Aggie Birdsong Smee
Anne La Berge
Juliet Kiri Palmer
Dave & Sue Poitras
Robert D. Polansky
Linda Catlin Smith
P. Kellach Waddle
The Blur of Insanity
Hunger Mountain Coop
Mad River Media
Play It Again Sam
Squash Valley Produce
by Pamela Polston
Raise your hand if you knew August was "New Music Month" in Vermont. During all the media reflection on the Dean Decade -- and Dick Snelling's gubernatorial era before that -- no one thought to ask the sitting guv about his "appreciation for the creation of new music." And yet he recently put his pen to a proclamation stating that new music has been "fundamental to the history of Vermont and Vermonters since the days of composer Justin Morgan." You're not alone if you thought Morgan was just a horse breeder.
Though Dean is a fan of experimental music, his official endorsement came at the urging of composers and performers who will be making music all over Montpelier this weekend at something called the Ought-One Festival. You're not alone if you never heard of that, either -- not to mention the plunderphonics, fractal music, microtonality, electroacoustics, postminimalism and other strange but joyful noises that will make up this festival.
For two days, the nation's smallest capital will host performers and composers who have never come together in one place before, for an event that has never occurred before, to make music few Vermonters have heard -- or heard of -- before. But that said, within the microcosm of "new music," some of the Ought-One's participants are quite renowned, indeed, and some of the works performed will be world premieres. These include a piece by Jon Appleton, co-creator of the groundbreaking Synclavier and director of the graduate program in electroacoustic music at Dartmouth College. Other works are so spanking new they scarcely exist -- they'll be presented as works in progress -- while some will be improvisations, never to exist again.
Much of that which is rather lamely called "new music" has also gone under the slightly more descriptive rubric of "contemporary classical." But festival organizers Dennis Báthory-Kitsz and David Gunn have coined a new moniker: "nonpop." In fact, the tagline of Ought-One is "the Woodstock of Nonpop" -- a catchy if equally oblique way to categorize this collection of sub-genres.
The term is "useful because it implies there's this whole world out there defined by what it's not," suggests Troy Peters, director of the Vermont Youth Orchestra. "I grew up in the classical tradition, and as a composer I still kind of say I write contemporary classical.' But it's hard to come up with a name composers today may not have any more connection to Brahms or Mozart than they do to Britney Spears."
Nor do the sub-genres necessarily resemble each other, though many rely on advanced sound technology. "If they share anything at all, it's probably lack of visibility," Báthory-Kitsz jokes. "But stylistically, no, no more than Frank Zappa and Wayne Newton do as pop artists."
He and Gunn are good at making up names, however -- including their own alter-egos for the radio program they've hosted for the last six years. "Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar" has injected experimental sounds onto the airwaves, and the Internet, every Saturday afternoon since May 1995 from Goddard College's WGDR. "It was the first nonpop music show online in the U.S.," Báthory-Kitsz -- a.k.a. Kalvos -- proclaims with pride. "We just did show number 325." The shows include interviews with composers that are archived on K&D's Web site. Many of those composers are huddled over a score in a town near you right now. "There are more composers per capita in Vermont than in any other state, mostly of nonpop genres," exclaims Báthory-Kitsz. "Around 250 -- it's staggering!"
The Ought-One Festival was a natural extension of the Kalvos and Damian show. "We figured it was time to get out of the virtual world and spend time with the artists in real life, and have the people who listen to our show see and hear them," Báthory-Kitsz explains. "David and I made a concerted effort to bring this stuff together."
But they did have a little encouragement. "I bugged them," acknowledges Phil Kline, a New York composer who sits on the K&D board and will perform this weekend in Montpelier. "I thought it would be cool to have a festival up here in Vermont. By the third time I asked, they said, Yeah, we'll do it.' They really took the ball. I had envisioned a one-day thing with a few composers. But they have this amazing Web forum, and it really made things happen."
The Ought-One proved to be a lot more popular than anyone imagined. "We didn't think that many people would want to come and play for free," Báthory-Kitsz says of performers who waived their fees. "I expected about 12 people to say yes. More than 100 did."
