Composer / Record Producer  Nancy  Van de Vate

Two Conversations with Bruce Duffie


Nancy Van de Vate was born in Plainfield, New Jersey December 30, 1930. She studied piano at Eastman School of Music and music theory at Wellesley College and completed graduate degrees in music composition at the University of Mississippi and Florida State University. She later pursued further studies in electronic music at Dartmouth College and the University of New Hampshire and is known worldwide for her music in the large forms. Her first professional performance (1958) was of the Adagio for orchestra. During the early part of her career she taught at various North American universities and worked as a violist and pianist.

vandevate She taught at Memphis State University (1964–66), the University of Tennessee (1967), Knoxville College (1968–69; 1971–72), Maryville College (1973–74), the University of Hawaii (1975-76), and Hawaii Loa College (1977–80).

In 1975, Van de Vate founded the League of Women Composers and served as chairperson until 1982. It was later renamed the International League of Women Composers, now part of the International Alliance for Women in Music.

Her music has appeared frequently on major international music festivals including the WINTER MUSIC NIGHTS in Bulgaria (1996), SORO MUSIC FESTIVAL in Denmark (1994), VIENNA MUSIC SUMMER (1992), ULTIMA 92 in Norway (1992), JAPAN SOCIETY FOR CONTEMPORARY MUSIC (1991), WRATISLAVIA CANTANS in Wroclaw, Poland (1990), ASPEKTE in Salzburg (1989 and 1990), MUSICA VIVA in Munich (1989), and POZNAN SPRING in Poland (1984), among others.

She gives frequent guest lectures about her music in German and English in Austria, Germany, Poland, Slovakia, and the United States. In 1997 she presented master classes and guest lectures at Sichuan, Xian, and Central Conservatories in China. She also travelled to Tibet, where she met with leading Tibetan classical musicians. She previously lectured in Indonesian on her music in Jakarta, where she lived four years. Her music has been heard in at least thirty-seven countries on five continents, and is especially widely heard in radio broadcasts internationally.

She has received commissions and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Maryland State Arts Council, the American Association of University Women, Meet the Composer, the Money for Women Fund, the Austrian Foreign Ministry, the City of Vienna, and others. She has been a Resident Fellow at Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, and Ossabaw Island in the US, the Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig (Ireland), the Brahmshaus (Baden-Baden, Germany), and the Kunstlerhaus Boswil (Switzerland).

In eight years after issuing its first CD, Vienna Modern Masters, the nonprofit contemporary music CD company she co-founded in 1990, has achieved under her artistic leadership a catalog of 83 CDs, with 8 to 10 new additions annually. As VMM's Vice-President and Artistic Director, she has directly supervised the recording in Eastern Europe, with numerous orchestras and conductors, of 130 orchestral and orchestral-choral works, has been principal executive producer for all recordings in the VMM catalog, and has edited and designed all VMM CD booklets to date.

With 26 orchestral and orchestral-choral works recorded to date, Van de Vate is one of the most recorded living composers of orchestral music in the world. Her discography also includes many recordings of chamber and solo works. Her entries in the Schwann Opus and Bielefelder catalogs identify her as the world's most recorded woman composer, living or dead. Chernobyl was nominated for the 1989 Koussevitsky International-Recording Award for the best new work by a living composer in its first recording, and for the Pulitzer Prize in 1998.

Van de Vate now lives permanently in Vienna, Austria and teaches composition at the Institute for European Studies in Vienna. In 2010 the IES named her Composer-in-Residence.

==  Biography compiled from different sources  


As part of my ongoing series of “Mostly living, mostly American Composers” on WNIB, I made contact with Nancy Van de Vate late in August of 1990, in order to do a program for her sixtieth birthday four months later.  That interview was on the telephone, and eight years later, she was in Chicago, so we arranged to meet in person.  Portions of both conversations were used on WNIB, Classical 97, and now the complete discussions are presented on this webpage.  As usual, names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.

Bruce Duffie:   You grew up in America, spent some time in Indonesia, and now you are in Austria.  Is music truly a universal language?

Nancy Van de Vate:   Oh, yes, and contemporary composers, to a large extent, have a universal style.  I’ve judged a number of composition competitions, and it’s very difficult sometimes to tell whether a piece comes from Iceland, or Ireland, or Australia, or Europe, or America.  There are certain national styles one can detect, but in general it is universal, yes.

BD:   Is this a good thing that all of the little edges are being taken off?

Van de Vate:   Not all the little edges.  For example, I found living in Asia
and from speaking with South American composers, toothey’re very anxious to preserve some kind of national identity.  But typically they’ve studied in the Westin Europe or Americaso they have that grammar, but they like to keep the inflection of their own languages.  For example, in the Philippines, one of the leading composers will combine the use of native Philippine instruments with a symphony orchestra.  In Indonesia there is the same kind of thing, combining gamelan with Western instruments, and in South America there is the use of primitive instruments along with modern symphony orchestra.

BD:   Is America leading the way in music, or simply in the teaching of music?

Van de Vate:   That’s an American perception.  I don’t know if it’s really leading the way in either.  Our music education system is quite excellent, but we don’t have widespread music in our public schools.  For example, in our record buying public, just about five percent of all records sold in the United States have anything to do with classical music, and only a tiny fraction of those have anything to do with new music.  Whereas in many European countries, music education now is part of the curriculum from early on, and even in the formerly socialistic countries, they were talent-searchers just as they were in athletics.  In the Soviet Union, talent was identified very young, and if a child was seen to be talented, instruments were supplied, and they got a top-drawer education.
BD:   [Somewhat concerned]  Is that encouragement, or is that exploitation?

Van de Vate:   I suppose that depends on what your basic politics are, but the philosophy is that we nurture the artists, and the artists then serve the state.  But the fact is that they do nurture artists.  Whether it’s exploitation later, of course it was done.  They’re expected to serve the ideological ends of the state.

BD:   Who should music serve?

Van de Vate:   You have to regard it as an expression of the whole culture or the whole society.  Most Americans like Rock music, so, for the classical composer the question becomes should we give preference to Rock music?  Oddly enough, it’s only in America that classical music is regarded as elitist.  In Europe it isn’t.  In both Eastern and Western Europe it’s regarded as priority inherited culture.  Even people there who know very little about music will respect the notion that their nation has an inherited culture.  For example, I find that in Vienna, the typical carpenter, or electrician, or craftsperson knows more about classical music, in many cases, than an American college president, because they’ve been told from the time they were children that classical music is something good, and even if you don’t understand it, you should have a positive attitude toward it.  Also, the critics are kinder to it in general.  American critics have, I find, a very adversarial stance towards musicians.  “I don’t like your music!  Show me!  What can I find wrong with your music?”  That isn’t supportive, but that’s the other side of complete artistic freedom.  Anybody who wants to say something bad about your music in the press, can do it.  I don’t mean to be coming across too negative, but it’s a totally different climate, and it’s hard to make a comparison
that says one is better than the other, because they’re really quite different.

BD:   Let’s come back to your music specifically.  You’re somewhat of a world traveler.  How has all of this input influenced your particular writing style?

Van de Vate:   Very much, especially the years in Indonesia.  Indonesia has some gamelan music which is very well liked by American musicians.  There are now more than a hundred Indonesian gamelans in the United States.  These are orchestras of chimes and bells, and when Debussy first heard a gamelan in the Paris World Exposition in the 1890s, he said it was the most beautiful music he had ever heard.  When I moved to Indonesia, and lived in this very vivid country with a beautiful landscape and very vivid colors everywhere, and this very vivid music, I began to be much freer in the sound colors and tone colors I used, and far less concerned that my music be what American composers regard as academically respectable
because it’s an academically-based profession.  You just write music because you want your music to be beautiful and expressive.  It isn’t to say that it shouldn’t be well-structured, but that structures serve the end of being expressive rather than the other way around.

BD:   Did you find that your music was becoming Indonesian, or were there just Indonesian flavors floating into your Western music?

