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Guest speaking at Boston University: Cinemathèque

Earlier this year I presented a curated selection of my scores for full-length films, documentaries, short films, TV, and commercials to the Cinemathèque series audience.

I wrapped it up with a preview of my invitation-only production music library and took some interesting questions from the students about process and approach.

To get an idea of the composition topics and themes we covered, enjoy this short interview produced by BU:

Learn About Composing for Film & TV: John Kusiak at B.U. on 4/20

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Cinemathèque:
John Kusiak

Friday, April 20th at 7:00PM

Cinemathèque is a series of meetings and conversations with filmmakers and television-makers that includes free screenings of important, innovative films and television programs. These events are free, both to BU students and the general public.

BU CINEMATHEQUE PRESENTS:
AN EVENING WITH JOHN KUSIAK

Friday, April 20th
7:00PM
Boston University College of Communication
640 Comm. Ave, Room 101

"For two decades, Kusiak has been Boston’s most esteemed and prolific film composer, providing brilliant scores for Errol Morris productions, HBO, Netflix, PBS, IFC, and commercials also.

At BU, Kusiak will show select scenes which illustrate how he writes music for media, and how he collaborates with demanding television artists and filmmakers."

View the entire Spring 2018 Schedule.

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!