In the mid 60’s I was a traveling textbook salesman for Random House and Alfred A. Knopf. My territory was the rocky mountain states. Every day after visiting college teachers I would go to the practice rooms in the music school and play any piano that was free. One day at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, I wrote down a piece I had improvised and played it from the score. I looked at it away from the piano and then played it again. It was a good piece. It looked good and it felt good and I was elated. It was an epiphany. I had completed something that I didn’t even know I had begun like walking and walking and walking without knowing where you’re going and then suddenly you’re there. You don’t need anybody to tell you. You just know. But you want somebody to tell you anyway. That’s your ego. (Photo: NewYorkQNews)
Probably the most successful piece I ever wrote was my film score for Robert Altman’s 3 Women. I had a boyfriend who was a unit publicist for the movies, and he knew Altman’s publicist. They all know each other. They’re all experts on movie trivia (though they might hesitate to call it that). They know how many reels there are in Dial M for Murder, how long it took to shoot it, who all the minor character actors were, and that it was originally shot in 3-D. So I sent an audio cassette of some flute music I had written for Michael Parloff (now principal flutist with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra) to Altman through his publicist. The afternoon he received my tape, Altman played it for the group that always gathered in his office at the end of the day. I was one of three composers whose tapes he had. He stood in a corner with a stopwatch and timed how long it took anyone to break the silence. Even if they said, “This is wonderful,” they had stopped listening. The composer whose music was granted the longest silence won. It was mine. Altman’s costume designer, J. Allen Highfill, told me this happened. The next time Altman was in New York he called me and asked me to meet him at Sam Cohen’s office at ICM. For good luck I took the bright yellow plastic briefcase I had bought for five dollars in Canada when I was selling textbooks at the University of Toronto. I don’t think there was anything in it. Altman shook my hand and said he liked my music and asked me if I had ever written a film score. I said no. Had I ever orchestrated or conducted an orchestra? No. Well, can you? Yes. OK, the job’s yours.
I would like to have worked with Antonioni. He used silence musically. I wouldn’t have disturbed his silences; I would have enhanced them.
Most of my performing now is dramatic. I ask writers I know and have worked with before to write me monologues that I perform at the Cornelia Street Cafe on Jed Distler’s series called Serial Underground. I just received one from Maggie Paley called Woman. I play Ellen who’s broken her left ankle getting off a bus and lost her cat. Then in her apartment she breaks her left arm. She’s left handed. I occasionally accompany singers who premiere songs of mine at Cornelia Street. The most recent was a song called Aftercome with a text by David Linter. It’s a scena in which a man who has just had an orgasm with his girlfriend is ruminating about how beautiful she is and how wonderful it is to be alive there then.
I met Virgil Thomson over a meal I cooked for him at a friend’s apartment in Westbeth in 1969. I was still a traveling textbook salesman working for Oxford University Press. I spent the weekends at my friend’s place, and in exchange for board, I cooked. Virgil liked it. He looked at me and said, “This isn’t kiddie stuff.” I had a car and Virgil asked me to drive him out to the Springs to visit some rich people he knew. On the way we went to see Edward Albee at Montauk. He had a large house near the beach. Gym equipment stood prominently displayed beside the swimming pool so that young men could buff their muscles to an appreciative audience. Then we went to a cocktail party on someone’s lawn, and Virgil looked at my cowboy hat and said, “You can’t wear a picture hat here.” I took it off. Virgil and Dwight Macdonald talked about why we were in Vietnam – “Nickel,” Virgil snorted.
The Big Fire at The Chelsea Hotel
Soon after I wrote the score for 3 Women, Robert Altman asked me to play a Baptist preacher in his next movie, A Wedding. After the filming was completed near Chicago, I returned to New York with my new boyfriend Sam and asked Virgil about living in the Chelsea Hotel. He picked up the house phone and called Stanley and said, “This is the kind of person you’re supposed to have here.” Sam and I moved into 1016, just above Virgil’s bedroom. One evening I was cooking and noticed that the flame on the stove was a peculiar color. We all sensed something was wrong and went to the front door and opened it. A dense fog of black smoke rolled into the room, and we raced to the windows for air. Someone on the roof of a building behind the Chelsea yelled “JUMP!” We made our way to Virgil’s apartment, and he answered the door dressed in his finest silk shirt and black pants. “Don’t just stand there,” he said annoyed at our hesitation. He guided us into his living room and, since we were covered with soot, told us to sit on the rug. He brought in Jack Daniels and Jeff Davis pie. When we asked why he was so dressed up, Virgil replied, “I was hoping some of those firemen might come in.” (Copyright 2006 Gerald Busby)
(Gerald Busby, a protegee of Virgil Thomson, has lived in the Chelsea Hotel for 29 years and written most of his music there. He has collaborated with Robert Altman (3 Women), Paul Taylor (Runes), Craig Lucas (Orpheus in Love), and another Chelsea resident, David Linter (Aftercome). Gerald is host of Collaborations, an internet radio show heard on TribecaRadio.net every Tuesday and Thursday at 11 a.m . He interviews other artists with whom he’s worked over the years.)