Van de Vate:   Not even Indonesian flavors, but more exotic tone colors.  I started to use much more percussion.  I didn’t use Indonesian instruments, and there’s no way I tried to make my music sound Indonesian.  I didn’t want it to sound Indonesian, because when a foreigner does that, it sounds like a foreigner trying to sound Indonesian.  But it became much more unusual in its tone colors.  You’ll hear that in Distant Worlds [CD shown above-right], which I thought was very influenced.  I’m still using the conventional orchestral instruments, like the xylophone, and glockenspiel, and tubular bells, and vibraphone, but these are very highly colored instruments with beautiful sounds, and I just started to use more of them.

BD:   Do you feel that your music is progressing in a fairly straight line, or has it taken several detours?

Van de Vate:   No, I think it’s going in a straight line, but I wish it had been straighter than it was because I spent many years teaching.  I was an academic person from 1960 to 1981, feeling, somehow or other, musically and artistically accountable to what the prevailing notions of the day were, and these were typically academically orientated.


BD:   Where do you feel music is going today?

Van de Vate:   Just where it’s always been going.  One of the interesting things about Western music is that every three hundred years it has a period that calls itself
the new music.  This happened in the fourteenth century, and it happened in the seventeenth century.  Now it’s happened in the twentieth century, and so there’s all kinds of experimentation, and all kinds of new ways of trying things.  The twentieth century is a period that’s very much in style with this big transition.  Probably the style will settle down, and then maybe the twenty-first century will have an inherited style.  Typically the best composers have not been the most innovative.  For instance, Bach was a backward-looking retrospective composer.  Mozart was a retrospective composer.  Palestrina was a retrospective composer.  They came along when a style was at its height, and did it better than anybody had before.  Only Beethoven and Monteverdi were really composers who were innovators.  The notion that new is better isn’t always true in the arts.

BD:   Can we assume that we need both innovators and users?

Van de Vate:   Absolutely.  It’s the innovators that enrich the language, that bring new ideas in, and keep it from going stale.  They move us into a new style period where the music speaks the language of the times.  People who don’t understand contemporary music will ask me why I don’t like Mozart, and the only thing I can say is,
Why don’t you dress like people did in the eighteenth century?  [Both laugh]  What else can you say?  Would you like eighteenth century plumbing?

BD:   Is your method of writing at all like Mozart?

Van de Vate:   Oh, yes.  The ways of putting music together have certainly played constantly.  I use many techniques that Bach used, and most contemporary composers do... except that the chance people, the people who grew out of the Cage tradition.  John Cage is a Zen Buddhist, and he tries very deliberately to free himself from all the constraints of the past, and make a very conscious effort to do this.  I can’t speak for them because their writing is a completely different kind of music, based on a completely different aesthetic point of view.  But the rest of us are using techniques that even go back a thousand years.

BD:   In your particular viewpoint, is your music innovative, or are you taking a style and using that style?
Van de Vate:   My strength is in using universal elements.  I don’t regard myself as an innovator.  I like to compare myself with perhaps my favorite composer of all, Brahms.  Brahms was essentially conservative, but he wrote music of tremendous emotional power and strength.  I can’t recall anything that Brahms did that was new for his time.  The innovators were people like Berlioz, Wagner, and Liszt.  I’m not consciously seeking new ways of doing things.  I do constantly seek new ways of expressing my own musical ideas, but these tend to be more or less middle of the road.

BD:   Then let me hit you with the big philosophical question.  What is the purpose of music?

Van de Vate:   Just to be expressive.  For example, composers are often asked about dissonance. 
Why do you use dissonance?  It isn’t beautiful.  I always answer, “Where was it decreed that music had to be beautiful?  Yes, it’s expressive.  Take for example, the Penderecki Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima.  It would be totally inappropriate to have a beautiful piece on that awful subject.  My Chernobyl is a very expressive piece.  In some places it’s beautiful, but you don’t write what I call cotton candy music to express something as profound as that.  It’s an expression of feeling about as profound as that which is the function of art.  [Both of these works are on a CD shown below.]

BD:   Are you trying to educate your audience at all?

Van de Vate:   Gosh, I would hope they wouldn’t need it.  If you write music that’s powerful, it should reach them.  What do we mean by educating an audience?

BD:   Are you trying to teach them the history of the time, and the place that you are writing about, such as Chernobyl?

Van de Vate:   No, not really.  I sometimes do make social and empirical commentaries in my music, but that’s not its principal purpose.  Often, I write abstract music.  Unless it has a text, most music is abstract, but I began several years ago to write a series of orchestral works that did have social connotations.  They’re not ideological, and they’re not political.  They’re just commentaries on events.  For example, the Chernobyl piece is an apolitical piece, but it was a great tragedy for everybody, and my music carried through much of that feeling.  The next work in that series was Katyn [CD shown at left], which was about the slaughter of the entire leadership of Poland by the Stalin KGB.  4,500 were found at the Katyn Forest, which is now in the Soviet Union [later Belarus], and another 10,000 are still missing.  Although the Soviets have taken responsibility for the murder, this is not an accusatory piece in any way.  It’s just a terribly tragic event.  It starts with a Polish folk melody from that region, and then goes into, and even quotes, the Dies Irae, which is part of the Catholic Mass of the Dead.  Along with this, it has the excruciating sounds that would go with the mass murder.  So it’s just a reflection of how people would feel about such an event.

BD:   Both of these pieces are about very tragic events.  In your music, do you find any place for an entertainment value along with the massive artistic statement that you’re making?

Van de Vate:   Oh, yes!  [Laughs]  Of course, but modern music tends to be very tense.  That’s why it’s never broadcast in the morning, and why people don’t listen to it as easy-listening.  This is not a conscious pose on the part of the composer.  For example, I admire tremendously the music of Penderecki.  It’s always very emotionally direct and powerful, yet now, in the United States especially, he consistently gets a bad press for what is considered a phony emotionalism.  I’m not sure how the critics understand it’s phony, since they don’t know him or much about the particular work, but anyhow they assume that it’s so terribly impassioned, so terribly intense that it has to be phony.  This isn’t something you can put on.  This intensity just reflects the four years of the Cold War tension in which people lived.  The language composers use to express that tension is naturally not a relaxed, jolly language of a more secure period, but it’s not a pose.

BD:   I assume there is nothing that can be construed as being phony in your music?

Van de Vate:   Well, I hope not!  Especially in the more recent works, and the orchestral works, my music tries to be very direct.  I’m not interested in technique for its own sake.  Technique only serves the expressive purpose.  I’m not interested anymore in being any part of a particular stylistic school.  I’m interested in just making the most powerful, expressive music.  Sometimes that is very happy, but I do think I share with other composers the quality of the music being more intense than is often expected.  For example, Vivaldi wrote over five hundred Concerti Grossi, and except for The Four Seasons, mostly they’re not remembered.  But it’s jolly music.  It’s happy music, and it’s also not very distinctive.  It’s little pieces all cut out of the same cloth.

BD:   Do you try to make your music distinctive, or does it just come out that way because of the way it’s written?

Van de Vate:   When I was a younger composer, I think I tried to.  Now I feel that when you start writing almost exclusively for large orchestra, it’s pretty hard for it not to be distinctive.  You get a whole section of trumpets, or a huge section of percussion, or passionate strings.  It’s hard not to have it be distinctive... at least that’s the way I feel about orchestral composition.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You’ve gravitated towards large orchestral works of late.  Is this a conscious decision because you feel you want to exploit the orchestra?

