Tag: portrait concert

New England’s Prospect: Arlene Sierra at Yellow Barn

Sierra Wall Program

Yellow Barn, July 16, 2013: Wall program by Rose Hashimoto, Qing Jiang, and Ahrim Kim.

Ah, terminology. Arlene Sierra is not considered an experimental composer, and that says more about how we’ve constrained that term and less about her attitude toward composing. I don’t mind the categorization of the kind of composers that, for the past fifty years or so, have been called “experimental”—Tenney, or Feldman, or Meredith Monk, or John Luther Adams. There’s some benefit to recognizing that some composers are farther to the left of the process-to-text continuum than others. But the name, I have always thought, is annoyingly arbitrary, and a little exclusionary. Because all composers experiment. Outsider composers experiment. Academic composers experiment. Film, Broadway, jazz, techno, ambient, blues, commercial, gospel, and telephone-hold-music composers—they will all try new things just for the sake of seeing what it sounds like. Composition is experimentation.
Which made Yellow Barn an ideal place to hear Sierra’s music. The organization—which supports residencies, a summer concert series, and a summer school, all centered around the refined-groovy I-91 way-station of Putney, Vermont—has an easygoing way of programming all manner of cutting edges, from safety scissors to samurai sword, with a sense of hospitality rather than crusade. Sierra was this year’s composer-in-residence, joining a roster that has extended all the way from John Cage to Mario Davidovsky. The Big Barn—where a portrait concert of Sierra’s music was presented on July 16—is a big tent.
Sierra’s style is definitely more modernist than maverick—to use two more terms that, while burdened with troubles of their own, are at least amorphously meaningful—but her accent is a little more subtle and elusive. The music is dense, dissonant, precipitously fluid, but there’s a groundedness to the extravagance, pitch and even tonal centers anchoring the busy crosstalk. American-born but now resident in the U.K., Sierra can easily be heard as mediating between the punctuated equilibrium of the American canon and the smoother assimilations of its European counterpart. In conversation with Yellow Barn Artistic Director Seth Knopp—such chats, interspersed between performances, functioned as the evening’s program notes—Sierra noted the contrast between the American schools of composition, marked by aesthetic sharp turns and reboots, and the European penchant for promoting new styles as continuances of long tradition. Within the tradition, Sierra might be plausibly categorized as a New Romantic, at least in a late-’70s and early-’80s way: modernist sounds wrapped around a core of heightened expression. (It was one of Sierra’s teachers, after all, Jacob Druckman, who exemplified that original “New Romantic” style.)

And it’s in her experimental penchant that such a Romantic sense really comes to the fore. What Sierra loves to experiment with is formal concepts. All of the pieces on this portrait concert took their cue from external frameworks, and the frameworks—nature and the visual arts—would have been familiar sources to the Romantics of yore. Two Etudes After Mantegna, a pair of cello solos written back in 1998 but only now getting a U.S. performance, was a kitchen sink of postmodern virtuosity: “Visage” (played by Madeline Fayette) whipped a lot of dramatic bowing and high-on-the-fingerboard passagework through a moody, minor-tinged chromaticism moored by open-string left-hand pizzicato, C, G, and D rumbling around an old-fashioned circle of fifths; “Painter’s Process” (played by Sang Yhee) was literally noisier—heavy bow pressure, col legno, deliberate rasp. The first is a classic gambit, inspiration via artwork (in this case, Madonna and Sleeping Child by Andrea Mantegna); the second tries to image its creation, starting with a scraped white-noise white canvas, sketching in outlines, brushing in underlayers. You can hear how Sierra’s experiments are a layer removed from the more commonly called “experimental” tradition—she is not so much concerned with inventing a process whole-cloth as finding a musical analogue to a non-musical process. But you can also hear the push into something unexpected.

