Karl Berger: Freedom in Discipline
Cover Story in AllAboutJazz, July 2011
There are multiple facets to the lengthy, imaginative career of Karl Berger. He will rove from piano to vibraphone, often seeking out playing situations that highlight the calming spaces to be found in a duo or chamber-style setting. Notable collaborators have included Don Cherry, Dave Holland, John McLaughlin and Ed Blackwell. Berger has also penned string arrangements out in the wider musical world, contributing to a remarkable array of projects by Jeff Buckley, Bootsy Collins, Sly & Robbie and Swans, often with Bill Laswell sitting in the production chair.
Perhaps most influentially, the German-born Berger founded the Creative Music Studio (CMS) in 1971, with singer Ingrid Sertso and altoman Ornette Coleman. Their old Woodstock wilderness lodge soon attracted a rotating cast of significant artists, frequently performing in permutations that wouldn’t be heard elsewhere. Usually, the tapes would be set rolling and in recent years Berger and Sertso have been engaging in an ambitious Archive Project to transfer walls full of reel-to-reels into a supposedly everlasting digitized form.
Berger and Sertso always enjoy their Manhattan visitations, but they are emphatically not city types. Over the decades, they’ve been quite content with their upstate CMS base. Just prior to this interview, the pair had dropped in to see Ornette on 36th Street. So, the old connections are still in place. A more recent relationship with a younger alto saxophonist has also been proving fruitful. In October 2008, Berger organized a benefit concert for the CMS Archive Project at Symphony Space, inviting out a starry cast for a three-part session. John Zorn was one of the guests and on that very evening, he spontaneously invited Berger to record for his Tzadik label.
Just after this gazette hit the streets, Berger played a CD-release gig at The Stone. His new Strangely Familiar is a collection of solo piano miniatures, works three years in the making. “He liked the stuff, just from the description,” Berger says of Zorn. “When I finally sent it to him, he said it was beyond his expectations.” So much so that Zorn is also committed to assembling a boxed set that will combine old and new works by Berger. There will be an emphasis on string arrangements: “I never applied this to my own work before, so I’m going to do some new stuff, with Ingrid’s poetry.” Even though Berger customarily writes for a string quartet, he has the option of amassing overdubs, magnifying into an orchestral scale. The set will act as a complement to Berger’s own archive cycle.
Also this month, Berger and Sertso are curating at The Stone, creating a mini-CMS environment. “It’s more work than I thought it’d be,” he laughs. “Basically, I called some of my friends and asked them to suggest groups to me. Quite a few people sent me recommendations of younger groups that I didn’t know, so it became a mix - of players I know and those that I don’t. Barry Altschul [drums] is playing, with Joe Fonda [bass], and we haven’t played in 20 years, so that’s something of an occasion. We’ve decided not to
rehearse for that. It’s better to just do it...”. Everything is coalescing this month. There’s another benefit gig for the Archive Project Jul. 3rd in Woodstock. All the segments of this gig will feature an emphasis on Turkish folk themes and will act as a scene-setter for the 11-day ISCMS Festival in Istanbul, opening on Jul. 29th, which is dedicated to saxophonist and ney player Ismet Siral, who studied in Woodstock in the ‘80s. The Turkish CMS was founded in 2006 and has been modeled on his experience. Siral was the founder of Turkey’s first professional jazz orchestra and died under tragic circumstances in 1987. “They stayed for long stretches of time,” Berger remembers, speaking of the Turkish contingent. “We would tell them, your time is up, new artists are coming to teach and they would just say no, we are staying,” laughs Berger. In return, these musicians would give late night lessons in Turkish folk music. Berger believes that Turkey is a lodestone for so-called global sounds, acting as a nexus for musics from Asia
and Africa. An early jazz explorer of Turkish sounds was Don
Cherry. From the mid ‘60s onwards, the trumpeter could be viewed as Berger’s mentor. “He brought us here to record for Blue Note,” Berger recalls. “And to do a Town Hall concert. He decided to stay and work from here rather than Paris. Don was the first one to use material from anywhere in the world, indiscriminately. The whole world has a sound grammar that’s the same for everybody. Completely different musics, but using different dialects of the common sound grammar. Don was listening to short wave radio. He could hear a melody once and just play it. He had this capacity. He would bring these lines to the rehearsals and we had a rehearsal every day. By the next time, he’d already heard other melodies. It was pretty adventurous to play with him. We actually went to Paris to meet Don. I just walked up to him and said, I want to play with you! He was very intuitive and he said come to the next rehearsal. For the next three or four years, I played with him.”
Cherry had a month-long Parisian residency and Ornette Coleman was in town during this time. “When we came to New York, we were going over to Ornette’s house every week or so and it became a pretty close relationship. I was very interested in his harmolodic approach, what he meant by that. We’d been thinking about doing a workshop scene from the beginning. What we did with Don Cherry was so groundbreaking. In the ‘60s, the doors just opened up and a flood of new music started happening. It was almost uncontrolled. There came a time in the ‘70s when we were basically asking, what is it that we’re doing and how can we convey it to anyone else? Ingrid and I decided to go to Woodstock, because we’re just not city people. Never did like big cities, never will, coming from a smaller town. Any study of music that goes beyond stylistic studies, which is what schools do, has to start with some sort of silence in order to understand sound. The country is really conducive to that.”
Ornette Coleman has long enjoyed a reputation as
a quirky non-compromiser. “We had two lawyers invited, as a non-profit organization,” Berger recalls. “Ornette said, you do the non-profit and I’ll do the profit! Ornette was a fighter for the rights of musicians. He thought that they were playing for too little money and that they weren’t standing up for themselves. He has very high ideals and he holds up this banner to this very day. He’s one of the very few people who really fights for the respect for the musicians and the respect for the music. He became instrumental in inviting John Cage, Buckminster Fuller and Willem De Kooning on the CMS board of advisers, putting out a clear image of art being the theme and not ‘just’ music. We started doing the workshops by word-of-mouth. We didn’t advertise. People started coming in from all over the world. Over the next three or four years, it was a campus with 50 people there at all times, artists from everywhere. It developed very fast because there was a real need for it. A spiritual need, a technical need. How to approach improvisation? How you express yourself? We recorded every week. We have about 400 tapes of those sessions, including the Art Ensemble, Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, Lee Konitz and Jimmy Giuffre.”