Van de Vate:   No, unfortunately it’s not.  I started out writing for orchestra.  I was required to write a three-movement work for orchestra, both for a master’s piece and a doctoral dissertation, and I found that I loved writing for orchestra.  That was my natural medium, but I took a wrong turn because I was determined to become a good chamber music composer.  Also, the opportunities for performance are much greater in chamber music, so even though I spent time writing on and off for orchestra, I spent mostly twenty years trying to become really comfortable with chamber music.  I finally realized that it wasn’t really my medium, and went back to writing for orchestra.  I made a conscious decision that I would turn out at least one work for a large orchestra every year, whether it was ever played or not, and for some years now I’ve been turning out two.  If they’re not played, that doesn’t matter.  They tend to get played in Eastern Europe, and they’re getting recorded, and they’re getting widely heard on the radio.  I get phone calls from New York and Los Angeles, and other music centers.  For example, Chernobyl, which has gotten wonderful press, has never been performed live.  Laurence Vittes, who is a critic with the Los Angeles papers, and also for Gramophone Magazine, has written, “Nancy Van de Vate’s twelve-minute composition Chernobyl conveys the terror and suffering of the Soviet nuclear catastrophe in a profound and human work of such quality that it would immediately be programmed by our leading orchestras if it had been composed by a male establishment composer!”  [Both laugh]  I’ve sent the score to many conductors, and included the wonderful compact disc of it, and they never answer.  They never even acknowledge it.   In most cases, they don’t even listen to it.  So it’s very hard, but now I can get my music performed regularly in Europe, and regularly recorded, and regularly broadcast, so I reach people in that way rather than being a part of the American academic music establishment.
BD:   Have you ever wanted to put a different name on a piece of music and see if gets played under a pseudonym?

Van de Vate:   I did that as a young composer, and it worked very well.  But I feel now that one shouldn’t have to do that.  That’s really flying under false colors.

BD:   Are we making any progress at all in getting rid of the discrimination against women composers?

Van de Vate:   That’s very hard to say.  Yes and no.  I founded the League of Women Composers (not the International League of Women Composers) in 1975, which was International Women’s Year.  We initially made a lot of progress, but it has slowed down.  Now, individuals are making progress.  For example, Ellen Zwilich with the Pulitzer Prize, and Joan Tower with The Grawemeyer Award, but they’re making it as individuals.  There have always been one or two women in the American musical establishment, back to the time when Amy Beach was the most successful composer of her generation, and she lived in Boston.  I don’t see that as progress.  It’s like saying we have Sandra Day O’Connor on the Supreme Court now, so therefore all women have equal rights.  [Both laugh]  It just isn’t like that.  I was having this discussion with an Austrian composer recently.  He just hadn’t thought about these things, or even saw that women composers have a problem.  I said that you’ve got as many women singers as you do men because they’re needed, but you have no native-born women composers to speak of now in Austria, and very few women conductors.  Either you have to say that they don’t have the talent, or else they have a problem.  Of course, in this day and age, nobody will say that women don’t have the talent, so one has to conclude that they do have a problem.  We are making progress, but I still feel that it’s very slow.

BD:   Is there any real difference between music composed by a woman and music composed by a man?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Judith Shatin, and Libby Larsen.]

Van de Vate:   Not at the highest professional level.  There will be at a lower level, where the training is unequal and the opportunities are unequal.  You work with the conditions you have, and typically women write for voice because they have a friend who can sing, or they write for piano because they can play themselves.  But once they get past that, and they’re professionally trained, no, I don’t think the difference is intelligible.  In fact, it may be an obstacle that a woman writes strong music.  For example, Kyle Gann had an excellent article in the Village Voice about a year and a half ago, saying that the music which was accepted by women composers was music that didn’t violate people’s expectations.  He was referring to the musical establishment.  He said that the music that was being successful by women composers was music that was, in his word, non-threatening to the male composers.  [Both laugh]  There are people who will come up to me after a performance and ask why a woman would write such strong music.  It’s based on the idea that women should write music that isn’t strong.

BD:   It should be tender, and lacy, and frilly!

Van de Vate:   Yes, essentially, or pleasant.  It’s relegated to a nurturing and comforting role.  These things are often unconscious.  They’re not necessarily expressions of ill will on people’s parts.  It just that it’s unexamined ideas about the kind of music women should write.

BD:   Have you won a few battles, but the war still goes on?

Van de Vate:   Interestingly, now the focus of progress has shifted to Europe in all areas of the women’s movement.  While the United States still only has the same five percent of women in Congress that it did twenty years ago, little Norway now has thirty-eight percent of women in it’s parliament.  Women in Europe who have been really quite down in the post-War years, now are very much coming along, and getting opportunity that is often publicly funded.  We don’t have much of that in the United States.  If they want to put on a concert of women’s music, there will be support, especially in Germany, Austria, Holland, and Belgium.

BD:   Are you looking forward to the day when the group that you founded, the International League of Women Composers, is superfluous?

Van de Vate:   Oh, I hope so!  My goodness, yes, of course.  That’s what we all want!  One of my own private crusades for years and years and years has been that all competitions should be by anonymous submission of material, because then there is no gender issue.

BD:   [Surprised]  I thought they already were.

Van de Vate:   Oh, no!  Orchestral auditions now are, and as soon as orchestral auditions went behind the screens, women began to take their place in orchestras, which are now forty-one percent female in America.  Woman also began to get chairs in the major orchestras, which they never had before.

BD:   That is competition amongst performers.  I was thinking of submissions of works being anonymous.

Van de Vate:   The National Endowments of the Arts has never been totally anonymous in its whole history, and hasn’t been anonymous in most of the years of the composers’ fellowship program.  There has been no anonymity whatsoever.  Once in a while, depending on the panel, they’ll have perhaps a little anonymity in the program in any round, but your work always goes in with your name on it, and your biography.  It’s one of the few developed countries in the world where that’s still the case.  Almost no competition is anonymous.  Guggenheim, Pulitzer, Grawemeyer, all of the big competitions are all named, and that means it’s very difficult to get away from the control system that we now have.

BD:   I just assumed that it was anonymous.  That every composition was assigned a number, and there was only person somewhere that would be able to assign names and addresses to the piece.

Van de Vate:   If we had that situation, women would not have a problem, because there are plenty of good women composers out there.  I wish it were that.  If it were that way with the National Endowment for the Arts, then other competitions would fall into line.  The NEA only gives seventeen composer fellowships a year in the whole country, and these run up to $25,000.  If they would go anonymous, then the others might.  But no, this is not the way it is.  Occasionally, there will be a very minor competition that may be anonymous, but all the others, no.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let us come back to a word that you mentioned earlier on, and that is ‘greatness’.  What are some of the strands that contribute to making a piece of music great?
Van de Vate:   The composer needs to be original.  This doesn’t have to be outrageous or mystifying.  If you think of talking to someone, we all speak the same language and use the same words, but some people are interesting and some are not.  So, what is the quality of some people’s ideas that makes the conversation interesting?  It’s the same thing in music.  What is the quality?  It’s very hard to define, and very hard to say what makes one composer’s music interesting and another banal.  That’s one thinghow interesting and expressive they are.  Do they have anything to say, or is it the same old stuff?  For me, another very important issue is lack of pretense, and lack of pomposity.  I don’t like pompous, pretentious music, and I find some of the academically-structured music has to be rigidly conformed to a system.  As you may know, most of the music coming out of the East coast is not only twelve-tone serial music, but they also serialize, or put in a given order, all of the rhythms, or the loud and soft marks, or the entrances of the instruments.  It’s like working out a numerical design.
BD:   It’s more like a puzzle.

Van de Vate:   Yes, exactly.  For those of us who don’t use that kind of system to generate material, we have to make an aesthetic decision with every note that we put down on paper, and it is very hard work!  [Both laugh]  But if you get the computer or some kind of mathematical formula to spit out your raw material, and then you shape it, then you just take it and give it a beginning, a middle and an end
maybe, if the audience is lucky.  This makes composition much easier, and also much more impersonal.  However, I will say that American stylistic preferencescertainly within any past that I can rememberhave been for more or less impersonal music, at least since the time of Copland.  That’s wonderful music, and also Barber.  But the American twelve-tone music is very impersonal.  In its own charming and engaging way, minimalism is also very impersonal.

BD:   Are you conscious of the audience when you’re writing a piece of music?

Van de Vate:   [Thinks a moment]  I want the audience to like it, but who is the audience?  My audience has shifted because without having thought it out, I am finding a very sympathetic audience in Europe.  I haven’t been in touch with an audience in the United States except on a short-term basis now for several years.  But I don’t write for the audience.  You can’t.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  But you seem to be in touch with whatever audience is going to hear it.

