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Arthur Russell Custer Papers, 1940-1997

Biographical note

Arthur Russell Custer was born in Manchester, Connecticut on April 21, 1923. Custer demonstrated an early interest in music, playing on a piano in the family home as a child. In fifth grade he joined the Manchester Green Grammar School Band as a drummer. At Manchester High School, Custer continued playing drums for the school band, as well as playing in jazz dance bands, an activity he continued throughout his high school and undergraduate years.

Custer graduated from Manchester High School in 1940, and began studying engineering at Hillyer Junior College in Hartford , Connecticut. Around that time he began spending time in Greenwich Village jazz clubs, listening to the music, and picking up several new instruments, including trombone, bass, and saxophone. He also began writing pop songs during this period. In 1942 he graduated Hillyer with an Associate’s degree in Science.

World War II temporarily interrupted Custer’s studies, and from 1942 until 1946 he served in the U.S. Navy as a fighter pilot in the South Pacific, attaining the rank of lieutenant junior grade. After leaving the Navy, Custer returned to college, this time taking up the study of music. He graduated from the University of Connecticut at Storrs in 1949, with a major in music education. Custer worked his way through college by playing in a jazz band which, after he graduated, continued playing together once a year until the 1990s. In 1947, while still at Storrs, he married Marilyn Emmons.

After graduation, rather than pursuing a career in music education, Custer began studying composition at the University of Redlands in California. He studied under Paul Pisk at Redlands, and was instructed in the twelve-tone technique of composition. During this period he wrote the score for a University stage production of Moliere’s “The Doctor in Spite of Himself.” He graduated from Redlands in 1951 with a Master’s degree in Music.

In 1952, Custer took a position as Assistant Professor of Music at Kansas Wesleyan University, becoming the head of the Department of Fine Arts in 1954. He left Kansas Wesleyan in 1955 for a position as Assistant Professor of Music at the University of Omaha, where he acted as Director of Bands, and also taught a course on classical music and composers for the University's pioneer program, "The TV Classroom." This television series offered college credit through broadcast lectures. While at Omaha, he organized a small jazz band, and was a member of the Omaha Composers Group.

Custer began working on his PhD at the University of Iowa in 1956, studying under Philip Bezanson. While a PhD candidate Custer reevaluated his old works, discarding all of his early compositions. He began writing what he considered more serious works, completing several in that year. He finished his dissertation, “Concert Piece for Orchestra and Sextet for Woodwinds and Piano,” in 1959, and was granted his PhD in August of that year.

Upon receiving his PhD, Custer took a position as the Director of the Music Section of the American School in Seville, Spain. While in Spain, he became involved with the community of Spanish composers, becoming a member of the Sociedad General de Autores de Espana, and eventually having several of his compositions, including his “Symphony No. 1” and “Concert Piece for Orchestra,” performed by the Madrid Philharmonic. He also continued his study of composition with Nadia Boulanger in Paris and Fontainebleau. He moved to Madrid in 1960 when he was given the position of Supervisor of Music for the U.S. Air Force Dependent Schools in Spain.

During his time in Spain, 1960-61, he hosted a Sunday morning program, “Music for Music’s Sake,” on Armed Forces radio. Working with the United States Information Service as the music consultant to Casa Americana, he lectured, conducted, and helped to organize a series of concerts of American music, which included a visit by the composer Aaron Copland in June of 1961.

Custer returned to the United States in 1962, becoming the Assistant Dean for Fine Arts at the University of Rhode Island. While in this position, he helped organize the Festival of Contemporary Art at URI in 1963. Custer was also active in the arts community at the state level, holding positions as President of the Rhode Island Music Teacher Association, the Vice-President of the Rhode Island Fine Arts Council, and the Vice-President of the Eastern Division of the Music Teachers National Association. Custer left the University of Rhode Island in 1965 to become the Dean of the Philadelphia Musical Academy. While in Philadelphia, he also held the position of Vice-President of the Philadelphia Composers Forum.

In 1967, he married Delores Borgaard, and they moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where Custer became the Director of a U.S. Office of Education project, the Metropolitan Educational Center in the Arts, that developed arts centers and programs for children in public schools. He also wrote the program notes for the St. Louis Symphony during his time there. He remained in St. Louis until 1970, when he returned to Rhode Island to become the Director of The Arts in Education Project for the Rhode Island Council of the Arts. In 1973 he was named Composer-in-residence for the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts.

Custer gave frequent lectures, wrote many journal articles, and was the visiting composer and guest professor on many college campuses, including the Manhattan School of Music in 1973, Lesley College Graduate School in 1975, and the College of DuPage in 1976. He also developed an arts education workshop, “Explorations,” with pianist Dwight Peltzer.

Custer’s compositions were frequently abstract works that used the serially ordered 12-tone techniques he had learned at the University of Redlands, and also incorporated improvisation and humor. His pieces often used electronic sounds, particularly pre-recorded tape that was integrated into, and sometimes influenced, the performance of the pieces. Custer also incorporated other artistic media into the performance of his compositions. His works were sometimes performed in museums and galleries, and used paintings or sculptures as objects to be expressed as music. Audiences were sometimes asked to assist in his performances by creating artworks, such as Styrofoam forms or painted images on slides, which were then displayed and used as the basis for improvisation by the musicians. Custer had many of his scores published as sheet music, and a number of his compositions were released as LP records.

In the 1970s and 80s, Custer began contracting to publishing and video production companies, writing scores to accompany documentary and dramatic productions for both television and film. Most of these film scores were written for children’s productions, a number of which went on to win awards, including Parent's Choice Awards, Video Magazine Awards, several awards from film festivals, and nominations for Emmy Awards. He also composed music for advertisements and several commercial jingles during this time.

Custer wrote and performed educational songs for children in the 1990s. The songs, which he recorded under the name “Grandpa Art,” were generally about animals and nature, and presented factual information about their topics with an entertaining, jazzy rhythm for children. Custer performed as "Grandpa Art" several times, both in live performances and on television broadcasts.

Arthur Custer died on September 17, 1998 at the age of 75.