The CMS Archive Selections series promises two collections each year and a subscription service is now available. The first volume is already out and features sets by David Izenzon, Oliver Lake and The Mandingo Griot Society .
Even though the CMS tactics undoubtedly provided a warm embrace, not all of its ‘inmates’ were satisfied: “For some, it was too much. They were leaving and saying, we want a more structured environment. But I was conscious of going to a place where people had to become creative themselves.” Berger would always prefer musicians to formulate their own questions and was always searching for what he terms ‘beat-for-beat attention’. He’d always assert that freedom didn’t mean a lack of discipline. “It’s all about focus, how to focus without thinking too much, without trying to kill your spontaneity . Y ou need to learn how to listen to your spontaneous mind. Everybody has that and everybody has a very specific one. These are things that schools aren’t offering.” Sometimes, Berger confesses, he’s still learning just as much, even now... K
For more information, visit karlberger.org. Berger curates The Stone this month and will appear there Jul. 9th-10th, 15th-16th, 21st and 30th with various groups. See Calendar.
Recommended Listening: • Don Cherry - Live at Café Montmartre, Vol. 1-3
(Magnetic - ESP-Disk, 1966) • Karl Berger & Co. - Tune In (Milestone, 1969) • Karl Berger - With Silence (Enja, 1972) • Karl Berger - Interludes (FMP , 1977) • Karl Berger/Dave Holland/Ed Blackwell -
Transit (Black Saint, 1986) • Karl Berger - Conversations (In + Out, 1994)
Interview with Ted Panken (for Downbeat Magazine,
Dec. 12, 2008
Karl Berger & Ingrid Sertso
TP: I want to discuss a few things. I talked to Karl about your personal history before you came here, but not to Ingrid, and a bit more about that milieu. I’m interested in the way your ideas gestated, how you evolved into the notion of an institution like the Creative Music Studio, and the sort of music you were playing in the ‘60s. I also have some things to ask, more philosophical than specifically about the CMS, more large-picture than micro. Also about the digitization project, what you’ve both been doing since 1984, and also how you see the legacy of CMS in a broader sense. That’s a rough picture...
KB: It’s a whole book.
TP: It’s an article. You’re both improvisers. Ingrid, let me ask what you were doing at the time you met Karl.
IB: Singing in Heidelberg. I worked with different groups. I’m coming kind of out of an artist family. My older brother was a fantastic painter, and he brought me to music. He took me to the first jazz concerts in Germany. So for me, it was clear. I always wanted to be a dancer, but it didn’t work out. My mother didn’t get the money together. I had three brothers, and they had to study...
TP: Was it a family where the boys went to college, and you had to...
IB: Wait for the beautiful man, a millionaire, aristocrat... So for me, it was clear, singing always. So I started very early, when I was 17...
TP: Where were you born?
IB: In Munich.
TP: After the war.
TP: So you’re younger than Karl.
TP: Your family were artists, and they got through it ok.
IB: Yeah, they did. I left them, and then I started working with different groups—a Dutch group, an English group. When I met Karl, I was working with a group that needed a piano player. We met in a Special Service bus where they brought the musicians to the clubs to play, and Karl backed me up.
TP: what year was that?
IB: I can’t remember. What year was that?
KB: ‘59 maybe. Yeah, it could be.
TP: You were singing the standards, the American Songbook in English?
IB: oh, yes. I had English in school. In Europe, we don’t have a choice.
TP: Were you listening to American singers? Were you under stylistic influences?
IB: My first singer was June Christy; she was the singer for Stan Kenton. My second singer was Louis Armstrong. Then the last one was Billie Holiday, of course. But then I immediately stopped listening to singers, and listened more to music, because I felt I learned much more from it, and I didn’t want to copy styles from singers.
TP: Were you formally trained in music?
IB: The piano. My mother was a classical pianist. She played concerts, but then she had family, so she couldn’t keep up.
TP: Did she teach you piano?
IB: No, I studied with somebody else.
TP: So it’s around 1959, and you’re singing in these combos. Were you the leader?
IB: No, never. I went with a jazz quartet to the Frankfurt Festival. That was before I met Karl. Then we met, and then we formed this friendship and partnership, and we wanted to stay together, and we started playing regularly together.
TP: What was your first impression of Karl?
IB: Hey! [LAUGHS] My first impression of Karl? Well, that he was a fantastic musician, and very kind of mysterious, because he was always very quiet.
TP: Karl, you were born in Heidelberg during the ‘30s, and you studied classical piano, and studied philosophy in the university. Did you get a doctorate in philosophy?
TP: So you were a student until your mid twenties or late twenties.
KB: At the time, studying in universities in Europe was a bit different from what you think about now. You could basically be part of a program, but you didn’t necessarily have to be there all the time. So the only exam I ever took was the actual Ph.D. You didn’t have to go through...you know, and write a book... You had to be inscribed in this program for a minimum of five years. I was just in and out of the school in Heidelberg and in Berlin.
TP: Heidelberg was a famous university.
KB: Yes. But I really finished in Berlin, at...Berlin West, the university there. But I was already playing during that time professionally, traveling and all that. So it was kind of strange. We lived in Paris, and I had a real small hotel room, and my books would be in the car that I needed to write my dissertation.
TP: So you moved to Paris after you got married, and became...
