A sense of humor is not mandatory for composers of so-called "new music," but it must help. Since it's hard to make a living at something that exists in a land far, far away from that stuff called "pop" -- as in popular -- music, they might as well have a good time doing it. That said, it would be easy to think that Vermont composers David Gunn and Dennis Bathory-Kitsz had majored in stand-up comedy and accidentally fell into the weird world of contemporary electronic tunesmithing. Both of them are funny as hell, a trait that impels them to give their compositions the most improbable titles, such as Millions of Brazilians and The Troll's Awful Curse (Gunn), Erzsebet and Northsea Balletic Spicebush (Bathory-Kitsz). For good measure, Gunn is a self-described ET -- specifically, "a covert emissary from the planet Zombocartumia in the Crab Nebula."
This fiftysomething pair also produces and hosts "Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar" on WGDR-FM 91.1 at Goddard College. The eight-and-a-half-year-old "show and site where world composers meet" can be heard Saturday afternoons at 2:30 and visited at kalvos.org, where all shows are archived. Within their arcane field, "Kalvos" and "Damian" are famous -- thanks in large part to putting up one of the first Web sites of its kind -- and every new-music composer you've probably never heard of wants to be on their show. "We did 50 interviews this year alone that haven't been broadcast yet," notes Bathory-Kitsz.
In 2001, he and Gunn co-organized the Ought-One Festival of NonPop in Montpelier. Though a fascinating gathering of composers and players, the event was a bust financially and has not been repeated -- yet. "Everyone loved it until it came time to fundraise for the next one," laments Bathory-Kitsz. "But we're thinking about doing it again in 2005. That will be the 10th year, and probably the last, of Kalvos & Damian,' which is long enough for this kind of volunteer effort."
But poor remuneration has not hindered him nor Gunn, nor any of the other composers in their parallel music universe, from creating new works and occasionally unleashing them for the general public. Case in point: "A Multi-Media Perfor-mance for Theremin and Electronics." This Saturday, the two Vermont composers will share the FlynnSpace stage with Eric and Mary Ross, a husband-and-wife team based in Binghamton, New York. Mary is an artist whose video-based visuals turn the concerts into multimedia experiences; Eric is internationally known for his cross-genre compositions for piano, guitar and other instruments -- including the theremin. A handful of his works for the esoteric device give this week's concert its theme.
For something that looks like a box with an antenna, the theremin is notoriously hard to play. The earliest electronic instrument, it predated the electric guitar and was a precursor to the synthesizer. The Russian engineer Leon Theremin invented it in 1924 for Lenin, who believed electronics would play a role in building communism. Theremin was known internationally and came to the States in the late '20s to demonstrate his invention. So impressed were the Americans that RCA agreed to build 500 of them immediately.
Concerts followed in New York and Europe in the 1930s, but Theremin regrettably fell victim to Stalin's purge later in the decade. His instrument did not, however; after the scientist disappeared into the Gulag, the instrument that bore his name hit Hollywood.
If you have seen any early horror B movies -- or the more recent spoof of same, Ed Wood -- you have heard the theremin. Its eerie, otherworldly tones are well suited to evoking spookiness, fear and edge-of-your-seat anticipation. Hitchcock used it in Spellbound. The instrument also has occasionally been adopted by rock and jazz musicians -- think the woo-woo quality in the Beach Boys hit, "Good Vibrations" -- and is a staple of sci-fi soundtracks.
Pitch and volume are controlled by the distance between the theremin and the player's hands. In other words, it is the world's only instrument in which sound is created by not touching it. Rather, the player moves his or her hands a short distance away, literally manipulating the waves from the electronic gadget. The theremin has proved to be more than a fad, but its use is still uncommon.
That's why Eric Ross' compositions are remarkable: If he is not the only such composer, he's one of damn few who can list things like "Theremin Summit -- Live at the Berlin JazzFest" on his resume. Bathory-Kitsz counts him among the "great gods of theremin playing."
Among Ross' contributions to the Burlington concert are Passage, a piece for one to three theremins; a solo piece called Music 4MR; and Rimn Vorml, which Bathory-Kitsz calls "the three of us with voices and other instruments -- the chaos piece." Because of Ross' jazz background, he leaves plenty of room for improvisation. And when it comes to the theremin works, apparently even audience members can contribute: "If people stand up to go to the bathroom it can change the pitch," Bathory-Kitsz jokes.
He and Gunn will present one piece each this Saturday. Gunn's nine-minute Theremin-erva has "sort of lots of swoops and body language," says Bathory-Kitsz. His own LiquidBirds, also nine minutes long, is an ethereal soundscape based on "multiple layers of water -- it's probably the only piece that won't wear people out."
Though the three composers have not yet played together, they've been working things out long-distance for almost two years, Bathory-Kitsz says. "When Eric comes up Friday, we'll rehearse all night, set up in the morning, go do the radio show in the afternoon, and then go back to Burlington for the show."
Over the past couple decades, works by Gunn and Bathory-Kitsz have been performed by locals such as the Vermont Contemporary Music Ensemble, pianist Michael Arnowitt and the Montpelier Chamber Orchestra. Earlier this year, Albany Records released a CD of 16 original compositions by Gunn, entitled Somewhere East of Topeka. His Web site jauntily declares, "Brisk sales are anticipated any day now."
As for Bathory-Kitsz, he encourages free downloads of more than 100 compositions from his Web site (www.malted media.com/people/bathory) or from his distributor, the composers' collective Frog Peak Music. Last year, he added Tirkiinistra: Five Landscapes for Piano -- composed for Arnowitt -- and an eight-minute "statement about war & peace," Bales, Barrels & Cones: Antebellum/ Antibellum, a work for "expert drummer (drumkit) and playback." Oh, and if you're a tuba player, you can get the playback CD with which to perform Llama Butter. Bathory-Kitsz offers "the best and worst of Dennis' creations in one place" -- on a single, 11-hour MP3.
Why is he so eager to give away his music? "I'm eager to have it auditioned," Bathory-Kitsz clarifies. "Most of my income comes from commissions; the more people who hear it, the more likely they are to perform it." He and Gunn are finding enthusiasm for their work among twentysomething musicians -- overseas. The first-ever concert of solely Bathory-Kitsz compositions took place in Amsterdam last March.
Clearly, "new music" is not for everyone -- at least not this enigmatic variation. It's more than a weird electronic device that sets Gunn, Bathory-Kitsz and Ross apart from, say, a classical string quartet or a modern piano trio. All three composers are members of a rarified breed who, humorously or otherwise, are pushing the envelope of contemporary music. It's so edgy, no one has even thought of a good name for it yet.
"The novelty usually keeps people interested for awhile," suggests Bathory-Kitsz. "And David's music is always entertaining, aside from the quality of the music. Eric is very energetic. Mine -- I have no idea. Really, what people come away with is the diversity of it." At least, he suggests, listeners this Saturday can leave knowing that not every warbly sound signals the presence of aliens.