Karl Berger — Music Mind kicks off Woodstock Film Festival

Karl Berger and Ingrid Sertso.

Watching film footage of great jazz musicians in their youth — Don Cherry, Ornette Coleman, Anthony Braxton, Cecil Taylor, Woodstock’s own Ingrid Sertso and Karl Berger, and many more — is just one of the pleasures of the documentary Karl Berger — Music Mind, showing at the Woodstock Film Festival at 7 p.m. Wednesday, October 10, at the Woodstock Playhouse. The screening will be followed by a concert by Berger, Sertso, and other musicians now leading the Creative Music Studio (CMS), the groundbreaking improvisation laboratory Sertso and Berger founded locally in the 1970s. A second showing of the film is scheduled for Friday, October 12, at 8:30 p.m. at the Orpheum Theater in Saugerties.

The movie’s contemporary and historic clips include performances, workshops, and jams by teachers and students at the CMS West Hurley campus in the 70s and 80s, as well as those who gather today in CMS workshops at the Full Moon Lodge in Oliverea. Among the students of 1979 was Axel Kroell, who went on to become a music producer in Germany, also composing music for television and films. At some point, it occurred to him how much of his inspiration was rooted in what he had learned at CMS.

“Our kind of thinking and approach to music,” said Berger, “and beat-for-beat attention — he realized how influential that was. He approached us about making a movie.” Kroell recruited Munich filmmaker Julian Benedikt, who had done several jazz films, including a history of the Blue Note label responsible for recording Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and other greats.


Karl Berger — Music Mind traces the history of CMS, beginning with Berger’s early experiences in his hometown of Heidelberg, where he met Sertso, the vocalist he calls “the driving force of CMS. I bring ideas, and she translates into bringing these things from the heart. I learn so much from her.”

The film shows Berger standing in front of The Cave, the Heidelberg night club where he used to play music with American GI’s stationed in postwar Germany. He tells the camera, “If it wasn’t for Ingrid, I probably would have ended up being a philosophy professor who would have played on Sundays.” These comments reveal what has made CMS unique: deeply thought-out understandings of consciousness, blended with emotional generosity and openness, the underpinnings of a profound communal musical experience. Three years ago, I experienced the couple’s sensitivity and intelligence at a workshop in Woodstock on the system of rhythm training they call Gamala Taki. More than a musical technique, it’s a method of cultivating awareness through mind and body.

As many of the musicians interviewed in the film point out, CMS has never been just about jazz. Gamala Taki has been the basis for enabling musicians of many different styles to play together. Faculty at CMS came from Turkey, India, Brazil, and other countries, contributing their insights to the mix of musicians drawn to the atmosphere of free experimentation within the structure of universal rhythm.

Trumpeter Don Cherry spent time at CMS in the early years. Sertso and Berger had played with him in Paris, and later he summoned them to New York, where they found freedom and ferment in the Manhattan jazz scene. There they met Ornette Coleman, of whom Berger says in the film, “Ornette played the way he talked. In the middle of a sentence, he would start another sentence.” Coleman helped them establish the upstate venue, which flourished for a decade, with the participation of many talented musicians who ended up settling in Woodstock. The film includes vintage footage and recent interviews with these long-time locals whose successful careers continue, including Carla Bley, Jack DeJohnette, and Marilyn Crispell.

When funding for CMS dwindled in the Reagan era, Sertso and Berger had to let go of the West Hurley campus. They lived in Woodstock and traveled around the world, giving workshops and performances. Berger began leading an Improvisors Orchestra in New York City. The group spirit of the 1970s CMS was revived a few years ago, when a board of directors put together the week-long spring and fall workshops at the Full Moon in Oliverea, west of Woodstock, with performances on weekday nights that have been open to the public.

A reorganization this year brought drummer Billy Martin to the head of the CMS board, which now contains younger professional musicians who are reaching out to a new generation of players through the upstate workshops and a collaboration with the New School in Manhattan. The film will become part of that outreach. “It’s a really great portrait of Karl and how he works,” says Martin. “It shows what he and Ingrid founded and where it’s at now. CMS is something Woodstock and the area should be very proud of. It’s an important part of musical history and educational history and philosophy.”

Karl Berger—Music Mind will premiere on Wednesday, October 10, at 7 p.m. at the Woodstock Playhouse, 103 Mill Hill Road. The screening will be followed by a 45-minute concert featuring Karl Berger, Ingrid Sertso, Steven Bernstein, Billy Martin, Peter Apfelbaum, Ken Filiano, and special guest Marilyn Crispell. Tickets are $30. A second showing of the film is scheduled for Friday, October 12, at 8:30 p.m. at the Orpheum Theater in Saugerties, with tickets at $10. For details and tickets, go to http://woodstockfilmfestival.org. For more information on CMS and the programs at Full Moon Lodge, visit https://creativemusic.org.