Creative Music Studio (CMS), the ground-breaking Woodstock-based improvisation lab, turns over a new leaf in 2018, as co-founder Karl Berger hands over the presidency to jazz drummer and educator Billy Martin. The newly formed Artistic Council will include Martin and longtime CMS participants Steven Bernstein and Peter Apfelbaum, all three serving as CMS Associate Artistic Directors. Berger and his wife, vocalist Ingrid Sertso, will remain deeply involved in the organization, both as council members guiding its direction and as teachers and performers at CMS events.
Berger, Sertso, and Ornette Coleman created CMS in 1973, attracting prominent musicians in jazz, world music, and other genres, including Don Cherry, Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, Nana Vasconcelos, John Cage, and others to their campus near Woodstock. The low-key approach of Berger, a virtuoso pianist who taught — and still teaches — his own method of improvisation called “Music Mind,” facilitated music-making across different styles, creating a unique and exciting experience for musicians.
Since the facility closed in 1984, as a result of waning grant monies in the Reagan era, Berger and Sertso have continued to teach worldwide. Five years ago, they instituted a series of five-day workshops at Full Moon Lodge in Oliverea, holding daily classes and nightly concerts twice a year, spring and fall. When Berger invited Martin to teach a workshop at Full Moon, “it was a profound experience for me,” said Martin, who met Berger in 2011. “I was part of the performing in the evenings, and I watched Karl work, how he enables people to make music. It was right along the lines of what I’ve been doing. I wanted to be part of it.” Having toured for almost 30 years with his band, Medeski, Martin, and Wood, as well as forming his own record label, Amulet Records, the drummer now teaches master classes at universities and private workshops in his own studio. Like Berger, he doesn’t just teach technique, as most educational programs do, but encourages developing a strongly rooted, personal approach to making music.
After Berger asked him to help run CMS, Martin looked into the book Music Universe, Music Mind, which gives a history of the Woodstock program. “I realized that people who influenced my development as a musician in 80s — people like Vasconcelos and Don Cherry — were there at CMS,” said Martin. “They had worked with Karl.”
Bernstein and Apfelbaum, who will serve alongside Martin as artistic directors, studied at CMS as teenagers in the late 70s. “They are like my kids,” said Berger. “It’s wonderful to see that this grows naturally into the next generation.”
Besides their substantial musical talents, the younger musicians bring an important skill to the running of CMS — facility with social media. “The music industry has moved into the social media world,” said Berger. “There’s not so much of selling CD’s any more. A lot of music goes over the Internet, and our new council members are heavily involved in that area already, so we are naturally moving into new ways of communicating and expanding worldwide.” New developments may include Internet streaming of concerts and classes held at Berger’s and Martin’s recording studios in Woodstock and Englewood, New Jersey.
CMS is also supported by local residents on the board of directors, including film producer Bill Horberg; gallerist and fundraiser extraordinaire Elena Zang; Stuart Leigh, who recorded CMS concerts and conversations for radio in the early 1980s; Eileen Marder Hinchey, involved with CMS at its very start.
In the past year or so, a boost has come from receipt of grants from New York State Council on the Arts and National Endowment of the Arts. “We used to be connected to them in the past, but it’s hard to get into these cycles,” said Berger. “They are seeing the consistency of our programs and that the kind of work we do is unique. They acknowledged that.”
Robert D. Bielecki Foundation, which supports new music projects, has provided a grant for the Improvisers Orchestra, created and led by Berger in Manhattan. A group of 20 to 25 top-notch musicians perform together about ten times a year, using an improvisational, genre-blending style that implements the Music Mind philosophy. The pool of about 100 musicians who rotate in and out of the orchestra includes participants from China, Brazil, Argentina, Tahiti, and European countries, many of them bringing in folk melodies for the group to work with. “They are amazing musicians who can’t wait to play in a situation like this,” said Berger. “I’m not writing arrangements but working from what everyone brings in. People improvise and take my cues. I bring in a few lines that everyone learns in the rehearsal period, and then there is an intensive listening experience. They keep on listening and hearing what they can contribute.”
Berger teaches the basic building blocks of listening and improvising by means of the GamalaTaKi method, which he developed and presents periodically at venues around Woodstock. A new series will begin in January, and students — from experienced musicians to non-musicians — are invited to sign up.
The twice-yearly workshops at Full Moon will continue, but Berger hopes to expand into a venue with more flexibility that will allow for longer programs, making it practical for international students to invest in a visit. “In that case, we will have an influx from Europe,” he said. At the original CMS campus, half of the students attending the ten-day courses were from other countries.
Martin’s first fundraising contribution is to organize a CMS benefit at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City on February 6, featuring John Medeski, John Scofield, Nels Cline, Bill Frisell, Martin, Apfelbaum, and Bernstein.
“Karl has been smart about handing over the power of leading this organization,” said Martin. “It’s taken him a decade to really feel comfortable and understand who are the right people to do this. And I think he’s found it. We look up to Karl and Ingrid as a father and mother, and that kind of relationship is what it’s about — a mentorship.”
To register for GamaLaTaKi rhythm training classes in Woodstock, contact Karl Berger at firstname.lastname@example.org or (845) 679-8847. The CMS benefit on Tuesday, February 6, 8 p.m., will be held at Le Poisson Rouge on Bleecker Street in Manhattan. Go to http://lpr.com for tickets. The 100th concert of the Improvisers Orchestra in New York will be on Saturday, February 10, at El Taller Latino Americano, 215 East 99th Street, featuring an all-star cast of musicians from New York, with European guests and soloists from Tahiti, to be announced in January 2018. For more information on CMS, visit https://creativemusic.org.