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Burr Van Nostrand: Voyage In A White Building I / Stallman, Humeston, Weiss, Coleman, Nec Chamber Ensemble

Nostrand / Stallman / Humeston / Weiss
Release Date: 04/09/2013 
Label:  New World Records   Catalog #: 80742   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Burr Van Nostrand
Performer:  Jay HumestonRobert StallmanHerman WeissPaul Severtson
Conductor:  Anthony Coleman
Orchestra/Ensemble:  NEC Chamber Ensemble
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 10 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

VAN NOSTRAND Fantasy Manual for Urban Survival 1. Phaedra Antimonaes 2. Voyage in a White Building 1 3 1 Robert Stallman (fl); 1 Jay Hameston (vc); 1 Hermann Weiss (prepared pn); 2 Paul Severtson (vn); 3 Read more class="ARIAL12">Anthony Coleman, cond; 3 NEC Ch Ens NEW WORLD 80742-2 (70:19) 1 Live: Boston 10/17/72, 2 2/9/69

New World seems to have been on a project of highlighting experimental composers who have been under the radar too long, often giving them exposure before it’s too late. I’ve recently reviewed the Music for Merce set, the Joseph Byrd collection, and will be taking on a huge David Tudor project in the next issue. It’s a policy I applaud (disclosure: I have two releases on the label). Burr Van Nostrand (b. 1945) falls into this category. After a period of visibility in the late ’60s and ’70s, he seemed to disappear, and in fact after about 1990 he stopped composing. This release brings him back into the public eye for a fresh appraisal.

There’s a strain of wide-open, slightly crazed American music from this period that combines the Expressionist/Modernist sound palette with a much more experimental mode of performance, based on graphic notation, open- and moment-form, extended techniques, and non-linear theater. I think of it as more Midwestern, with such practicioners as Herbert Brün, Kenneth Gaburo, and Sal Martirano (and to some degree, though more of an outlier, Robert Ashley). Van Nostrand seems to have been a “bicoastal” member of the club, coming to the Northeast as a San Diego surfer-composer, studying at New England Conservatory and Yale (at the latter as a cellist; the composer has doubled as a performer his entire professional life). The few images of his scores in the disc’s booklet are visually gorgeous, and I suspect would reward close study by any composer wanting to find the right mix between rigor and freedom when using non-traditional notation.

All the pieces are from a narrow time period, 1968-72. The most recent is Fantasy Manual for Urban Survival , a trio for flute, cello, and prepared piano. Van Nostrand is obviously an ambitious composer, as this piece and Voyage in a White Building 1 are around half an hour each. Fantasy Manual is the longer, and has an elaborate structure of six movements that in turn parse into smaller, elegantly proportioned sections. The result is basically moment-form, but the moments are arranged in such a way as to create a sense of larger architecture and ongoing growth and return. There’s also a scrupulous attention to gestures and timbre on both micro- and macro-levels. In the middle the players intone fragments of a Hölderin poem, which adds a ghostly effect. This is also the one piece that’s fully notated in the traditional manner (though with lots of less-traditional performance techniques).

Phaedra Antimonaes (1968) is a solo violin work that’s the only piece I can’t warm up to much. It’s compact, its three movements can be arranged in any order, but I can’t intuit much difference between them, despite the descriptions of their respective titles. This is a case of moment-form that feels more like a memory deficit to me, though I applaud Paul Severtson’s obviously authoritative performance. (Note: both this and Fantasy Manual are live performances from way back, but except for one cough the recording quality is excellent and sounds contemporary.)

But Voyage in a White Building 1 (1969) is the capstone of the disc. This work suggests a kinship with Ligeti’s Aventures and Nouvelle Aventures of 1962/65, even though instead of nonsense vocalise it uses a Hart Crane poem (highly deconstructed) as its text. It’s full of full-throttle chaos, but also can shift on a dime to great delicacy. Most of the score is the composer’s elaborate and detailed graphic notation, and this performance (directed by Anthony Coleman, a leading “creative musician” who in turn conducts a brilliant set of similarly minded NEC students) gives great entertainment and stimulation. It also has one of the most convincing simulated orgasms I’ve ever reviewed. The exceptional vocalist is Lautaro Mantilla.

It would have been nice to have the Hölderin and Crane poems in the notes, simply to understand the conceptual underlay of the music better (perhaps there were permission issues here, though; and the texts are so distorted anyway as to be semantically unintelligible most of the time). I also wish that Voyage could be seen as a video, as I think the theatrical component of the performance, even without any dramatic staging, would make it even more wild, compelling, and funny. But it works.

The excellent notes by Matthew Greenblum (yet another composer whose work I admire) make a strong case for the exceptional originality of Van Nostrand’s music. I’m not quite convinced of that point, but still welcome the chance to encounter his vision and learn from it. Above all, it’s not dry and it is adventurous.

FANFARE: Robert Carl
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Works on This Recording

Fantasy Manual for Urban Survival by Burr Van Nostrand
Performer:  Jay Humeston (Cello), Robert Stallman (Flute), Herman Weiss (Piano)
Phaedra Antinomaes by Burr Van Nostrand
Performer:  Paul Severtson (Violin)
Voyage in a White Building I by Burr Van Nostrand
Conductor:  Anthony Coleman
Orchestra/Ensemble:  NEC Chamber Ensemble

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