in the S/M experience you can pause to relax!

Another recent work of yours, Queer Hosannas, is written for a male choir. How did you come by the poetry included in this piece? I went on a hunt for it. I'm a big fan of the poet Antler, a disciple of Ginsberg. His poetry, most of it, is extremely sexual. I'm always partial to him. [His poem "Whitmansexual"] is kind of a litany. Any poem that ends with a rhyme about making music, I like. It touched me. I wanted to celebrate being sexual rather than spiritual.

You seem to be exploring the sexual more and more in your work lately. I'm doing here, in New York, in December a little piece called My Favorite Penis Poems, songs for soprano, baritone, and piano -- and I've had trouble getting singers who will do it. One of the poems is by Allen Ginsberg and it's extremely pornographic!

Final Alice is probably your best-known work. Has your style changed much since you wrote that more than 30 years ago? After Final Alice I wanted to write a big piece that lasted an hour that's all tonal, so I wrote "In Memory of a Summer Day," which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1980, so after that I stayed tonal -- I found the language I was comfortable with. I feel like I invented tonality! [Pioneering atonal composer] Arnold Schoenberg said, "There are still fine pieces to be written in C major." I feel tonality is still very explorable.

- You can read more about David Del Tredici's life and works, get current news about him, and sample some of his music at his website.

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