Van de Vate:   I hope so, but you reach a point where you just write the best music you can, and don’t worry about the audience.  There’s nothing else you can do.  You may have an audience, or you may not.  To some extent, that’s a matter of luck.

BD:   I assume that you’ve been basically pleased with the performances and recordings you’ve heard of your music over the years?

Van de Vate:   Yes, basically I have, and especially with the orchestral recordings.  The orchestras that have recorded my works have been very capable.  They play so much new music that when they go to a new piece, there’s no impatience with the techniques, or the style, or anything like that.  Polish music of Penderecki and Lutosławski, for example, tends to be very emotionally intense.  So my music came across to them as very natural.  Now I’m also beginning to get performances in Czechoslovakia, since it’s opened to the West again.  They are somewhat more used to new music, so I have been very satisfied with the performances that I’ve been getting recently.

BD:   I hope that as your music gets performed more over there, it’ll come more over here.

Van de Vate:   May I ask you how you found out about my music, especially since you didn’t have the orchestral recordings?

BD:   I had several other recordings, and I’ve played a couple of pieces here and there.  I try to dig around and find other American composers that I have not met, so that I can spotlight their music on WNIB.

Van de Vate:   Oh, that’s wonderful.  That’s really what it takes, because we’re such an absolutely huge country.  This is just part of the problem.  It’s such a huge country that there are so many composers out there, and the ways of making their music known are very limited.  It’s really a very tough profession.  To say to a composer, as people often do,
“You didn’t have to be a composer, is a terrible comment, because it means that they don’t value.  It’s not a frivolity that you decide to be a composer.

BD:   I assume you could be nothing else.

Van de Vate:   Yes, that’s right.  It is very important that we have composers.  It is necessary that there are people out there who are so dedicated that they’re willing to spend all their time, and frankly all their financial resources, with no reasonable expectation of any return whatsoever.

BD:   Despite all that, is composing fun?

Van de Vate:   Oh yes, of course.  It’s mentally challenging, but it’s also fun.  There’s nothing as scary and exciting in this world to a composer than hearing a great symphony orchestra tuning up before they play your piece.  You think to yourself,
My goodness, there are a hundred and five people up on that stage, and they’re all about to play my music.  That part is very, very thrilling.

BD:   Are there times when the performers, or the conductor, will discover things in your music you didn’t even know you’d hidden there?

Van de Vate:   Yes, and once in a while they’ll make a mistake.  Somebody will play a wrong note, and you realize it’s a wrong note, but you realize that it actually sounds better than the note you wrote.  [Both laugh]  I found that particularly with the conductor who has recorded the orchestral works, Szymon Kawalla in Poland.  He had a unique feeling for how my music should sound.  He’s a violinist, and he brings the singing quality of the violin.  This also happened with the soloist, Janusz Miryńsky, who recorded both Distant Worlds [CD shown farther up-right on this page], which is a violin concerto, and in my Violin Concerto [CD shown above-right].  He wasn’t a well-known soloist in Poland.  He was the concertmaster of the orchestra, [Polish Radio & Television Orchestra of Krakow] but he had a very special insight.  I was to meet with him for the first time and make suggestions about how he should play my music, and I was absolutely flabbergasted because there was no place where I could suggest anything that he could have done better than the way he did it.  It was really, really remarkable, and he had some places where he put in a little bit of slightly slowing down or pushing ahead that was just genius.  So it was really a pleasure to work with him.  When I gave him the first piece to learn, Distant Worlds, the conductor showed it to him and asked if he could learn it.  Without looking at the score he said, “Tak, tak, tak, tak!” which means yes, yes in Polish, and he went home.  He lived in a very small apartment with his wife and two children, one of which was a colicky baby, and a very sick mother-in-law.  In this tiny apartment, he learned this incredibly difficult work in ten days.  He came back, and it was perfect.  I had no complaints.  It was just phenomenal.

BD:   I’m glad that he was on your wavelength.

Van de Vate:   Oh, he was completely on my wavelength, and you’ll hear that on the compact disc.

BD:   This has been fascinating talking with you, and I’m glad to have been able to make contact with you.  I hope that we can stay in touch through the years, and that many more things get recorded.
Van de Vate:   It’s wonderful to know that you’re out there and broadcasting classical music.  We’re told by our Performing Rights Societies that there are less than fifty commercial stations in the United States that perform any classical music at all, and that something like three percent of that is modern.  I don’t know whether those statistics are true or not, but I’m just delighted that you’re highlighting my music, and broadcasting it for my sixtieth birthday.

Exactly eight years later, Van de Vate was in Chicago,
so we got together to continue our conversation . . . . .

BD:   We were just talking about international travel.  Has the international travel that you have accomplished in your lifetime influenced your music?

Van de Vate:   Oh, to an immense degree.  When I first moved to Hawa
ii, I discovered the wonderful world of Asian and exotic music there.  I went to teach at the University of Hawaii, and they had a full-blown Indonesian gamelan, which I played in for a while.  There was all kinds of music from Japan and China and Korea, and from the Marshall Islands and all over.  So that was my first taste of it.  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interview with the Hawaiian composer Jerré Tanner.]

BD:   How long ago was this?

Van de Vate:   I was there six and a half years from 1975 through 1981.  Then, after a brief year in Washington DC, we moved to Jakarta, Indonesia, and that had an immense influence.  If you live in a beautiful country where the music is beautiful, you ask yourself,
“Why should I write ugly music?  At this time, the pressure in the United States was to write totally serialized music, and very academic music, and if it was beautiful, it was considered romantic, and therefore not really intellectual.  So, my journey was an escape from all of that.

BD:   Did your music then become even more beautiful?

Van de Vate:   I had been an unabashed melodist when I first started out, back in the time when Barber and Copland were still in full cry.  But as we moved into the 1970s, it changed.  This was when Milton Babbitt and the academic composers more or less took over.  I had perhaps the biggest turning point when I went to the Warsaw Autumn in 1983.  That was the largest and best new music festival in the world.  I had known the music of Penderecki and Lutosławski from recordings, but I hadn’t realized that they weren’t the only ones.  There was a whole world of exciting Slavic music, and in the
80s I started to hear the music of Giya Kancheli, Sofia Gubaidulina, Edison Denisov, Alfred Schnittke, and all these people who only now are reaching the west.  Although they didn’t necessarily write beautiful music in the same way Javanese music is beautiful, their music was very coloristic, and very emotional, and very sound-oriented.  It was this emotionality that appeals to me because Americans tend to like their music cold.  Dodecaphonic [twelve-tone music] is certainly cold, and minimalism is very impersonal.

BD:   Is it that Americans like their music cold, or is it that we have become accustomed to cold music being presented to us?

Van de Vate:   It’s both.  People often talk about how the audiences are turned off by American composers because they’re so uncompromising, and I say no, that’s only the music that reaches you.  There’s a lot of wonderful music being written by American composers, but it’s gets filtered through a whole layer of artistic directors, and even conductors.  But usually it doesn’t even get to the conductor, so the audience doesn’t even know what’s out there.  All they know is what the so-called canonized or established composers are able to present to them.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  Yes, but it seems that we are changing a bit now.  We’re getting back to where there are more tonal composers, and more composers are writing beautiful music.  Is this as good thing, a bad thing, or just a thing?

Van de Vate:   It’s just a thing.  Maybe it’s good that the music is more accessible, but what I see is that the music is tinged with so much sentimentality.  There’s a tremendous American nationalist movement now.  A few months ago in a published interview, John Corigliano said to Steve Reich that American music has always been the frosting on the cake, and the cake has been European music.  Now, he said, we must make American music the cake, and the European music will be the frosting!  [Both laugh]  This is at a time when more influences from other countries are coming into American music than ever before
Caribbean, Latin American, Indonesian gamelan, African drumming, Chinese music, etc.  Americans are the great assimilators, and just as they assimilated people from other countries, they’re assimilating cultural influence.  This is good, but we can’t say that it’s uniquely American.

