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Musical Mayhem

David Gunn is a seriously funny composer


Published October 27, 2004 at 4:00 a.m.

Inside the front door of David Gunn's century-old home, two racks are filled with very peculiar hats, including two fezzes. This is the first sign that he may not be your average Barre resident. No, actually, the first sign is what he's wearing when he comes to the door -- a slightly ragged but still glitzy vintage jacket that Liberace would have coveted. The off-kilter first impression is reinforced throughout Gunn's fastidiously neat house: the ceramic 10-gallon hat in the dining room that turns out to be a musical chips-and-dip bowl; the high-heel-shaped chair in the second-floor parlor; the six lava lamps; the footstool taken to literal extreme, its two feet shod in sneakers and argyle socks; and the antique typewriter with a pair of disembodied plastic hands placed over the keys. "I'm waiting for them to produce a novel," he explains.

But Gunn isn't relying on anyone else to make his music; a composition-in-progress appears on his computer screen; keyboards and other instruments, including a large, handmade gong, await their roles. Tidy stacks of Gunn's only full-length CD to date -- Somewhere East of Topeka, performed by the Vermont Contemporary Music Ensemble -- dominate a bookshelf that also holds various CDR singles. These recordings don't come close to representing Gunn's output: 81 compositions, and counting, since the earliest he's willing to acknowledge. That one, from 1969, was called Variations on a Botched-up 12-tone Row.

Over the subsequent decades Gunn's "contemporary classical" music has evolved. In his experimental, atonal days back at Ohio State University his pieces sometimes involved outrageous elements such as tear gas, dead birds and cream pies. Now his work might be described as experimental, harmonic stuff -- mostly instrumental and primarily arranged for small groups. "Eventually I found my melodic voice," he says, acknowledging he was relieved when melody made a comeback in the avant-garde arena.

One of Gunn's biggest works, the four-part Mass of Mercury from 2000, is 23:03 minutes in total. Written for chamber orchestra and chorus, it's a grand and stirring piece. One of his shortest, 50 Birds (1999), clocks in at 1:53 and is quirkier; sneaky snippets of "Happy Birthday" emerge in the melody line -- the tiny tune was written for a friend's 50th.

If most of his older compositions exist mainly as titles on a list, in more recent years Gunn's works have graduated from page to performance: Last month at Carnegie Hall the Vermont Youth Orchestra played his Urban Renewaltz along with pieces by Phish's Trey Anastasio and three other contemporary Vermont composers. Last May the new-music ensemble Ethel performed Gunn's Incandescendence at the Flynn -- albeit "32 percent faster than I had written it," he notes with good-natured chagrin. The Vermont Contemporary Music Ensemble (VCME) repertoire includes a dozen Gunn compositions, seven of them commissions. Other Green Mountain groups that have performed his music include the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, the Montpelier Chamber Orchestra, Social Band and the Bayley-Hazen Singers.

That growing roster explains why the Vermont Arts Council just awarded Gunn an Artistic Citation of Merit; a premiere of his latest piece, Out of Cahoots, was on the program at the VAC's 40th-anniversary celebration in Marlboro last weekend. About the honor Gunn is typically modest, and funny: "Unlike his other citations, this one added no points to his driver's license," he now writes -- in third person -- in what passes for a resume. "The MacArthur Foundation, due no doubt to an administrative error, left his name off its list of Fellows for the umpteenth time."

So it's his music, and not just his decor, that sets Gunn apart from his neighbors -- and, indeed, from pretty much everyone else. You won't hear, say, the Dave Matthews Band blasting from his Tremont Street home. As a composer he resides in the rarified world of "nonpop" contemporary music. With the exception of Steve Reich and a handful of others, the musicians in this hard-to-define category are living in "various states of oblivion," as Dennis Bathory-Kitsz puts it.

He should know, being a fellow Vermont composer of limited renown. He's also a longtime friend of Gunn's and, since 1995, his on-air partner on "Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar" on WGDR at Goddard College. The two of them, along with New York composer Phil Kline, organized the "Ought-One" festival, a.k.a. "the Woodstock of NonPop," in Montpelier three years ago.

Kalvos and Damian -- that's Bathory-Kitsz and Gunn, respectively -- are famous within the contemporary-music subculture; their weekly show has been equal parts meeting place, sounding board, cheering squad and entertainment for the countless listeners who make, or just like to hear, cutting-edge compositions way below music-industry radar. And those listeners are worldwide, thanks to the website meticulously maintained by Bathory-Kitsz: You can tune in to a current show on streaming audio, or access past interviews, music and essays in the exhaustive archive. A lot of those essays -- 489 as of last Saturday -- were written by Gunn; each week he combines roughly 1000 words in a warped and wacky way (see sidebar) and reads them on-air to sort of jumpstart the show.

