A Late Bloomer Learns to Score

Gerald Busby in full cowboy mode, ready to teach piano (or cruise at the Spike and the Eagle’s Nest). Photo by Joanna Ney.
Gerald Busby in full cowboy mode, ready to teach piano (or cruise at the Spike and the Eagle’s Nest). Photo by Joanna Ney.

BY GERALD BUSBY | I was 38 years old and sitting, alone, in a music practice room at Colorado State University in Fort Collins when it became clear that composing music was the thing I loved most. It wasn’t the result of some startling new piece I wrote, or somebody saying, “Hey, you’re really good at that.”

From my earliest performances as a prodigy playing a full recital at the age of 12 or just showing off as a gospel piano player touring the South with the Mexican evangelist Angel Martinez, my motivation was always being admired. I knew how to spin and embellish the simple 19th century harmonies and rhythms of Baptist hymns. And there was a practical incentive with regard to saving souls and collecting money: If I could make the women at a revival meeting cry when they heard my hymn arrangements, their husbands would give us money. That was the formula and I’m still somewhat baffled by its significance. There was something sexual about it.

Then there was the theory and mechanics of music. At Yale I studied fugue writing with Quincy Porter, and modal counterpoint with Richard Crocker. When I wrote home to ask my mother for money to buy a “Liber Usualis” — the source book of Gregorian chant, she responded by saying she didn’t know Yale was a Catholic school.

But it wasn’t until that afternoon in Fort Collins that I dared call myself a composer. In that small practice room, I started meticulously to copy on music manuscript paper every note of a piece I had been improvising since I was 15. It was my “Homage to Rachmaninoff,” inspired by that composer’s famous “Vocalise,” a piece I fell desperately in love with when I accompanied a tenor who ended his recital with that tour de force. It crawled under my skin and infected my consciousness with melancholy and yearning. Its sequence of seventh chords was almost as good as coming and it made me cry. Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise” expressed perfectly my longing for the real thing — a man who would love me, and whom I would love.

“Longing For The Real Thing” is the subtitle I gave my film score for Robert Altman’s “3 Women” one rainy December night in Los Angeles.

It was the summer of 1969 when I returned to New York, now selling textbooks for Oxford University Press. I was determined to make my way as a composer. I kept it mostly to myself since I had written only a few pieces for harpsichord, and I was intimidated by friends who studied composition with Roger Sessions and wrote complex 12-tone music. My approach was totally improvisational. I was still paying homage to Rachmaninoff and all the 20th century composers I’d had crushes on — Gershwin, Ravel, Schoenberg, Bartok, and Prokofiev. When the school year ended, I had three months off with a car, and I stayed with Joe and Gordon, two gay friends living at Westbeth Artists Housing (on Bethune St.). I cooked for them in exchange for a place to sleep. Both were pianists who had met at the Eastman School of Music.

After Eastman, Joe studied with Juilliard’s preeminent piano teacher, Rosina Lhevinne. He was a brilliant pianist and would throw parties at Westbeth with guests such as the writers James Purdy and John Gruen. Entertainment after dinner was nothing less than all of Chopin’s Etudes, which Joe performed with undaunted flair and vigor.

Joe was also an ambitious composer and invited Virgil Thomson to dinner. I was in the kitchen cooking when Virgil arrived saying right away, “I left the wine I brought you in the cab. The driver couldn’t change a twenty.” Joe immediately let Virgil know he’d read his autobiography and music criticism and knew details about specific performances of “Four Saints in Three Acts” and “Mother Of Us All,” Virgil’s most famous works written in Paris with Gertrude Stein.

Virgil was famous for his repartee, but he didn’t respond to Joe’s attempts to engage him that way. After tasting my chicken roasted in a 500-degree oven on a bed of rock salt, Virgil looked up from his plate and said, “Who made this food? This isn’t kiddy stuff.” I delightedly acknowledged the compliment and said that I also was a composer. Virgil looked me in the eye and said, “Well, I don’t want to hear any of your music until I’ve tasted more of your food to see if you can put things together and turn them into something else.” He’d described orchestrating — and that moment was the beginning of a solid, practical relationship between Virgil and me, the effects of which continue to the present day.

I quit my job as a traveling salesman and started cooking at Ruskay’s, a restaurant Carl Laanes opened with two friends on Columbus Avenue and 75th Street. Carl designed the Empire Diner (10th Ave. & W. 22nd St.), where I played Haydn sonatas on an upright piano next to the bathroom. I had a few piano students whom I saw once a week at Princeton, but I needed more to make ends meet. Virgil suggested I teach rich women and their children. He made some phone calls and I found myself knocking on the front door of Cynthia O’Neal’s house on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I had just come from working out at the W. 63rd St. Y and was wearing my cowboy outfit — Levi 501 jeans, a leather vest, cowboy boots, and a cowboy hat — the same clothes I wore to cruise at the Spike and the Eagle’s Nest. It got me in the door at Cynthia’s, and she became a regular student of mine. Mozart’s “Fantasy in D-minor” was the piece I taught her. One Sunday morning I got a call from Leonard Bernstein saying Cynthia had recommended me to teach his younger daughter. Cynthia’s principal role in the lives of her rich and famous friends was that of facilitator. It wasn’t unusual during a piano lesson I was giving Cynthia for Lauren Bacall or Felicia Montealegra (Leonard Bernstein’s wife) to knock on the door asking where to find “proper wainscoting.” I was soon teaching Nina Bernstein in their apartment at the Dakota on a baby grand that Baldwin had given Leonard in exchange for his endorsement of the brand.

