Avant-garde composer back on the map

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A funny thing happened after Burr Van Nostrand saw early success as an avant-garde composer: He stopped writing music.

Born in 1945, Mr. Van Nostrand, who grew up in California and resides in New Haven, Conn., had a four-year residency at the Gaudeamus Foundation in the Netherlands; that "is unheard of" for an American composer, said Mathew Rosenblum, co-director of new music presenting organization Music on the Edge.

Music on the Edge presents the music of Burr Van Nostrand
Where: Bellefield Hall auditorium, 315 S. Bellefield Ave., Oakland.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday.
Tickets: $10-$15 in advance at 412-624-7529 or; $15-20 at the door; free for Pitt students.

"But then, he sort of fell off the map a little bit," said Mr. Rosenblum, who is also a professor of music at the University of Pittsburgh.

Indeed, "unheard of" is a good phrase to use when describing Mr. Van Nostrand. His music, which is very difficult to play, has been seldom heard; when he was writing, he was drawing on techniques that were ahead of his compositional time, from the 1960s through 1980s.

He is getting another shot.

On Saturday, Music on the Edge will present a concert of music by Mr. Van Nostrand at the Bellefield Hall auditorium. It is the latest in an ongoing project to rekindle interest in and perform the composer's works.

During a class in spring 2011, Jason Belcher, then a graduate student at Boston's New England Conservatory, first encountered Mr. Van Nostrand's graphic score for "Voyage in a White Building I." The son of visual artists, Mr. Van Nostrand hand-drew visually stunning scores for much of his music.

Mr. Belcher was amazed by the composer's notation and use of amplification and other techniques that were (one might say) "unheard of" for the time, Mr. Belcher said, but highly predictive of later methods.

"I was just completely floored...because I'd been thinking about this stuff for a long time, how to use graphic notation or performer-controlled things. All of this sort of stuff led me to find out all I could about his music," Mr. Belcher said.

Mr. Belcher eventually connected with the composer and proposed putting on a performance of "Voyage."

"I said, 'That piece has sat under my bed for over 42 years, and I haven't looked at it,'" Mr. Van Nostrand recently recalled.

The project culminated with a performance at NEC of four of Mr. Van Nostrand's works and a New Worlds Records recording in 2012.

"For the first time, I was being taken seriously as an American composer, and this hadn't happened in my life," said Mr. Van Nostrand, an NEC graduate.

Mr. Rosenblum, who wrote the CD's liner notes and informally studied with Mr. Van Nostrand in the 1970s, said that an emphasis on sound, texture and musical gesture distinguish his former mentor's works.

"Maybe that could be said of a lot of music at the time, but at least in my opinion, and that of many others, his fingerprint is different," said Mr. Rosenblum.

The composer did much of his work in the heated climate of 1960s and 1970s counterculture.

Still, he said, "I pretty much wrote what I wrote in isolation...I don't like being pinned down on this. I am a product of my time, but I did predict a lot of what was going to happen."

He was hesitant to discuss why he stopped writing music over two decades ago. But he suggested that he ran into obstacles getting his music accepted or performed in Boston.

"I said, 'This is not the environment for my music, obviously,'" he said.

Mr. Van Nostrand had all but disappeared, and some people even thought he'd died, Mr. Belcher said. In the interim, he focused on the cello and spent time in Florida. He doesn't know whether he'll return to composition, now that his music has experienced renewed interest.

The concert features "Manual for Urban Survival," with Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble flutist Lindsey Goodman, Attack Theatre music director and cellist Dave Eggar, and Music on the Edge co-director and pianist Eric Moe. Anthony Coleman will lead NEC musicians and local students on "Voyage in a White Building I." Paul Severtson will take on "Phaedra Antinomaes," a piece that was written for the violinist.

The musical investigation that started with "Voyage" in Boston comes to Pittsburgh. It's unclear where the project will go next.

"After this, I don't know when we're going to play ['Voyage in a White Building I] again, but hopefully it's not another 40 years," Mr. Belcher said.

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