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Jay Humeston (cello)
Herman Weiss (prepared piano)
Paul Severtson (violin)
NEC Chamber Ensemble
I may know better than to judge a CD by its cover, but it was hard to resist the poetic allure of the graphic score which unfolds across the front of Voyage in a White Building 1, a New World Records-issued recording of three pieces by Burr Van Nostrand.
Though the notation samples reeled me in (there’s another within the detailed booklet notes by Mathew Rosenblum), it was actually Matthew Guerrieri’s review from last year of performances of Van Nostrand’s music at the New England Conservatory of Music that first attracted my attention to this American iconoclast’s work. Guerrieri’s vivid descriptions of the texture and flavor of the pieces left me intrigued, yet its infrequent live performance had me doubting I’d ever have the chance to hear it for myself. So consider this as much of an alert as a record review: if you ever desired the opportunity, it has arrived.
The three works included on the album were all written between 1966 and 1972. It opens with Fantasy Manual for Urban Survival, a six-movement fully notated composition. The recording included here—featuring performances by Robert Stallman (flute), Jay Humeston (cello), and Herman Weiss (prepared piano)—was made at the piece’s premiere at the New England Conservatory in 1972. I was somewhat surprised to read that Van Nostrand “began the project by compiling lists of extreme ensemble sonorities,” since to my ear, each gesture feels so deliberate and well-placed—nothing thrown at the wall just to see if it will stick. It comes off not as a catalog but as an organic exploration of a dim world, no turn taken too quickly. What begins as a murky, slow-moving study sharpens its attack and reveals additional facets as things progress. Midway through, the performers begin taking turns speaking text from the Friedrich Hölderlin poem “Hälfte des Lebens,” an inspiration for the piece, as the music continues to slip and stutter. The final two movements turn spare and crystalline, breath and light key clicks dissolving into the ether.
Phaedra Antinomaes was written for friend and collaborator violinist Paul Severtson, who infuses an attractive confidence into his presentation of the material (as documented in the 1969 recording featured on the disc). The work’s three continuous movements can be played in any order, as can the fifteen fragments that make up one of the sections. Severtson chose to lead with his ingredients—the gestural “Fragments”—before slipping seamlessly into the “Very slow, suspended” section, aggressive bow work, twacks against the instrument, and plucked accents contrasting with delicate spiccato sputters and glissando introspection. The final section, “Violent, fast—very slow,” kicks up the tension level, but not as much as these descriptive words might imply. Throughout the work, Van Nostrand pads his statements with enough air around them to allow full aural absorption. As a result, Phaedra Antinomaes remains, start to finish, a haiku of a piece. No single line in its twelve-and-a-half-minute run time seems to unspool more than a few syllables before taking a breath, but absorbed as a whole the music contains surprising weight.
Tara Mueller, violin; New England Conservatory, April 2012
A new recording of the title work, Voyage in a White Building 1, closes the disc with a bang, and it is here that the enticing graphic score pages come to life. Premiered originally in 1969, the booklet notes explain that Van Nostrand created the work for a collection of close colleagues and relied on the unconventional notation system to include their diverse range of styles and reading abilities. On this disc, the work is presented by the NEC Chamber Ensemble led by Anthony Coleman, and a hat must be tipped to them—particularly the “speaker,” who emphatically emotes his way through the performance—for picking up this challenge and making it such a rich sonic experience.
For as seductive as I found the graphic score illustrations, the sonic image they convey (at least to these musicians) resolved into an ominous picture. Based on Hart Crane’s poem “Voyages 1,” it is structurally and thematically reflective of its three stanzas—a warning to children playing on a beach. Any sort of playfulness that may be present at the outset seems to melt into a kind of nightmarish fairy tale horror along the twists and turns Van Nostrand’s interpretation takes. The seeming madness of the speaker—his nearly nonsensical verbal explosions, maniacal laugher, moans, gasps, and cries—hold center stage throughout much of the performance, ramping up with deliberate speed as the piece moves towards its finale. But it’s a beautiful terror to witness, a vibrant piece of theater for the ears.
Burr Van Nostrand – Voyage in a White Building 1