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Throwback Thursday: The Gardener

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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…

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.

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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

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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!

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...

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"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).

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.

Rosamond Purcell: An Art That Nature Makes (score by John Kusiak)

"Finding unexpected beauty in the discarded and decayed, photographer Rosamond Purcell has developed an oeuvre of work that has garnered international acclaim, graced the pages of National Geographic and over 20 published books, and has enlisted admirers such as Jonathan Safran Foer, Errol Morris and Stephen Jay Gould. AN ART THAT NATURE MAKES details Purcell’s fascination with the natural world – from a mastodon tooth to a hydrocephalic skull – offering insight into her unique way of recontextualizing objects both ordinary and strange into sometimes disturbing but always breathtaking imagery."

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Composers Attend Team Foxcatcher debut at TriBeCa Film Festival

Last week, John and Kenny Kusiak caught up with filmmaker Jon Greenhalgh at the Team Foxcatcher TriBeCa Film Festival premiere. If you've seen Foxcatcher (2014) with Steve Carell and Channing Tatum, this is the true story and even more poignant as it makes frequent use of home video footage from the Shultz family. John composed the score for this moving, well-attended documentary and says he tapped Kenny to compose additional music for "some of the more ambient sections." (Andrew Willis also assisted with with additional music and Rob Jaret helped with orchestration and score preparation.)

During and after the Monday and Tuesday screenings, the Kusiak Music group got to meet Nancy Schultz (wife of slain wrestler and the documentary's focus, Dave Shultz) and other people interviewed for this absorbing film. At one of the after parties we met Bill Ordine, a reporter on the scene who wrote "Fatal Match," a true crime novel about the events. We also had an interesting conversation with Joe McGettigan, the prosecutor in the DuPont trial. Aside from the fun of the film festival scene, the further details and context we got from these conversations was a special treat. All the questions raised from the film about professional sports, propaganda, and wealthy privilege were passionately discussed.

Working with Jon Greenhalgh was a great pleasure and Ben Cotner of Netflix did an amazing job in producing the film. It was great to see so much interest in the film: all four screenings were sold out!

Team Foxcatcher makes its Netflix debut on April 29th. Highly recommended by all of us at Kusiak Music!

Art & Sound Installation Opening Photos

Here's some photos of the opening last Monday. Kenny wasn't able to make the trip from Brooklyn after all, but it was great to see Shelley and to experience the exhibit with the public. Remember this installation will be live until December 14, so check it out in the meantime and let us know what you think!

All photos © Laura Barrett.