IB: I have to tell you this. We worked together, we didn’t work together, we worked together—whatever jobs came up. One day Karl came... We lived together. We got married. Karl came and said, “You’ve never heard this music; you’ve got to listen to this music.” I said, “What is it?” “Ornette Coleman.” It was This is Our Music. He put it on, and we both almost fainted. We decided we want to be where these musicians live.
TP: That was the eureka moment.
IB: That was the first time that the wish came up. Then we moved to Paris, and the second week we were there, we went to Buttercup Club. Buttercup was the wife of Bud Powell. We were sitting there, and then Karl says, “Look over there—this is the trumpet player that is on the record This is Our Music.”
TP: They made that record in 1959, so it was some years later.
IB: So this was later. We moved to Paris in 1965. Karl walked over, and Karl immediately invited him.
TP: Looking back, what was it about your backgrounds in music and your development that made you respond to that music? Was it a gradual thing? An immediate thing?
IB: For me, it was immediate.
TP: Well, you were singing in a closed-form, harmonic medium. That was your orientation.
IB: It was unusual. It was different. It was very expressive. It was very emotional. The tunes were so beautiful in terms of being artistic. It was something else. It was not the usual. Incredible. A very high artistic level to me.
TP: How about for you, Karl? What you said on the radio...I asked if there was any connection between your training in philosophy and your musical orientation, and you said the only connection you could discern might have to do with being open to different things, not accepting received wisdom, as it were.
KB: One area that... I specialized in ideology critique. I was working with Theodor Adorno and those people.
TP: You studied with Adorno?
KB: yes. I actually worked with him.
TP: One of the great jazz lovers!
KB: Yeah. I worked with him later, and he basically told me he didn’t understand anything about jzz, and I said to him, “Why are you writing about it?”
TP: How did he respond to that?
KB: He said, “Why don’t you write about it?” But he said, “Just don’t ever call it ‘art.’”
IB: That’s amazing.
KB: I said, “Listen, I don’t have any problem with that. The ‘art’ definition that you have in mind is obviously a strictly European one, and we don’t need it—we don’t need to use it. So we’ll just leave that outside.” Then he sort of said, ‘ok.’
TP: Do you remember when you had that conversation?
KB: Yeah. That was probably around 1964.
TP: By then you were almost 30 years old and working a lot.
KB: Right. I basically started a project under his guidance, because I still wasn’t sure whether I wanted to just do music or wanted to also be dealing with philosophy, particularly with this field. But that soon faded, as soon as I met Don Cherry, because then there was strictly no more time.
TP: So you did meet Cherry in 1965, five-six years after it came out. Another broad question, which I feel I can ask you because of your academic background. I’m no authority on German cultural history, but I’ve studied it a bit. Do you see yourself as the heir to any particular streams in German cultural thinking?
TP: Not at all? You don’t see yourself positioned... I’m not even talking about consciously. Just retrospecting on your own cultural production, do you see it as related in any way to that legacy?
KB: Well, of course, I knew and met all the people who developed free jazz in Europe, and particularly in Germany. But they took a radical approach towards everything. I liked the freedom that Ornette started by opening up the form, but really deal strongly with rhythm. That’s what I was interested in. In that, I was pretty much... I didn’t have a lot of peers. In France, yes. In Germany, no.
TP: So you’re referring to people like Brotzmann and Peter Kowald and the Wuppertal crowd...
KB: Yes. We worked with all these people. But it was not satisfactory to me, because I didn’t feel... I needed to feel grounded in the beat. I needed to feel connected to...yeah, a groove.
TP: It’s interesting you married someone who was going to be a dancer. But in asking that question, I wasn’t thinking so much of your contemporaries. I was thinking of German history. I was thinking of streams of German thought and aesthetic philosophy. I was wondering if you see yourself as heir to any of those traditions or streams?
KB: Not really, no.
TP: not even unconsciously.
KB: Well, I would have to think about that.
TP: Would you mind doing that? I think it’s important, because it seems to me that Creative Music Studio is as much the result of your personal philosophy, and this doesn’t emerge from a vacuum, but out of the context of a life lived.
KB: Well, ideology critique... I don’t know if this expression exists in English. That’s what it’s called in German—“Ideologiekritik,” which was my main area. It really has a lot to do with crossing borders, getting borders out of the way. Because ideologies create boundaries and borders, and CMS was really about going past that, but not by going through the borders, but going behind it, by seeing what is the common element of the different kinds of music. Ideologiekritik works exactly the same way. You go behind the ideologies, and see what is the common ground of all these.
TP: It’s interesting, because German academics invented anthropology and ethnography in the 19th century in many ways, so perhaps there’s some trail...
KB: Yes, you could probably trace that.
TP: I’m not equipped to do that, but it’s an interesting notion. Ingrid, can I ask you a similar question? Do you see yourself as heir to any particular streams of German culture in the way you think about music or art?
IB: Yes. For classical music, absolutely. Bach, Beethoven, Handel... Absolutely. I listen more to classical music, to those people, than to jazz actually. I never felt completely German, because my family is kind of from everywhere. Moroccan forefathers. Moorish. Then there’s French people in the family. Most of my family lives in Italy now. But I’m very fond... I love the German language. Not the one that got distorted by Nazi movies, but a real beautiful, soft-spoken...
TP: Southern Germany. The soft accent...
IB: Yes. And I love the European classical music. The Italian music. Absolutely.
TP: When you heard jazz, did you see a relation?
IB: Yes. Ornette said that to me. Ornette and Abdullah Ibrahim. The first thing Ornette said to me was, “You’re coming from Germany; you’re coming from a country with fantastic musicians”—classical musicians. Ornette used...what’s his last record called... Sound Grammar. He uses a Stravinsky thing. Well, Stravinsky is from Russia. But he’s an admirer. Marilyn Crispell, a friend of ours, said she heard him weave some Bach things into his music in concerts in Europe. So that definitely I am very fond of.