BD:   Is music then
‘a universal language, or the universal language?

Van de Vate:   That’s a hard question to answer, so let us say that it has local regional accents.  For American composers to disassociate themselves from fifteen hundred year old groups is very difficult.  You asked me if I felt that the music presented to audiences is cold, or if audiences like it that way.  Maybe it
s a little of both.  What I see now in the so-called step backwards to more accessible music, is the incorporation of many pop-elements.  This allows for the fact that the United States certainly has the best popular music in the world.  There’s no question of that, with jazz, bluegrass, country & western, musical comedy, etc.  From my experience in Asia, and now twelve years in Europe, I see the whole rest of the world running very hard to be able to imitate this.  They admire it tremendously, and they would love to be able to do it well.   That’s one thing, but I also see so much crossover that some of the music is not anymore distinguishable from popular music, but it’s called classical.  I don’t know whether that’s good or not.

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   You’re an American living and working in Europe.  So, are you an American composer, or a European composer, or what?

Van de Vate:   I’m an American composer.  There
’s no question of it, but I’m in the funny position of finding that my music is sometimes criticized for being Euro-centric.  But Europeans say my music is quintessentially American!
BD:   Yet you also have Indonesian influences.

Van de Vate:   Yes, but I don’t try to compose like an Indonesian composer.  It was just the love of their beautiful sound.  Indonesian music is primarily gamelan music, and gamelans are orchestras of bells and chimes.  They’re percussion orchestras really, and I had already become interested in percussion when I moved there.  I just became more orientated toward the unbelievable range of percussion sounds that are available.

BD:   That should make Lou Harrison happy!

Van de Vate:   [Smiles]  As you know, he had never been to Indonesia when he was first writing gamelan music.  Soon he had his own gamelan.  But that’s an example of somebody who has absorbed external influences, and yet he sounds quintessentially American.  You would never mistake his music for anything but American in its directness and its simplicity.

BD:   Should music have a homogeneity about it so that you can’t tell if it’s American, or Canadian, or European, or Australian, or Indonesian?

Van de Vate:   I don’t like to say
should, but from the work that my husband and I have done with Vienna Modern Masters, I will say that to a large extent you absolutely cannot identify the nationality of a composer from their music.  For instance, we have Japanese music on the label that is unmistakably international.  You would not identify it as Japanese.  On the other hand, we have music that maybe you can identify.  I think Penderecki sounds Polish no matter what he writes.  It’s the intensity of expression.

BD:   Is that just because you understand Penderecki?

Van de Vate:   Perhaps.  The more experience the composer has, the more difficult it is to identify the national style, unless the composer is deliberately using national elements.  I find Russian music pretty easy to identify.  They tend to incorporate the Russian Orthodox sound, which involves melodies of rather narrow range, and modal scales which tend to be very severe.  I can usually recognize Scandinavian music because it’s a bit on the dower side sometimes.  Whether there’s a relation between their climate and their music, I don’t know, and I have to wonder if part of the sunny nature of Indonesian music has to do with their beautiful climate and the sunny nature of the people.  The fact is that the sun always shines, and the ocean is always blue, and the landscape is always green.

BD:   In our globe-trotting, we seem to have left out South America.

Van de Vate:   I don’t know about South American music, except for those wonderful composers who have reached us, such as Alberto Ginastera.  I had the great pleasure yesterday of meeting a Panamanian composer whom I hadn’t seen since 1969, Roque Cordero.  He is a very fine composer.  I first met him at the University of Alabama when we were both at their annual symposium in 1969, and his String Quartet was premiered there.  Since then, he’s been teaching at Illinois State in Normal.  I asked him about this, because I was presenting my Pipa Concerto [CD shown at left].  I said that I’m a Western composer writing for a Chinese instrument, and he said that he felt his music had unmistakably Panamanian elements, and he could not escape those, nor did he wish to.  But he doesn’t do it consciously.

BD:   Do you wish to escape anything that is part of you?

Van de Vate:   No!  Absolutely not!

BD:   Do you wish to include everything in the world that is in you?

Van de Vate:   I don’t think that’s possible.

BD:   Then how do you decide what you
re going to take, and what youre going to leave aside?

Van de Vate:   You don’t choose.

BD:   It chooses you?

Van de Vate:   When you’re at a smorgasbord, do you head for the dishes you like, or do you make a conscious choice that you should sample everything there?

BD:   I go to enjoy the variety.

Van de Vate:   Exactly, and that’s what I do with musical materials.  Those things that come naturally, I include, and if I really don’t like them, I eliminate them.

BD:   If you’re writing a specific piece, do you occasionally see something you want to use, but in another piece, so you store it away?

Van de Vate:   Absolutely, no question of it.

BD:   You’ve got a pile of little notebooks?

Van de Vate:   No, I just have it in the back of my mind.  I don’t keep notebooks.  That’s too systematic.  I like to write particularly for orchestra.  I have twenty-six pieces for orchestra so far, and I don’t feel I have even begun to use up the range of timbres that the modern symphony orchestra can do.

BD:   It seems that some composers are bent on using every single bit of timbre and color in each piece.

Van de Vate:   I don’t know why they feel they have to do that.

BD:   Do you select portions and use them?

Van de Vate:   No, not really.  There’ll be an emphasis.  For example, in my Pipa Concerto for this two-thousand-year-old Chinese lute, it has more since it’s a melancholy sound anyway.  There is a theme to the piece that was assigned to me by the Pipaist who commissioned the work.  It’s heavy on strings, and I also use the tam-tam [gong] a lot because I wanted to incorporate it.  I also use the wind chimes, or the Mark Tree.  [The Pipa and the Mark Tree are shown in the box below].


The Chinese pipa, a four-string plucked lute, descends from West and Central Asian prototypes and appeared in China during the Northern Wei dynasty (386–534). Traveling over ancient trade routes, it brought not only a new sound but also new repertoires and musical theory. Originally it was held horizontally like a guitar, and its twisted silk strings were plucked with a large triangular plectrum held in the right hand. The word pipa describes the plectrum’s plucking strokes: pi, “to play forward,” pa, “to play backward.” During the Tang dynasty (618–907), musicians gradually began using their fingernails to pluck the strings, and to hold the instrument in a more upright position. First thought to be a foreign and somewhat improper instrument, it soon won favor in court ensembles but today it is well known as a solo instrument whose repertoire is a virtuosic and programmatic style that may evoke images of nature or battle.

Because of its traditional association with silk strings, the pipa is classified as a silk instrument in the Chinese bayin (eight-tone) classification system, a system devised by scholars of the Zhou court (1046–256 B.C.) to divide instruments into eight categories determined by materials. However, today many performers use nylon strings instead of the more expensive and temperamental silk. Pipas have frets that progress onto the belly of the instrument, and the pegbox finial may be decorated with a stylized bat (symbol of good luck), a dragon, a phoenix tail, or decorative inlay. The back is usually plain since it is unseen by an audience.

Text by J. Kenneth Moore  
Department of Musical Instruments  
Metropolitan Museum of Art  


mark tree

A mark tree (also known as a nail tree, chime tree, or set of bar chimes) is a percussion instrument used primarily for musical color. It consists of many small chimes – typically cylinders of solid aluminum or hollow brass tubing 3/8" in diameter – of varying lengths mounted hanging from a bar. The chimes are played by sweeping a finger or stick through the length of the hanging chimes, or the strings that suspend the chimes. They are mounted in pitch order to produce rising or falling glissandos.

Unlike tubular bells, another form of chime, the chimes on a Mark tree do not produce a definite pitch, as they produce inharmonic (rather than harmonic) spectra.

The mark tree is named after its inventor, studio percussionist Mark Stevens. He devised the instrument in 1967. When he could not come up with a name, percussionist Emil Richards dubbed the instrument the Mark tree.

The mark tree should not be confused with two similar instruments:

  • Wind chimes are mounted in a circle with a hanging striker strung in the center; they may be solid or hollow and made of many types of material, whereas the mark tree is mounted in a linear fashion and normally has solid metal bars.
  • The bell tree is a set of graduated cup-shaped bells mounted vertically along a center post.


