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Stay up-to-date on Kusiak Music projects, screenings, creative collaborations, and other news.

TBT: Have You Seen Andy? (2008)

Have You Seen Andy? (HBO)

This 2008 Emmy Award Winner ("Best Investigative Journalism") tackles the mysterious abduction of ten-year-old Andy Puglisi in the summer of 1976.

Filmmaker Melanie Perkins searches for answers. 

"With special access and a unique perspective, Melanie Perkins, Andy's childhood friend, re-examines the day of his disappearance 30 years ago, reviews the police investigation and uncovers new and startling information, prompting the long-"cold" case to be reactivated. Through interviews with other kids from the neighborhood, Andy's family, local and state police officers and new forensic experts, Perkins begins to put the pieces of the puzzle together, ultimately focusing in on the suspects in the case, who were never charged at the time." (from Amazon.com)

John Kusiak composed the score for this HBO feature-length documentary. The Boston Globe's Leslie Brokaw stopped by the Kusiak Music studio in 2006 to observe the scoring process and discuss the challenges and rewards of composing film music with Melanie and John.

Boston Globe article from 2006 about the Kusiak Music composing process. 

Boston Globe article from 2006 about the Kusiak Music composing process. 

John's History of Recording: Part One

First Tape Recorder

In 1960 I was 12 years old, just beginning guitar lessons and regularly visiting the Western Auto store in Agawam, MA. I went there principally to buy 45 rpm records but I also liked to check out all the other cool things that the store carried. It was a real "variety store" that specialized in auto parts but also sold Western Flyer bicycles, sports gear, Truetone guitars, fishing rods, guns, you name it.

One day my eye caught something new, a compact and portable tape recorder like the one pictured below:

John-Kusiak-1st-tape-recorder.jpeg

I had previously been able to experiment briefly with a tape recorder that a friend's parents had in their home and was fascinated by it. Here was an opportunity to get my own; a TrueTone single track recorder. I don’t remember the cost, but I imagine it was under $25 and I probably purchased it with money saved up from my paper route.

So much fun! I used it to record myself and my best friend Greg performing silly interviews as we pretended to be celebrities, to record songs I liked off of my transistor radio, and to collect environmental sounds like thunder, cars passing, and birds singing.

It also provided me with the opportunity to practice improvising with my guitar; I’d record several minutes of the chords from a song I was working on, rewind and then solo along with the playback. Many hours were spent with this activity.

Sound-On-Sound

When I was in high school, one of my bands (The Charmen, a “witty” play on the name of the toilet paper) somehow acquired a “manager.” He happened to own a tape recorder, which he brought to my house when we were practicing. This recorder had the ability to record “sound on sound” (SoS).

SoS was invented by Les Paul and describes the ability of a stereo, 2-track recorder to record from one of the tracks to the other – while simultaneously recording whatever new input you gave it. This was the “holy grail” because it allowed you to build up multiple tracks and create a complete song all by yourself. 

Start with a rhythm guitar recorded on track 1, then as you play it back, you record bass and “bounce” both the original rhythm guitar along with the bass into track 2. When you were satisfied with that performance, you could play that combo back from track 2 while adding percussion and record it all back on to track 1. And so on, and on, and on…

Of course, you had to to erase the original rhythm guitar track in order to bounce the three instruments back on track 1, so you had better like the original track the way it was because there would be no going back. Also, each “bounce” would add more tape hiss (a by-product of the tape recording process) from the original track along with the hiss being generated by the new recording, so there was a limit to how many times you would want to bounce things. However, it gave me, an aspiring composer/arranger, the opportunity to try things out, see how they sounded, and create new music compositions all by myself.

It was mind-blowing and addictive. I couldn’t get enough of it.

Here’s a picture of a 2-track recorder that had the ability to record “sound on sound.”

John-Kusiak-SoS-recorder

And here’s a piece I composed based on a lullaby; playing 4 guitars, overdubbed, using the SoS technique (notice the tape hiss):

Further reading: http://www.les-paul.com/timeline/sound-on-sound/

 

Flashback Friday: Refuge Media Project

Because John has been writing music for several decades now, not every Kusiak Music client needs to request new pieces of music to complete their project. Often, smaller projects with limited budgets and/or time reach out to ask for some licensing options from the back catalog.