Art of Lightness (from 2006, another U.S. premiere), for solo flute, went to a visual source unknown to the Romantics—the kung-fu movie, specifically, the gravity-defying wire-fu qinggong kind—and if the framework merely added a little extra theatrical fierceness to a standard new music set-up (switching between a collection of  contrasting channels—high and low, speedy and sustained, straight and extended techniques—with ever-increasing speed), the piece itself did achieve the acceleratingly absurd dexterity of a good wuxia showdown. (Much of the credit must go to flutist Sooyun Kim’s terrific rendition.) The one homage on the program displayed both Sierra’s comfort zone and her willingness to warp it with novel games and stratagems. Le Chai au Quai was composed for an Elliott Carter centenary concert in England, and plays off of both the instrumentation of Au Quai, Carter’s own tribute to Oliver Knussen (another Sierra mentor)—Carter’s bassoon/viola duo is dropped to bass clarinet and cello—and Carter’s style itself, Sierra applying Carter-like rhythms to pitches borrowed from part of Bach’s Musical Offering. Performed by Wai Lau and Anne Yumino Weber, Le Chai au Quai had moments redolent of its dedicatee—a ritornello with both instruments tripping down a tumbling chortle of scale made musically manifest the very idea of l’esprit de l’escalier—but also the slightly hazardous fun of turning on a machine without quite knowing what it’s going to do.

The rest of the program drew from the natural world. Both Cricket-Viol, for a singing violist (played and sung by Jinsun Kim), and a movement from Sierra’s string quartet Insects in Amber (performed by violinists Ariel Mitnick and Luri Lee, violist Sophie Heaton, and cellist Ahrim Kim) had something of the packet-switching of Art of Lightness, but working in a more measured way. The two works share material of an appropriately buzzing and flitting kind, but it was fascinating how the novelty of the added singing in Cricket-Viol was enough to disguise that its construction, too, was essentially the same as the quartet, and essentially exploratory: a recombinant schematic, creating a form not out of high contrast, but out of shifts of emphasis within a close orbit of ideas.

In this case, it was the world of nature reworking the world of music, a quality that carried over into Book I of Birds and Insects, a collection of piano pieces. The title animals “have a different sense of timing than us larger creatures,” Sierra remarked. While the pieces themselves had some familiar birdsong touches—a toccata-like “Cornish Bantam,” a fast-note grid “Titmouse,” a slow-flapping, long-limbed impressionistic “Sarus Crane,” the piano’s pedals used to keep the instrument’s extremes in ringing play—the unfolding of the music had a close-up, asymmetrical quality that seemed to privilege the natural world over the musically formal. And the departures from the expected carried the biggest expressive punch—as in “Cicada Sketch,” a stretch of quiet, smudged resonance that Sierra realized, she said, probably had as much to do with her own cross-Atlantic distance from the North American habitat of the most famous genus of that insect.

Those four pieces were played by Hui Wu with a surfeit of atmosphere. The suite’s extensive finale, “Scarab,” was performed by Michael Bukhman. It wove a far larger web, musically, interpretively, and programmatically. The beetle itself shared the inspirational spotlight with a massive sculptural representation from ancient Egypt; sections of regal scurrying, obsessive repeated notes, and dark clouds of bass evoked both the insect and its heavy history of symbolism. Formally, the piece went to a circular extreme exceeding that of Insects in Amber: it finally rounded off with a big ending, but any long-ish excerpt would have worked just as well, creating a congruence between local and global time that made it not so much a composerly statement as an object of perusal, an invitation to wander among the layers of meaning on the listener’s initiative. It might not be experimental, as the term is used now, but it was entertainingly hypothetical.

Legacy of Lou Harrison Showcased at L@TE in Berkeley

Lou Harrison remains, even nine years after his death, the quintessential West Coast composer. He often referred to the region as Pacifica (as opposed to the East Coast’s Atlantica), and felt the pull of Asia rather than Europe. “Well, why would anyone choose the East?” he asked rhetorically, in response to an interviewer’s question in 1995 as to why he chose to make his home on the West Coast. “We’re not bound up with industrial ‘twelve-tone-ism’ quite so much as the East seaboard is,” he continued, “and also we’re not afraid out here if something sounds pretty. I don’t see that increased complexity is any solution at all.” Even though these battle lines are not as starkly drawn as they once were, the flowering of “pretty music” throughout the country is certainly influenced by the West Coast aesthetic Harrison embodied.