BD:   It seems like you’ve got a mini-gamelan.

Van de Vate:   I wanted it to sound like a piece that the Chinese would enjoy, as well as Americans, or Europeans, or whoever might be listening to it.  That didn’t mean using a lot of heavy metal, so to speak, and I don’t use the low brass at all.  I have one trombone, one trumpet, and two horns, along with lots of strings, lots of percussion, and woodwinds in twos.  I found that I used a lot of oboe and flute because those two have an oriental sound.  I also incorporated some pentatonic ideas.

BD:   Did you ask them to play wooden flutes instead of the usual metal ones?

Van de Vate:   [Laughs]  No... life is hard enough.  [Both laugh]

BD:   Is life too hard?

Van de Vate:   No, but straining for special effects is something I find American composers tend to do.  Then, a lot of these special effects are just lost.  There are so many in some orchestral pieces that you don’t hear them.

BD:   Do you expect all of your details to be heard?

Van de Vate:   Absolutely, unless they’re part of the mass of sound, and then they’re not details.

BD:   Do you expect the audience to be able to take in all of these sounds at the first hearing, or must they wait until the tenth hearing?

Van de Vate:   I don’t want the audience to listen for details.  The details are part of the overall effect that I’m trying to create.  When one is speaking, you don’t really want your audience to be listening to your grammar.  You want them to hear what you’re saying, and not analyze the mode of communication.  You don’t want your audience to ask what kind of grammar is he using, or what kind of accent does he have.  They need not be aware of how or why he is selecting his words.  Similarly, I don’t want anyone to bring that kind of analysis to bear on my music when they’re listening.  I want them only to be interested in the grammar of the piece if they’re theorists, or musicians who want to know how I got this or that effect.  I want them to hear what I am saying musically, not how I am saying it.
BD:   Do you like it when your piece gets analyzed in classes all over the world?

Van de Vate:   I guess I do, because that means the music is interesting enough to analyze.  Going back to the language notion, if you’re interviewing somebody who’s a crashing bore, nobody is going to analyze his forms, or the language he uses.  That would not be the interview you wanted anybody to analyze!  [Both laugh]

BD:   Is it up to you to make sure that your music is not a crashing bore, or does it just come out, and you have to wait to see if it is a crashing bore?

Van de Vate:   It’s very much up to me to see that it’s not a crashing bore!  I try never to ramble.  I do analyze as I go along.  If you think of the notion that all Western music is built on tension and resolution, I am always building up to some kind of tension that will then resolve.  It’s not just slapping notes down on paper.  It must always have some kind of direction if it’s going to appeal to a Western audience.  Western audiences are rather impatient, you know.  They’re schooled on Beethoven
dah, dah, dah, dummm — and right away the tension starts to build immediately.  So, one must be aware.  For example, the slow movement may be idyllic, or you may want your audience to relax.  But even there, they understand that it’s a slow movement, and the intensity of expression must never flag.  If it does, then you’re a bore.

BD:   If you’re commissioned for a Tibetan audience, or an Indonesian audience, would you write something completely different?

Van de Vate:   That’s a very interesting question.  When I wrote Gema Jawa [Echoes of Java] for the Jakarta Symphony, it lasted ten minutes.  For my taste, that was too long, and the piece began to ramble.  But the Indonesian audiences, who were used to a more leisurely pace, found it perfect.  But as a Western composer, I later shorted it by twenty percent.  Now it’s about eight minutes [8:34 on the recording shown at right], and it works much better.

BD:   It works better for them, or for us, or for you?

Van de Vate:   They wouldn’t notice that it had been shortened.  It would work fine for them, but certainly for our Western audiences, and for me, it works better because there’s no point at which the interest begins to flag.  But consider that they’re used to sitting and bathing in the gamelan sound.  The gamelan isn’t necessarily
concert music.  They may listen to it all evening, or it may accompany other things, or it may be in a hotel lobby, but the idea of it is background music.  It didn’t bother them at all that perhaps there were two minutes too much music in my piece.  I’m a pathological reviser, and when I revise, it is never to edit.  It is always to slim down.  It may be just to change a beat, and that’s painful to do in an orchestra.  If I have thirty-four systems [musical lines, one for each instrument] on the page, then thirty-four parts have to be changed.  Perhaps one measure should go from 4/4 to 3/4, and that is very painful to fix, especially if your parts are not totally computer-copied.  Even if they are, you have to reformat, but it may make the difference between whether the piece is just right in that measure or not.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   When you’re writing a piece of music, how much is the art and how much is the craft?

Van de Vate:   [Thinks a moment]  Hindemith said fifty-fifty.  What I do is start to write the piece, and then there are the elements.  You only begin to analyze it if you feel you’re in trouble.  Then you need to ask yourself why this breaks down here, or what is or isn’t going on that’s making it offensive to me as a composer.

BD:   If you get to the end of the piece and it hasn’t broken down at all, does that mean it’s a wonderful piece?

Van de Vate:   Probably.  The craft is always there, but you must transcend your technique.  You can’t be thinking of your technique unless you need it at some point.  A writer doesn’t stop to analyze the grammar.  His technique is part of the business, and you get technique by having a lot of experience.  When you first start out, you make the best judgment you can about what will work.  But whether it works or not can only follow on your experience as a composer, and that’s why it’s so desperately important to hear the music.  Lots of composers claim it is all in their head, and I don’t believe them.  First of all, they’d have to have not only absolute pitch
which I do havebut secondly, they’d have to have an equivalent sense of rhythm, which very few people have.  Even Karajan didn’t have that.  I know one Czech conductor who has a hundred percent sense of rhythm and accuracy in terms of tempo.  If he sees that a tempo is marked 48, he’s exactly on 48.  But that’s very, very rare.  Then thirdly, you have to study that complex score and know it by memory, and you have to be able to hear this in your head in real time.

BD:   In real colors, too?

Van de Vate:   Yes, and in real colors.  It’s the academic answer to say yes, but unless the piece is ludicrously simple, or the composer is ludicrously dishonest, no composer hears it all.

BD:   Might they get a certain sense of it and think that’s enough?

Van de Vate:   Yes, maybe they do.  That’s why there’s so much lousy music out there.  [Much laughter]

BD:   Do you make sure that your music isn’t lousy?

Van de Vate:   If it is, I take it out of my repertoire.

BD:   Who judges whether it’s lousy?

Van de Vate:   I finally have learned to do that myself, and that is the only way.  I used to listen to critics.  This morning, when I was presenting Chernobyl at Illinois State, I pointed out that one critic said, “It annoyed me very much that in Chernobyl she throws in everything including electronics!”  [Laughs]  Well, there are no electronics in Chernobyl.  That critic just didn’t know what a flexi-tone was!  So I have learned that if the critic is really good, and I value the information, I take it aboard because you can always learn something from other people’s reactions to your music if they mean well.  It’s not whether they have good judgment or not.  But very often American critics have a more adversarial posture than any other country I know of.  Then secondly, they don’t always know what they’re talking about.  We have one major record review magazine that prides itself on only using amateurs or non-musicians as critics.
BD:   That way it hits the common people?

Van de Vate:   That’s the mentality, but are they common people if they’re music critics?  I don’t think they are.  They’re pretending to sit in judgment on music, and therefore they’re not common people.  Common people will tell you what they like and what they don’t like.

BD:   But if you ask them specifically to listen to something to review, does it take on a whole different meaning when they listen?

Van de Vate:   Yes, they must sit in judgment, and they must speak ex cathedra, whether they know what they’re talking about or they don’t.  I have finally learned not to listen to such people because it’s very destructive.

BD:   Do you listen to people who come to your concerts?

Van de Vate:   Yes, of course, and typically audience members will unfortunately preface their comments with “I don’t know much about music, but I like it,” or “I don’t know much about music, but this doesn’t really grab me.”  I tell them that if you know enough music to come to a concert, then you know enough to have an opinion.  So don’t apologize.  I don’t care whether they know anything about music or not.  That really isn’t relevant.

