Music Mind: Karl Berger, Ingrid Sertso and the CMS legacy

Karl Berger (photo by Dion Ogust)

“First the tapes have to be baked. We bake them at a low temperature for eight or nine hours,” says musician and sound engineer Ted Orr. He is sitting at the console where he has been digitizing tapes recorded at Woodstock’s Creative Music Studio (CMS, and actually it was in West Hurley, the old Oehler’s Lodge, now the New York Conservatory for the Arts) in the 1970s and 1980s, when Don Cherry, Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, Jimmy Guiffre, Nana Vasconcelos, and many other avant jazz greats collaborated with musicians of other genres to create new kinds of music.

“The tapes are made from petroleum, and they’re sticky,” explains Karl Berger, who founded CMS with his wife, Ingrid Sertso, and jazz master Ornette Coleman. “You have to dehumidify them by warming them up. You get optimal results from the very first play. Particles of the tape fall off as you play it.”

Around 400 tapes were recorded, and their digitization is a step in the process of not only documenting the ground-breaking work of CMS, but also bringing the fruits of that work into the future. Besides archiving the recordings at Columbia University, which is paying for 80 percent of the conversion process, Berger and Sertso will give copies to the artists, make compilation CDs to be sold for fundraising, and have plans for bringing the process they developed at CMS into education of musicians.

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Not that the pair have ever stopped working with the concept of Music Mind that made CMS such a heady endeavor. From 1973 to 1984, “guiding artists” (instructors) and “participants” (students), representing various musical styles and nationalities, performed together for hours a day, using principles of improvisation that began with what Berger calls “the common base of all music — sound and rhythm parameters that are found in electronic, jazz, Turkish, African, all kinds of music. It helps you develop a more personal approach to whatever style you play in. The cross-pollination is incredible. People played together here who would never even go to each other’s concerts in New York.”

Weekend concerts at CMS by both small ensembles and large orchestral groups were taped in an off-handed way that belied the treasures now being revealed. Some of the tapes are labeled, for instance, simply “May 5,” so it’s useful that Orr, a multi-instrumentalist who cooked meals at CMS as part of a work-study exchange, remembers so many of the musicians, their styles, and when they were present.

The collapse of arts funding in the 1980s led to the closing of CMS, but it’s estimated that as many as 25 attendees of the school have remained in the area, including such talents as Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette, Steve Gorn, and Marilyn Crispell.

Another alumnus, John Zorn, made his downtown Manhattan club, The Stone, available to Berger and a shifting collection of musicians who performed every Monday at the club from April through December last year.

“We canceled everything and just did that,” says Berger, a pianist, vibraphonist, and composer. “Business-wise, it was not such a good idea, but musically it was great.” He gathered professional musicians, many in their thirties but some up into their seventies. About 20 performers could fit into The Stone, but this fall the group has access to a huge loft at El Taller at 104th and Broadway, and Berger expects the orchestra will grow to about 28 members.

“It’s an all-wood structure, so the sound is amazing,” he comments. “We’re doing four concerts this fall, starting September 20, then once every four weeks. I want to get Latin players involved. That direction is interesting to me.”

He described the workshop/rehearsal process of developing a piece of music with the orchestra. “We play a sound, make it work, play it again with new dynamics, until a there’s a unified sound. We use improvisation to make a form. The whole group learns two tunes by heart — we might pick a line from Turkey, or an Ornette Coleman song, or one of my own songs. Ingrid sings and creates the text framework around it. She introduces her style of words of wisdom that fit in there.”

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