“He followed his own path, and it took decades to be recognized,” says pianist Sarah Cahill. “I think a lot of young composers today—not just in the Bay Area but across the country—are picking up on what he started: writing melodic, tonal music, embracing simplicity rather than complexity, going back to ancient dance forms for inspiration, incorporating elements of music from Asia and non-Western cultures. Lou Harrison was doing that in 1940 and it took more than half a century for the rest of the world to catch up to him.”

Evidence that the original “pretty music” still resonates with listeners came in the form of the large crowd that gathered in the Berkeley Art Museum on May 25 to hear a selection of Harrison’s works, programmed by Cahill, including his transcendental La Koro Sutro. Also noteworthy was the “re-premiere” of an early piano work, Dance for Lisa Karon. Composed in San Francisco in 1938 when Harrison was just 21 years old, it was first performed in April 1939 on a dance concert involving Karon. The manuscript was subsequently lost for decades before resurfacing earlier this year. Daniel Katz, who found the manuscript, detailed his remarkable discovery in an email to Cahill in February.

I am writing to you because I recently came upon what appears to be a manuscript of a work for solo piano by Lou Harrison, dated 1938 (in San Francisco), entitled “Dance for Lisa Karon.” Lisa Karon was also known as Alice Reawold, an instructor at Estelle Reed’s dance studio on Geary Street in SF. I found the manuscript in a box of sheet music belonging to my father-in-law, several of which had at one time belonged to Alice/Lisa. (Several were signed by her.)  It turns out that Lisa was my wife’s childhood piano teacher and a family friend. My wife then remembered having met Lou several times at Lisa’s house.

“Daniel Katz showed this score to Leta Miller, co-author of the only published biography of Lou Harrison, and I showed it to a number of people who worked closely with Lou Harrison and know his work well,” Cahill says, “and no one had ever heard of it.  So most likely, this manuscript is the only copy, forgotten since that early performance in 1939.  I’m tremendously grateful to Daniel and his wife, Allana Lee Katz, for the opportunity to perform it after all these years.”

This recent concert of Harrison’s music was just the latest programmed by Cahill as part of  L@TE: Friday Nights @ BAM/PFA  at the Berkeley Art Museum, an evening series featuring extended gallery hours and performances. “Larry Rinder, the director of the Berkeley Art Museum, started the L@TE series a few years ago, with the idea of bringing new audiences to the museum and creating an informal, engaging atmosphere for music, films, readings, and various art forms,” Cahill explains. “He invited me to program one evening a month, and asked especially for experimental and new music.”

The musical performances take place in Gallery B, an open space on the ground floor of the museum that is surrounded on all sides by several stories of galleries and balconies, and Cahill feels that this unique space is part of the appeal. “The gallery setting, in which people can sit or lie on the floor, or walk around and look at what’s on view in the galleries, or get different perspectives from overhanging balconies, makes these concerts attractive to people who might not enjoy sitting still in a seat through a whole concert.  We get a younger audience, a lot of kids, a diverse group of people.” The crowd on Friday night was certainly diverse, and even included several serious contenders for the Lou Harrison look-a-like prize.

Gallery B at BAM/PFA pre-concert

Gallery B at BAM/PFA pre-concert

The concert opened with the brief Solo for Anthony Cirone for tenor bells. William Winant played the melodic, modal work—dedicated to Tony Cirone, a percussionist in the San Francisco Symphony and colleague of Harrison’s at San Jose State University—with wonderful lyricism. Next came Dance for Lisa Karon performed by Cahill. It’s written in a bracing, modernist idiom that Harrison explored prior to his more well-known work with different tuning systems and the music of Asian cultures. Here’s what Cahill had to say about the new work.

There’s only a marking of “Maestoso,” so it’s hard to figure out the tempo, but big leaping chords in the climactic middle section establish a speed which isn’t too fast (with any of these early dance pieces by Lou Harrison, you try to take the pulse from imagining what the dancers would be doing).  The right hand and left hand are in different keys.