BD:   Is your music for everyone?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interview with Karel Husa.]

Van de Vate:   I hope so, absolutely.

BD:   For about five billion people?  [That was the estimated world-population at the time]

Van de Vate:   I hope so.  Why not?  I’m not trying to make it that way, and people who like loud, heavy metal rock will not like my music, because I try to be subtle.  They might like my percussion picture, though.  So, let me ask you...  Should music be for everyone?

BD:   It should be for anyone who wants it.

Van de Vate:   Yes, exactly so!  Just as a cook can’t please everybody’s palate, a composer cannot and should not try to please everybody’s taste.  The craft comes in where everybody has good ideas.  You get up in the morning, you have a great idea for a short story, or a painting, or an article, and it becomes a piece only when you sit down and go through the hard work of molding the material.  If any music is for everybody, I don’t want to say maybe it isn’t very good, but I don’t see how any piece can suit everybody.

BD:   Because of the diversity of people?

Van de Vate:   The diversity of people, and cultural biases.

BD:   Are we getting enough diversity in music?

Van de Vate:   What music
European, American, Polish, Chinese...

BD:   We’re talking about concert music.  Are we getting enough diversity in that?

Van de Vate:   I don’t think so, because there’s not so much contemporary music programmed now in the United States.   Just to mention one pet peeve of mine, the top twenty-one-budget orchestras in the United States in 1996, programmed 1,530 pieces of music.  Three were by women composers, so that’s not much diversity.  There certainly are more than three pieces by women composers out there that might have merited inclusion.

BD:   I would have thought that Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, and Joan Tower, and Nancy Van de Vate would have gotten several each!

Van de Vate:   I’m sure that Ellen Zwilich and Joan Tower were probably among the three, but that’s not enough, because even they have many pieces, and that would have meant maybe two for each of them, and that’s really not enough considering the size of their repertoires, and the excellence of their music.  But those of course are the top orchestras, and Ellen Zwilich has a very powerful agent.  That makes a huge difference, and John Tower also has had access to ‘Meet the Composer’, and various publishers.  Also, they’re more or less on the scene.  My music is much more widely performed in Europe than in the United States.

BD:   Does that give you a good sense of satisfaction?

Van de Vate:   Oh, I love it.  I’m happy to have my music performed anywhere.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Even in an elevator???

Van de Vate:   [Laughs]  Yes, if it sounds good.  If it will cause somebody in an elevator to say, “You know, that’s rather nice,” I would not be unhappy.

BD:   [Only partially facetiously]  Would you accept a commission from a hotel chain to write music for their elevators?

Van de Vate:   Yes, if I could write music that I felt was interesting.  I was in JC Penney recently, and they were playing only classical music.  It was so lovely, and it wasn’t ‘muzaked’, and it was not perceptibly reduced to one dynamic level.  They were playing Vivaldi, and I thought how nice to do that.  So maybe America is turning around on that.  It used to be that in a department store you would never hear anything but pop music.

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   From the standpoint of a composer, where is music going today?  [While I also asked this question in the earlier interview, her response here goes into a somewhat different direction.]

Van de Vate:   I honestly don’t know.  I have asked myself this many times because there’s nothing new.  The return to more accessible music and poly-stylistic music is eclectic, as we call it.  But that’s only a summation of what’s gone before.  There’s nothing new there, and the twentieth century was a transitional period.  We have one every three hundred years.  We had one in the fourteenth century called the Ars Nova, and one in the seventeenth century, and now we have one in the twentieth century.  We always call it the new music.

BD:   Every three hundred or so...

Van de Vate:   Yes, and we have not settled down to a common practice, which will come at the end of the period.  So I can’t say where music is going right now.  It was a period of great experimentation, as was the fourteenth and the seventeenth century, and certainly the computers and electronics is nothing new.  It’s just one more instrument in the arsenal of instruments.  It’s just one more set of timbres, so I do not see that as anything new.

BD:   Do you feel that atonality was at a dead end, and that it was worth exploring but is now going nowhere?

Van de Vate:   No, I don’t feel that way at all.  I feel it’s just one more wonderful palette of colors that we can use, just as clusters.  If you listen to some of my music, it waffles back and forth between romantic-type melodies and huge Penderecki-type sounds.  Why should we not use every palette, and every color we have in our palette, or every technique that’s ever been available?  I will write twelve-tone music, but not in a twelve-tone style, just because at that point it happens to be a technique that I feel is suitable to incorporate.  But I don’t feel that music should shift context and shift style every page.

BD:   At what point is the palette getting too big or too monstrous to hold in your hand?

Van de Vate:   You just don’t use all those colors.  You put some back in the paint box.  [Both laugh]  In fact, the word
palette is not a bad choice, because what you have on the palette are just those colors you’re going to use in that painting, and the rest stay in the bottle.  I don’t think you should use everything in every piece.  My Pipa Concerto doesn’t want military drums, and if I’m writing a military piece I’ll probably use trumpets and a military drum.  But to try to throw everything into every piece is just a mistake.

BD:   Have you basically been pleased with the performances you’ve heard of your music over the years?

Van de Vate:   [Thinks a moment]  I have learned something from every performance, even bad performances.  That’s just the luck of the draw.  That’s like asking if you are pleased with every restaurant meal you’ve had in the past twenty years.  You go into a new restaurant, and you don’t really know if it’s going to be good or bad.  But if you worried about it, you’d never try a new restaurant.  Sometimes I get absolutely superb performances in the most incredibly unlikely places, and sometimes I get just terrible performances in places that I thought were sure fire.

BD:   How’s you batting average?

Van de Vate:   Fifty-fifty, I guess.

BD:   [Genuinely surprised]  Really???

Van de Vate:   Is that good or bad?

BD:   I would hope it would be a lot better than that.

Van de Vate:   Maybe it
’s seventy-thirty...  For instance, I just had a wonderful performance in Waco, Texas.  I did not know that Waco had a huge and marvelous symphony orchestra.  They have 14, 12, 10, 10, 8 in the strings [number of players in each sectionfirst violin, second violin, viola, cello, double bass].  They are very professional, a wonderful orchestra.

BD:   They had full winds and everything?

Van de Vate:   Everything!  Another time, after waiting patiently for years for a premiere of Chernobyl, I finally had it in Vienna with a wonderful orchestra, but I was very unhappy with the performance.  Very unhappy!  The conductor was absolutely bloodless, and the performance of this passionate Slavic piece was absolutely bloodless.  But then it finally got its American premiere at Portland, Maine, where they have a wonderful second tier regional orchestra, and the performance was marvelous.  Who could predict that Portland, Maine would give a much more sensitive performance than the Tonkünstler Orchestra in Vienna?

BD:   Was the Tonkünstler simply too much into Mozart and Schubert?

Van de Vate:   No, they do a lot of new music, as does the ORF [Vienna Radio Symphony] Orchestra.  So, you can’t call it.  You just take your chances, and smile sweetly when you stand up to take your bow, even when you’re groaning and moaning and gnashing your teeth, because most performers are doing their best, and the lousy performances are not a feature of performers not trying.

BD:   What do you do when you get a very poor performance, and the audience comes to you and says, “Oh, it’s a wonderful piece!”?

Van de Vate:   With Chernobyl, I took a huge number of my own CDs of the work.  I had invited a lot of friends to come, and to every friend I saw, I said, “Please go home and listen to the CD!”  [Both laugh]  Otherwise, you just smile and say, “I appreciate having this performance.”

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BD:   A lot of your music has been recorded.  Are you pleased with the CDs that are out, because you have more control over them, I assume?

Van de Vate:   Yes.  I have allowed two or three pieces to be released that I was not pleased with at all, so I am going back now and releasing other recordings of those same pieces with different performers.  When I realized that some pieces of Elliott Carter, and even Joan Tower have been recorded three, four, or five times with different performers, I decided to do the same thing.  They’ll hear one and say it’s not so good, and prefer another.  But I’m basically happy with all of the orchestral ones that have been released, and with most of the chamber ones.  I am not all together happy with one choral one, but it’s so difficult to assemble a huge chorus and a large orchestra, and soloists, and a sound team.  People say that the quality of the music comes through anyway.  But if it distorted the music, then I wouldn’t release it.

