Making 2011 the Year of the Composer

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Dennis at the woodstove

It’s snowing as I write this, and it reminds me of my first winter in Vermont in 1978—35 below zero on Christmas Day, bitter outside and chilly inside with heat from a single sheet-metal wood stove.

Yes, it was geographically far from my New Jersey home, but it was artistic Siberia. It was a time and place almost incomprehensibly distant from the present. From exploring early computer technology and building electronic instruments and shuttling between performances in New York festivals and the post-Fluxus Trans/Media Arts Cooperative in Trenton, I now found myself in a town of 300, suspended in rural isolation, imprisoned by snow and economics. Imagine this place. Pipes froze. Cars slid off icy roads. The telephone had four parties on a line, ours getting the long-short ring. The only sanity in the brief warm season was growing a garden. Nonpop musical groups, few and far between, had hardly begun to discover Charpentier much less Stravinsky. My few attempts at concerts of new music failed, generating laughs and even—in the days of poisonous Tylenol—a departing audience member calling loudly for a dose of the painkiller. There was no work. I hung out an “electronic repair” shingle and rebuilt old televisions coated in soot, and finally landed a job as a typist. My composing dwindled to almost nothing, city friends fell away, and even fellow composer David Gunn—who had also come to Vermont that same grim winter—was gone by the following April to follow his destiny in California. At 29, my life as a composer seemed over.

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Year of the Vermont Composer logo

Yet on February 17, 2011, Governor Peter Shumlin declared this the Year of the Composer in Vermont. What had happened in 30-plus years to bring Vermont from artistic backwater to being the first state to declare its commitment to new music?

It turned out, of course, that my isolation matched that of other composers who had come to Vermont for its beauty and for that very stillness that they thought would help their art. And it matched the isolation of native-born composers who typically escaped the state for artistic reward.

I’m the stubborn sort. Determined to keep working, I brought my computer skills to bear on new artistic ideas, expanding my interactive pre-Vermont piece Rando’s Poetic License to a full interactive installation In Bocca al Lupo in Montana and an exposed performance art piece called Echo. The latter’s combination of nudity and technology shocked the state capital of Montpelier, but it—together with several concerts that I organized with David Gunn (who returned to Vermont in 1980) called “Closing the Book on the Avant-Garde”—helped alert the compositional community that more was up in Vermont than arts’n’crafts and tourism. Young performers awakened as well, taking on new music.

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A scene from Echo

The restless composers were finally in touch. A meeting was held in April 1988, the first time Vermont composers would meet face-to-face outside of academia. Lou Calabro, composer and conductor of the Sage City Symphony, came from the southwest. Composers drove over the Green Mountains, along the Connecticut River, and from the shores of Lake Champlain: Zeke Hecker from the southeast, Bea Phillips from the Northeast Kingdom, Bill Harris from Middlebury to the west, Larry Read and Gilles Yves Bonneau from Vermont’s metropolis of Burlington, population 60,000, and the new arrival, Gwyneth Walker, from her Brainstorm Farm in central Vermont.

The Consortium of Vermont Composers was founded and it organized a huge festival to celebrate local composers. Gwyneth sparked Governor Madeleine Kunin’s enthusiasm, and she attended that festival with her entourage, giving the final concert a standing ovation. The Consortium members worked to create two-day festivals in 1989, 1991, 1992, 1994, and 1996, engaging musicians across the state to play musical styles they had rarely heard before, much less performed.

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Consortium of Vermont Composers, August 1988, l to r, David Gunn, Gilles Yves Bonneau, Dennis Bathory-Kitsz, Erik Nielsen, Larry Read, Maria Lattimore, Gwyneth Walker, Zeke Hecker, Don McLean

By the mid-1990s, though, public enthusiasm for the Consortium dwindled and new Vermont music simply took its place as part of the wider musical culture, having been played by the successful Vermont Contemporary Music Ensemble as well as the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, Green Mountain Youth Symphony, Sage City Symphony, Vermont Youth Orchestra, Windham Orchestra, Vermont Philharmonic, Montpelier Chamber Orchestra and many small ensembles and soloists. The ever-restless composers felt the time had come to reach out past the borders. The nascent pre-web Internet was a focus of the Consortium with the idea of file-sharing musical scores, but few had online access and only the university composers had the ability to store scores. I had been online since 1981, but only as an author in computer technology—and using dialup so slow that I could type faster than it could transmit.

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2001 Proclamation for Vermont Composers Month

The opportunity to reach out came in the form of a summer replacement radio show on WGDR-FM hosted by David Gunn and myself—”Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar. The radio show was additionally streamed on the web by September 1995, and was the earliest online radio program for new music. Central Vermont was home to a strange mix of old hippie communes, middle-aged professionals, and young entrepreneurs, making it fertile ground for K&D. Vermont’s composers were guests, of course, but soon composers from outside the state dropped by for a few days of relaxation in the Green Mountains. It wasn’t long before K&D became WGDR’s biggest source of contributions. In 1998, a unique broadcast/webcast was accomplished between STEIM and WGDR’s studios. K&D won an ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award and soon organized the 37-concert, 100-composer Ought-One Festival of Nonpop in the state capital of Montpelier in 2001, when Governor Howard Dean issued a proclamation heralding “New Music Month”.