Here's an example – the Refuge Media Project documentary from 2013.

Refuge

“More than one million refugees have come to the US, fleeing torture and political violence,” begins Refuge: Caring for Survivors of Torture.

The vast numbers are staggering, but what makes a greater impression in this stand-out documentary are the small, individual stories from survivors and those who offer them care and support as they resettle in the US.

Ben Achtenberg, project director at the Refuge Media Project and producer/director of Refuge, says the film – seven years in the making – came about as his general interest in healthcare and mental health issues drew him to organisations and healthcare providers that offer support to survivors in the US. Previously, he was nominated for an Oscar for the film Code Gray: Ethical Dilemmas in Nursing, which he produced and served as cinematographer."  (from WorldWithoutTorture.org, October 2013)

Let us know if you'd like an invitation to browse through the Kusiak Music Library (over 1,400 tracks and growing). 

 

 

Throwback Thursday: Murder At Harvard

In honor of Halloween, we thought we'd kick off a series of #tbt blog posts with Murder At Harvard.

This Kusiak Music-scored PBS documentary aired in 2003. Our longtime collaborator Eric Stange -- who made the film with Melissa Banta and historian Simon Schama -- wrote an article about the making of the documentary.

The scene of the crime: Harvard Medical Building in the 1800s

The scene of the crime: Harvard Medical Building in the 1800s

From Harvard Gazette:

With many unanswered questions and enduring mysteries, the 1849 murder of George Parkman is rich fodder for the imagination.

Parkman, a Boston Brahmin trained as a doctor but practicing as a landlord and moneylender, disappeared on Nov. 23, 1849. His body (or parts of it) was discovered a week later in the basement of the laboratory of John Webster, a chemist at Harvard Medical College who was indebted to Parkman.

At a trial that drew tens of thousands of spectators, Webster was convicted, largely on circumstantial evidence, and sentenced to hang in March of 1850.

Ephraim Littlefield, the janitor at the Medical College who discovered Parkman’s body by tunneling into Webster’s locked vault, presented the prosecution’s most compelling evidence. Yet some believed that Littlefield himself was guilty of killing Parkman and framing Webster, whom he resented, for the crime.

Murder-at-Harvard.gif

Behind the scenes

I was fortunate to be able to hire some local musicians to perform on the score; flute, oboe, bassoon, violin and cello. The addition of these "real" instruments added depth and emotion to the basic tracks that I sequenced with sampled instruments in Digital Performer.


Since it was filmed here in the Boston area, I was able to attend a few shoots and got a behind the scenes preview of what the movie was about and the look of it. That, along with many discussions with the filmmaker, Eric Stange, helped me formulate a musical style that I thought would work for the film. Peter Rhodes, the editor, also used my music from my library to "temp" certain scenes which was helpful in getting a sense of what they were looking for and what was working.

Watch the full show:

Murder At Harvard from Eric Stange on Vimeo.

A historical who-dunnit set in 1849 Boston, directed and co-written by Eric Stange.

Notes from the Production Music Conference 2017

PMC2017-program

I've been going to the Production Music Conference for a few years now, and the attendance seems to grow exponentially each time. This year the foyer was so packed in between sessions that it was sometimes hard to squeeze through!

The quality of the workshops was great, divided into two tracks (creative and business). I was there primarily for the business angle, as there's always more to learn about sub-publishing, metadata, and the direction of the industry in general.

My daughter Jessie (in training to be the Kusiak Music Library manager) met me in L.A. and we navigated the conference together, sometimes splitting up to catch both sessions. The conference was at the Loews Hollywood and we had 10th floor rooms with views of the Hollywood sign in one direction and the pool and enormous Egyptian-themed mall complex on the other.

John-Kusiak-and-Nathan-DeVore-PMC2017.jpg

All of the panels that we attended had information that Jessie and I could use in developing and improving Kusiak Music Library. The session that stuck with me most was "Gratis and Multi-Title Licensing," which revealed an unfortunate practice that is becoming too common – clients wanting music for free or wanting to share or own the publishing. Pretty disheartening, but we composers need to stick together and resist this development.

It was great to reconnect with Nathan DeVore who was moderating the panel on "Valuing Your Performance License in New Media." Nathan interned for me when he was a student at Berklee College of Music and was a great help and always a positive presence. Glad to see him have so much success with Vanacore Music!