BD:   Are you in the best position to judge whether the music comes across, because you’re too close to it?
Van de Vate:   [Sternly]  I absolutely am not!  It’s just very painful.  When I listen to my own music, I ask myself if I composed it that way, and if so, why?  Why didn’t I compose it some other way?  On the other hand, I don’t want to deceive myself that something’s just glorious when it’s not my best work, because we all do have places where we fall down.  It just could not be otherwise.  Beethoven has perfectly terrible works in the middle period, and Schumann has some wretched works.  I have some wonderful old LPs called Forgotten Masterpieces by J.S. Bach, and they should have been forgotten!  [Both laugh]

BD:   A hundred years from now, are you going to like it when someone is looking at your repertoire and makes the same comment?
 [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Marga Richter, Katherine Hoover, and Ursula Mamlok.]

Van de Vate:   I’m going to see that those pieces have been eliminated from the repertoire!  [Both laugh]  I don’t know.  That could be a mistake, too.  Varèse destroyed everything he had written before he came to the United States, and one has to wonder.  There must have been much wonderful music there, so I don’t want to do that, either.  But if the piece is a real dog...  [Pauses a moment]  The Austrian National Library is collecting all my works, and I’m very pleased about that.  I occasionally find a mistake, and then I have to sneak into the library, and get the score out.  The librarians who give out the scores don’t know who I am, so I put in that accidental that should have been there first time around.  [Both laugh]  But that’s a very hard thing to decide.  Do you destroy something that maybe had some worth?  My husband’s attitude is that I should leave it there, because it might be of interest to musicologists.  Here was this piece that maybe was a step on the way to something else.  What do you think about that?
BD:   Everything that you do is a part of you.  It makes up part of your personality, and part of your creative output.

Van de Vate:   So, you would leave this?

BD:   Absolutely.

Van de Vate:   That’s interesting to hear.

BD:   But then I’m just greedy.  That’s all.  I assume you continue writing all the time?

Van de Vate:   Yes.  In fact, as the years go by I get greedier and greedier to write more and more music.  In 1984, after my piece Journeys [shown at right], I decided that I was going to write a new piece for orchestra every single year, whether it got performed or not.  I did that, and then I found I could do two, and now I did three this year.  But the problem is in the back-up work, meaning the score and parts, and it’s incredibly expensive to have them done.  It’s also incredibly time consuming to do them yourself.  Right now, I’ve carpal tunnel syndrome from the cutting of the parts for my Pipa Concerto.  I cut the staves of a score, and pasted them together into a part, which is the poor man’s way of creating parts.  I have worked with a computer, but that’s also very time consuming, and I’ve had some terrible experiences with that.

BD:   With a good program you could just extract the parts without any problem.

Van de Vate:   Yes, but they have to be very heavily edited after they’re extracted.  Then they have to be proof-read.  It takes me two weeks to proof-read a full set of parts, and then they go back to the copyist.  The corrections are made, and then I have to proof-read at least the corrections and half the conductor’s score.  No matter how you do it, it takes as long to input in a computer as it does by hand, and I still have a pretty good hand.  So basically I do the score by hand, or I’ll do it in pencil, and have an orchestra read it, or record it, and then have it computer-copied.  But it’s very time consuming, and very expensive.  I have copyists literally all over the world.  I’ve a copyist in Poland, who was with the State Publishing House.  He’s Penderecki’s copyist, and this saintly soul charges me $7 for a page of score that’s hand-engraved, and $4 for parts.  I keep saying, “Please, this is too little money!”  He could not do more than a page a day.  He’s retired now, but he doesn’t raise his price.  It’s wonderful, but he takes three years to do a piece.  Then I have a copyist who uses the computer program Score.  He is in Lithuania, and he’s somewhat less expensive, and that’s not so far to send stuff and back and forth.  I found him through the internet.  Then I have a wonderful copyist in Tucson, Arizona, who’s copied for me for twenty years, and he uses Finale.  I’m very punctual, so I get my things to him in advance.  But he copies for a lot of people that wait till the piece was due for the orchestra day before yesterday, and he always lets them step in the queue ahead of me.  So sometimes I don’t get things as promptly as I want.  Then I have a copyist in Vienna who is absolutely fantastic.  She never makes a mistake.  She finds any mistakes I have made.  She’s bilingual, so with my German language opera she could even find things in German that weren’t quite the way they should have been.  But she’s ferociously expensive.  This is the problem with doing so many pieces for orchestra.  It
s not that I can’t do the composing, but I just can’t keep up with the administrative support.

BD:   Is there ever a time when you look at the page, and there’s just nothing coming into your imagination?

Van de Vate:   No, because I’m so starved for the time to work.   We started a record company, as you know, and I have much less time than I would like to compose.  Sometimes now I go away some place where there’s no telephone, no fax, and no email.  I can spend up to four weeks there, and I can spend eight to ten hours a day composing.  I had some doubts whether I could do that, but I can.  That’s partly because I’ve been so hungry for the time.

BD:   The ideas are really all there, stacked up trying to come out?

Van de Vate:   Yes, pretty much so.

BD:   In the end, is it all worth it?

Van de Vate:   You don’t have any choice.  What are the rewards?  It’s like a form of addiction.  I find that if I haven’t been composing, I get irritable, cross, restless, unfocussed, constantly doing everything else faster so I can get through with all these things that I don’t really want to do.  So, it doesn’t matter whether it’s worth it or not.

BD:   As Tom Willis, critic for the Chicago Tribune used to say (when I was his Graduate Assistant at Northwestern),
We all have to work to support our habit.

Van de Vate:   Yes, that’s what it comes down to.  You could be doing other things than radio work, that might be more financially rewarding, so I would put the same question back to you.  Is it worth it to do radio work?

BD:   I wouldn’t do anything else.

Van de Vate:   That’s the way I feel about composing.  I wouldn’t do anything else!


BD:   Do you like traveling all over the world with your music?

Van de Vate:   It’s absolutely wonderful because you have a perspective.  Things that annoy me if I were back in the States
such as something nasty a colleague said about the best passage in my new piecebecomes irrelevant.  The world is such a large place, so why should this bother me when I’m climbing the Great Wall in China?  I may be vaguely annoyed at this person, but why should I waste my time thinking about him or her?

BD:   It’s sounds like it’s all perspective.

Van de Vate:   It really is, and if you’re too focused on one context, then you take things out of proportion.  We all want recognition, and this is why people communicate musically.  We want people to love us, and we want people to love our music, and when someone comes up and says, “That’s a terrible piece!” that’s says more about them than you.  Nobody does that so much anymore, but they do it to younger composers, and it has the same impact as somebody coming up and saying, “My, you have a homely face!”  It makes you feel bad, even if you realize the person’s just being nasty.  As you get older and more experienced, you learn to tune these things out, or take them in perspective.

BD:   I’m glad we’ve been able to tune your music in.

Van de Vate:   Well, thank you, Bruce!  I appreciate very much your broadcasting it.  The recordings are my principal way of having my music heard, and they do last longer than a performance.  A performance is wonderful, but the effort that goes in to obtaining a performance, the followup work, coming to the performance, sitting there and suffering, driving your finger nails into your palm as the principal cellist gets lost in the most beautiful passage of the work...  At least on the recordings they’re there, and through digital they’re there now probably for eternity.
 [Pauses a moment as we were about to finish]  You’re a tough interviewer, by the way!  [Gales of laughter]  You’ve asked me very tough questions.





© 1990 & 1998 Bruce Duffie

The first conversation was recorded on the telephone on August 30, 1990.  The second was held in Chicago on August 27, 1998.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in December of 1990, 1995, and 2000; and on WNUR in 2004.  This transcription was made in 2022, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.