Nothing has a long tail in Vermont, though. It freezes off every winter, and especially following the attacks of 9/11, the Ought-One Festival vanished from recent history. K&D itself continued (including its 9/11 collection ) but the Consortium shuddered to a stop. K&D stopped broadcasting in 2005. Engaging the visible enthusiasm of politicians like Governors Kunin and Dean in Vermont had been important, particularly because the state Arts Council is a private membership organization with a lukewarm public, placing its emphasis on education and outreach rather than groundbreaking art. Sadly for us composers, Vermont continued to be best known for its crafts—particularly because most Vermont arts grant programs go through Boston’s NEFA, where the sparsely populated Green Mountain State evinces little respect.

By 2010, interest in new music was strong among the region’s several youth orchestras but fading on the too-easily spooked Vermont Public Radio as well as in classical concert programming. Consortium composers had rarely been getting together, but they met again in earnest after receiving a bequest from composer Bonneau, who had died in 2002. Could there be a large-scale celebration? Yes, 2011 would be the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attack to which Vermont composers responded with a heartfelt outpouring of new compositions. And 2011 would also be the 250th anniversary of the land grants of Governor Benning Wentworth that created what would become the Vermont Republic out of the New Hampshire and New York colonies. Justin Morgan was alive 250 years ago. It seemed an ideal time to ask the newly elected Democratic Governor Shumlin to proclaim a year for Vermont’s composers.

Being a new governor in Vermont isn’t like being one in California or Texas. Our expectation here—with the largest number of politicians per capita—is that our elected officials will be available to us. There aren’t many places where a U.S. senator will talk about issues (or hunting or fishing or music) while waiting for coffee at a local country store. Here it’s expected. Still, Governor-elect Shumlin’s transition team and his post-inauguration staff were harried, and asking for a “Year of” proclamation wasn’t greeted enthusiastically. “Year of” proclamations are infrequent, moreso if the constituency is small. The new Democratic governor was already swimming upstream in a troubled economy, attempting to distance himself from the economic policies of Republican predecessor Jim Douglas and cheerlead the public into single-payer healthcare. Composers had no influence.

I submitted the wording of a proclamation similar to the one issued by Governor Dean to help convince the staff of its value, but met with a cool reception. I persisted, emphasizing its importance to Vermont culture, its timing for 2011, and how it would introduce the new governor to a perennially skeptical artistic constituency. Campaign contributors helped out, and I even prodded the governor directly on his official Facebook page. It took six weeks to get approval.

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The 2011 proclamation

The proclamation was rewritten by the staff and an event was scheduled for the Ceremonial Office in the Vermont State House—with a week’s notice. It was below freezing on the 17th of February; getting the composers to show up meant sending two hundred emails and following up with encouragement. Some of us were local, including Lydia Busler-Blais, Michael Close, David Gunn, Charles Mayhood, Erik Nielsen, and me. Others came from a distance: three of my students carpooled the 50 miles from Johnson State College; Jorge Martin drove 50 miles over the Appalachian Gap from Addison; Sara Doncaster drove 50 miles from the Northeast Kingdom’s Irasburg; and Derrik Jordan had the longest drive, 120 miles north from Brattleboro.

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Governor Shumlin and composers in the Ceremonial Office

Governor Shumlin was welcoming but a little confused that there could be so many composers in his fair state. He was unaware that, as I said during the presentation, “music actually composed in Vermont goes back to Justin Morgan, better known for his iconic horse, Figure, than the exquisite music he created.” Vermont Public Radio covered the event, as did one of the state’s two daily newspapers, the Times-Argus.

With such short notice, the proclamation came as a surprise to musicians, ensembles, and many composers. Excitement was immediate. The Vermont Philharmonic put out a call for scores. Commercial classical radio WCVT-FM began a series of weekly broadcasts with Vermont composers. The Vermont Contemporary Music Ensemble appeared on public radio with interviews and music from the weekend performance. A Facebook page opened to become a performance “switchboard” for the year’s events.

Beyond the flash, what does the proclamation mean for Vermont’s composers? Practical things. Certainly it opens the door to commissions for the anniversary of the Wentworth Grants. It puts the logo for “Twenty Eleven: Year of the Vermont Composer” on concert programs, and reminds people of the average of one composer for every town in their own state. More than that, we hope—I hope—that the distance of geography will no longer result in our art being so easily dismissed. I recall in January 2009 when Elliot Schwartz, Libby Larsen, John Luther Adams, and I came far from our homes to New York for a performance of our work by Rob Paterson’s American Modern Ensemble. Although the concert was reasonably well attended, the bulk of the new music media were instead downtown to hear music by fellow New Yorker Robert Ashley—an opera that had already been running for ten days. Since then, of course, John has brought his Alaska successfully into New York, but the bias against rural America remains strong. Perhaps our leadership, with this proclamation, can encourage a second look and listen to music outside the urban world, where geography, far from being a barrier, contributes to a sound unique and otherwise unavailable.

The Consortium certainly hopes that Governor Shumlin’s proclamation will be just the first among many nationwide. Composer Lynn Job seemed to agree, writing from Texas, “only 49 other states to go.”

Locally, Lily Filippi commented on the Vermont Public Radio blog, “Thank you, Gov. Shumlin! For a Governor to pay such close attention to what others would consider a minute and insignificant cause, you acknowledged a small but relevant group of individuals who are part of the creative juice flowing in Vermont. My eighteen year old daughter is a brilliant composer, and I am so sorry we were unaware of yesterday’s signing of this marvelous document! We both applaud you for having a keen eye towards the arts, especially the young composers, whose career paths have originated here, in our spectacular state.”

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Dennis at the woodstove



Dennis Báthory-Kitsz has made work for sound sculptures, soloists, electronics, stage shows, orchestras, dancers, interactive multimedia, installations, and performance events. Dennis co-hosted Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar, co-founded the NonPop International Network, and has been project director for new music festivals since 1973.