It begins with brash, muscular music; dense chords in the left hand buttress angular melodic gestures in the right, which is then followed by a more subdued section in which oscillating harmonies accompany a circuitous melodic line. A third contrasting section recaptures the brashness of the opening with leaping melodic lines in octaves above the oscillating harmonies heard earlier—this time in a descending sequence—before the opening material returns to close the piece. The music is striving and assertive, and Cahill’s playing captured this sense of barely harnessed power while maintaining great clarity in the live acoustics of the gallery.

Tenor Bells used in Solo for Anthony Cirone

Tenor Bells used in Solo for Anthony Cirone

Next the Abel-Steinberg-Winant trio performed Varied Trio, a five-movement work Harrison composed for them in 1987. Fleeting pitch and ensemble issues did little to detract from an otherwise strong performance. The second movement, titled “Bowl Balls,” is a moto perpetuo for rice bowls that Winant played with scintillating energy. In “Elegy” pianist Julie Steinberg’s swooshing, modal arpeggios evoked the strumming of a koto. In the fourth movement “Rondeau in Honor of Fragonard”one of the ancient dance forms Cahill noted—violinist David Abel subtly darkened his tone to capture the music’s wistful spirit, and was mirrored beautifully by Steinberg. Even in the work’s loudest moments, like the central section of the final movement “Dance,” the ensemble remained well balanced, the piano and percussion playing crisp and lively without overpowering the violin.

Rice bowls—from Harrison’s own kitchen—used in Varied Trio

Rice bowls—from Harrison’s own kitchen—used in Varied Trio

The centerpiece of the concert was Harrison’s La Koro Sutro, a setting, in Esperanto, of the Heart Sutra scored for chorus, harp, and American Gamelan. The eight-movement work opens with Prelude: Kunsonoro Kaj Gloro, a paean to “Blessed, Noble, Perfect Wisdom,” and the following seven movements, sequentially numbered “Strofos,” set the text of the Buddhist scripture that details the enlightenment of Avakiteshesvara, who in a moment of deep meditation realizes that the phenomenal world is an illusion.

The gamelan used in this performance is named Old Granddad and was built by Harrison and his partner Bill Colvig in the late 1960s. Harrison called the gamelan “the single most beautiful musical ensemble on the planet.” , and he loved its range and ravishing tone colors. Colvig said that their motivation for building one was simply to recreate this sound and create music for it.

The composer Lou Harrison and I decided to make our own Western Gamelan based in general on the traditional ones but not copying anything for the sake of authenticity. Our primary consideration was to make beautiful sound; our primary purpose to build a usable musical instrument for which new serious music could be composed.

It is tuned to a just-intonation centering on D. Colvin describes the ideas behind the tuning in an essay titled “An American Gamelan.”

The tuning of any instrument is determined by its use . . . Certainly it could be made with “sharps and flats” and all tuned up out-of-tune Western style in 12 equal tones so you could play “Stormy Weather” on it. Why bother? We already have pianos and marimbaphones etc. to play your favorite tunes on. Marvelous new (to us) sound sensations can be achieved by trying different musical modes in “just intonation”, the expression used for rational tuning.

Harrison and Colvig began with a pentatonic scale on D (D-E-F#-A-B), and added the pitches C# and G, again “justly tuned.” The result resembles a D Major scale but in just intonation rather than equal temperment and is, in fact, the syntonous, or “stretched,” diatonic scale described by Ptolemy in his 2nd-century C.E. treatise Harmonics.

Old Granddad is composed of pitched and non-pitched instruments, some handmade, some “found” objects, and a small organ. The pitched metallophones range from short tubular pipes to large, low-pitched xylophone-like instruments whose resonating pipes, composed of several restaurant-size tin cans, soldered together, are several feet long. Non-pitched instruments include enormous dinner bells, suspended oxygen tanks played with baseball bats, and trashcans. “Using Western materials our Gamelan is a “happy hybrid” of pipes and slabs and metal resonators and rubber mountings for the pipes and wooden stands to hold everything up,” Colvig wrote.