Cynthia took me to see Rudolph Nureyev dance with the Royal Danish Ballet Company at the Met, and after the performance we went backstage to greet him. He was wearing a white bathrobe, and his bare feet — large, damaged, and covered with bandages — were perched on his dressing table. His partner Wallace Potts rushed to embrace Cynthia as she introduced us all. Wallace was a southerner from Alabama, and we became fast friends. He had met Rudolph in Birmingham during one of the great dancer’s tours, and they became lovers. Wallace and Rudolph spent time with Paul Taylor at his home in Mattatuck, and Wallace gave Paul a reel-to-reel tape of my music. Paul called me rather early one morning to say he liked my music and wanted me to write a piece for his company. He asked me to go with him for a six-week summer engagement at Lake Placid, New York. We would stay at the Northwood School and create a dance to be premiered at the final performance. It was my first commission, and Paul wanted a 25-minute chamber orchestra piece. I of course said yes, though I’d never orchestrated or written a dance. At Lake Placid in the library of the Northwood School, I wrote “Runes,” a seven-movement dance suite for solo piano. Paul choreographed each movement as I wrote it, and I performed it with the dancers at their final concert. It was a hit, and to my relief Paul said it should remain a solo piano piece. He asked me to go with the company to Paris for the European premier of “Runes.” I was ecstatic.

My relationship with Cynthia was intense and dramatic. She contributed immensely to my success, though our relationship ended when I wrote the score for a TV film that her husband Patrick directed (having had one other score under my belt, for the 1977 Robert Altman film, “3 Women). Looking back, I see it clearly as an example of my ego interfering with my career. The job of scoring Patrick’s film probably came about through Cynthia’s recommendation. It paid well, and I had a budget sufficient to hire my favorite musicians in New York to record. That was a wonderful gift, but I reacted in a selfish and thoughtless way — primarily because Patrick wasn’t Robert Altman. I kept comparing him to Altman, and I complained to Virgil that Patrick didn’t participate in the recording of the music or its placement in the film. He didn’t even give us dinner when we worked all night! Virgil responded, “It is Patrick’s privilege to behave any way he wishes.” It took me years to realize what Virgil’s words meant: If I wasn’t willing to let Patrick be exactly who he was, whether I liked it or not, I wasn’t willing to let myself be who I was.

Cynthia and I did the est (Erhard Seminars Training) training because Patrick had done it and seemed transformed. Patrick said things to me like, “The only enemy you have is your ego.” In the spirit of est I told Cynthia that I liked and admired Patrick but didn’t like working with him. “How dare you think of yourself as special!” she screamed at me. She was right. After Patrick’s death, Cynthia changed her name to Cy and, with Mike Nichols’ sponsorship, founded “Friends Indeed.” It was for years a major support system for thousands of people living with AIDS in New York.

“Runes” was an immediate success in Paris at the Théâtre de la Ville. My dressing room had one window that looked out on the Seine. In the pit, waiting for my nervous fingers, was the Bösendorfer Concert Grand that the great Italian pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli had played the night before in a recital that included Ravel’s “Gaspard de la Nuit.” Michelangeli played that masterpiece better than anyone else. He toured the world with a Japanese technician who, over a period of two days just before a concert, made the touch of the keyboard completely even. It was magical to play. When I walked onstage to take my bow as the composer/pianist on opening night, the audience rose to their feet, half of them shouting BRAVO, and the other half yelling BOO. I was numbed by these loud opposing responses. As I walked off into the wings the stage manager patted me on the back and said, “Controversy, very good.”

I had a new boyfriend named Rafe Blasi. He was a unit publicist for movies that were about to open, and he knew Robert Altman’s publicist. Rafe sent him a cassette of my music. I was still working as a cook at Ruskay’s, where every evening an instrumentalist, usually a pianist, would entertain the patrons while they ate. The musicians got $25 and dinner. Michael Parloff, a graduate student at Juilliard, was one of those instrumentalists, and, from the kitchen as I cooked, I listened to him play every solo piece in the flute repertoire. “Noumena” was the piece I wrote to showcase his abilities as I heard them. Michael was a brilliant virtuoso and was the principal flutist with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra for 30 years. “Noumena” was the piece I sent Altman when he was looking for a composer for “3 Women.”

Altman liked “Noumena” and the music of two other composers. He gathered his staff in his office on a Friday afternoon and gave them drinks and grass. When everyone was a bit drunk and stoned, he stopped their chattering with, “I want you to listen to some music.” The room fell silent. Everyone knew this was about “3 Women.” He signaled the audio engineer to begin playing the three tapes in succession. As each cassette began, Altman looked at his watch to determine exactly how much time elapsed before anyone started talking again, the point at which they had stopped listening. The piece with the longest period of silence won. It was mine. Altman told me later that he was looking for something abstract, but it had to have visceral appeal for people who generally hated modern classical music.

Altman called to give me the good news while I was peeling carrots in Ruskay’s prep kitchen. He asked me to meet him in three days in Sam Cohen’s office at International Creative Management. I arrived carrying a bright yellow plastic briefcase I had bought in Toronto when I was a traveling salesman. Altman greeted me warmly and said, “Have you ever composed music for film?” I answered, “No.” “Have you ever orchestrated or conducted an orchestra?” I shook my head no. “Well, can you?” “Yes,” I said emphatically. “Okay,” he grinned, “the job’s yours.”

Gerald Busby is a longtime resident of the Chelsea Hotel and protégé of Virgil Thomson. He is best known for his film score for Robert Altman’s “3 Women” and his dance score for Paul Taylor’s “Runes.” With Craig Lucas, Busby is currently writing an opera based on “3 Women.” Busby’s life at the Chelsea Hotel is the topic of “The Man on the Fifth Floor,” a documentary film currently in production.