Joshua Geisler's Blog

Joshua Geisler plays the Bansuri, the North Indian Bamboo Flute, with a flowing, highly ornamented style that effortlessly weaves together Indian Classical Music and Jazz. With roots in both East and West, his music is both experimental and grounded in traditional training. The result conveys the essence of the mystical traditions of India yet is accessible to modern ears. He has innovated both the playing technique and construction of his instrument, and his work has received funding from the American Institute of Indian Studies and the New York State Council for the Arts. Joshua attended the Berklee College of Music, where he developed an interest in the World music while exploring meditation and spirituality. To incorporate these interests, he began learning the bansuri. He has studied North Indian Classical music with the great American bansuri master, Steve Gorn, and made multiple trips to India to study with Pandit Raghunath Seth, a living legend of Indian flute playing. Recently, he has been learning with Varanasi-based Sarod maestro Pandit Vikash Maharaj, a 14th-generation master musician. Visit Joshuas' website.


India Trip 2010 and Learning From Other Instruments Part One

2010 March 28
by Joshua Geisler

Hello again, Flute Portal! It’s been a while since my last post, but a very interesting and eventful time…details to follow in successive posts. For now, I’m going to talk a little about my recent trip to India and share some creative ideas.

In early February I traveled to Varanasi, India, where I was staying in the home of my teacher, Pandit Vikash Maharaj. a maestro of the Sarod (a fretless, plucked-string instrument more akin to the guitar than the flute). I originally sought his guidance in 2001 to learn how to apply Indian melodic ideas to my guitar playing. In the last several years, however, I’ve been working on applying sarod-style techniques to bansuri playing. The process brings up some very interesting ideas that I think anyone can apply to their own studies.

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When playing any instrument, there are phrases that seem to come naturally as a result of the way that the human hand interfaces with the physical tasks involved with making music on it. I think it’s a good idea to learn to make the most out the types of ideas that come naturally on your instrument. I also think it’s a good idea to try to break out of your patterns by emulating the styles of other instruments. At Berklee College of Music, we were encouraged to learn saxophone and piano riffs on guitar as a way of expanding our melodic vocabulary beyond the usual “guitaristic” types of ideas. When I started learning bansuri with Vikash Maharaj, I decided to try to apply the same concept to bansuri playing.

Sarod players use only two fingers of their left hand for playing notes on the fingerboard. This is a self-imposed limitation that actually leads to enormous creativity. While deprived of the guitar-like ability to play complex shapes that are only possible with all four fingers, sarod players compensate by developing a very complex rhythmic language enabled by a fierce right-hand picking technique. Simply put, sarod style is fewer notes played with incredible rhythm.

Lets say that you’re going to play on one string with only two fingers. For the purposes of this example, let’s ignore the fact that you can play up and down the fingerboard. Thus, you would have the open string (no fingers) and two more notes that you can add (one for each finger). How many ways can you play those 3 notes? Let’s take a look at how complex this can actually be. Try choosing 3 notes on your flute and playing through each line below, with each note given equal duration (i.e. all 8th notes). Go at whatever speed you’re comfortable with and repeat each line several times before moving on:

11111112
11111121
11111211
11112111
11121111
11211111
12111111
21111111

11111212
11112121
11121211
11212111
12121111
21211111

11112113
11121131
11211311
12113111
21131111

Notice how each rhythm feels different? Which ones sound good to you? Now try again and substitute 3 for 2 and 2 for 3. Or substitute 3 for 1. Or chop off the last note and work with 7 beat phrases (or 6 or 5 or 13 for that matter). All of a sudden the permutations multiply and endless combinations become possible – with only 3 notes! And this is really just the beginning of the kinds of patterns you can explore. Make up your own and try them!

One favorite of mine is to use the rhythmic template of 3 beats + 3 beats + 2 beats as in:

12312312
13213212
12313212
13212312

12212212
13313313
12213312
etc.

Turn them upside down and it sounds like this:

32132132
31231232
32131232
31232132

32232232
31131131
32231132
etc.

You can also try them backwards or upside down and backwards…and any other way you can think of!

