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Gilles Yves Bonneau: An Appreciation

Dennis Báthory-Kitsz

March 22, 2003

It is the curse of modern composers to be unknown -- more unknown (if that's possible) than their predecessors across the centuries. The sheer dominance of pop music has relegated classical forms to a tiny niche, and modern classical is just a gossamer on the walls of that niche.

Gilles Yves Bonneau was an archetype of the unknown composer. He created over 600 pieces collected in about 400 titles, from short piano works through sets of trio sonatas and symphonies to a 12-hour song cycle for chorus, orchestra, and soloists on a text by Carl Sandburg.

Only two dozen compositions were ever heard, and in all he received a scant 60 performances, not quite one for every year he lived. One piece, three minutes and four seconds long, is his entire publicly available recorded legacy. His great Sandburg song-cycle, Timesweep, was itself swept away by squabbles over the rights to use Sandburg's words.

Of course, Gilles's music is perenially out-of-fashion. It is long, complex, personal, and made up of a kind of vague romantic/impressionist pantonalism that seduces the willing, but doesn't insist with a hook or a beat -- even while it was often based on the clear forms and shapes of his personal hero, Johann Sebastian Bach.

To many, Gilles's music was simply dull. It was unplayable, if only because he refused to accept score preparation as his job, and he considered idiomatic instrumental and vocal writing to be a paean to a pragmaticism that sullied the purity of his vision. He was the creator, he believed, and there his role ended. It was not an arrogant belief, but rather a humility that kept him from believing that there was more he could contribute. He recorded no demos, rarely performed, made no electronic music, scorned technology, refused to promote his work, avoided publicity, and stayed distant from rehearsals.

Yet he tirelessly worked for new music. He was the co-founder of the Consortium of Vermont Composers in 1988, and acted as its president and treasurer for several years. He helped organize the Vermont Composers Festivals. He housed and fed a stream of visiting performers who would play with the Vermont Symphony or star at the Flynn Theatre. He set up a foundation that, at his death, was to fund commissions for new music.

In late 1995, Gilles moved to Seattle to begin a new life. And when he died there on Christmas Day 2002 -- with his death announced mysteriously only this past Thursday, March 20 -- he left behind an artistic life vanishing like an abandoned holodeck. His image and name vanished from his life-partner's website. His scores, save for a few given to his colleagues, may already be lost, and the status of his foundation is not known. His recordings -- all but one were concert documents -- consist of a slim hour of music, most of which you will hear today on Kalvos & Damian.

Gilles thought of himself as "the violet in the woods." Colorful and fragrant, it existed for itself, an unmoving and rooted being, flowering despite and beyond free will. Should someone come across that violet, their lives would be enriched. Should it grow forever alone, that solitude would in no way diminish its purpose.

Whether you find his music rich or dull, compelling or pallid, remember today. It may be the last time you hear the music of Gilles Yves Bonneau.