Oxygen tank bells

Oxygen tank bells

On the whole, this was a remarkable performance of La Koro Sutro. The chorus was occasionally outmatched in the outer movements when the full gamelan is employed (a dozen extra voices would have helped), and sounded unfocused and hazy at times in “Strofo 2,” but there were flashes of brilliance as well. The unison singing in “Strofo 4” was perfectly balanced from top to bottom, and the sopranos deserve special praise for their crystalline purity in the chant-like “Strofo 5.” The William Winant Percussion Group was rock solid and Old Granddad sounded like the single instrument—as opposed to a group of instruments played by individuals—the Javanese consider it to be. They captured the otherworldly mood of “Strofo 1” which depicts Avakiteshesvara in deep meditation, and the tranquility of “Strofo 4” where Avakiteshesvara shares his insight with his pupil Shariputra: “Therefore, O Shariputra, in the voidness there is neither form, nor yet sensation, no perception, no impulses, no awareness: nor the eye, the ear, the nose, the tongue, the body, the mind.” These movements feature melodic percussion writing on the pitched instruments of the gamelan, and the players created beautifully shaped phrases.

Performing La Koro Sutro

Performing La Koro Sutro

Marika Kuzuma led the combined forces with a sure hand, her conducting crisp and assertive when needed, each vocal phrase carefully molded. Other than the sections referred to earlier, the overall balance between the choir and gamelan was excellent; no small feat in a multi-faceted concrete cavern. After the final, ecstatic bars of the piece, where the choir sings the mantra “going, going, yonder going on beyond awake, all hail!” and the gamelan sends up glorious peals of sound from oxygen tanks and gongs, she kept her hands raised and everyone held their breath as the sound reverberated for several long moments.

It bears repeating that, from where I was standing at least, all of the performances on this concert worked wonderfully well in the live acoustic of Gallery B and the performers should be commended. Sarah Cahill also credits BAM Administrative Coordinator Sean Carson, a composer himself, whose knowledge of the gallery’s acoustics is instrumental in determining the ideal setup and location for each concert.  Kudos to all involved, both behind the scenes and on stage, for a memorable musical experience in Pacifica.


Dustin Soiseth is a conductor and co-founder of the Loose Filter Project. He lives in Oakland.

Perspective: Xenakis—48 Hours In a Surreal Soundscape

Little did I know that the Baylor Percussion Group’s performance of Peaux at Fast Forward Austin last month would be but a glimpse of things to come. Curated by Matthew Teodori, the recent festival Perspective: Xenakis featured local, national, and international performers and scholars plying their wares around Austin. A festival of the music of Xenakis might at first blush seem to be better presented in the rocky and otherworldly terrain around Phoenix, or perhaps one could just double down and hold it on the moon. Ben Watson’s description of Xenakis’s work as “…a music of truly majestic otherness…an alien shard, glimmering in the heart of the West” fits glove-like this strange, visceral, and largely explosive music. Held at three venues over two days, the festival was dedicated to the chamber works of the composer and architect.

Pleiades performance at the Floating House - Photo by Elisa Ferrari

Pleiades performance at the Floating House – Photo by Elisa Ferrari

The Floating Box House, from which one could see downtown Austin framed by gently rolling hills, was a pretty rarified venue for the opening concert of the festival. Located on a sizeable parcel of land in the woodsy area of Westlake, the remote location had both an expansive and intimate feeling which nicely mirrored the ensemble percussion of the evening. The Meehan/Perkins Duo was joined by line upon line percussion and Timothy Briones to perform Persephassa and Pléïades. The six percussionists surrounded the audience on the tree filled front lawn of the property, an invitation to look around as Persephassa opened with a slow pulse that developed into polyrhythms. This material slipped and slammed through timpani glissandos and unison floor toms, building to a head before screeching to a halt; a significant pause which was filled uncannily with breeze and spare birdcalls. Real wind and real birds. It was the kind of moment that would have seemed contrived in a film but was breathtaking in the real world. Rejoining the avian conversation were gongs, woodblocks, and wooden simantras that mimicked woodpeckers. Delicate tremolo built to violent attacks which in turn dwindled to sotto voce muttering among the instruments, interrupted by short bursts. The 6.1 Surround Sound effect that was created, part of Xenakis’s work in spatialization, was palpable as lines spun around the audience in swelling crescendos, complemented with thundersheets and whistles which, when all was said and done, left the audience in silence, all except for a few crickets who checked in as the birds made their way out. Following a brief intermission and set change, the percussionists set up in front of the house in a more conventional configuration for Pléïades. As dusk settled in, the sixxen, sounding every bit a mini-carillon, lent a solemn air to the first movement. Overtones piled up in layers and provided a bit of respite from the onslaught of the first piece. The second movement, “Claviers featured vibes and marimba, magical textures conjured in the center of the musicians and chased by delicate, childlike runs across the space. Of course, the following movements, “Peaux and “Melanges,” put an end to childish things, the final movement combining the instruments of the previous three and bringing the work to a dramatic, athletic close.