Throwback Thursday: The Gardener

John-Kusiak-1979

When I was younger I struggled with how to make a living in music. I found intervals of success as a performing musician and composer, but with a wife and a child, the pressing needs of a family required me to supplement sporadic music-related income with various odd jobs; taxi driver, house painter, mover, 5 Star Music Masters ghost writer, etc. The usual drill would be: come home from working, often pretty exhausted, and then burn the midnight oil practicing, composing and studying music or playing a gig. This routine would work temporarily, but then, sooner or later, I’d end up resenting (hating) the job and would quit. For a while things would be okay, and I’d be happy to be back making music full-time. Then the money would run out and I’d have to take another “real” job.

Many of my friends and bandmates had decided to throw the towel in on a career in music and went back to school to get a degree in computer science or something more conducive to earning a livelihood. I resisted the drive toward this kind of “plan B” and so at age 32, there I was watering plants in department stores and offices part-time and still composing and practicing guitar whenever I could fit it in. Plant maintenance wasn't a bad job, but it wasn't what I really wanted to be doing. I was disheartened and kind of embarrassed wearing a shirt with a company logo.

Branch

I’m not sure exactly how it happened, but one day, something changed; a shift in my thinking occurred. My attitude changed and with it, my whole life. It might have had something to do with the fact that my father was an avid gardener and though I often tried to avoid helping him in the garden as a kid, some of his love of gardening and expertise with plants must have rubbed off on me. I grew intrigued by the challenge of learning about how to grow things. There was so much to learn about taking care of plants; I started checking books out of the library and reading about plant care (“Crockett’s Victory Garden,Rodale’s series on organic gardening, “The Secret Life of Plants," etc.). As is my wont, I got obsessed with the subject.

One day, as I was caring for the plants at Bloomingdales, I remember saying to myself, “I’m not going to just quit this job. Instead, I’m going to be the very best plant tender I can be.” (Sounds kind of silly, I know.) Along with that thought came the realization that if I threw myself whole-heartedly into the job (while still continuing to practice and study music in my spare time), I’d be able to transcend the job for something better, rather than quit because I couldn’t stand it anymore. Instead, I could “pass through” the job and never have to do that kind of work for money again. In focusing on the present situation and being there completely, I experienced a feeling of certainty that, in the end, I would find a way to make a living in music. 

It took a little time, but that's exactly what happened. I had been a prisoner of my mindset and I had to recognize that fact. Instead of quitting, I had to do the very best I could with the present situation, to accept it, in order to move on and escape my self-created prison.

What happened next is another story…

Have you checked out Crimetown Podcast yet?

If you haven't been listening to the Crimetown podcast, you've got a treat in store. Thirteen episodes have wrapped with five more to come...

Crimetown-podcast-Kusiak-Music

"Welcome to Crimetown, a new series from Gimlet Media and the creators of HBO’s The Jinx. Every season, we’ll investigate the culture of crime in a different American city. First up: Providence, Rhode Island, where organized crime and corruption infected every aspect of public life. This is a story of alliances and betrayals, of heists and stings, of crooked cops and honest mobsters—a story where it’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys. Hosted by Marc Smerling and Zac Stuart-Pontier. New episodes out most Sundays at 2 pm." -- from the Crimetown website

Enjoy the podcast and listen for our music -- tracks from the Kusiak Music Library and some new compositions by John, Andy and Kenny are used in each of the episodes.

Wait, what is the Kusiak Music Library, you may ask?

We've been working to get several decades' worth of Kusiak Music compositions online for easy browsing. There's over 1,250 tracks up so far with more to come; as time goes by and the rights to pieces revert to us, and as we have time to add the bajillions of alternate and otherwise never-used pieces of years gone by we will add more. (Did we mention it's several decades' worth?)

The Kusiak Music Library is invitation-only for now, but feel free to get in touch if you have a project that needs music (many lengths, tempos, moods, and genres available).

Throwback Thursday: Blue Tobin, Part Two

Continued from Part One.

Besides composing music for written poems, there was an even more challenging assignment for which the payment was twice as much ($5/each!): transcribing a song from a cassette of the client singing. The quality of the recordings was often very poor, the pitch of the person’s singing less than stellar, and their rhythm sense often barely discernable. But for ear-training practice, it was peerless. After writing down my best approximation of the composer’s intentions for melody, I added chords, often embellishing the structure and trying to create a complete song from the scraps of melody on the noisy cassette recording.

