Joshua Geisler is no ordinary musician. He is a musician, inventor and humanitarian. He probably never imagined that he would embark on a musical journey that would take him all the way across the world to India to play with a legendary bansuri master, learn how to create his own bansuris, help send a poor Indian bamboo maker’s children to school and be a part of Cirque de Soleil’s latest extravaganza, “Totem.”
Geisler, originally from New York, has toured internationally with Totem for the past few years as one of the show’s musicians. Arriving at Citi Field on March 14th, Cirque’s latest show has lots of buzz surrounding it. Critics have raved about “Totem” being hypnotic and visually ravishing; a unique and spectacular experience. Totem, through visual and acrobatic language, is a reflection of the connection between modern humans and species preceding it on the evolutionary scale.
Geisler found out about this fantastic gig through a friend who he used to play with in a band in New York. She told him that he fit the profile of people they were looking for; musicians who play multiple instruments as well as different styles of music.
“There are so many things we do musically throughout the course of the show,” he said. “They like people who are versatile, bring a lot of styles and sounds to it. I auditioned and I guess they liked it.”
Geisler is a multi-talented musician who plays bansuri flute, acoustic guitar, a variety of electric guitars, electric sitar, a bit of percussion, as well as singing vocals for the show.
The band, consisting of other musicians from all over the world, are usually up on a riser amidst reeds towards the back of the stage. Although not in the spotlight, Geisler says he is more than fine with that. There is no doubt to what the band brings to Cirque, a unique flavor and richness to the overall theme of the show. When inquiring about his fellow musicians, Geisler gleefully adds that they all get along extremely well and have lots of fun both on and off stage.
“They are all super talented,” he said. “I have nothing but good stuff to say about everyone of them. We all just gelled really nicely together from the start.”
The Early Years:
Geisler started playing music all the way back in Kindergarten. A bunch of kids were chosen to take violin lessons and he happened to be one of them. He says it didn’t really stick, but he did end up taking lessons again, although this time for piano throughout elementary school. Eventually, he quit that around the age of eleven.
“I didn’t think I had enough time to hang out and play video games. It was very inconvenient for my buy schedule,” he says jokingly.
It was in high school, that music started to become more of an interest for him, and by age sixteen, it was more of a love, and one in which he dedicated himself to.
Like most typical suburban teenagers in the ’90s, Geisler was into grunge rock. Geisler admits that his own personal journey started with grunge, which then led to classic rock along with an interest in all the great guitar players. He got into the jam band thing for a while, which was big while he was in college, and listened to bands like Phish and The Grateful Dead. Soon, his interest in classic rock evolved into jazz, which later evolved into an interest in music from other cultures.
Geisler says that it was Indian music that really stuck with him.
“I was in college and at that time, I got into meditation and spirituality,” he said. “I was looking for something to explore that with musically. As a way of incorporating those interests, I began learning the bansuri.”
Geisler recounts a funny story of how he started playing bansuri flute. A Chinese restaurant was selling bamboo recorders for two dollars.
“It was two dollars, and so I just bought this thing,” he said. “It was a long walk home, so I started walking after I ate. I just starting playing it, and couldn’t put it down. I would walk around playing this silly bamboo flute I got from this Chinese restaurant like a crazy person. I was so into it.”
He remembers being on the subway one day in Boston, and hearing a musician playing the silver flute. Amazed at how much more powerful it was than his little toy bamboo flute, it inspired him to buy a silver flute and take lessons.
One day, during a lesson at his teacher’s house, he noticed a variety of flutes laid out on the piano. He saw one that was like his bamboo recorder, but it was played sideways. It turned out to be a bansuri flute. His teacher told him where he could get one, and so the next time Geisler was in New York, he went to a shop on West 4th Street, and picked one up.
“There was just something about the bansuri,” he said. “I just really loved playing it.”
While he had listened to Indian music before, he wondered what Indian flute music might sound like. He bought a CD of Hariprasad Chaurasia, the internationally renowned bansuri flute player. The cd also featured Zakir Hussain, classical tabla virtuoso. Listening to the two of them playing together had quite an impact on him. “That album just blew me away,” Geisler firmly states. Hence igniting his love for Indian classical bansuri playing.
Geisler took lessons from musician Steve Gorn who taught him the basics of Indian music. Geisler credits Gorn as being his mentor and says that he has nurtured him through the process of becoming a professional musician. Geisler made the decision to go to India to learn the bansuri. He explains that it was through Gorn, that he connected with Raghunath Seth, master of the bansuri. Gorn had learned from Seth years prior and still kept in touch.
Studying with the Master:
Geisler recalls the first time he went to see Seth in India. Eager and ready to learn from a great master of the bansuri, Geisler says that he had already booked his ticket and was ready to go before he had even called Seth to see if he could meet with him about the prospect of taking lessons. He said, “I just thought it would work out. I told him I was a student of Steve’s, and asked if I could come to see him. He said yes.”
When Geisler arrived at Seth’s home for the first time, he was asked to play something on bansuri. Geisler admits he was nervous, but did what he could, which wasn’t much at the time. Then Seth played a bit and asked Geisler to copy him.
“He wanted to see if I could pick it up by ear,” he said. “I think that is a skill musicians should have, the ability to hear something and play it back.”
Luckily for Geisler, he possesses this natural ability.
“I can tell what the notes are by listening, and I was already a music school graduate at this point, so I felt pretty comfortable with that, being able to play it back,” he said. “Despite the fact that my flute technique was rather rudimentary, I could still hear what he was doing and do a crude imitation of it.” Realizing his potential, Seth continued giving Geisler lessons.
Geisler says of Seth, “His playing is really amazing, he’s a great virtuoso, a different style from Hariprasad Chaurasia.” Geisler met Chaurasia, the man who initially inspired him to play bansuri, during that same trip. Chaurasia had invited Geisler to study with him.