TP: You were speaking about your earlier singing influences. Before Ornette, who were the instrumentalists you admired?
IB: Charlie Parker. I didn’t know too much about him, but Thelonious Monk. It was mainly Charlie Parker, because I could relate to the way I feel with my voice.
TP: You like the intervals they use...
TP: Karl, you were originally a pianist and studied classical piano. When you started playing jazz, were there any pianists whose influence you were under?
KB: I always was intrigued by Monk’s playing. I always liked that a lot. Actually, I found myself pretty alone in that. In Europe, the traditionalists didn’t understand what Monk was all about.
IB: They didn’t understand what Monk was about either.
KB: Right. So Monk was really one from the beginning; I was interested in his stuff. But then I went, of course, through trying to copy Bud Powell and all the people from there. Also, Cedar Walton was a guy who came to Heidelberg a lot, so I met him. I was just trying to play like these guys. Actually, I taped some of it. When you listen to these tapes now, you can tell from the mistakes I’m making, that I’m not quite hitting what they were doing, that’s the beginning of my music. I can hear my phrases in my mistakes.
TP: A common jazz nostrum, to develop vocabulary from your mistakes. During the early ‘60s, you’re together... There’s a five-year span between when you meet and when you meet Don Cherry. You’re both professional musicians, and Karl is getting your Ph.D. What was your Ph.D?
KB: My thesis was “Definition of the Function of Music in the Soviet System Between Stalin and Khruschev.” That period. Through the example of Shostakovich.
TP: Would it be a mistake to say that you’re not a particularly political person. I’m thinking of Brotzmann and Kowald—a lot of their musical choices emerged from their politics. I get the sense that your politics were a little different...
KB: No. I was pretty radical at the time.
TP: Still are.
KB: [LAUGHS] We were very arrogant in a lot of ways. I was working in an institute in Berlin that specialized in studies about the East. There was a lot of politics there. I basically brought the musicologists and the sociologists together so that I could write in this area. It was interesting, because at the time, at least, in the Russian system, the Soviet system, ideology was, of course, prescribed. It was talked about, it was written about, and it was formulated in all these magazines, which all got translated into East German magazines. So I needed to learn enough Russians to know which titles are which...and get the literature from East Berlin. There was no wall yet at the time. I could go to East Berlin and get those materials. So it was all on the example of Shostakovich, who was one of my favorite composers—even now.
TP: so you meet Don Cherry at the club and you tell him you want to play with him, and he tells you to go to a rehearsal. What was that first rehearsal like?
IB: Big love. No problems. Big love. I didn’t... The work was done. Of course, not nearly as much as Karl did, because his gigs were just for instruments. But the few times I sang with him... I sang a lot with him when he came up to Woodstock, and I sang with him in Paris for two nights, and I did the Multikulti record with him, A&M Records—I did all the voice parts. Big love. Sensitive, intelligent, spirited person with lots of humor and an incredible musician.
TP: In the book by Robert (?), there’s some very good descriptions of him, and there’s a great picture of him with your daughters and another kid. So Karl, you played the next night with Don Cherry and became a member of the group. I’ve heard a number of things by the band. Speak about the musical ideas Don Cherry was working with, and how they related to your aspirations at the time, and retrospectively how they foreshadowed your future production. I know that’s a book, too, but...
KB: Don used a real eclectic mix of materials. From the very beginning when we played there, he would play pieces by Ornette, he would play pieces of his own, but then he would all of a sudden start a bossa nova, or he would start something he had just heard on the radio, or he would play some Asian or Indian scales. He would just come up with anything. He was Mr. Surprise. You basically had to stay on your toes to keep up. He had what Ornette called an “elephant memory,’ and he probably, unconsciously or not, expected the same from us, that we hear a melody once and we can play. Of course, we couldn’t, but we tried our bes
TP: the band was Gato Barbieri, Aldo Romano, and Jenny Clark.
KB: Yes. Gato was very quick. He was very good at picking up stuff. The great thing about that band was that it actually played every time. We had 5 hours of playing time every day except Monday. Then we had a couple of hours of rehearsal every day also. So it was 7 hours of playing every day. And there was no talking, because we didn’t talk. We didn’t have the same language. Gato only spoke Spanish, Aldo only French and Italian, Cherry only English, and I only German and English, and Jenny Clark only French and English—so there was no common language. So it was just, ‘Ok, yes, let’s go.’ That’s what was said, and everything else was Cherry pounding out the melodies on the piano in the rehearsals, and we would perform.
TP: Was that a deliberate aesthetic decision by Cherry, to incorporate all this material, or was it his nature to be a spontaneous improviser and bring forth what he was hearing? You were talking about the shortwave radio...
KB: He just was impressed by all kinds of music. Not only was he impressed; he wanted to use it. That was his decision. He was very naive, in the best sense of the word, about it. He would use any material that he heard, and start using it. Suddenly in the middle of the thing, you’d hear him play Charlie Parker’s solo and make a song out of that. I mean, anything could happen. It was amazing. So I think that was his nature. He was probably the first guy who completely disregarded all boundaries of music.
TP: had you been thinking about that approach before, when you were leading groups?
TP: had I heard you leading a group in 1965, what would the tone of it have been?
KB: Well, there’s one from 1966 that you probably know—an ESP album.
IB: The world approach that Don had, including world music, it had something that’s in us, or in me, and it just needed Don to ...(?—30:18)... It’s nothing... I believe that everybody is a singer and everybody is very musical. People just cover it up, and for some people it’s too late to dig it out, or too much work to dig it out. But everybody has it. That’s what the Creative Music Studio was about, to wake up the talents that are in people. Not to teach them something, but to wake up, to get it out. With Don, that was one of the first impressions about the music.
TP: So meeting him brought forth the overriding CMS concept.
IB: That we are a huge family—musical family.
TP: So for you, it was through his personality, and for Karl, more the different musical information...
