New England’s Prospect: Echolocation
The trope of the Forgotten-and-Rediscovered Genius is a powerful one in American culture, sitting, as it does, at the intersection of Rugged Individualism and Democratic Validation. It also, quite often, enables the typically (though most definitely not exclusively) American pattern of an artist’s biographical narrative eclipsing the actual worth of their art. But the April 22 concert of music by Burr Van Nostrand in New England Conservatory’s Brown Hall didn’t include any explanation as to why Nostrand hadn’t composed any music since the early ’90s, nor why the music he had composed had lain unperformed for the same amount of time. Which was really something of a gift: this was music that simply seemed to reappear, pristine, unencumbered by the accumulated residue of a zigzag career.
And it was pristine, in its way—a time capsule so perfectly preserved that its intrusion into the 21st century could make an unusually sharp mark. Van Nostrand, a maestro of aleatory and graphic notation, made waves as a master’s student at NEC in the late ’60s and early ’70s, then moved to California, where only a handful of further pieces emerged over another couple of decades. Jason Belcher, an NEC grad composer, heard a tape of Van Nostrand’s Voyage from a White Building I and was, as he put it, “wonderfully freaked out,” which led to him retrieving other scores from the American Composers Alliance’s archives and organizing this concert.
Each half of the program paired a shorter solo work with a more extended ensemble piece. Phaedra Antomines, a violin solo from 1968, started off by laying out, piece by piece, a familiar box of extended techniques: bowing behind the bridge, rapping on the soundboard, and so forth. But the music instead settled into a half-remembered version of the ersatz-Gypsy fiddling so favored by Romantic virtuosi, the swooning double-stops, the fusillades of left-hand pizzicato, here woozy with glissando and growling, heavy bow pressure: the historical gears sticking on their own rust. (Violinist Tara Mueller gave an excellent account, her casual mien belying a wholehearted technical absorption.)
If Phaedra Antomines was selective in its sound-world, Van Nostrand’s Fantasy Manual for Urban Survival, from 1972, was encyclopedic. Over a long, five-movement arc, flute (Lisa Husseini), cello (Jason Coleman), and prepared piano (Alex Zhu) cataloged variations: individual sonorities were collected into lists, recombined and redistributed among the instruments, or else repeated into jagged ostinato patterns that, perhaps, bowed toward early minimalism before vanishing in swirls of harmonics, bow hair, and buzzing piano strings. The fourth movement had Husseini and Coleman trading sprechstimme as well, a setting of Frederich Hölderlin’s “Hälfte des Lebens,” a looking-at-summer-and-imagining-winter bit of Romantic brooding. That was the mood, overcast and rustling. The piece, at times, seemed to retreat into private rumination; it certainly ran the temporal gamut, from initially going by too fast, to stretching into protraction, to feeling too long, to feeling just long enough.
Van Nostrand’s TUBA-TUBA (1973), which opened the second half, shifted the proceedings from theatricality into Fluxus-style silliness. Tubist Beth McDonald played sonorous phrases, but also rattled the instrument’s keys in comic determination, obsessively polished its metal, used its capacious bore to filter a flight attendant’s indications of geographically impossible out-window sights, and finished by turning it into an unlikely version of a magician’s hat. It was more funny than not, though its comedy felt almost decadently slight.
The performance-art japes of TUBA-TUBA set up the vocabulary of Voyage in a White Building I, but didn’t really prepare one for its impact. Dating from 1969, Voyage is big in every way: a setting of Hart Crane’s “Voyages I” for speaker and an ensemble of 19 players (conducted/refereed by Anthony Coleman), some amplified, some not, stretching over some 25 minutes. It is wild, goofy, fierce, impulsive, fully entertaining ambitions to both iconoclasm and grandeur. And it is brilliant—a swarmingly disorienting experience, a piece of the Vietnam-era post-serial avant-garde that actually delivers on its radical, politically charged promise.
Crane’s text is cut up into its constituent sounds, broken down to the edge of intelligibility; speaker Lautaro Mantilla, his performance an absolute tour de force, donned Walter Cronkite horn rims and tie, only to render the text as an unbroken cadenza of giggles, screams, and gasps, half-toddler, half-madman. The poem, a dense, florid warning to children the poet sees playing on the beach, becomes unwitting commentary on the era of protests and happenings; the graphic score, aleatoric in pitch and rhythm but in may other ways fanatically detailed, sometimes goads the text on, sometimes is a story the speaker is reporting. The amplification connects with pop and rock, though often in a critical way: Crane’s description of the children crumbling “fragments of baked weed / Gaily digging and scattering” gave way to a trio of saxophone (Derek Beckvold), electric guitar (Andrew Clinkman), and drums (Andy Fordyce)—a rock group, but, in this instance, one that has lost the beat, that can’t agree, scribbles of noise splayed out. As Crane’s poem directly addressed “you brilliant kids,” Beckvold and Husseini rolled in with the sound of sirens, advice in the form of coercion. After a final explosion of violence, a sitar (Sonny Lalchandani) serenely twanged as the rest of the ensemble descended into heavy, gray rumbles, countercultural fiddling while the city is reduced to ash.
On the one hand, Voyage in a White Building I is very much a period piece. But there’s plenty in it that feels all too contemporary: the generational divide, the glut of simultaneous experience, the underlying information atomized and amplified into sensational nonsense. It’s like landing on a world that seems vaguely familiar, only to realize, Charlton-Heston-style, that we maniacs blew it up after all, even if the explosion came in extreme slow-motion. Van Nostrand, slight and smiling, basked in the applause with the curious happiness of a jester who, unexpectedly, finds that he has become a bit of a prophet.