EastBay Today

Feature
Posted May 5, 2017

Can’t Stop the Music

Cal State East Bay composer doesn’t let Parkinson’s stop him

When Cal State East Bay master’s student and composer Benjamin Rivers leans back and closes his eyes, he can still remember the smells and sounds of Thailand — fragrant spices intertwined with clouds of diesel fumes, and the honking of busses clashing with the syrupy-sweet tones of Thai pop blaring over the radio.

Those sensations and memories, along with others he’s internalized over his 46 years, are built into the music Rivers now creates — as much a part of him as the Young Onset Parkinson’s disease that sends uncontrollable tremors through his body.

“I’ve been hearing music in my head my whole life, it’s as if the soundtrack of my life has always been there,” he says. “My mind will compose music spontaneously, sometimes whole pieces, in response to whatever environment I’m in.”

Despite the physical limitations Rivers faces, he is excelling at Cal State East Bay. Next month, his original nine-minute composition called “Numerical Velocities” will be performed by the well-known Bay Area ensemble Amoveo at the music department’s annual Glenn Glasow Fellowship Concert.

The May 18 concert honors the life of Glenn Glasow, Cal State East Bay professor emeritus of music and Asian studies, and features original works by students, faculty and alumni.

“To have a piece performed at the Glasow concert means you’ve written a piece that has reached a pretty high level of accomplishment,” says Professor of Music Jeffrey Miller. “It means we’re bringing in a professional ensemble to work with you as a student composer and perform your piece … it means you’re good.” 

Humble Beginnings

Rivers didn’t always dream of becoming a composer, but he certainly couldn’t have anticipated the challenges that would stand in the way of his dream, once he realized what he wanted to do with his life.

Born and raised “off the grid” on a homestead just outside Nevada City, California, Rivers was home-schooled by his parents who he says didn’t consider or prepare him for college. His mom first enrolled him in piano lessons at age 8, but after two years he’d had enough “of his pushy piano teacher” and gave it up for a while. It wasn’t until he was a teenager that his interest in music came back full force.

“ … having a disease in a foreign country was a pressure cooker, it showed me what was really important in life.”

“At that point, I took to piano like a fish to water,” Rivers says. “Because I was home-schooled, I could practice for five, six hours at a time, playing from a big book of folk songs that always sat on my parents’ piano. I was finally able to express emotions that I couldn’t otherwise say, and while I didn’t consider myself a composer [then], I would improvise and write my own songs.”

As a young adult, Rivers decided to leave home and pursue an education, but not in music, which at the time he considered “a lightweight subject.” Instead, he received a full scholarship to Brandeis University in Boston where he earned his degree in sociology. He returned to Northern California and worked at a nonprofit for six years before the organization moved to Portland, and he decided to travel to Thailand and practice music abroad.

“I had been planning a trip to Southeast Asia for a while and it was right around then that I knew something was going on with my body and it seemed neurological,” Rivers says. Still, despite the beginnings of tremors and freeze-ups brought on by Parkinson’s, he got on the plane.

Three-and-a-half-years later, managing the disease abroad had become too much. However, Rivers says the strength and faith he found in himself during that time influences both his music and sense of determination.

“I got this shift in attitude toward my own condition [in Thailand],” he says. “Part of that was developing a sense of humor, which now you hear in my music. I had been a sour-puss before that and now I have genuine humor and faith … having a disease in a foreign country was a pressure cooker, it showed me what was really important in life.”

A Dream Realized

Rivers returned to Nevada City where his mother provided him with full-time care for about nine months until he was able to move to Berkeley to gain access to services such as public transportation and health care specialists that were not available in his small town.

Shortly after, he decided to start auditing classes at UC Berkeley to pass his time and explore his desire for learning more about music.

“For one-and-a-half-years I was a constant presence at Cal’s music department, I’d audit everything — harmony, theory, composing,” he says. Eventually, following his mother’s death, Rivers decided to formally enroll in college and pursue a degree in music composition.

“I knew it would be hard, but I also remembered living in Asia and told myself that if I could live there [with Parkinson’s] and navigate the [streets] of Bangkok alone, I could be a real college student again,” Rivers says.

He started at Cal State East Bay in 2016 and is now one year away from earning his master’s degree. He’s also writing more music than ever — a lot of it inspired by his life experiences, which is something Miller says sets him apart from many of his peers.

“Every composer is [unique], but what’s interesting about Ben is he didn’t take up music and composing until rather late, so he’s informed by other things he’s studied in the past and has a way of looking at things differently than someone who started studying as a child,” Miller says.

As for Rivers, he’s glad he finally has a way to share the sounds and melodies bouncing around inside of him.

“I want to touch people with the emotions and beauty I feel when I write a piece,” he says. “I just want to share the music I’ve had in my head with as many people as possible.”

The Glasow concert will be held Thursday, May 18, at 7:30 p.m. in MB 1055. It is free and open to the public.

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