He’ll “Keep Yappin,’” but Don’t Call Him an Activist: An Interview with Composer Raphael Fusco

On October 1, a rare musical gem crossed the desk at Trax on the Trail. That gem was a canon à four, inspired by some of Joe Biden’s key phrases from the September 29, 2020 presidential debate. As luck would have it, the composer, Raphael Fusco, was more than happy to share with Trax on the Trail the backstory of his now famous creation. We also encourage the Trax community to join us for a virtual performance of Mr. Fusco’s American Requiem on November 2, 2020.

Raphael Fusco, An American Requiem

Dana Gorzelany-Mostak: So, to begin, could you just tell us a little bit about your background?

Raphael Fusco: Sure. I was born in New Jersey on the Jersey shore to an Italian American family. My father works in construction, so there wasn’t a whole lot of classical music, actually, any classical music at all growing up. There was a lot of classic rock, a lot of everything from the Rolling Stones to Led Zeppelin, Billy Joel, and Elton John. The Beatles, of course. Eventually I was eight, and I was into video games. Super Nintendo was really big. I was born in the 80s, and I got this keyboard [Miracle Piano Teaching System] which plugged into the Super Nintendo, and that was the first time I started, like, taking music lessons, but it was with a computer. And I loved it because there was this jam band in the background, and it taught you how to read music. When you play the wrong note, the screen goes red, like you know, Mary loses a life or something <laughing>. And at the very end of it, there’s “Celebration,” like <singing> “Celebrate good times, come on!”

So, I beat the game. And then as the video games went on, I started to learn how to read [music], and then I started writing down the video game music and telling other people I wrote it, especially girls in like 5th grade who weren’t impressed. I started taking formal piano lessons with jazz and rock musicians when I was around nine, and then I really wanted to do the classical stuff. I started taking piano lessons. I was reading from lead sheets and improvising before I was actually playing Mozart and then, eventually, I went the classical route, and my teacher sent me to the Manhattan School of Music where I was taking lessons. I was thirteen or fourteen, studying composition, conducting, and piano, but I liked making my own stuff up more than playing the stuff on the page. So, I went the composition route. I was sixteen, graduated from high school, and moved to Italy where my family came from originally. I lived by myself, got a job teaching English, studied at the Conservatory, came back when I was eighteen and studied at the Mannes College of Music [Mannes School of Music]. I graduated from college and then started working—any gig just to pay the rent. Commissions started coming in, a lot of vocal music, a lot of choral music, and then I got some jobs in churches as an organist which I loved, because I always loved the Baroque stuff. And then somehow, like ten years passed in New York really quickly after college, and I ended up moving to Munich to be with my wife, Eva Maria Summerer, a German mezzo-soprano. About a year ago I landed the tenure job here at the University of Graz teaching in the opera department. […] We just premiered an opera on Saturday night, and there’s eighteen different click tracks being sent over radio, all with different tempi, quarter note 79.674, quarter note 83.249 etc.

DGM: Well, compared to what you’re describing, your music is positively traditional and organic. <laughing>

RF: Yeah, I like melodies! I like harmonies. I think there’s still a lot more that we can do with them, especially moving forward as the audience itself branches out from old white-haired ladies to whoever’s watching YouTube. Rather than excluding people and saying “Look at my philosophy and my whatever, how different I have to be, how I have to just be new for the sake of new,” how about bringing all this great stuff out there together in a way that nobody’s done in the past 2,000 years of music making? 

Sarah Griffin: Okay, so how would you describe your compositional style?

RF: Versatile and eclectic in the sense that I have a lot of different hats according to the type of gig that I’m writing for. I do get a lot of commissions, so I’m very lucky that people want to hear my music. It’s always based on what the person performing it needs. Like if there’s a modern music ensemble performing or a church group. It’s two very different styles of music that I’d be writing, so generally the music that I have written tends toward tonal, lyric melodies with harmonies that bring together jazz and pop sounds. I was born in ’84, and we had the best cartoon and commercial jingles.

DGM: And Ronald Reagan!

