CMS Fall Workshop Recap: 4 Days of Intensive Workshops and Intimate Concerts
The Creative Music Studio’s second 40th anniversary workshop took place between October 7 – 11 at Full Moon Resort, nestled streamside in a valley 30 minutes west of Woodstock, NY. Twenty participants interacted day and night with 14 Guiding Artists, including Vijay Iyer, Peter Apfelbaum, Steve Gorn, Tom Rainey, Tony Malaby, Tom Buckner, Mark Helias, Kirk Knuffke, Kenny Wessel, Harvey Sorgen, Omar Tamez, John Menegon and of course Creative Music Foundation co-founders Karl Berger and Ingrid Sertso.
Following is a brief summary of the week:
Monday, October 7:
Despite tornado warnings, torrential rains and even a five-hour power outage, the CMS Fall Workshop kicked off. After cocktails and appetizers, Karl Berger invited the group to explain who they were and why they were attending the workshop. Participants came from Europe, California, Virginia and Japan, among other far-reaching places. After a wonderful dinner, the group went to the Roadhouse for the first of four intimate concerts. Open/Loose, a trio with Mark Helias, Tony Malaby and Tom Rainey kicked off the concert, with stunning duo and trio work, playing microtones and macro grooves. The trio was joined later by Karl Berger, Ingrid Sertso, Cyro Baptista and Peter Apfelbaum. It was a rousing launch for the week ahead. Later in the evening, participants joined in various combinations, jamming until late in the evening.
Tuesday, October 8:
After Savia Berger’s body awareness/movement class, Karl Berger’s Gamalataki Rhythm Training and Ingrid Sertso’s Voice Training classes, Guiding Artist Cyro Baptista got to work, though ‘play’ may better describe his approach. “Home Depot is my favorite musical instrument store,” said Cyro during his morning workshop. “I love making up my own new instruments because they make new sounds.” Using a huge variety of instruments, from berimbau to the cashishi, many he learned to play from CMS Guiding Artist Nana Vasconcelos, Cyro involved the participants in a variety of rhythm games that included clapping, dancing and singing. He talked about Westerners feeling music in their upper bodies while Brazilians use their whole body, especially the lower parts, to connect with music viscerally. He also talked about the struggles artists need to create great art. “You have to be uncomfortable as an artist,” he said, sharing anecdotes about Herbie Hancock’s unflinching desire to make art, even if it means half the people in the concert hall leaving. He quoted Herbie: “I play for the people who stay.” Cyro also talked about first coming to the United States to study at CMS and how he learned the Gamalatki rhythm system and would wander NYC streets using it to keep rhythm as he walked.
After lunch, Tony Malaby, Tom Rainey and Mark Helias, the Open/Loose Trio, lead a workshop that focused a lot on being purely in the musical moment, not playing self-consciously and letting the music come to the musician. ”Technique is what allows us to express ourselves,” said Helias. “We need to absorb technique into our muscle memory so it’s available in improvisations intuitively, analytically, and instinctively integrated into our sound.” After some exercises with duos, trios, quartets and quintets, Tom lead an at-times heated discussion about not avoiding playing pretty grooves. “You’re not playing free if you’re consciously avoiding grooves, melody or harmony,” he said. “Find a way to add to these things and explore all colors; don’t avoid them.”
Peter Apfelbaum began his afternoon workshop, rhetorically asking: “What makes a successful improvisation?” and answering with, “Getting out of your own way, not thinking, not wanting, just being in the music,” a refrain often heard at CMS workshops. He invited participants to explore exercises in controlled improvisations and setting limits, asking them to compose and improvise using only two notes. “How free can you be using certain limitations?” He encouraged participants to use dynamics to “add drama, and a broad musical vocabulary to add variety, contrast and suspense in improvising.” He continued with this koan: “If you’re playing really free without a reference point, then how will other musicians or the audience know just how free you’re playing?”
In other workshops, Harvey Sorgen lead the group on how to breathe with the music, into the music, and how to breathe music out of one's body and into one's instrument, from drums to voice. If you’ve ever seen him play, you’ll understand what he means.
Thomas Buckner spent his workshop focusing on more open and free vocal improvisations, allowing anything to come in, not editing. Through playful vocal exercises, the group loosened up and created marvelous sounds. After, they worked with Tom to ‘compose’ an improvised piece for the evening’s concert program.