IB: For me, both—music and personality.
TP: I guess your kids were born during these years, so I guess you were being a mom, but were you also working musically?
IB: Yes. While I was pregnant, I tried to do a gig with Steve Lacy, but that didn’t work out that night because of some circumstances with Steve Lacy. I don’t want to get into it, because I don’t want to put Steve down. It had to do with drugs. So, no, I just really...
KB: But to answer your question, my approach to music was more abstract. I wouldn’t think of styles, or I wouldn’t think of using raw materials from another culture or whatever, but I was interested in the phraseology of it all, and just use a tiny segment, and create tones that are very short and pregnant with ideas. So you wouldn’t need more than 4 bars or 5 bars to get going. So my first recordings were like that. There is one on Milestone. [SINGS OPENING THEME] That’s it, that’s the whole thing. That was enough for me to work for an hour. My idea was to have a concentrated focus on certain elements. I wasn’t thinking so much in terms of listening to other cultures or other ideas. But I’m sure that all came out of the experience of playing for 2 or 3 years like that.
TP: You impress as being a combination of an extreme idealist-utopian, but also very pragmatic about getting things done. I used to see a lot of German cinema, and I used to see a lot of Werner Herzog films, though I don’t think you approach his level of insanity—though I don’t know what you were like 40 years ago. But there’s the sense that you like to place yourself in extreme situations and make them work.
KB: Well, that’s true.
TP: I don’t know if there’s anything there for you to respond to. But I’m thinking of the way you described your activity once you moved to New York—going to the various lofts, getting involved with the most intensely political black musicians... Were you like that in Europe as well? Is that a component of your personality?
KB: I don’t know.
TP: I’ll ask your wife.
IB: I don’t understand the question. These craziness issues, is that part of his personality?
TP: No, that’s not the question. He came here fresh from Europe, and people seemed to immediately see him as an organizer, began to see his qualities. So he came and involved himself deeply in the radical New York scene, and then came back and set up Creative Music Studio. These things are not easy logistically to do, not easy psychologically to do, and it takes a certain sort of personality and certain venturesomeness...
TP: I’m wondering if those qualities had manifested in Europe.
IB: Yes. It’s part of Karl’s character, too.
KB: It’s actually fairly simple. I want to know... I like to play and I teach people to play with a more or less what I call music mind, which is basically not a fully conscious state of mind. It’s more like getting into the feel of things, and not having your mind interfere with that. But then at the same time, I like to know what it is that we’re doing. So the Creative Music Studio was a lot about that. One part of it was, we played all this music in the ‘60s, and then I was sitting back and said, “So what is it that we’re doing?” Now, the only way to find out what you’re doing is if you teach it to somebody else. If you have to explain what you’re doing to somebody else, then it will come out—or it won’t, of course. So that was a big part of it, that I wanted to really do some practical research in formal workshops.
TP: How are you different as teachers? It seems like the CMS is a...
IB: I don’t know how to answer that. Maybe Karl can. You didn’t ask me yet how I felt when I came over here.
TP: I was going to, but I got distracted. How did you feel when you came over here?
IB: Awful. It was the shock of my life. I looked so forward to get into the musicians here,. The shock of my life. I hated the food. I loved the people here. We met the most beautiful people here. But I hated the food, and I found out that coming from Europe, the musicians that you adore in Europe are superstars, but when you come here... The first person I approached on the Lower East Side was a famous saxophone player, whose name I don’t want to mention, who asked us for some money to buy a mouthpiece. The other one was Anita O’Day, who was the only white singer I really loved. She sang at Copacabana, and I looked forward to it, and I walked in, and she cried... She was sitting at the bar. I said to the waiter, “is she not singing more?” “She’s fired. She came late.” So I felt this disrespect, which is probably here not a disrespect, but for a European coming from over there it was a shock. Then we met Ornette right away...when it got really hard for us to stay, he talked us into staying. He said, “You’ll play some music that should be heard; don’t leave.”
TP: So you stayed for a couple of years, before you went back...
IB: Yes, because of pregnancy I went back there. Then we came back.
TP: At the time you returned the first time, did you feel at peace with being here?
IB: No. Only then, when we came the second time and we settled in Woodstock—because I didn’t want to be with the kids in New York. I think that was part of Karl’s idea—so his family is away from the city. So one little part of the journey is the studio in Woodstock...not the Creative Music Studio, but the studio in Woodstock so we could be in the countryside.
TP: Please ruin down for me again the gestation of CMS. Did you have the idea before you came to the States of something like that?
KB: What happened was, when I came here in ‘66, I started a gig with Reggie Workman and Horacee Arnold and Sam Rivers. We played in schools for young audiences. The experience with those kids really gave me the idea that people (it was sixth graders at the time; today it would probably be fourth-graders) are completely open, just like Don Cherry.
TP: You had small children then yourself.
KB: Well, they were only 2 years old, or 3... We’d just started to have kids. The way they were dealing with music, coming up with melodies or recognizing melodies, or the kinds of answers they gave us, it really showed me that there is this amazing potential in everybody to just go anywhere with music or other things—whatever it is. Then later, it gets closed off in these stylistic patterns, which are socialization, some other processes that are going on.
So one part was that I was curious about doing some research before I kept being on the road. It would have been easier for us to go back to Europe and just stay on the road. But over here, there was no road. So we created our own road by having the Creative Music Studio.
TP: By that do you mean that through CMS you were able to bring to yourselves the diversity of experience that you would have through being on the road in Europe?
KB: Exactly. But actually better.
TP: Very practical again.
KB: Better, because some of the best people in the world would come to us, come right to our house. Also, all these musicians who lived in the Woodstock area at the time, like Anthony and Dave Holland, Jack, Stu Martin, or Carla, all these people, they all were actually looking to do some work at home that was creative, and not have to be on the road all the time.
TP: Had you met Carla in Europe in the ‘60s?