The idea of all of this is not to reduce music to a math problem. The point is to use your brain to create variations of an idea, then try them and see how they sound. Most of them you will forget, but a few of them will stick and become part of your vocabulary. With practice, you will be able to improvise with these kinds of ideas in a real-time musical environment – often with very satisfying results. When you start with a simple concept and explore variations of it within an improvisational paragraph, the other musicians and the listeners can follow your thought process easily and you will have communicated something. When that energy comes back to you amplified through the creativity of the other musicians and the feelings of the audience, that’s what we live for!

I hope you find this useful and inspiring. If so, please let me know, and I’ll be sure to follow up with more. In my next post, I’ll get into applying sarod-style right-hand techniques to flute playing as well as telling some more about my trip and some exciting career developments that have taken place very recently.

The Flute and Global Fusion

2009 December 13
by Joshua Geisler

In his comment on my first post, Paul Van Heuklom said, “Your thoughts and experience with the fusion and global aspects of music and flute playing are much appreciated and welcomed. I, for one, am very interested in ideas about transcending particular genres, conventions, and cultures–without losing sight of them in the process.” Thanks, Paul, that’s where I’m going to begin. What is our role as a flute player in a fusion context, and how can we best fill it? I think in order answer to that question, we should begin by asking two more questions. “What features do most styles of music have in common?” And “What are the distinguishing factors that define any given style of music?”
Let’s start with the common elements. We play flute, so melody is the obvious starting point. Then there’s harmonic environment (chord changes, modal, or dronal), rhythm (in or out of time, swing or straight feel, etc.), dynamic range (loud and soft), and texture and tone quality. Each of these broad categories has its own qualities of ebb and flow, yin and yang, tension and release, branching off into infinite variations. As a flute player playing “global” music we should start by understanding the basic elements of music itself.
There’s an obvious relationship between melody and harmonic environment. For example, if the harmony is a C major chord, we know that the “resting” or consonant notes in a melody will be the chord tones C, E, and G. Adding non-chord tones will “spice up the soup” in accordance with their individual properties. This has nothing to do with musical style. Somehow, we all perceive those notes in that way. Likewise, a loud bass tone makes us want to move our body. Think about it; if you hear a loud bass tone in the middle of the jungle, it means that something really big and close to you is moving around—get ready to run! Thus, we should take into consideration that the human organism is equipped with a set of perceptual equipment that fundamentally characterizes the way we interact with the world. Varying musical styles stimulate subtle (or not-so-subtle) differences in what we perceive, but they don’t alter the fact that we have ears connected to a brain that interprets information according to its evolutionary design. Therefore, knowledge of the fundamentals of music and how they interact with human cognition is paramount.

A quote from Bruce Lee:

“I hope martial artists are more interested in the root of martial arts and not the different decorative branches, flowers, or leaves. It is futile to argue as to which single leaf, which design of branches, or which single flower you like; when you understand the root, you understand all its blossoming.”

With regard to playing within any given style of music, we must be familiar with the specific features of that style. In his book, “This is Your Brain on Music: the Science of a Human Obsession”, Daniel J. Levinton describes something called a “schema”, which is a mental model that your brain uses to identify and categorize. Imagine flipping through the radio looking for something to listen to. If you hear a ride cymbal and walking bass with a piano solo, your brain says “jazz”. People can argue endlessly about what jazz is or isn’t, but generally speaking, we all know it when we hear it. That’s because we have a schema in our brain for “jazz”. This accounts for the spark of recognition we experience when we hear something new, but familiar. If the music is totally unusual from the listener’s standpoint, they have a hard time understanding it, because there is no schema to help them interpret it. But if the music is too familiar and predictable, it’s boring. One of the challenges of being an artist is to provide that recognition, the activation of the schema, without being boring or predictable. Familiar with a twist is a good formula for making captivating music.
What this means if we want to “transcend a genre without losing sight of it” is that we need to activate the schema for that genre in the listener while using our knowledge of the fundamentals of music to provide a different context or element that works harmoniously with the essentials of the style. For example, many traditional modal or dronal styles of music use the minor pentatonic scale (C Eb F G Bb in the key of C). If you were to play a traditional melody in that scale, then it would activate the schema associated with it. What would happen, though, if you put different chords behind that melody, besides C minor? C sus, F minor 9, F sus, Eb major 6, Ab major 7, Bb sus, and Db major 7 #11 will all change the way you hear the C minor pentatonic scale, even though the melody itself is unchanged from its traditional form. Thus, the same melody will activate the schema for its tradition, while the new chords simultaneously expand on it in a way that works. This is a very simple example, but the general principle can be extrapolated and applied to other specifics.
It gets more complicated in real-world practice. Sometimes fusion leads to confusion. I could speak the most eloquent poetry on the nature of the soul, but if you don’t understand my language, it just sounds like nonsense. You can’t just throw an Indian sitarist on a stage with an African drummer, a jazz piano player, a techno DJ, a mariachi, and a Bulgarian women’s choir and expect it to work without effort. I’ve been in situations like that, and no one comes away happy with the result. That’s why in my opinion, it really helps to make the effort to truly understand other styles of music.
It reminds me of when Arturo Sandoval came to do a master class when I was at Berklee. He’s a trumpet virtuoso, but also plays great jazz piano. I asked him, “How do you approach being a multi-instrumentalist?” His answer was so simple and true. “If you want to play two, practice twice.”