“This was a difficult choice for me because Hariprasad had inspired me to do this in the first place, and it was his record that I heard, but just through personal connections, I made my way to Raghunath Seth.” Geisler informed Seth of Chaurasia’s offer to study with him. Seth let him know that he could not have two gurus, and would have to make a choice. Geisler pointed out an important difference between the two gurus. Hariprasad has a school and teaches group classes, while with Seth, he would get individual attention. In the long run, his relationship with Seth would prove far more pivotal in his growth as a musician.
Geisler decided he would stick with Raghunath Seth. “We had a good thing going. I think it was the right decision, because over the years, we developed a very intimate, personal, relationship.”
“A lot of times, I would just go to his house, and we would play for a while, and then we would just sit and watch the animal channel together, or go to the bank together,” he said. “We would have tea, and guests would come by, and it was like a family atmosphere. You just became part of the family, and that has so many benefits beyond the notes. I mean, yeah, you learn the notes, the techniques and all that, but it is also about becoming a better person.”
Geisler says that when he was younger, he was a bit more naive about spirituality. Having some mistaken notions, Seth helped him cut away the unnecessary things.
“There is a legend in India, that the singer Tansen could light a fire by singing this particular raga. He could sing it and then light a fire by magic. And I’m a young guy, so I thought, maybe it’s possible. You read about this stuff, and so, you never know,” he said. “I mean, part of you even wants to believe that it’s that powerful, or the universe is that kind of place. And so I asked him, do you think it’s possible? Do you think the music goes that deep? He says, look, if you wanna light a fire, strike a match. We have matches for that. Don’t try singing and getting a fire, because it’s just crazy. If you want to learn to play flute, then practice the flute. Here, I expect this man to be like, oh yes, this music is very powerful, but he was like, forget about that stuff, it’s ridiculous.”
Geisler acknowledges that this kind of lecture was really healthy for him. It is how he lives his life. “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. It is one out of many life lessons I have learned from him.”
It is those lessons and others that helped shape Geisler into who he is now. Striving to be a better person, and do his part in the world, Geisler dedicated himself to a special project for a bamboo seller in India. Samsir, a man whom he befriended through buying bamboo to make his flutes, was living in a shanty with his family. His children could not afford to go to school and receive an education.
Geisler came up with an amazing idea. He would make bansuri flutes and sell them, and use that profit to send Samsir’s kids to school. It is a beautifully, moving story which proves that one person can actually make a difference in the life of another.
Making the Bansuri:
An important gift Seth bestowed upon Geisler was the craft of making his own bansuri.
A good quality bansuri flute is difficult to come by. Most of them are mass produced and every piece of bamboo is different. Going around to the different shops, Seth and Geisler found it difficult to find one they liked. So they bought a piece of bamboo and began their journey into flute making. Geisler admits that they started really slow and it did take them a few days, but eventually they came out with a really nice flute. He enjoyed it so much, that he started getting some bamboo and doing experiments.
Raghunath Seth had already made many breakthroughs in the technique of flute making and playing, now was Geisler’s turn. He explains that Seth added a key to the flute that you play with your pinky that allows you to overcome some of the natural limitations of the instrument.
A witness to his early experimentation, Geisler describes the making of Seth’s flute.
“It’s was like this contraption made of bamboo and a piece of foam. Then, he took a hacksaw blade and made it red hot and burnt it to make a spring. It ended up like some super ghetto gizmo, and it actually worked great,” he said. “He’s just all about what work, and I love that about him. This is the best you can do with available materials in India. He figured out a way to do this and he is brilliant for it. So,I figured out how to make that. I had lots of free time on my hands, so I ended up dreaming up this flute with eight keys on it, which I made all in secret. I didn’t tell him about it until it was done. It was all held together with glue and rubber bands, and it didn’t work at all, but I showed up one day and was like, here look what I made. It had all this bamboo, and glue, and rubber bands all over it; a horrendous contraption.”
Geisler was enthusiastic about flute making from the start, and over the years started doing his own research on it. “I did my reading about all the physics research about the flute, acoustics, and the mathy side of it. I just conducted so many experiments, you know, the scientific method, have a theory, do an experiment, collect the data, draw conclusions, then another theory. I just kept trying, doing different stuff, and studied different flutes of all kinds from all over the world.” Eventually he came up with his own type of flute which he calls a “high performance” bamboo flute. What is special about it is that it is significantly louder than a traditional bansuri because it takes the principles of acoustics and maximizes a lot of the factors so that the most air becomes tone as possible. Pretty impressive. A traditional bansuri is made in such a way that it has an airy quality to it, which most people would agree is the beauty and charm of it.
The Chromatic Bansuri:
Geisler’s book, The Chromatic Bansuri: A cross-cultural guide to learning the North Indian Bamboo Flute, details a unique fingering system of his own creation that allows the bansuri to play virtually any style of music. It also covers the fundamentals of flute playing, Indian ornamentation, and an in-depth analysis of bansuri tuning as it relates to playing with western instruments. The book has received wonderful reviews by fellow musicians and is simple to follow and easy to read. Geisler has a talent for translating complex technical information into a clear, comprehensive language which makes it more accessible for everyone.
“I want to continue to grow as a person,” he said. “Continue to play music, and write more books on things other than the bansuri.”
That growth, Geisler believes will continue with another trip to India.
“Definitely, I dream about going there,” he said. “When I’m not touring, I will definitely go back there.”
Cirque de Soleil’s “Totem” raises its tent on March14th and runs through April 21st at Citi Field. You can also go to www.joshuageisler.com to sign up for bansuri and guitar lessons by webcam.