Nashua pianist working to blaze his own bright musical path

Union Leader Correspondent
August 27. 2012 7:17PM

Nashua's native pianist Ben Geyer is pursuing a PhD in musical theory. His goal is to create unique music, and bring it to people who don't normally get the chance to hear it. (Courtesy)
NASHUA - Like the early importers of Oriental spices, Ben Geyer aims to bring avant-garde piano music out of its elite Manhattan dwellings to parts of the country, even the high seas, that have never heard it firsthand.

'I always loved (music), and the more I went through school the more I started adding other activities within music,' said Geyer, a Nashua native, of his early trials in piano-playing.

His father had an impressive collection of classical music on vinyl, recollects Geyer, 27, and it cast a shadow over his musical consciousness.

'Something that had a big impact on me was Prokofiev. It was the first time I had played something that was outside pretty-sounding music.'

Before it was Bach, Beethoven and Chopin - the standard repertoire for a classical pianist. The modern Prokofiev lent an edge to the music that broke the boundaries of traditional harmony.

'I never liked it,' he said. 'But then I was playing this little Prokofiev piece in my piano lesson … . I realized something quickly - it makes a lot of sense.'

He'd started playing on his friends' pianos as a kid. When his mom noticed his knack for the instrument, she arranged for piano lessons.

By high school, he was already doing jazz gigs, and by the time he'd enrolled at the University of Miami, music would be his life. He began with a major in classical, but after the first semester he switched to jazz.

After receiving his master's degree, Geyer decided to pursue a doctorate in music theory at the University of Kentucky, where he started last year. He's not positive what his dissertation will focus on, but he hopes to study the music of unorthodox big band composer Maria Schneider.

'A pop song might be verse chorus verse chorus, but her music I think is a lot more sophisticated than just naming a bunch of sections,' he said. He hopes to break the music down to a science, to figure out how Schneider composes and identify the musical clichés and patterns that make her compositions unique.

Over the summer, Geyer had two cruise-ship gigs, one from Boston to Bermuda, the other in the Mediterranean, where he got to visit Rome, Barcelona, Athens and other sites in Europe.

He also played at Studio 99 in Nashua earlier in the summer. 'There aren't too many pianists in New Hampshire who are playing the sorts of music that I play,' he said.

With the Studio 99 gig, he attempted to change that, if only a bit.

He also played standards from the Great American Song Book, the jazz of the '30s and '40s - the styles of George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin.

'Sometimes it's nice to just swing,' he said, 'to play the classic grooves. Some of my original stuff, it does swing, but a lot of it experiments with other ways of moving through time.'

Geyer's favorite pianists are all living, he said, like Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Brad Mehldau and Chelsea, Mass., native Chick Corea.

'For me, those guys are like the elder generation right now; they're the people who I look up to who are very established, but are still developing how the music sounds,' Geyer said. 'They've had a huge impact on how everybody else plays.'

Most important for Geyer is to do something no one else is doing. He criticizes mainstream music, the themes in movies, in ads, on the radio and internet.

'Everything that we hear on a regular basis is of a certain makeup, it's all one kind of thing,' he said. 'What I really try to do is play and write music that is good, and the elements of it, what makes my music up, is different from what makes the other things up. That's really what I'm trying to get across and what I'm trying to do in my playing.'

After receiving his Ph.D., Geyer said he'll take a job wherever he can land one. But Nashua will always be his home.

'I'm sure I'll always come through there and play shows just because I love it there,' he said. 'I love New England.'

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