Welcome

2009 December 7
by Joshua Geisler

Hello, everyone! It’s great to be here and I’d like to thank Geoffrey for the opportunity to blog on this site. I’m so happy to find such a vibrant community of flute enthusiasts gathered in one virtual place. Let me begin by introducing myself.
I’ve been a musician all of my life, but my journey with the bansuri flute began in 1997 while I was attending Berklee College of Music. Despite my lack of technical ability as a flute player in those early days, I felt deeply that there was a special quality to this instrument, as the intensity of my musical experience was greater than it ever was on the guitar, on which I had a fairly well-developed skill set. How then could I not follow and see where that would lead? I was referred to Steve Gorn for lessons and after graduation, I moved to upstate New York to learn with him. This was followed by two trips to India to study with the great Pandit Raghunath Seth in Mumbai. Both have been inspired teachers, mentors, and friends whose guidance has been invaluable to my growth as a musician and more importantly as a human being. In 2006, I was awarded a fellowship from the American Institute for Indian Studies, which brought me back to India three more times in successive years to study. On my most recent journey, I was staying in the house of Pandit Vikash Maharaj, a great sarod player, and received intensive training from him. It was a great challenge to try and adapt sarod music to the bansuri, one which really helped me improve my technique and expand my concept of what was possible on the instrument (a potential future blog topic, perhaps?). When I’m not traveling, I make my home in Brooklyn, New York, where I work as a freelance musician.
New York City is a place of incredible cultural diversity. What is so interesting is that all kinds of cross-cultural collaborations are taking place here every day. The concept of musical fusion is as old as civilization itself. Throughout history, musical ideas have traveled with merchants, soldiers, nomads, and immigrants to new places where they have combined with native forms to produce new idioms. Indeed, North Indian Classical music itself is the product of a meeting between indigenous Indian music with the music of Muslim invaders. This clash of cultures resulted not only in a new musical style but new instruments as well. Innovation is at the heart of the tradition. In America, Jazz, often cited as “America’s classical music”, is similarly a result of the combination of European harmony and instruments with African rhythms. In today’s ever-shrinking world, characterized by cross-cultural connections on a scale never before seen in history, new combinations and musical forms are inevitable. The ancient and noble bansuri has arrived in modern-day New York. How can we help move it forward in the service of music? This is the line of thinking that inspires me to be creative and push the limits of my art. My opinion is that a solid grounding in traditional training is the best starting point for creativity with any instrument, but to innovate, one must be willing to question the assumptions inherent in any traditional style and conduct experiments, gather data, and draw conclusions about what works. I also believe that it is our duty as musicians to show by example that the way of peace is one of open-mindedness, appreciation, respect, tolerance, compassion, and forgiveness.
As I sat last night thinking about what to write on the blog a few things came to mind. I’d like to share some thoughts about bansuri playing techniques and the wider music scene in general, but I’d also like to hear from the members of this site and engage in a dialog about what you’d like to hear from me. The more interactive it gets, the better it will be for everyone.
Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more!