“I’m Very Interested in All Things Ancient:” An Interview with Raphael Fusco

David Johnston


Con Edison 2011-12 Composer in Residence Raphael Fusco

Raphael Fusco took time out of his busy composing/teaching/performing schedule to answer questions on upcoming projects, the state of music studies in Europe, and ancient Sumerian deluge epics. With aliens.

So, your bio says you were composing at age 10.  Were you a prodigy?

As a kid I loved playing piano and making up my own songs.  I’d often deviate from piano lesson plan and in the middle of a Bach prelude or Mozart Sonata I’d have a blast interpolating my own melodies, or themes I heard on TV.   Around age 10 I started improvising and it wasn’t long until I figured out how to notate my musical “doodlings” and write my own pieces from scratch.  The music teacher in my grammar school saw I had talent and put me to work playing organ in church and directing the school musicals.  I later attended Red Bank Regional High School for the Performing Arts and graduated at age 16 to move to Turin, Italy to study composition.  I knew from the first moment I sat at a keyboard that I wanted to be a musician and I was very lucky to have excellent teachers who fostered my curiosity in my formative years.

You studied a lot in Europe – Paris, Turin, Vienna.  Is there a difference between European and American-style conservatory training?

The big difference between the two systems lies in the structure of their programs.  The American system has evolved into an accelerated, four to six year degree granting institution that combines humanities and music curricula.  The European conservatory offers only courses in music and takes place over nine to ten years.  Rather than being graded on regular exams and papers like in America, European students take the time they need to dig deep into their studies and prepare for one final exam at the end of each stage of their program.  Usually a composition student in Italy will take ten years of study and give only six to seven exams.  They’re pretty heavy exams though.  For example, at end of the tenth year of the composition program in Italy they lock the composer in a room with a piano, desk and bed for 36 hours during which he or she must compose a fugue, set of variations on a given theme, small work for orchestra and a set of harmony and counterpoint exercises!  It sounds kind of extreme, but it’s definitely a test that separates the composer from one who just writes music. The general level of musical training is very high in Europe and America, but I believe European programs provide more time dedicated to thorough studies of compositional craft and technique.  At any rate, I believe the experience traveling and studying abroad is invaluable to music students regardless of their nationality.

Is there a difference in new European music and new American? Or are we all global now?

It’s difficult to say.  The advances in technology over the past twenty years have certainly made it easier to communicate and exchange ideas across long distances, so trends that would have once remained isolated to specific regions now have a chance to influence artists of different parts of the world.  Electronic music, for example, had its origins in the European futurist movement of the early 20th century and now it’s huge in the United States.    Rock and Jazz were predominantly American phenomena whose influence also spread worldwide.  The same goes for minimalism.  Right now there’s a tendency towards eclecticism in new music on either side of the Atlantic.  American and European composers are drawing from a much larger array of sounds than once upon a time and each individual voice is redefining the aesthetic boundaries of the past.

Who are the big influences for you?

Since my first compositions I’ve always found inspiration in the communicative language of Baroque music, especially that of Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Rameau, Monteverdi, Corelli and friends. I love the neoclassicism of Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Ravel, Bartok, Poulenc and admire how they used ideas and sounds of the past as a point of departure for new works.  I’ve always played a lot of jazz and its rich harmonies show up in my music.  Leonard Bernstein’s fluency in popular and classical idioms as a performer, composer, and conductor set an example for me as the paradigm of the complete musician.  He showed me that it isn’t enough to just write in one genre or just play or just teach.  To be a true musician you need it all.

You’re working with poet Ryan Vine on an opera based on an “ancient Sumerian deluge epic.”  Tell us about that.  How did you get involved in that? It sounds pretty wild.

I’m very interested in all things ancient and in terms of civilizations you’d be hard pressed to find one older than the Sumerians.  I discovered their vivid, quasi sci-fi mythology through the writings of the late Zacharia Sitchin.   The libretto, co-written by myself and the gifted poet Ryan Vine, is based on English translations from the original cuneiform tablets as well as excerpts from the Old Testament of the Bible and the Koran. The story highlights the influence of earlier traditions on the Genesis narrative and brings to light a fantastic new myth involving ancient aliens whose role in the creation of man is quite shocking and unorthodox. Atrahasis, the Akkadian Noah, is an epic tale that examines the relationship between man and the gods and offers a fantastic view of man’s origins.

Ryan and I met last year and collaborated on “Unsolicited Advice: Four Rules of Your Pal Ward” which was commissioned for the Sanctuary Project by the excellent new music ensemble Lunatics at Large.  His poetry is deep, honest, and very communicative.   As artists we come from a similar place in that we both try to use our art to speak directly to readers in an accessible but artful language.  I’m very excited to collaborate with him again.

What’s your work routine like? Do you compose every day?

In addition to composing I’m active as a performer, teacher, and vocal coach but I always find time to compose.  Whether or not it gets written down or recorded is another story.  Even if I’m not sitting at my desk to write I’m constantly churning over ideas in my head.   Sometimes I’ll improvise at the keyboard until I find something I like and then compose out my ideas until a musical narrative starts to take shape.  Sometimes I can finish a piece in a matter of days and sometimes a piece can take two years.  One of my favorite things about writing is when you look up for a second and notice that somehow six hours just passed.  It really does transport you to some other realm (or time zone at least).

You’ve got this space at Turtle Bay Music School for the next three months.  What are you looking forward to with this residency?

I’m very excited to have a workspace in Turtle Bay to compose, improvise and rehearse my works.  I have several performances coming up in the next three months and having a place to prepare is invaluable.  One of the projects I’m involved with is my dueling/collaborative piano duo MAJOR KEYS with jazz pianist Kurt Thum.  We give new takes on jazz standards, write original tunes and collaborate on free improvisations.  Thanks to Turtle Bay we have a rare opportunity to rehearse on two real acoustic pianos.  It makes a world of a difference!  At the end of my residency I am planning to give an interactive performance lecture on improvisation.  Turtle Bay fosters a lot of talent and I am looking forward to opening the students’ ears and minds to the art of improvisation and giving them some tools to help them express themselves their own music.

What’s next?

Currently I’m writing for a bunch of new commissions.   I love writing for period instruments and one of my projects is a new piece for two arch lutes commissioned by Duo Caminiti – Arnone. The duo is based in Basel, Switzerland and is planning on recording the work and touring it throughout Switzerland and Italy in 2012.  I’m also working on a flute sonata for principal flautist of the Metropolitan Opera, Stefan Hoskuldsson and an album of piano and harpsichord improvisations.  Underneath my manuscripts there are a few applications to some big competitions and doctoral programs in the US and abroad.  It’s going to be an exciting season!

Want to listen to Raphael’s music? Check out his website.






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