Born in 1935 in Tyler, Texas, Gerald Busby began his professional career as a pianist at seventeen, performing Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto with the Houston Symphony.
He had been composing for the piano since he was thirteen. To teach himself about other instruments – for he wanted to be able to write for every instrument – he drew on his most vivid childhood memories of hearing orchestral playing. He associated the quintessence of each instrument with a specific work – for example, the English horn with the second movement of Franck’s Symphony in D Minor, the flute with Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe, the horn with Tchaikowsky’s Romeo and Juliet.
He took the same approach when writing for singers, thinking of Schumann’s Dichterliebe and Beethoven’s An Die Ferne Geliebte, sung by Fischer-Dieskau, as “quintessential song cycles”
Another constant source of inspiration for Busby has been his friendships with superb musicians such as flutist Michael Parloff, bassist Donald Palma, harpsichordist Kenneth Cooper and cellist Jerry Grossman. Though he has produced well over 100 compositions – including operas, orchestral works, chamber music, song cycles, solo instrumental pieces, and scores for film, television, dance and theatre – he has never had formal training in composition or orchestration. At Yale University his studies included music theory and history, a course in fugue-writing with Quincy Porter, and piano study with Arthur Hague. But he turned his attention to studying German and reading Kierkegaard, Sartre, Wittgenstein and Heidegger, and majored in philosophy instead of music, graduating with a B.A. in philosophy in 1960.
For the next eight years Busby traveled in the Rocky Mountain region and the Northeast as a college textbook salesman for Random House, Alfred A. Knopf and Oxford University Press. He often returned to New York for weekends with his pianist friends Joe Fennimore and Gordon Hibbard in their Westbeth apartment. He continued to write music, and developed a strong interest in cooking. Sometime in 1969 Fennimore invited the composer and critic (and enthusiastic gourmet) Virgil Thomson to dinner. Busby cooked the meal and Thomson, impressed with the food, said to him, “I want to see how you put things together and turn them into something else.”
Thus began a long friendship, based on food as much as music, which lasted until Thomson’s death in 1989. Thomson frequently asked the younger composer to cook for his famous dinner parties at the Chelsea Hotel, thereby introducing him to a circle of interesting and influential friends. Later he recommended him for Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundation fellowships.
The years 1972-1975 were a turning point for Busby as a composer. Food and friendship again played an important part. By this time he had left the publishing business and settled in New York, and was working as a cook at Ruskay’s, a popular restaurant on Columbus Avenue and 75th Street. He also served as menu consultant and creator of dishes for the fabled Empire Diner when Richard Ruskay opened it in 1975.
On Sunday nights a solo flutist – Michael Parloff, now principal flutist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra – played in the balcony of the main dining room at Ruskay’s. Busby made friends with him and wrote his first published piece, Noumena for Solo Flute (1976), for him. Through Parloff he met other musicians, including Palma, Cooper, Grossman and horn player William Purvis, and wrote pieces for them. As he puts it, “I added instruments as I met friends. They were such virtuosos that there was no limit to what I could ask of them.”
In 1977 Busby wrote his first film score – 3 Women, directed by Robert Altman – and appeared in his first acting role, as the Reverend in Altman’s A Wedding, filmed in Chicago. There he met Sam Byers, an advertising executive, who became not only his longtime companion but also his business and artistic manager, producing three BusbyMusic concerts at Carnegie Recital Hall, among other events. They lived together at the Chelsea Hotel from 1977 until Byers’ death from AIDS in 1994.
Busby still lives and works at the Chelsea, where he is a part of the lively mix of artists and personalities who populate the legendary residence. In recent years he has become a proponent of the Reiki healing modality and also started composing using the Sibelius music notation software. An upcoming project is a cookbook of Virgil Thomson’s favorite recipes.
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