Categories: Life & Arts
CAMBRIDGE — Composer Gerald Busby’s music career has been full of detours. How many can say that they started out in their teens writing for piano and with what seemed to be a promising performance career, diverged into a traveling college textbook salesman and later cooked in a New York City eatery before discovering their compositional voice?
“Gerald Busby combines masterful craftsmanship with quirky originality,” said violist Lila Brown, artistic director of Music from Salem and one of the musicians who will play in the world premiere of Busby’s Quartet for piano and strings on Saturday on the opening night of the season. “His work is high-voltage, evocative, rhythmically charged and full of fascinating surprises.”
That’s high praise and not untypical of the many celebrated instrumentalists, dancers and singers who have performed the more than 200 works that have come from Busby’s pencil — now computer.
Among some of the favorite pieces with unusual combinations that fill the shelves of chamber music fans are “Camera for flute, double bass and harpsichord” (1979), “41” for four pianos (2003) and “Variations on a Circus Song for Pipe Organ” (1982).
Busby is famous for his film score for Robert Altman’s “3 Women” (1977), which is on the Criterion Collection of Classic Films; his dance score for Paul Taylor’s “Runes” (1975 and revived in 2004), which was the first in the Dance in America series on PBS’ Great Performances; and his chamber operas with librettist/tenor Craig Lucas, which include “Orpheus in Love” (1988) and “Sleepsong” (1985), which premiered at the Berlin Filmfest.
Busby and Lucas will also be artists-in-residence at the upcoming Dartington Summer Music Festival in Devon, England, where they’ll present several of their theatrical chamber music works, including “Body Ode” for three singers and rhythmic glass eater.
Much of Busby’s music is written for people he knows, which is how the Music from Salem piano quartet happened. About two years ago, he took time from his daily composing schedule to leave his apartment at the famed Chelsea Hotel in New York City to visit two sculptor friends, Gerald Coble and Robert Nunnelley, who live in the Cambridge area. Both friends were longtime supporters of his music, as well as Music from Salem supporters.
During the summer, Brown and her husband, violinist/violist Werner Dickel, stay at their farm in Salem. The rest of the year, they teach and perform in Germany.
Prior to each of the Salem concerts, a free open rehearsal is held at the farm.
“My friends took me to the Brown Farm for one of their open rehearsals and I met Lila and Werner,” Busby said. “I loved it. Because I spoke some German, we got along well.”
As introduction, Busby gave the musicians some of his music to listen to that included a piece for two violas (“Doppelganger for Two Violas”–2004). They liked his music and asked him to write a piece, he said.
The Cambridge Commission funded the new work. In 2000, resident Elizabeth Winship wanted to honor her grandmother, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, who was a patron of chamber music, and commissioned Daniel Adoue to write a piece.
After the concert, Music from Salem fans were so enthralled by the idea that with enough funds a composer could be hired to write a new piece, they pooled their resources for the 2002 season and commissioned composer Allen Shawn.
This officially began the Cambridge Commission. Every two years since, commissions have gone to Gernot Wolfgang and Karl Korte.
“They made no request for the kind of music they wanted,” Busby said. “I decided, rather audaciously, for it to be a piano quartet.”
Usually, he prefers to work with words, which he says ignite his imagination. Perhaps that’s because he has a degree in philosophy, which he received in 1960 from Yale University. And, because he’s never formally taken lessons in composition or orchestration, it may explain why he’s never written a symphony and finds instrumental music harder to write.
“It takes me down a road and I don’t know where it is going,” he said. “But I love that. There’s more thinking involved.”
However, Busby had experience with piano since he had soloed with the Houston Symphony in Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto when he was 17 in 1952. So, he had a handle on the kind of piece he wanted to write, he said. Using piano turned out to be a good choice.
“The piece came flying out. It took three weeks,” he said.
Because he had heard the Salem musicians play at a concert, he knew they would be able to perform anything he wrote.
“It’s emotionally easier to tailor make a piece for somebody,” he said.
Busby will be at the concert and will also attend a free screening of the Altman film at 7 p.m. Friday at the Beacon Feed Freight Building behind Hubbard Hall, where he’ll talk after the movie about how he got his first film score job.
Also on the Saturday concert will be Busby’s “Viola” (1982) for voice, viola and piano, which he said is his most successful work, Beethoven’s Scottish Songs and Mozart’s Piano Quartet in E-flat Major.
Musicians will be mezzo-soprano Mary Nessinger, violinist Judith Eissenberg, violist Lila Brown, cellist Rhonda Rider and pianist Judith Gordon.
Other Music from Salem programs this summer will be:
July 20, 3 p.m.: Mendelssohn String Quintet in A Major; Mozart “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”; Franck Piano Quintet.
Aug. 9, 8 p.m.: Vivaldi “La Folia”; Telemann “Don Quixote Suite”; works by Merula, Biber and Fasch
Aug. 17, 3 p.m.: Messiaen “Quartet for The End of Time”; works by Debussy, Cage, Takemitsu