“During this time period, witnesses recall that there were riots, incessant protests (of the Vietnam War), Harvard Square was burning, and wherever you were, you could not escape the noise and the smoke...”
~ “Burr Van Nostrand”, American Composers Alliance
I have a plan to one day do a Vietnam Memorial concert with three works: Ned Rorem’s War Songs, Alvin Etler’s Brass Quintet, and George Crumb’s Black Angels. All of these works are wholly or in part responses to the Vietnam War (and in the case of Etler in response to the death of his son in battle). But now that I’ve heard Voyage in a White Building I by Burr Van Nostrand, I may need to revise this program to fit his work in. Because before I’d heard Voyage I didn’t know how intense a Classical music Vietnam response could be. Allow me to supply some background.
Nostrand was born in Los Angeles in 1945, and after starting cello lessons at Hoover High School he eventually got his early works performed by the San Diego Symphony and the La Jolla Chamber Orchestra. He then studied at New England Conservatory under Robert Cogan, and graduated with a Masters degree in composition in 1971, and remained active as a composer, lecturer and cellist through the 80’s, and was featured in a documentary on Avant-Garde composers for TV Belgrade. After the 80’s the compositional community did a good job at never mentioning him again, and things stayed that way until 2012, when Jason Belcher, a Masters student at NEC, found a bunch of his works in the NEC library and was blown away. Because of his rabblerousing a concert reviving his works was put on (which I unfortunately was unable to attend), and a CD of some of the works is being released on April 1st of this year (Burr Van Nostrand: Voyage in a White Building I). In additional fortunately-ness, Nostrand is a member of the American Composers Alliance (composers.com), a wonderful non-profit organization where composers can supply their manuscripts and get them published on demand, so they gave a lot of press to the NEC concert and put up videos of the performance on their site and their YouTube channel. And let me tell you, I’m pretty sure you’re not prepared for Voyage in a White Building I.
I’m not sure this work could have been possible without the ACA’s quote at the top of this article. Voyage is an epic, a harrowing, anarchical, one-of-a-kind music experience that infers a deep horror in life. The work is a “setting” of the first poem in the “Voyages” cycle by Hart Crane, widely considered one of America’s greatest poets and a suicide at age 32. Voyages is a stunning, evocative set of erotic poems written in response to Crane falling deeply in love with a Danish man, and though I can’t be sure that Crane’s social isolation stemming from his sexuality has any real connection to Nostrand’s music, but the parallels between Crane and America’s disenfranchised social revolution are hard to ignore. Reprinting the text here may prove useless, as I’m not sure any actual words remain in the reciter’s part. The speaker is caught in a battle with language, at points anguished and others orgasmic, providing a focal point for the chaos presented by the instruments (among them a sitar and an autoharp, artifacts of psychedelia and folk rock respectively, both dominant genres at the time). One could imagine how the composer could notate this music, and thankfully the ACA provided a couple of images from this score and another work titled Tuba-Tuba for reference. Just look at this stuff:
Never in my life have I seen scores like this, and from George Crumb to Cathy Berberian I’ve seen some wacky scores in my day. Lovely notated fragments collide with indeterminacy and simple written instructions, and each score is crafted as a kaleidoscopic graphic design, with beautiful inked linework, near-calligraphic text and a keen sense of humor. There were many fast and loose experimental methods in American composition in the 60’s and 70’s, headed up by John Cage as the ultimate authority on conceptual music, but I think Nostrand comes the closest to a full synthesis of techniques, notated and indeterminate, sounded and graphic. Even if performing the works proves challenging it is impossible to deny the artistry that is present in these scores. Hopefully the NEC revival of Nostrand’s œuvre will spur more composers into discovering his music. The work that I’m most excited to hear is Symphony-Nosferatu, a 45-minute work for a huge orchestra (including a saxophone section, prepared piano and various electric instruments), two choruses and a woman in black mourning clothes planted in the audience. I’m an enormous fan of the 1922 film Nosferatu, so the idea that there exists a colossal musical setting by a talented composer gives me fainting spells of joy.
To play you guys out, here’s an excerpt from a piece for solo violin called Phaedra Antinomaes:
Nostrand's ACA page: http://composers.com/burr-van-nostrand