One of New York’s more delightful, witty, and ebullient gay composers, Gerald Busby, will mark his 70th birthday with a December 18 concert of new works in Weill Recital Hall. The longtime friend of composer/critic Virgil Thomson is recognized for his scores for Paul Taylor Dance Company’s “Runes,” and Robert Altman’s film “3 Women.”
In 1969, while Busby was staying with friends in the West Village, composer Joe Fennimore invited Virgil Thomson over to impress him with Busby’s music and cooking.
“It turned out that the only thing that Virgil liked was the food,” Busby laughingly told Gay City News. “
Busby gladly cooked for his new friend, and sometimes drove him places he needed to go. Together they visited Edward Albee’s house in Montauk, admiring the young hustler types lifting weights and posing beside the pool. As guests came to Virgil’s for dinner, Busby met Lou Harrison, Vladimir Nabokov, Philip Johnson—a huge list of brilliant creators.
Thomson then gave Busby some strong advice.
“You’ve got to have something practical,” he told the handsome young man. “You can compose. I like your music, but you can’t expect to be loved just because you’re talented. You’ve got to have some way to make a living.”
Thomson introduced Busby to his rich friends. One, Cynthia O’Neil, had established a “how to do” coterie for the rich and famous. Through O’Neil, Busby became piano teacher to the wealthy and gifted. He taught Adolph Green’s children, and gave lessons to Leonard Bernstein’s daughter Nina for about five years. Occasionally he cooked for the Bernstein family, and participated in extemporaneous family performances. He also cooked at Ruskay’s, a Columbus Avenue restaurant.
Thanks to an introduction from Rudolf Nureyev’s lover, Wallace Potts, the self-taught composer gave a tape of his music to Paul Taylor. Thus came the “Runes” commission that put him on the map and encouraged him to move on from teaching piano.
In 1977, while near Chicago filming a role in Robert Altman’s “A Wedding,” the 42-year old composer met the love of his life, Sam Byers, 27. When shooting concluded, Busby and Byers moved into New York’s Chelsea Hotel, where Thomson lived and held court.
For a while, the couple lived right above Thomson’s bedroom. Then they moved to room 510, their apartment for 17 years, and invited Virgil almost weekly for Saturday night dinners. The circle of connections continued to grow.
Busby soon began creating theatrical chamber music. His fascinating “Parallel: Suite for 2 harpsichords and 2 Gymnasts on Parallel Bars,” was recorded in 1980 but first released this fall on “Music of Gerald Busby” (Innova 622).
“I wanted to engage people visually in my music,” Busby explained, “so they wouldn’t think that it was modern music and go into their heads trying to figure it out instead of listening. I decided to give them something interesting to look at as an alternative.”
Another theatrical chamber work, a 30-minute piece for tap dancer and snare drummer based on Marine boot camp training, scored a big success when a film version screened at the Berlin Film Festival. Busby also undertook a sold-out collaboration with his friend Craig Lucas. The two have also collaborated on two operas, “Orpheus in Love”, which ran for two months at Circle Repertory Theater in 1992, and “Breedlove,” as yet unfinished.
Although Busby continued to write music—baritone Thomas Hampson even recorded one of his songs on his Whitman album—while cooking and advising restaurants on their menus, no other big commissions came. He’s not sure why.
“One film director told me that my music is so strong emotionally that filmmakers shy away from it because they’re afraid it’s going to take over their movie,” he said. “Altman was the only one who had the courage to say, ‘Here, do anything you want.’ For others, it was emotionally too powerful.”
Busby experienced resentment and even depression over his lack of recognition and commissions. His recent mastery of Reiki healing, which he practices daily on himself, and his experience with a technique known as Mindfulness Training have allowed him, in his words, “to let go, write the best music I can write, and be happy about it.”
Busby and Byers continued their friendship with Thompson. As Thompson grew increasingly frail, Busby not only baked for him but also helped him clean up, dress, and undress.
The couple tested HIV-positive in 1985, four years before Virgil died at the age of 92. When Byers became seriously ill at the beginning of 1993, Busby turned to cocaine to anesthetize himself. By the time Byers died in December, Busby was $100,000 in debt.
After trying to kill himself with cocaine, Busby went in and out of recovery until finally kicking the habit. He composed nothing between 1995 and 2001.
Then new miracles occurred. Jody Dalton of the Estate Project for Artists with AIDS rescued Busby just as he was on the verge of eviction from the Chelsea Hotel. Lesbian pianist Nurit Tilles was engaged to sort through Busby’s music and help reorganize his life. Dalton became a mentor of sorts. He arranged a phenomenal Estate Project artists’ concert and panel at the Guggenheim, the latter moderated by John Corigliano, where Busby’s music was heard alongside that of Fred Hersch and other greats.
Multiple commissions followed and Busby’s T-cell count rose from 80 to 700.
After he was given the Sibelius computer program for composing music, he began writing like crazy. His duet for violas, “Doppelgänger,” recently received a brilliant recording from Scott Slapin and Tanya Soloman (Eroica JDT 3250). Since assembling his 70th birthday program of new works, including two explicitly gay song cycles, he has composed 20 additional pieces, including a set of variations on the Mister Softee ice cream truck jingle.
Busby has also begun performing monologues about his life monthly at the Cornelia Street Café, and is setting to work on the “Virgil Thomson Cookbook.” Featuring priceless recipes Thomson bequeathed to him, it will also include stories from Thomson and Busby’s lives. There’s a good chance it will become the “Alice B. Toklas Cookbook” of the 21st Century.
“Back in my early composing days, “Busby confessed, “I was terribly concerned with peer approval—was I sounding right? Now I write exactly what I want without any consideration for anything except emotional satisfaction. ‘Does this really express something?’ is my only concern.
“For the first time in my life, I’ve burst into tears as I’ve concluded several pieces because I’ve written exactly what I wanted to say. I’ve felt I couldn’t do it any better. It’s as though I’ve been waiting all my life to express this.”