RF: And Ronald Reagan. <laughing> Somehow we survived that. <laughing> I’m very much inspired by traditional forms and structures—counterpoint and voice leading is essential. How harmony comes from lines moving in their own way. I love theme and variations. I love sonata form because you see contrast, and how we take two opposing forces, bring them together, turn them upside down, make them one, and reconcile. I’m also very deeply interested in music of the past. I play a lot of early music, like I said, harpsichord, organ, and I’ve written a lot of music for old instruments in a new style. Whereas a lot of composers are trying to find new sounds and technology and things that plug in, I’m looking for gut strings, and early tuning systems. At the same time, within a tonal piece, I like to get dramatic and atonal and serious and dissonant, polytonal, bringing dissonant sonorities together so that there is always an arc of tension and release. There’s always been a mission of mine to bring classical music—what’s great about classical music—to non-classically oriented people, and to bring what’s great about pop and rock to classically-oriented people. My music kind of goes both ways like that and tries to capture the best of all the worlds and bring it together. 

DGM: You should write sort of like an ‘80s hair band-inspired anthem, but for recorder consort. 

RF: Ah! <laughing> Yeah.

DGM: I’d really want to play that! <laughing> So your oeuvre includes a good number of vocal works that have set a diverse group of texts. These are just a few: Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Horace, Shakespeare, Rainer Maria Rilke, Buddha, Ghandi, and…Joe Biden. That is to say, your recent piece, “Will You Shut Up, Man,” although clearly in the fusion pop-jazz-baroque style that you are known for, is clearly a departure from the tone of the bulk of your compositions. Can you speak a bit about your compositional approach in this work and what inspired it?

RF: Sure. So when the lockdown first happened here, around May in Austria, I decided since all the lessons were happening on Zoom, that I would see if I could go back to America and work from there. I had two months being with my family, which was the first time since I was 15. I looked for as many possible ways to spend time at the piano as I could. <laughing> And one of them was practicing Hanon [The Virtuoso Pianist in Sixty Exercises] every day, books 1 and 2, trying to keep my fingers in shape, and improvising fugues and canons on given subjects, just to keep my ear and my brain going as little warm-ups. One day I turned on Facebook, and everybody on their page or posts has “person,” “woman,” “man,” “camera,” “TV” and I was like, “What’s everybody talking about?” I Google it, and then I see this Trump interview, and I was like, “Oh my God.” I was like, “What would happen if I just wrote a little canon on these words?” [It] just took ten minutes. My wife thought it was really funny and thought I should record it. So I sang it, put a score together, and put it up on YouTube. 1,000 people liked it, and I was like “Oh, that’s cute, okay. Cool.” And then people were like, “Oh, do another one!” and then hydroxychloroquine was a big thing, so I was like, “Alright, let’s put that to work.” And then, like 5,000 people liked it. I did a couple other runs, just as like morning warm-up things, not serious compositions, not intended for anybody other than my music nerd friends because who has time for this? Somebody who is in lockdown? 

Raphael Fusco, Person, Woman, Man, Camera, TV
Raphael Fusco, Hydroxychloroquine – Demon Sperm

DGM: Or nerds who track campaign music! <laughing>

RF: Exactly! <laughing> And so, I saw the debate, and was extremely disappointed, as I’ve been just about politics in general in America. “Keep yappin’”? “Wow, that’s not something you hear every day in a debate. Then I thought of other words from the debate that could also work in canon. I wrote it in ten minutes and recorded it, which took forever with the plugging things in and computer crashing. I put it up online, and I’m teaching, and my phone is going off like just “Buh-buh-buh-buh-buh-buh-buh,” and I think I had like 40,000 views in the first day that it was up. I was like, “What the hell is that?” I would have tried to sing in tune if I knew that many people were going to hear it. The next day I got another 40,000 [hits]. Day three, it’s at 120 [thousand], and I was like, “How the hell is this going off like this?” Then people are like, “Yeah, I love your music, man,” and I was like, “Well have you heard anything else?” They’re like, “No, but the canon’s great.” It took off and then I was like “Okay, I’m going to quit while I’m ahead….I’m out of the canon business.” Then, I wake up after the presidential debate, and I have all these messages in my inbox saying, “Hey, are you going to write something with this ‘I’m speaking.’” I wasn’t going to do it, but it’s 6:30 in the morning, my wife’s sleeping, I can do it, I’m having my coffee, alright, let’s do one. I did the “I’m speaking” and then I saw the fly, so I was like, “Oh. ‘Shoo Fly.’” [“I’m speaking” includes a musical quotation of “Shoe Fly.”] I don’t know if that’s like my one hit wonder or my claim to fame, but it’s definitely not what I got into composing for. 