Outside the K&D online vault, Gunn's writings are not published anywhere, and that's a shame: His essays are the verbal equivalent of silly string. "They are out there," he concedes. "I have my own little universe I invented." No kidding. Even that so-called resume claims he's "a covert missionary from the planet Zombocartumia in the Crab Nebula." But with a little prodding he'll admit he's from New Jersey and moved to Vermont in 1990, with a foray out West in between. And though it's difficult to get a non-adorned response from him, one eventually learns that he's now 56 in Earth years.

Shameless puns and witty wordplay abound in Gunn's music -- or at least in his titles. A few examples: Khartoumaraca. The Help Me Rondo. A Tangoed Web. Bassooner or Later. There are also chattier names: 400 owls attempting to outwit a giant badger and Ahmed Lives in Istanbul and Drives a Taxi. And the just plain ridiculous: Grande Eccentric Marche of the Repelicans. Dance of the Hasidic Chigger Hecklers. Do Aliens Wear Sombreros?

Some have accused Gunn of creating the expectation that his compositions will be as goofy as their titles. Yet the music is perfectly serious... mostly. "David is relentlessly funny," says Bathory-Kitsz. "But being funny requires a level of communication that artists often don't have. That humor is the lead, which brings people to the music, and then they discover how good it is."

Gunn's sense of humor certainly won over members of the VYO, says Director Troy Peters, who commissioned Urban Renewaltz for the opening of the Elley-Long Center in 2001. "That was the very first piece of music played in that building," Peters informs. "The orchestra loved the music and loved David. A lot of our individual students have played smaller pieces of his." Recently Gunn wrote, without being asked, a six-and-a-half-minute duet for two of the girls -- Frangipanika, for violin and cello.

Bathory-Kitsz calls Gunn's music "harmonically oriented but rhythmically complicated." But even when the time signature is literally offbeat, "it comes out sounding absolutely natural," says Bathory-Kitsz. For example, Urban Renewaltz is in 5/4, rather than the traditional waltz time of 3/4. Tannerka, which Gunn wrote in 2002 when his cat had to be euthanized, is a tangka, or extended haiku, in 17/16 time. "I wrote that a couple hours after she went in the oven," he recalls with a sigh. "I just channeled it, and it just came out that way."

The notion of unusual time signatures came to him in a "lightbulb moment," Gunn reveals, when he first listened to the 1971 Mahavishnu Orchestra LP The Inner Mounting Flame. "Especially 'Vital Transformation,' in 9/16 time, and 'Dance of Maya' in 20/16," he says.

In some Gunn tunes, it's not so much the signature that's challenging as how frequently it changes. The 2001 piece Transcendental Medication, which was commissioned by the VCME, switches rapidly from 4/4 to 3/4 to 5/4 and back again. "There are also lots of rests where you don't expect them," Gunn says. Following a staccato piano intro -- terse chords hammered aggressively in quarter notes -- the tune subtly shifts with the addition of strings and woodwinds. A low bass tone anchors the piece, while the winds rise in seeming anticipation. Though different instruments maintain the staccato rhythm throughout, snippets of melodies also roll over each other, like water tumbling over rocks in a stream.

Many of Gunn's works have a sense of rushing, of urgency, a la Philip Glass, but they don't seem to be going for that composer's pulse-of-modern-life quality. They can be intense, but are often ultimately joyous. In fact, both in life and music, Gunn is characteristically optimistic. Tannerka, while darkly elegiac, is not without hope. Shebango, from 1998, begins with a jaunty, sideways-sounding intro -- you can imagine a pair of crabs locked in a passionate-but-awkward tango embrace. Over six-plus minutes the tune flows through almost boogie-woogie piano passages and squeaky-high violins, and it seems as determined to reach its conclusion as a pair of marathon dancers.

It's this "unusual creativity" that appeals to Steve Klimowski, a clarinetist and director of the VCME. "It almost sounds like pop music, it's catchy, but it's quirky in ways you don't expect," he says. "For professional musicians much of it is not difficult to play, but... he gets into these changing meters and some of those are really difficult to follow. Yet it sounds fun -- this is where David's genius lies."

Klimowski suggests that Gunn is "a very unassuming guy" who will probably never make a living at his music -- luckily he has a day job writing and proofreading for the Vermont League of Cities and Towns. But, Klimowski adds, "He makes music because he has to."

Gunn confirms this raison d'être himself. "I'm so passionate about the music, there's nothing else I want to do," he says in a rare serious moment. "If I hear anything in my head, I go to the keyboard to find out what it is... It just happens."