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Burr Van NOSTRAND (b. 1945) Fantasy Manual for Urban Survival (1972) [33:47] Phaedra Antimonaes (1968) [12:26] Voyage in a White Building 1 (1969) [23:51]
Robert Stallman (flute); Jay Humeston (cello); Herman Weiss (prepared piano) (Fantasy)
Paul Severtson (violin: Phaedra)
NEC Chamber Ensemble/Anthony Coleman (Voyage)
rec. live, 17 October 1972 (Fantasy), 9 December 1969 (Phaedra), 8 October 2012 (Voyage), New England Conservatory, Jordan Hall, Boston MA. NEW WORLD RECORDS 80742-2 [70:19]
Burr Van Noststrand is a name you are unlikely to have come across on either side of the Atlantic, but this is unsurprising considering the aura of unconventionality surrounding him and his work. The booklet notes for this release sum him up as "a native Californian, a San Diego surfer, a thumb-your-nose-at-convention 1960s counter-culturalist; wonderfully radical, but with the rigor, seriousness of purpose, and thorough knowledge of the classical music canon that would garner the respect of the most uptight of serialist composers."
Some of Van Nostrand's scores are conventionally notated if complex, while others are some of the most remarkable graphic scores you are ever likely to see. The booklet cover for this release shows a fragment of such a score, characteristically combining notated staves which float amongst phrases and gestures represented by descriptive lines, symbols and texts. If you are looking for the moment on the CD which this page represents, go to 5:10 on the final track of the disc and feast your senses.
As I've pointed out before on these pages, genuinely avant-garde composers are a relatively rare breed these days, and we've long passed the point at which 'reactions against' this kind of modernity are in some way remarkable for taking such a creative attitude - an artistic viewpoint which would have been the equivalent of heresy in many quarters at the time. You'd be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss was about, but Burr Van Nostrand can easily stand as a representative of what some would dismiss as 'squeaky-gate' music: the kind of thing which gave contemporary concert music a bad name amongst the general public in the 1960s and 1970s, and something from which it has never really recovered.
So yes, this CD won't be for everyone, but while listening you might also be forgiven for asking yourself 'why not?' The texts around this release are a little too full of superlatives for my taste, but there are some acutely observed descriptions which I would be pushed to better: "(Van Nostrand's) music is marked by an acute sensitivity to instrumental color and texture, extreme sonic contrasts, gestural freedom, and a signature ensemble fluidity ... music that places very high technical demands on the performer and at the same time allows for the flexibility and freedom of improvisation. Each work ... presents a catalog of extended techniques that would widen the eyes of even the most dedicated Lachenmann enthusiast, but is also infused with a pluralistic view that vividly reflects the time and place of composition-Boston and New Haven at the height of the Vietnam anti-war movement."
Seeking beyond the pretty scores and promotional texts, what we have are works which create a certain special atmosphere, which talk to us in different ways, but always with a sense of poetry and a feel for finely honed structure and proportion. Phaedra Antinomaes is like an eloquent monologue, the violin often in soliloquy with itself, sometimes exploding in moments of anger but always with a sense of introversion - the technical virtuosity of the music and its compositional elements part of the essence of its expression rather than concert-hall display. If you needed evidence of purity in proportion and poetry of expression have a listen to the brief Schangesang which concludes Fantasy Manual for Urban Survival. Virtually nothing happens, but the air is shaped by a kind of extended cadence which takes us down an interval of a minor third, the violin taking us to pianissimo but stratospheric heights, sparing notes from the flute and a final death rattle conjuring a brief monument to understated parting. If you can take these rarefied but relatively direct moments of musical wonder at face value and work your way into the rest of the music from there, then you stand much more chance of developing an ear for Van Nostrand's ways and means of communicating.
Aside from a very occasional cough these early recordings are remarkably good, and you would never guess the tapes are from 1969 and 1972. Voyage in a White Building I is up to date and no doubt state of the art, but there is little to tell one from the other, the consistency of the recording venue no doubt aiding this impression. This piece was written for a specific group of the composer's colleagues, and an illustration in the booklet shows part of his remarkable graphic solution to cater for "reading and non-reading musicians". The result, expertly performed by the NEC Chamber Ensemble, which includes musicians from the New England Conservatory's jazz, classical and contemporary improvisation streams, is a highly convincing and dramatic listening experience - the imagination fed by acutely and sensitively placed musical rhetoric, Lautaro Mantilla's contribution in the speaking part filled with extremes both shocking and tender.
The bottom line is, explorers of 20th century contemporary music should be aware of Burr Van Nostrand, and this is a rare and essential source for hearing his music. If you have doubts about the validity of this kind of music and feel there is an 'emperor's clothes' quality to its conception and in those who admire it, Van Nostrand is another good place to have your ideas shaken. The music isn't 'easy', but it is composed in the same kind of detailed and deeply considered way as any other good composer, and serves as strong evidence that true avant-garde means of expression can have much to teach us in any period. This music is uncompromisingly modern but then so was Jackson Pollock, and I don't hear many complaints about him these days.