Michael Zell - Photo by Elisa Ferrari

Michael Zell – Photo by Elisa Ferrari

St. Elias Eastern Orthodox Church was the site for the solo portions of the festival. Performances of Rebonds and Psappha by percussionist Michael Zell bookended trombonist Steve Parker’s performance of Keren, Xenakis’s only wind solo. Pianist Michelle Schumann, an eminently physical performer, was unrelenting in her performances of Evryali and Herma. These performances were preceded by a showing of Something Rich and Strange, a BBC2 documentary film made by Dennis Marks and one of the festival scholars Nouritza Matossian. Matossian was joined by Benoit Gibson after each performance for a Q&A session, as well as more formal presentations at the Butler School as part of the festival.

JACK Quartet - Photo by Elisa Ferrari

JACK Quartet – Photo by Elisa Ferrari

The term “surreal” has lost much of its currency through both mis- and overuse. Often used casually to indicate something that is simply weird, it’s worth remembering that the hallucinatory and dreamlike qualities it should indicate are most sharply experienced through juxtaposition. Watching the JACK Quartet playing the complete string quartets of Xenakis in front of a fireplace with a widescreen TV mounted above it in a very lovely but decidedly suburban home (I live in one of these, it should be noted) was, for me, surreal. Watching violinist Ari Streisfeld negotiate some of the most challenging music ever written for anything while sitting before to a curio cabinet was surreal. Experiencing some of the few moments of quiet and delicacy in these pieces while some insane person emptied chips into a bowl (did I mention that this was one of those open concept kitchen/living room arrangements?) was actually more surreal than infuriating, though the latter was definitely a close second. Challenging music for a challenging venue, no doubt, but JACK simply tore everyone’s face off. Truly, hearing this much Xenakis in a 48-hour period does a number on your wiring, but it was really amazing to experience the relativity of dissonance, to see what your ears can handle if thrown in the deep end and asked to swim [1]. From the big chunky chords of Ergma, bristling and metallic, almost like distortion, to the special-effects bonanza of Tetras, JACK pulled everyone into the alien landscape, and while there were a few folks initially who were not sure if they arrived at the right house, I can tell you that the standing ovation (granted, many of us stood the whole time, but anyway…) went on for some time, and that the Q&A with JACK had to be cut short even though there were several hands in the air at the end.

The plan is to do one of these Perspective festivals every three years, and given the level of performance and coordination on display, I can understand why Teodori might want to take a bit of a break before launching into another. Having said that, I’m really quite interested in seeing who and what is coming down the pike. It’s wonderful to hear a work or two by a given composer, but to spend several days steeped in a particular language, especially one as esoteric and distinct as Xenakis’s, is a different thing altogether. In some ways, it felt a bit like the shared experience of going to a rock concert. You know the tunes, you know the group, and for the most part you’re around people who are on the same page. As we approach mid-year, I still haven’t tired of the Cage retrospectives and I’m more than looking forward to the Rite of Spring centennial, which I imagine will generate more than a few satellite concerts of Stravinsky’s other works. These focused events are just the ticket in a world of hyperdistraction, where if you’re not careful, a few clicks and a few hours later you’ve YouTubed your evening away. It was fantastic to unplug for a while and hang out with Xenakis, and I’m looking forward to catching up with other old friends in a few years.


1. Dude, that is surreal.

New England’s Prospect: Echolocation

Burr Van Nostrand’s Voyage in a White Building I

Lautaro Mantilla (speaker) and Andy Fordyce (drums) performing Burr Van Nostrand’s Voyage in a White Building I, April 22, 2012.

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.