Born in Schenectady, New York, Dellaira has degrees in philosophy and music from Georgetown (B.A.), The George Washington (M.Mus) and Princeton Universities (M.F.A., Ph.D). He also attended the Universität zu Köln in Germany and, in Italy, the Accademia di Santa Cecilia and the Accademia Chigiana. His primary teachers were Milton Babbitt, Paul Lansky, Goffredo Petrassi and Franco Donatoni. He had two residencies at The Composers Conference, where he studied with Roger Sessions and Mario Davidovsky. His awards include First Prize for his monodrama Maud from the Society of Composers, an ASCAP Morton Gould Award, a Fulbright Fellowship, grants from the Ford and Mellon Foundations, the New York State Council on the Arts, the New Jersey Arts Council, Cary Trust, the American Music Center, and a Jerome Commission from the American Composers Forum. His Chéri was a finalist for the American Academy of Arts and Letters Richard Rodgers Award in Musical Theater. The Secret Agent was named the Armel International Opera Festival’s “Laureat”, and his one-act opera The Death of Webern was named one of the “5 Best New Works” of 2016 by Opera News. The Leopard, his third and last collaboration with librettist J. D. McClatchy before McClatchy’s death in 2018, premiered on March 5, 2022 at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, in a production by the Frost School of Music, conducted by Gerard Schwarz and directed by Jeffrey Buchman, with music direction by Alan Johnson, and featuring Kim Josephson, Frank Ragsdale, Robynne Redmon, and Kevin Short.
Dellaira has taught music at The George Washington University, Princeton University, and Union College.
this photo and the one on the main page by Gina Genova, American Composers Alliance
When I met the composer Milton Babbitt, the first thing he asked me was did I really give up a budding career in pop music to become a graduate student in composition at Princeton? It was true; I’d been a guitar-player, drummer and songwriter for several rock bands, and had just been signed the year before by a producer at Warner Brothers. But I had turned my back on that, wanting instead to be a “serious” composer. It felt like a long shot: I could read music, but I knew very little about classical music or music theory.
As a kid I played violin in the all-city orchestra and sang in the all-city choir, but popular music was what my family listened to at home – show tunes, Sinatra, whatever else was on the radio. I’m from a large working-class family of Italian immigrants, and I was the first to go to college. When I did go, I chose Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, but spent much of my time there taking philosophy courses and learning to play the guitar. I was on a term abroad in Germany playing at the yearly Art Cologne fair when composer Karlheinz Stockhausen stopped to listen; after complimenting my picking style he suggested I re-string my guitar in reverse order. That seemed like a crazy but very clever idea, and I’ve always regarded that moment as my introduction to contemporary music. (I had never heard any of Stockhausen’s music. I only knew that his image was on the cover of the Beatles’ Sergeant Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band album.)
When I returned to Washington, I took some music theory classes and started getting ideas about how I could make music bigger than a two-and-a-half-minute song. I was reading Perspectives of New Music and devouring scores by Stravinsky and Schoenberg as well as Beethoven and Brahms. This was a whole new world for me and I tried hard to make up for lost time. I’m still trying.
ABOUT MY MUSIC
The composer Otto Luening once described composers of serious music as the “R&D of the music business.” That’s a positive way to think about music that is difficult or maybe not particularly audience-friendly, and while in my younger days I wrote music that was called “advanced”, “avant-garde” and “cutting edge”, you will find almost none of that music on these pages. Those pieces helped me find a path to where I am today – I’m glad I wrote them — but they long ago stopped being music I wanted to hear or to represent me.
Stravinsky told a student I knew that everybody, while listening to a piece of music, is constantly guessing what’s going to happen next. If they guess right more than half the time they will say the piece is predictable or boring. If they’re wrong more than half the time they will say the piece is erratic or incoherent. I would add that the composer should try to surprise listeners with something better than what they expected to hear. Those surprises are usually my favorite moments in a piece of music and usually why I want to hear it again.
To surprise me in that way, the music I’m hearing has to depend on, and take advantage of, the remarkable but imperfect process of memory. The details of what I’m hearing – such as a sequence of notes, or how loud or soft those notes are played, their tempo or their timbre, these details, like the details of any lived experience, can be mis-remembered when they are recalled later, and therein lie the surprises. What was soft when heard the first time may now be loud; the sequence of notes I heard before might, when repeated, sound different yet strangely related; what was played before by one group of instruments is now played by another, and so on. Similarly, just as two lived experiences separated in time can be conflated into a single recollection, so can two musical passages be later conflated into a single, new passage. In other words, details of an event may get transformed, as things often are, by the simple act of recollecting, often in very surprising ways. That’s how I hope my music works. I don’t write music to educate people or stretch their ears (though I’d be delighted if that were to happen). I’m not trying to push boundaries, bend genres or stake out an identity or brand. I am simply writing music with the kind of surprises I myself like to hear. That’s why I wanted to be a composer.