Steve Gorn’s early evening workshop focused on the grammar and architecture of ragas, using singing and listening as tools to dig deeper into Indian classical music. He talked about the “yoga of sound and how music resonates inside us physically and emotionally” and took the group through a variety of calls and responses, using an evening raga as the focus. He also explained why a drone, in this case a tambura, is used in Indian music. “It’s important because every note in the architecture of a raga takes its place in each drone.” He went on to explain that while the ragas are ancient, people can improvise over and around them, constantly renewing and reenergizing classical ragas, making them contemporary.
Before opening the evening concert with a solo flute raga, Gorn talked emotionally about the role of artists passing their art to the next generation. He then played a gorgeous raga that set the stage for the rest of the evening’s concerts. Next up was Thomas Buckner, who lead eight participants in a wonderful vocal improvisation, something they had worked out in Tom’s workshop earlier in the day. That was followed by a concert featuring Karl and Ingrid, Peter Apfelbaum, cornetist Kirk Knuffke, guitarist Kenny Wessel, drummer Harvey Sorgen, Mexican guitarist Omar Tamez, vocalist Tom Buckner, and bassist John Menegon, along with workshop participants joining in at various times. It was another night of splendid music in the intimate and rustic Roadhouse at the Full Moon Resort.
Wednesday, October 9:
“Voice is the gateway to the heart,” Karl began morning rhythm and vocal practice. “When you sing, you feel sound in your body.” It set the stage for Ingrid, who talked about voice being ‘our first instrument’ before taking the group through a variety of playful and insightful vocal exercises and practices.
Karl segued to rhythm training: “Music needs to be played by heart. Thinking is much too slow.” The purpose of the Gamalataki rhythm training, he explained, is to feel the music with beat-for-beat attention. “Let the music come to you. If you wait, it will come. Don’t push or be impulsive. Waiting and not playing helps the music.”
Cornetist Kirk Knuffke’s spent half his workshop sharing about his experience in Butch Morris’s orchestra, taking the group through some nifty exercises that asked participants to improvise on rhythm, not melody, by using just two notes. “You don’t have to have fully formed ideas to come in. Just play,” he said, echoing other CMS Guiding Artists. “Improvising is leading, following and getting out of the way,” he concluded.
Feedback CMS received after its May workshop made it clear that nearly everyone wanted to have more time playing in Karl’s Improviser’s Orchestra. So, for the fall workshop, we scheduled three sessions. Playful as always, Karl started the workshop quoting a Don Cherry koan: “Always think of another note when you think of one note.” He went on to discuss the principles of dynamics, tuning and harmony, taking the group through tuning exercises first with voice, and later with instruments. “We need to tune into the sound and remember that every note contains every other note,” one of Karl’s mantras. He continued: “Even if you’re not playing, you are part of the orchestra. You’re playing the orchestra, the orchestral sound is you!” With that freedom as the foundation, Karl conducted the orchestra in two long pieces with everyone getting a chance to solo.
Omar Tamez, the Mexican guitarist, lead a workshop that focused on getting rid of ‘right and wrong’ and about commitment to music and sound: “Play something like you’ll never play it again.” He also encouraged the group to practice compositions from every point of view, even backward and upside down, as a way of getting inside the music and letting the music get inside you. He led the group through a variety of exercises. Summarizing, he said: “If someone knows even just one note. He can change anything with that one note.”
The day’s workshops concluded with a ‘Listening to the Sound Disappear’ meditation, a teaching Karl and Ingrid received from a Tibetan Buddhist lama.
Concerts that night included Karl and Ingrid, along with Kirk, Omar, Harvey Sorgen, John Menegon, and guitarist Kenny Wessel, as well as jams with participants and late night jams among participants themselves.
Thursday, October 10:
After morning movement awareness, rhythm and vocal workshops, and 90 minutes of playing in Karl’s Improviser’s Orchestra, Guiding Artist Vijay Iyer commenced his afternoon workshop in the rustic, spacious Barn. “Music is a way of connecting people,” he began before launching in to an extended discussion about ‘embodied cognition’ - musical rhythms that activate parts of the brain. Of course we should have expected this from someone with a PhD in the cognitive science of music! He moved the discussion from brains to heart, explaining that music is in everyone, “every breath, heartbeat, step we take, our speech, they’re all rhythm. Music comes from us; we don’t go to it. Improvisation is what we do with our bodies. Rhythm synchronizes our actions.,” said Vijay. Then he moved from the theoretical to the practical: “When you’re playing, part of you needs to be an observer who’s listening. This helps us avoid imitation or following another person.” He also played some recent recordings he made with Afghanistan and Iraqi war veterans revealing the personal toll war has taken on their lives. “The artist is honest and courageous,” he declared. “Music provides an environment to tell the truth, a place to hear tough stuff.”