KB: No, we met her here. She was the first one to move to the Woodstock area. The Creative Music Foundation, the actual founding of the foundation in 1971, happened actually at the Jazz Composers Orchestra office at 500 Broadway. We had a little room in the back there, and that’s where we started the foundation. Mike Mantler and Carla... They helped us write the first grants and to get things rolling. They told me all about the non-profit thing. The non-profit thing is something that’s European, in a way. There’s a lot more non-profit activity there than there is here. People don’t think like that here.
TP: Well, it started to be more au courant in the ‘70s.
KB: Then finally, I got very interested in the question of how can we play all this kind of music at the same time. Don’s way must be based on something that’s common to all music. So rather than emphasizing what’s different about different kinds of music is to emphasize what’s common to all the music. So what kinds of studies could we do dealing with the common ways of music. So dealing with basic ideas of time and basic ideas of space. We just started there. Then every day there would be exercises in these areas that did not deal with any style of music. That’s what really opened up all the people to find sort of their own ways of interpreting different styles of music. I didn’t expect everybody to just go and play a completely new music, but they needed to find out how they could open up within given styles.
TP: When I had Stephen and Peter on the air, one or the other of them said that gamalataki comes from a pattern in Pakistani tabla music...
KB: It doesn’t matter where it comes from.
TP: But one thing I asked you on the radio which I’d like to explore a bit more: In a certain sense, you set up a system for people to use the rhythms and scales and melodies of the world towards further elaborating their own ideas...
KB: Yes. First of all, we use the system of odd and even, regardless of any musical ideas. It’s just odd and it’s even. One melody is odd, the other one is even. We use language rhythm, so instead of “gamela” you could say something else. It doesn’t have to be those syllables... As a matter of fact, there was some old age home where some students were doing that, and people said, “Oh, we don’t want to do gamela taki, so they came up with some comic names. It doesn’t matter. The point is, what I’ve discovered was that in any music, you look at three levels of rhythm that are going on—in any piece. That’s pulse, that’s language rhythm, and that’s form. Any form. It’s rhythmically also. Form has repetitions and so on. Larger forms and so on. Language rhythm is always asymmetrical. Pulse is non-descriptive. You don’t count actually. It’s just 1-1-1-1-1. So basically, just out of that alone, we could study, first of all, openness of meter. Any kind of meter could come from there. Any additive rhythms could be realized that way. So you really did world musical studies in the broader sense of the world, because you coudl then go to a Turkish piece and say, “Oh, yes, this has this-and-this gamela taki element, and also on that...” But then also, I realized that, doing that, we could also not only go wider, but we could also go deeper—which means watch your mind of what you’re doing, beat-for-beat attention. So you’re really going into focus training—what I call music mind training now. So you did like both of those things at the same time. And if you do it every morning, it really changes people’s habits around their music after a few weeks.
TP: I have two questions. Did you specifically ever immerse yourself in any area of music from whatever part of Africa, or South Africa, or Turkey? Have you studied any of those musics systematically?
IB: I studied Indian music for two years. I studied with Pranath, the North Indian singer who died. [here] Then I took some lessons with ...(?—50:47)...., who rented our house up at Woodstock. I had gone to the conservatory in Europe to study voice, and they wanted to turn me into an opera singer—and I love opera, but that’s not what I wanted to do. Then I took acting classes in France and in Germany, and I worked with voice much better because actors don’t work with microphones, so they have to project right, they have to breathe right. Then, finally, I found the Indian training, and I really liked that. Because I worked with the natural voice. I just worked with the voice the way it is, but make it clean and make it stronger.
TP: So like an instrument.
IB: so like an instrument.
TP: Superficially, when you read about it, it sounds like chanting, or perhaps a religious ritual sort of thing.
IB: Yes, it’s kind of chanting. But you’re singing the ragas and you’re singing... it can get very complex. It’s always about the purity, the cleanness, the tuning. The way you tune is the most important thing in Indian music. Your tuning, the wayyou hit the note and you stay with it, and then around this tuning you form your vibrato and the originality of your voice. It’s a very beautiful tuning.
TP: Were you teaching this way before CMS, or did you begin once...
IB: No. I never liked teaching. I wanted to sing, but I never liked teaching it. I always felt like rnette. Do I know enough to teach? We asked Ornette, “Come up and teach; it will be so fantastic,” and he said, “I can’t do that; if I go up there, then they think I know something.” But that’s Ornette, because he knows a lot more than I do. He’s kind of a guru for me, so I admire him a lot.
TP: So Ornette and Don are gurus for you.
TP: Maybe Karl, too. But once you marry him, not...
IB: No, he wasn’t before either. We were pretty compatible. I’m doing music longer than Karl.
TP: So you returned to Europe, came here to set up the foundation, went back to Europe, came back here, and you had a barn, and you set up the barn...
IB: Yes. That’s where we started the workshop. Anthony Braxton was the first teacher.
TP: What was his methodology?
IB: [MERRY LAUGH] Everything was good about it! [LAUGHS] Fantastic. His musical level is very high. The energy... You should not put that in the article, but I’ve not been at his workshop ever. I tried to get everything together. So I was very busy. I wish I could have gone. Braxton now...we met him in Switzerland. He came to our concert with the octet...
TP: I also saw him perform with the two of you.
IB: Yes. He came up and he said, “Ingrid, we’ve got to do something together. Where’s Karl?” That’s where we organized this. He felt like he never had time when he came to CMS to even hang out with us. So he really wanted...
TP: That concert was magnificent.
IB: We recorded together at the studio before the concert. That’s going to be a CD. He demanded that. He said, “We have to do a CD, then the concert.” After the concert, people walked up to me and said, “Where’s Braxton?” I said, “He’s leaving; he has four hours to go home.” they said, “No, get him back. We want you three to do this all night, what you just did.”
TP: So was the teaching more a thing that came out of you?