In fact, there will be 37 concerts involving 120 performers and composers, most of whom have been played or interviewed on "Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar." The numbers apparently intimidated officials at Goddard College, the original site of the festival; they backed out just last month. The organizers flew into panic mode.
"The Onion River Arts Council saved our asses," lauds Báthory-Kitsz, explaining the nonprofit managed to relocate the festival into performance quarters at four churches in downtown Montpelier -- Bethany, Trinity, Christ and Unitarian -- and the City Center for registration and info headquarters.
Less than a week before participants begin to arrive -- from as far as Europe -- Báthory-Kitsz is still scrambling to find lodging for everyone. Meanwhile, Gunn is trying to figure out how to install a dance floor in a too-small section of Bethany Church. "There are three performances on a dance space," he frets. Time to improv.
David Gunn -- a.k.a. Damian -- is a bit the worse for worrying about the upcoming weekend. He hasn't had enough sleep and claims he'sd losng his memory and his self-esteem. He just made a four-hour round trip delivering sheet music to Kline and some other composers vacationing, and rehearsing, in Ludlow. "I blame Dennis for this festival," Gunn announces. "Can I blame you, too?"
If he's on edge, it only seems to make him sillier. Even on the phone Gunn seems to be auditioning for a Monty Python skit -- a John Cleese with an American accent. But then you get the feeling maybe he's always like this. His counterpart, Báthory-Kitsz, is just as cheery, if seemingly less addled. "I always have to play the straight man next to David," he faux-complains.
It's easy to imagine that all the musicians flocking to Montpelier just want to hang out with these guys. In fact both are not only radio personalities -- call them the Click and Clack of new music -- but prolific and serious composers themselves. Well, let's say they might fit in what Kline calls the "serious nonseriousness" camp.
None of Gunn's compositions are on the bill this weekend, but some can be heard in snippets on his own Web site. In fact, some of the pieces are snippets -- one is only a minute long. Of the dozen or so samples listed on the home page, the lengthiest is a still-modest 30 minutes, suggesting that, while nonpop may open your ears, it won't try your patience.
The photo introducing Gunn online seems like a scene out of O Brother, Where Art Thou?: The composer is standing in striped prison garb next to an endless flat highway, thumb extended. A sign next to him warns, "Hitchhikers may be escaping inmates." Gunn's bio goes on to explain that he studied composition at a big university "not noted for its music department, but boy could they do football." Namely, Ohio State University. Reportedly bitter at not making the marching band, Gunn retaliated by forming his first ensemble, the Well-Tempered Chamber String Band of Greater Columbus. It folded after the debut performance of his composition Crapsody.
Gunn's story continues in this vein, concluding with his stated aspiration to hear his music in elevators one day. It might be some time, however, before Muzak orders up such works as Armies of Mice or The Troll's Awful Curse. With titles like these -- and with found-sound elements that might include cheese balls, unhappy toddlers or tear gas -- Gunn's compositions can be surprisingly melodious. Caccia (Red-Handed), for example, sounds like a score for a Keystone Cops movie -- except for the parts that sound like, say, a Midwestern marching band at the circus.
The Báthory-Kitsz Web site is more sedate by comparison, but a lot more informative. His formal education was at Rutgers, and his resume reveals involvement in some 13 arts festivals prior to Ought-One, as well as teaching, writing and speaking gigs and Web site design -- his site for the radio show won an ASCAP award last year. Báthory-Kitsz also designs and builds "original electronic instruments" -- his credits include electronic jewelry for composer David Van Tieghem -- as well as acoustic ones. And then there are the 500-plus compositions.
Báthory-Kitsz is on the board of the Vermont Contemporary Music Ensemble -- a core group at the Ought-One -- so it's no surprise that his works regularly appear on their bills. This weekend his RatGeyser for MalletKat and playback will be performed by Michael Manion, and the PoJo Guitar Duo will play his HighBirds (Prime). "Playback," Báthory-Kitsz explains, "is what we used to call tape. Now we use all kinds of other electronic media."