Jason Hwang’s workshop seemed to magically incorporate a bit of every workshop that came before. It tied together so many bits and pieces and in a way, really unified all the disparate ideas Participants experienced with so many different Guiding Artists. After getting to ‘know’ the Participants by asking each of them to play for 30 seconds, Jason began talking. For Jason, life and art are synonymous: “Tie your sound to your life experience. It’s not about music. It’s about life. Music is about life.” He also encouraged the group to take chances and to “make a mistake every time you practice.” Summarizing eloquently and building on Vijay’s workshop, Jason concluded by explaining how “music harmonizes the brain which in turn harmonizes life.” Could there be a more fitting conclusion?
As it was Thelonious Monk’s birthday, the evening concert focused on interpreting Monk tunes, with Karl, Ingrid, Jason, Omar, Harvey and John Menegon taking the stage and inviting Participants up at various times to play. It was a fitting end to a wonderful week.
Participants' Quotes about The Fall 2013 Workshop:
This is a workshop for musicians of all backgrounds to come together and make music that exists solely in the moment. It’s a chance for a musician to free themselves from the bonds of musical style and just play, while keeping their voices fully intact.
Workshop content was brilliant, visceral, challenging if you wanted it to be, worldly and very interesting.
The conversation is stimulating. The atmosphere is great and the people are friendly. It’s an opportunity to be heard, but also be a part of something bigger than oneself.
I started learning some new tunes and relearning some tunes in new keys, I noticed that my playing was freer. My wife, Kathy, seldom comments on my practicing, but a couple of days ago I was practicing improvising on Body and Soul in G. She called from the other room, “Wow, what was that? That was beautiful.
I love the jams. And I like that there are two spaces, so if one jam is playing real book stuff I could go to the other hall and try something else. The absolute freedom for us to play what we want and how we want, and for as long as we want, is wonderful.
The CMS workshop was a really amazing experience for me. The amount of insight, sheer number of new ideas, concepts, and considerations that I gleaned over the week is truly immense.
I think that the time is really, really right for CMS right now; there's a generation of young, college-age-and-twenty-something musicians like me who came up through the growing 'institutional music system' who are looking for a low-dogma space to… be themselves, learn about MUSIC without being weighed down by historical trappings of "correctness," experiment, and learn. CMS could well be that environment for them.
I was very satisfied with the whole experience. I came in with little expectations. Took it all in, and it turned out to be a life changing experience, albeit a short one.
Being a part of Karl’s Orchestra. It’s a feeling unlike any I’ve experienced during both my classical and pop upbringings. Being a part of something that’s random and indeterminate can only work with the right leader. Karl’s conducting was a revelation for me, as it surely must be for countless others.
As an emerging artist and teacher, I left the workshop feeling hopeful and inspired. As an improviser who was surrounded by Conservatory-minded fanatics for so many years, I felt less alone and more at home with kindred folk. I feel that the CMS approach to music should be a part of mainstream music education, and this experience reminded me of one of the fundamental aspects of music that eludes even some of the most seasoned virtuosos: listening.
Nothing was boring. Some concepts were already familiar, but they need to be continually revisited and rehearsed. I thought that overall the sessions were able to meet everyone at his or her level.
To be at CMS for those four days and to have nothing else to do but play and absorb music was like paradise.
But what I got, and always have gotten from CMS, is validation that being a musician is simply a way to exist in the world. It has nothing to do with whether or not music is your profession; it really doesn’t even have to do with whether you’re “good.” It was vital for me to hear Karl reaffirm that expressing notes and tones is an act of compassion.
This is an extraordinary and unequalled opportunity to come face to face with yourself as a musician and to bask in an atmosphere in which whatever is uniquely your own expression is given higher value than it’s likely to receive in any other learning environment.
The content was challenging – not hard in the sense that organic chemistry is hard, but the best workshops challenged your preconceptions and encouraged you to explore new ideas and concepts and rethink your approach to and relationship with your playing.
I really enjoyed the opportunity during the jams to stretch out with fellow participants and to try to use and develop some of the things we learned in workshops during the day.