IB: Yeah, that’s because of Karl. His father was a teacher; my father was a teacher. He was a professor of Latin and English, but mainly Latin.
TP: so he comes from a family of professors.
IB: Yes. So he turned me on. The concept of the Creative Music Studio was unbelievable. It’s not like you go to a music school or conservatory and then you find these nasty, cranky teachers that have a job until they retire, but they don’t want to do it every day. CMS was the opposite. It was about performing musicians, that when they had time came up, and passed on the music to the students, but not only their music to the students but also their lifestyle. They showed the students, we are out there, we’re performing, we’re doing concerts. It was incredible.
TP: Peter Apfelbaum and Steven Bernstein were very young when they got there, and I know what the ‘70s were like, and I know what Woodstock was like, and I know how wild people were—it was a wild time.
IB: A very wild time.
TP: Very wild, in a lot of ways. It sounds like you may have been the person who centered it.
IB: I hope we did a little bit. We loved them. Peter Apfelbaum became part of our family, Steven Bernstein a little bit too. John Lindberg not so much because he was gone all the time, but Peter stayed with us up there. But Lindberg is family, too.
TP: Talk a bit about establishing social order at CMS? Were there house rules? Were there things that were verboten?
IB: You mean not drinking, no smoking?
TP: That and going to classes. Keep a protocol so that people would...
IB: Oh, yeah. We had a regular schedule. In the morning we would always do the gamela taki sessions. That’s for everybody, non-musicians or musicians. Karl would do the gamela-taki, the rhythmical thing with them, and I would form melodies over all these numbers—sing a melody over 5, sing a melody over 7, over 9. Actually, I started out doing phrasing exercises with them. Since I have some dancing experience, I did some exercises with them. Then we did some holding notes and singing, and then Karl came, and then we combined that. Then there was lunch, and then in the afternoon it started again sometimes at 2. Then at 5 o’clock we had a Buddhist teacher come in, and there was a half-hour meditation. Nobody had to do Buddhism, but there was no talking, and people were just supposed to be quiet.
TP: Are you Buddhist?
IB: We came to Buddhism in America. Don Cherry took a refuge with Trungpa Rempeche. Don Cherry was deeply devoted to Buddhism.
TP: Are you sill practicing?
IB: Yes, we have a big monastery in... Because it relates totally to music. It’s about emptying out, taking in again, and being creative.
TP: I can see exactly how it works. Do you think CMS would have happened had you not started studying and practicing Buddhism?
IB: No. We started the studio, and pretty much at the same time it happened.
TP: So it’s part of your practice, in a sense.
IB: Yes. It happened in a funny way, because my father died. My mother said, “Don’t come back to Europe; by the time you come, he’s dead—save the airplane ticket.” I picked up a book, because I suffered so much and I loved my parents, and the book helped me get over this suffering, and it was by Trungpa Rempeche who had the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. Naively, we did the Peace Church album with Dave Holland, Bobby Moses, all these people, and I used texts by Chögyam Trungpa Rempeche. I could have gotten in a lot of trouble. I had no idea who he was. I just loved his texts. You can get into a lot of trouble if the author is still living and you don’t ask permission. But the office of Naropa Institute called us and said, “We love the record (it had just come out then), and we’ll invite you out.” We did concerts out there (Dave Holland went with us) and workshops at Naropa Institute.
But the Studio was first. Then pretty soon after one year, two years, we got introduced to Buddhism.
TP: In a broad retrospective sense, I see the CMS has taking in and crystallizing a lot of streams of artistic thought, so I see a sort of prehistory of the politics...and I was wondering if you had gone into the personal...
IB: Yes, absolutely.
TP: You know, the transmutation of the collective attitude of political radicalism into self-actualization that happened a lot in the ‘70s.
IB: Oh, absolutely. I remember the first concert I did with Don in Paris. He laid down before, and he just meditated. He was actually the first one that introduced me to it, but I didn’t take it more serious for myself until we came to the States. He had the same teacher like we did, Chögyam Trungpa Rempeche, and we had other teachers.
TP: Jumping to the present: what do you see as the impact of CMS? I don’t know how much you’re able to stay current with what’s going on in creative music and jazz, among musicians who are 40, 35...
IB: Well, it happens once you’ve chosen a music you love, you don’t listen so much to other things.
TP: How do you see the nature of the impact of CMS on the course of music since 1984, when you closed? Some things that were core principles of the pedagogy have come to pass. Rhythms of the world are part of the jazz mainstream now. For example, Dafnis Prieto is playing on the concert tonight...
IB: first of all, the musicians who taught at the Creative Music Studio, most of them that we spoke to loved it and really wanted us to do it again. One was Don and Nana Vasconelos, of course. Many students stayed in Woodstock, and went on going in this direction of opening up to this world music thing, taking in from everywhere. But that’s a question for Karl.
KB: [BACK FROM FEEDING THE METER] yes?
TP: The impact of the pedagogy of CMS on the sound of today’s music, the way creative music has evolved in the 24 years since it closed.
KB: Every comment that we get from students...we’re getting some every week actually, still. They’re really talking about something like it really changed their attitude towards music. A lot of them will not be able to explain to you what happened. But really what that process did, not just our basic practice, music mind training, but having to deal with 5-6-8 different artists of completely different directions, and it really sort of blew their minds in a lot of ways. Which means that the mindset that they came with was not the mindset with which they left. That’s really all I can say. How do you want to define it? It’s basically a sense of openness, that you understand that it’s not about the notes, it’s not about the material. We kept explaining to them something that Don Cherry and Ornette explained to me at first, which is there’s no such thing as notes. There’s no such thing as a C. There’s no such thing as an A. You have to put it all in context. Everything is in a context. In a harmonic context, for example, or in a rhythmic context. Once you see that it’s all interrelated, then all of a sudden you begin to see the uniqueness of each note. There is no note that you can’t even repeat, really. There is no repetition, really. So once you start to get into the freshness of the sound, the experience of the sound, then something happens to your music, regardless what you do, whether you end up being a rock-and-roll player or anything. You’ll just be different.