If you thought new music composers were a rarified, studious-geek breed, Dennis Báthory-Kitsz and David Gunn dash that stereotype -- so do a lot of the women. If anything, the Ought-One Festival reveals humor to be a common thread. Witness the names of some of the acts: the Ill Wind Ensemble, Odd Appetite, Ensemble Uh Maybe, Loons in the Monastery, NonSequitur. Then there are the titles of compositions: Ear-Walking Woman, Dancing on Eggshells, Is that a nuke in your silo or are you just glad to see me?, in praise of buddy hackett, Raised by Jackals and many more.
Of course, a few names favor stark minimalism: Sonatas 1-3; A Cappella; Solo; Tronic Involutions; Suite for Toy Piano.
Toy piano? Yes. Though many nonpop composers create layers of recorded, affected, looped, chewed up and regurgitated sounds with highly sophisticated equipment, the lowly and even jokey toy piano is a big deal. Or rather, a little deal, Gunn amends. That Suite was written in 1948 by John Cage -- who more than anyone could be called a progenitor of new, experimental, nonpop music. Since then the instrument has, well, struck a chord with some players -- including virtuoso James Bohn, performing this weekend. Toy pianos "just have a particular sound to them, friendly, nonthreatening," offers Gunn. "It evokes childhood, I think."
Brattleboro's Ill Wind Ensemble take the cake for unusual instruments, though: They make their own. For the last seven years John Levin, Charlie Schneeweis, Kevin Moreau and Eric Boyer have been performing totally improvisational concerts on a zany variety of wind and percussion devices -- some derived from Indian and medieval European instruments and some assembled from the hardware store.
"I play a didgeridoo made out of PVC pipe, with one end covered in beeswax to form a mouthpiece," Levin explains. "Charlie plays a 10-foot piece of garden hose with a trumpet mouthpiece on one end and a transmission-fluid funnel on the other, like the bell of a trumpet. He kind of swings the thing around overhead when he plays."
Levin, a Massachusetts native who was schooled in gamelan and electronic music at Mills College in California, now favors acoustic instruments and minimal technology. The ensemble's CD is a simply miked recording of rehearsals, with just a little reverb and editing of bloopers. "That's one thing that will make us a little different at Ought-One," notes Levin. "There's a ton of stuff that involves signal processers, amplification, experimental electronic things with a ton of gear. We're kind of opposite to that approach."
Brian Johnson, a percussionist, composer and manager of the FlynnSpace in Burlington, also prefers low-tech -- like the sound of his hands beating on things. He'll be performing solo and in ensemble this weekend, including "Eight Mallets Four Brian," written for him by composer Joseph Celli. "It's not pop music; it's modern classical music," Johnson elucidates, "the continued growth in classical music. The pieces I'm doing don't sound like classical, but come out of a Cageian thing, improvisational."
Having helped organize numerous events at the Flynn, Johnson knows all too well what challenges face Báthory-Kitsz and Gunn with the Ought-One. "It's a slow and horrible boat to China to try and pull one of these things off," he says. "I'm happy to just be a simple-minded performer."
Though the new music community around the world is relatively tiny, Johnson adds, local fans do come out of the woodwork for a concert by the VCME, and will surely delight in the remarkable variety of sounds and soundmakers at the Ought-One. The festival "could be the start of something big," Johnson muses.
"You don't know how disparaging it can be that, no matter how famous you get as a composer, you will be unknown to most people," says Bathory-Kitsz wistfully. "We figured if we could put the people, the styles, the composers together, maybe maybe maybe this field that has been ignored for 50 or 60 years will be welcome again."
"Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar" can be heard -- if you're in range -- on WGDR 91.1 FM, Saturdays at 2:30 p.m., or online at http://kalvos.org. For more info about the Ought-One Festival in Montpelier this weekend, August 25-26, see http://ought-one.com/ or call the Onion River Arts Council, 229-9408. Tickets to the festival are $15 per day, or $5 per concert.