Karl Berger: Freedom in Discipline

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...

For more information, visit karlberger.com. Berger curates The Stone this month and will appear there Jul. 9th-10th, 15th-16th, 21st and 30th with various groups.

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