American Composer: Nancy Van de Vate

By Kyle Gann

After some 35 years of studying contemporary music, one thing that occurs to me a lot lately is that the composers who made up their styles from hetergenous ideas seem livelier than those who chased after theoretical ideals of unity and purity. I have a certain nostalgic affection for composers like Webern, Sessions, and Stockhausen, who created rigorous systems in which every note had its justified place. But grab-bag composers like Bartok, Ives, Messiaen, have a freshness that convinces anew with every hearing and relies on no fond memories. They wrote tonal music when they wanted to and atonal when they didn't, applied tone rows at one moment and exotic scales the next, quoted this and made a rhythmic system for that, grabbing whatever appealed to them on the spot and not worrying about making their place in history with some overarching musical concept.

It's true of Nancy Van de Vate, too. She'll compose tonally and atonally within the same movement, and if an atonal piece needs a tonal cadence for closure, so be it. She's used serial techniques, written neoromanticism in her recent operas, approached the coloristic orchestral techniques of Penderecki and Lutoslawski in Journeys for orchestra, and imitated the Javanese gamelan in her string orchestra piece Gema Jawa. She's never taken an extreme position, never went so far out on a limb that she couldn't come back in the next piece, and seems driven by no theoretical concerns. You get the impression she could make music with anything, and her set of twelve piano pieces using from one, two, three, etc. pitches per piece seems intent on proving just that. She is the most pragmatic of composers.

And pragmatic in every sense. Her foot-long bloc in my compact disc collection boasts recordings of more than 50 works on some 22 CDs, many of them on her own label, Vienna Music Masters. Suffering under the double handicap (like Gloria Coates, whom I recently wrote about in this space) of being a woman composer in Europe and an expatriate, she needed to go to extreme depths of resolve to get her music out, and she has. Aside from Feldman and Cage, there's almost no other recent composer I have so many discs by. Van de Vate became self-sufficient before composer self-sufficiency became hip.

To point to her stylistic diversity is not to say that there's no central core to Van de Vate's music, that she's a style-chaser with no pinpointable personality. A kind of passionate melancholy runs through all her work, enlivened at times by wry humor. Her default harmonic idiom might be called a generic Bartokian modernism - lots of emphasis on major sevenths and tritones, a consistent angularity avoiding the cliches of tonality. Yet it is clearly intuitive and never obscurantist. Her sense of pitch is not abstract; all those leaping dissonances acknowledge the yearning quality they bring to mind in more Romantic contexts. More individual is her sense of rhythm. One thing she loves doing is to start off a piece in a slow, meandering way, and then at some point burst into rhythmic momentum - it's clearly one of her favorite effects. "All right, I've been a good modernist girl for a few minutes," her music seems to say, "but now I'm going to kick up my heels and have some fun!"

If there's anything that makes thisseptuagenarian atonalist composer still relevant in the 21st century, it's that she's never shied away from "the groove." This is becoming a major issue in music: hyperclassical composers who can't stand settling into anything repetitive stand opposed to pop-influenced composers who will settle into a groove, a comfortable ostinato or steady beat. Younger audiences almost reflexively expect to hear a groove in music, and some reject any music that doesn't offer it. Van de Vate is hardly as repetitive as your basic electronica artist, but she does have an entertaining way of setting up a pattern and sticking with it. My favorite instance is the final movement of her Music for Viola, Percussion, and Piano (1976), in which the piano starts up an irregular pattern that, after awhile, turns out to be a repeating ostinato five 8th-notes long - while the viola and xylophone dance over it in a pretty march-like 4/4. It's a lively, engrossing texture, and it takes awhile to figure out why.

Part of this tendency might be attributable to Van de Vate's relationship to Asia and its music. In 1975 she took a teaching job in Hawaii, and from 1982 to '85 (several years after Music for Viola, Percussion, and Piano, you'll notice) she lived in Indonesia. In Journeys (1984), which I think of as her seminal and perhaps most memorable orchestra piece, East and West collide: the opening dissonances are purely European, but within a few minutes Balinese-sounding repeating patterns appear in the pianos, then the orchestral bells, then the violins. There's a sense of opposition, but no feeling of incongruity. The quasi-gamelan patterns give way to mournful melodies that lead back into dissonance, and the big, brassy dissonances seem to slowly focus themselves back into the percussive repetitions.

The charm of such heterogeneous music is that it never feels dogmatic or doctrinaire. You trust that in the course of a piece Van de Vate will use whatever she feels moved to use, and that she pledges allegiance to no one sector of the composing profession.Gema Jawa is a thoroughly romantic tone poem on an Indonesian scale. The 1996 Divertimento for harp and string quintet - Van de Vate's most delightful chamber work of the dozen or so I've heard - starts with lithe neoclassicism which gives way to a mournfully Romantic second theme underlaid by an Eastern-sounding ostinato. Instead of a composer composing in a certain style, you have a sensibility diffracted through several styles she calls her own. Romanticism, Bartokian dissonance, serialism, and Balinese repetitiveness all circle each other and interpenetrate. Hers is not a musical personality that's become very familiar, nor is it one of the most distinctive around. But in its multi-facetedness, it feels like a personality admirably complete.

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