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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution

The Essay
Show #346
David Gunn

In 1985, a crew of Baylor, Texas highway workers, tired of cleaning up tons of roadside debris, devised a clever scheme to get others to do the work for them. They convinced civic groups, businesses and credulous families that it was fun to "keep America beautiful." If they volunteered to clean a stretch of highway four times a year--which meant collecting litter, removing graffiti, paying the maintenance cost of roadside rest areas and planting trees and psychotropic wildflowers--a sign would be erected along the side of the road stating that they had "adopted" that part of the highway. Well, civic-minded people loved the idea of having their name or affiliation emblazoned on a roadsign, and the program--officially the Adopt-A-Highway Maintenance Corporation--was hugely successful. Within five years, 49 states, six Canadian provinces, Puerto Rico, New Zealand and the space colony of Zombocartumia had instituted the program. It was a win-win situation: community residents got cheap roadside publicity, and state departments of transportation could channel their ever-shrinking funds into more worthwhile pursuits, such as researching the acoustic properties of chuckholes.

It took nearly a dozen years more, but finally American arts administrators smelled the aroma of available monies and got into the act by concocting the Adopt-A-Composer Program. Following the lead of the original Texas highway program, they convinced civic groups, businesses and even some gullible families that:
  · it was fun to "adopt" a composer;
  · it took a lot less time to collect his litter and remove any body graffiti than it would for a similar stretch of road; and
  · they'd receive plenty of notoriety by posting him along his two-mile stretch of highway where hed perform his musical act while holding up a sign that divulged his "adopter."

And that was the part of the program that occasionally gave composers pause. While it was enjoyable and even a little zany to, say, improvise ukulele pasticci along the roadside in temperate Hawaii, great or even mediocre art was less easy to come by in the middle of a snowstorm along the Alcan Highway outside of Tok, Alaska, in January. Still, even in the most hostile environments, there always seems to be enough composers eager for a performance venue to go around. Take Zenon A. Bagbee, for example. He was an "adoptee" of the Road Pal Project, a precursor of Adopt-a-Composer that was alive and well in Washington state five years before the Baylor, Texas roll-out. On May 18, 1980, 19 miles east of Toutle on Route 504, Bagbee was playing the skirls for the intermittent passing motorist when nearby Mount St. Helens blew up. Undaunted by the Plinian eruption that blanketed the surrounding area with tons of volcanic ash, Bagbee was inspired to wail on the skirls with even greater abandon. But when a river of magma blasted out of the earth directly across the road from his site, he chose to adopt the more prudent definition of abandon, and he escaped by the membranous integument of his denticles.

A proviso in the Adopt-a-Composer program states that the contract will not be renewed if the adoptee does not keep his or her stretch of road litter-free. Because their compositions entail the generation and disposal of huge mounds of manuscript paper, many musicians have stayed adopted for only brief periods. One famous sax player refused to wear the Department of Transportation regulation-issue safety orange hard-hat and vest, and instead performed in a dashiki made from hazardous waste containers. His gig was terminated after only 90 minutes.

Other composers have fashioned comfortable lives as roadside denizens. Trowler the Trencherman, an erstwhile client of Beano Bengaze, was such a specimen. Trowler was court composer for the order of Universal Nihilists, a sect that forbade all musical activities that didn't feature the weaselophone. The instrument's plaintive whining recalls the sound of a locomotive stalking a leopard in a china closet, a sound that Trowler found beguiling. At the same time that he--Trowler, not the leopard--was writing a set of weaselophone etudes that were best suited to outdoor presentation, the Nihilists were looking for a way to improve their public image. So, the sect adopted its own composer and plunked him and his instrument down on the eastbound side of Route 22 in Cranford, New Jersey. And while Trowler's performances may not have endeared the weaselophone to many of the megalopolitan passers-by, they did much to corroborate local department of transportation data on the acoustic properties of chuckholes.

If you--and I'm speaking now to our radio audients--are looking for a composer to adopt, Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar invites you to look no further than this 346th episode, which features, among others whose names will be provided only under duress, the estimable tunesmithery of Damian, and, if you're in the market for something completely different, Kalvos.