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Behind the Kusiaks' background music

John Kusiak, right, with his son, Ben.Joined in music are John Kusiak, right, with his son, Ben.

UPDATED, June 10: The scene is a busy street in New York City in 1910. A piano plays, and we see horses and buggies clip-clopping by as men in top hats and women in long dresses walk by. Chord changes and a background of strings move the action along until the focus is on the brand-new Penn Station. The music swells and horns join in as we see the grandeur of the building. We next see the men who built the station and the musical tempo picks up, not unlike a train gaining speed.


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For the PBS documentary, “The Rise and Fall of Penn Station,” the background music provides mood and feeling. Often overlooked, music made for TV programs, commercials or movies is its own art form, evoking emotion and adding texture without overtaking the subject matter. With no music, the PBS film would have a narrator and scenes of people walking by and a building. But there would be no oomph.

John's 40 years includes 'American Experience'

Arlington composer and musician John Kusiak has been creating the oomph for television, movies and commercials for more than 40 years, writing music for the PBS show “American Experience,” numerous commercials and movies and lately for podcasts. He does it from his home studio equipped with synthesizers, computers and keyboards. His son, Ben, used to wander downstairs to watch his father at work and to listen, sometimes joined by friends from school.

Today Ben Kusiak is also a composer while some of those friends have made their own mark in the world of music. Like his father, Ben writes for commercials and movies and has added podcasts to the mix. In a happy twist, he has occasionally hired his father to help out.

“He could always see me working at home, and he’d sit in the studio sometimes,” said John in a recent interview. “It’s not as if I gave him lessons per se, but he picked it up by osmosis and saw it as a possibility and that maybe it could be fun.”

Ben became Kenny at AHS

Ben’s friends at Arlington High School gave him the nickname Kenny, combining “Ben” with the K of his last name. The name stuck, and he writes music under the name Kenny Kusiak. He has moved on from his dad’s studio to his own, with equipment and instruments filling a bedroom in his Brooklyn apartment while John still works out of his Arlington studio.

Ben has written music for TV and does sound design, mixing and scoring for podcasts, including the popular “Crimetown.” He has also written for films and commercials, such as Casper mattresses as well as Cartoon Network and MTV.

 When Ben was growing up, it was his dad’s studio that got his attention. “As a kid, I would go down there, and he would play us music he had worked on that day. I was observing and absorbing more of it than I even knew.”

Ben was surrounded by music, not only at home but at school. He credits his Arlington High School teachers for encouraging him. At the urging of drama teacher Michael Byrne he acted in a production of “Les Mis” and was recruited by Cheryl Hemenway for the Madrigal Singers.

Ben was surrounded by music, not only at home but at school. He credits his Arlington High School teachers for encouraging him. At the urging of drama teacher Michael Byrne he acted in a production of “Les Mis” and was recruited by Cheryl Hemenway for the Madrigal Singers. He graduated in 2006.

His instrument in high school was guitar, not a traditional band instrument, yet Sabato “Tino” D'Agostino, head of instrumental music, found a way for him to be included, even giving him a solo in “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

D'Agostino's, father's influence

At pep rallies, D'Agostino made sure to include “guitar-driven stuff,” as Ben calls it, such as “Soul Man.” At football games the band played from the stands and Ben joined in using a generator and portable amp. He credits his father with encouraging his high school friends to embark on  musical and other creative careers. It worked: Zach Gresser is a music therapist; Seth Botos is a drummer; Benjy Brooke is a freelance animator who has worked on projects for Netflix. The group, including Kobi Cummings, was in a band in middle and high school and John recorded their CD.  

His father, meanwhile, had played guitar himself earlier in his career and wrote music for the Pousette Dart-Band, of which he was a member. A former Arlington neighbor, Bestor Cram, founder of Northern Light Productions, was making a movie and asked if John would write music for the film. John hasn't looked back.

“I just loved it,” he said. “I thought it was fun plus I've always been very eclectic and was writing music that wasn’t necessarily applicable to the group I was in, and I had a lot of stuff on the shelf. Composing music for films requires you to be eclectic and capable of writing in various styles. And so it was a perfect fit for me.”

Commercials, documentaries

John’s work includes commercials for Visa and Taco Bell as well as the documentaries “The Fog of War” and Tabloid,” directed by Erroll Morris. He wrote the music for Arlington resident Eric Stange’s film “Edgar Allen Poe: Buried Alive.” 

John's music may be in the background but also stands on its own for occasions such as weddings or simply to listen to and enjoy. It is available as sheet music to purchase or as downloads to buy.

Ben says his siblings are also musical. His brother, Jackson, who works in the solar industry, is a good song writer and his sister, Jessie Russo, is an artist and singer and songwriter. “I didn't initially know I was going to do the same work my father does  -- composing for films and television,” said Ben. “But it was very clear that music was a gift he was able to pass on.”


May 5, 2021: Pathbreaking Arlington cartoonist sketched many eras


This news feature by YourArlington co-publisher Marjorie Howard was published Wednesday, June 9, 2021. It was updated June 10, to add web addresses.

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