Working for Five Star Music Masters was never a full-time job for me, just one of the odd jobs along with taxi driving, house painting and flower delivery that I did to keep starvation at bay while trying to land more music performance gigs. If my memory serves me well, my singing partner, Elliot, didn't last more than a week or two on the whole enterprise. He was much more of a purist about music than I and couldn't relate to the job at all. I tried to make the best of it, gathering what skills I could from the work and trying to write the best songs I could for perfect strangers whom I would never meet. Although these "song-poets" often lacked skill, many of their lyrics were heartfelt and I tried to do the best I could with them.

When I finally quit writing for Five Star for good, sometime in 1976 or 1977, I mentioned to the CEO, Lew Tobin that I was playing with my band on The Jazzboat, a popular live concert cruise on Boston Harbor. He showed up to one of our shows with his wife.

John-Kusiak-Jessie-1970s

The title for the two posts in this series, “Blue Tobin,” came from my daughter Jessie, who used to accompany me once a week from our home in Somerville to the downtown Boston Five Star Music Masters offices. We would drive down to the Boston Garden, park along the edge, and walk though the garden to Tremont Street. There I would submit my completed work for the week, pick up my check and sheaf of new assignments. Afterwords, I would take Jessie to a restaurant in the area and we’d have a little lunch. It was a very pleasant outing for father and daughter. Jessie loved it. However, being only 3 or 4 years old at the time, when she heard me refer to the owner, Lew Tobin, filtered through her young ears, she thought I was saying, Blue Tobin. It stuck.

Throwback Thursday: Blue Tobin, Part One

Composers-John-Kusiak-Elliot-Gibbons-1970.jpg

In February of 1971, I had just rented an apartment near Central Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts. With little money and limited prospects, I began searching for work. I was performing in a duo with my good friend, Elliot Gibbons and though we had a agent in New York, the gigs were few and far between.

Likely perusing the classified ads in the Boston Phoenix, we found a posting that said a music publisher was looking for composers to write songs -- for money! Perfect. We were both composers who wrote songs and needed money, so off we went to Tremont Street in Boston to Five Star Music Masters. FSMM was a so-called "song-poem" shop, one of those places that advertised in the back of magazines "looking for lyrics for song and recording consideration."

The owner of the company, Lew Tobin, sat behind a big oak desk and offered Elliot and me a folder each, which contained about 20 sheets of paper, some typed, some handwritten -- with poems that were to be set to music. "Two dollars and fifty cents for each song you set to music and notate on music paper." He said he had a guy from Berklee School of Music who did 80-100 per week. "Come back next week and let me see what you've done."

Elliot and I dutifully set to work on composing. After a week, combined, we had fewer than 8 songs. Hardly an auspicious start; it was obvious that we weren't going to be competing with the Berklee guy. We actually tried to write good songs, not realizing until later that our competition was dashing them off as fast as he could write the notes down. For the most part, the poems were pretty atrocious; unpredictable meter from line to line, little rhyming, and no consistency in verse structure.

In the end, this turned out to be very good practice for songwriting. It was quite challenging, and helped to hone our composition chops. Also, two other necessary skills had to be developed: writing on demand and writing fast, both of which would come in handy when I was later to try composing for film. But that’s another story…

To be continued next Thursday!

Birth of a Movement: The Battle Against America's First Blockbuster

Very timely, given all that's going on in our country at the moment. Kusiak Music was honored to contribute music to this incredible film by Susan Gray and Bestor Cram. 

John Kusiak and director Susan Gray at the premiere.

John Kusiak and director Susan Gray at the premiere.

"Boston, 1915. African-American newspaper editor and activist William Monroe Trotter wages a battle against D.W. Griffith's groundbreaking blockbuster, The Birth of a Nation. An infamous re-inventing of history, friendly to the Ku Klux Klan, Griffith's motion picture unleashes a conflict that still rages today about race relations, censorship, and the power of Hollywood.”

TUNE IN for the broadcast premiere of  Birth of a Movement on PBS Independent Lens on Monday, February 6, 2017 at 10PM nationwide.