TP: Would it be a mistake, then, to say that there is a school that comes out of CMS, or schools that come out of it, or streams of musical thinking that come from the people who experienced it?
IB: I would say that there is.
TP: Can you describe what that school is?
TP: Can you try?
IB: No, I think Karl is better at it.
TP: I think you’re pretty good.
IB: Well, the main philosophy is really an open mind. Openness. Openness to the world. But study music. Doing your training and doing your music, but open. Well, if you have that approach, then I would say the same thing that Ornette says. It saves you a psychiatrist. Because you express yourself. Ornette said once to me, and I agreed totally with him, because I always felt like that. He said to me, “You would understand what I say, because you sing.” He said it’s a self-expression, and if you combine that with the family of the world and with an open mind, you will find... Through opening up to the world, you find your own style.
TP: It’s more about process than vocabulary.
IB Kind of.
KB: Your question aims at how could something like that be defined on a material plane.
TP: I’m not sure. That’s why I’m asking the question.
KB: Exactly. The whole point was that all music education is hampered by the fact that it has to do deal with musical material, and it has to evaluate that, and in the process of evaluation in schools, where you get a certain amount of points and all that, keeps you from considering what’s really important in music, aside from the material. The material is very important. But once you get stuck there, and your whole evaluation process goes around the material, then you cannot have that kind of thinking. So I’ve been in the traditional school situation, the university system, for almost ten years. I was chair of the U-Mass-Dartmouth; I was Dean of the Music Department in jazz in Frankfurt Conservatory. I was like ten years in the system. And I could see how little I could do to incorporate the music-mind thinking in their curriculum.
TP: What years were you in the system?
KB: From ‘90 to 2000.
TP: Did you feel that the aspirations of the students you were encountering during those years were different than when you were that age, or of young musicians of the ‘60s? If so, what was the nature of that difference?
KB: The difference was that the kids of the ‘90s particularly were very goal-oriented in the sense of having a profession, being music teachers, getting a diploma so that they could teach, that they would have a job. so there was a lot of thinking of that nature. Then you found a bunch of people in there that I couldn’t reach with any of the ideas that I would have to teach them. I would introduce... In all these situations, I introduced a new...one loop out of the curriculum, which was voluntary, and I called it “conceptual studies.” That could mean anything from them wanting to play with me in duets, or bringing compositions, or bringing arrangements, or bringing their own trio, or playing some solo, or asking theoretical questions, or anything. Somebody would come in and sit down and want to be served. I would say, “so what do you want to know?” If they said, “I don’t know,” then I’d say, “So come back next week.” I would give them the initiative. They were not used to that. There is very little initiative among the students in the universities, because the universities are set up to run you through a mill, and yo sort of reluctantly do it. So it’s not set up for you to raise questions. So there is a real problem there. I thought when we ended CMS in ‘84...or ‘86 actually...I thought there is now 600-700 people who came through here who will go into the schools and they will be taking care of that information. But it didn’t happen.
TP: Well, some did. Braxton did. Leo Smith did...
KB: No, I mean the students. I mean, Leo Smith is a very good example, because he really did something inside the schools. But he did it by way of political power. He just pushed politically until he had his own free space. Very few people can do something like that.
TP: It’s very interesting how so many people from the AACM have developed these institutional positions. A question on the digitization project. You’ve now listened back to most of these concerts.
KB: A lot of them.
TP: You’ve probably listened to 300 or so concerts from the ‘70s. Now, I’ve noticed that you have a systematic mind. You established a teaching curriculum, you studied philosophy in a German university, your father was a teacher of Latin—there’s a component of this in your personality. So could you describe your overall, macro impression of that body of music, where it’s positioned in regard to the music of its time, to the music it evolved from, to the music it foreshadows.
KB: Well, when you listen to it, a lot of it, there’s very different things going on. First of all, the audience were in an exuberant state by having these orchestras and working with them. So there’s a lot of overflowing energy in these tapes, something you hardly hear on recordings from then or now. So this is going to be very new for a lot of listeners to hear. Also, soloists playing together who usually wouldn’t play together, and also playing in a way that they would not play otherwise. It’s mindboggling to hear all of that.
IB: Plus material that wasn’t made anywhere else. Like Cecil Taylor. He put the band together up there, and did music he did nowhere else at that time.
KB: Then in the later part, you have all these world musical concerts that start out with Brazilian or Turkish ideas, or Indian, whatever, and then all this improvising takes place. It’s very interesting, what happened with all of that. But it’s very raw, and there’s a lot of...
IB: yes, very raw.
TP: Does that come through in a non-three-dimensional context, just listening to it without the visual?
KB: Oh, absolutely. We have a great engineer. He really brings out the stuff. We really didn’t have the greatest of equipment at the time.
IB: That has to do with the concept of the studio, was the openness that people all of a sudden... I wouldn’t say spontaneous, but they opened up. So it was a very open approach to freedom, a kind of freedom of what they wanted to do.
TP: It’s interesting how diverse the streams of musical thinking were that were representing. You had the Art Ensemble of Chicago guys and Braxton, and people like Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette who were mainstream stars, and older experimentalists like Konitz and Jimmy Giuffre...
IB: yes. David Holland did a beautiful workshop over there.
TP: Then Brackwell, of course, and all the drummers. It seemed drummers just gravitated to this place.
IB: We had the people from Africa. We had Amadou, who is Neneh Cherry’s father... Neneh Cherry is the adopted daughter of Don Cherry. Then Foday Musa, who worked with Mandingos and Adam Rudolph. We had people from India... Karl probably talked about Ismet, the guy from Turkey.
[END OF CONVERSATION]