Raphael Fusco, “Will You Shut Up, Man”
Raphael Fusco, “I’m Speaking”

DGM: Has anybody famous reached out to you? Has the news reached out to you? Has anybody, as a result of this, wanted to talk to you who maybe wouldn’t normally reach out otherwise?

RF: Famous people, no, but a lot of choirs and singers said, “Can I have the score?” I have an opera that was supposed to be performed in July at the Opernfestival Oberpfalz, and now it’s been moved to next July, and I started a GoFundMe to raise money for the orchestra because it was just going to be piano. So anyway, I was like, “Alright, I’ll send you guys these scores if you consider making a donation for my thing.” So anyway, I’ve got like twenty choirs in America that are recording it, that are doing it in Central Park as part of a protest. 

I wish some of my other serious music would also get that type of attention. There’s one thing it did kind of help a little bit. I wrote a Requiem, an American Requiem four years ago, after a series of shootings. We’re doing a virtual choir performance on All Souls’ Day, November 2nd, right before the election. With all the deaths from COVID, with all the civil unrest in the country, and people getting angrier and angrier, I don’t feel like there’s empathy and the respect that there should be right now for all the people who have lost their lives. How can we, in a meaningful way, especially at a time of the election, put together a performance of a piece of music that is relevant, meaningful? My [American] Requiem, brings in a lot of gospel, a lot of American spirituals, American pop, pentatonic scales all around, and brings all this stuff together with the classical music and the traditional requiem, but in English. Thanks to the Biden and the Trump canons and all this stuff, people were ready and excited to help and join this virtual choir performance. I think something like the American Requiem will give us the healing and the positive vibes that we kind of need during this time.

DGM: It’s such a great thing that you’ve put the canons out there. In this day and age, in order to get your work noticed, sometimes you kind of need a gimmick, if you will.

SG: What sorts of messages do you hope to convey through your compositions? 

RF: I think the central message of my music, regardless of the style that I’m writing in, or the project, is religion, but not in the sense of Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, but rather to “rilegare”—“to reconnect,” to connect to something bigger, whether that’s to a godhead figure, or mythology, or something spiritual. We’re all looking to connect to something else and we just call it different things because it helps us to identify better. I think that for me, when I compose, there’s always the question of “What are we connecting to?” 

DGM: That’s definitely a thread that one can trace through your works, in that each of the authors you’re setting speak of the human experience with such subtly and sensitivity in a way, so I can see now why these particular authors were compelling to you because they do share that trait. From what I can see, you avoid overt political messaging in your music. It’s clear that at least in “Keep Yappin’,” you are in some way mocking what happened at the debate—the fact that President Trump tends to talk a lot. Do you feel that composing a political work puts you at risk in some way? Do you think the fact you wrote these canons may be alienating to some of your fans who hold more traditional views? 

RF: I try to stay out of politics and music because politics by nature, if not always, at least in my 36 years here, is divisive and that goes against my wanting to reconnect. I try to keep the politics out of my art, and I think that we need human activism. We need empathy, and we need to talk and discuss more. 

SG: So what role do you think musicians can play in political campaigns, so this is to mean, do you see yourself as an activist in any sort of way?

RF: I see myself not as an activist, but as a voice of reason or as the mover of voices of reason because as a composer, my job is to write music that [gives performers] something to communicate. Again, that goes beyond politics and talks about the human experience, and reconnects people. […] Music doesn’t change anybody’s politics. It’s not like there’s going to be a pro-life Trump supporter who’s like, “Oh, did you hear Yo-Yo Ma play the cello suite? I’m going to vote for Biden now.” Is it a political stunt? I don’t know. But I feel like it lessens, it cheapens the power of music, and since we’re so distracted from the important topics, the important conversations, I feel like it’s a cop-out when musicians become politically active without raising awareness of the topics themselves because they’re just feeding in to further this tug of war thing.

DGM: Well Raphael, you’ve been a joy to talk to! You’re really super insightful! This is all really, really terrific. Really terrific stuff. We’re super impressed with your work, and we’re still really dumbfounded you’re talking to us! <laughing>. Thank you again so much.

SG: Thank you. 

RF: Great, thanks. Take care now!

Please check out Raphael’s website here.

And the GoFundMe to support the upcoming premiere of his opera InSOMNIA.

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