Fall 2016 Workshop Journal

Pauline Oliveros, Fabian Almazan and Steven Bernstein Go Deep at CMS Fall Workshop – Read Kurt Gottschalk’s Recap


CMS Fall Workshop 2016 Chronicles

By Kurt Gottschalk

Monday, September 19:

A pair of double bassists took the Roadhouse stage Sept. 19 in the second of a series of evening encounters. Both were in dark shirts and cargo shorts, both wearing big grins, one barefooted the other in stocking feet.  Before they even began, they were drawing good-natured gibes from the musicians in the audience. They played a brief improvisation, Ken Filiano, stage left, steering the ship as Leigh Daniels, to his right, looked on entranced.

It was more or less the eve of the Fall 2016, Creative Music Studio workshop and it was more or less a night for feeling one another out. Already a camaraderie had begun to develop. Having already done a round of introductions and shared a big meal and drinks, they now were setting about what they had come for.

Pianist and CMS Guest Artist Angelica Sanchez is coordinating the evening performances, announcing that a guitar trio would be up next and asked if anyone wants to play who isn’t on  the list. Sitting in the front row, participant Bob Drake motioned and was given the choice – as are all the players – to either pick a band or draw names. He chose the latter, resulting in bassist Daniels’ return to the stage for a pleasingly sympatico duet with analog electronics.

Then came the first all-star set of the week: cofounders Karl Berger (keyboard) and Ingrid Sertso (voice) with Omar Tamez on guitar, Donny Davis on reeds, Joe Hertenstein on drums and Ken Filiano on bass, beginning in a drift before everyone was even set up, slipping into some casual bop and, at length, into abstractions on “Blue Moon.” It was, perhaps, a tribute to the Full Moon Resort, the modest Catskills getaway where CMS has been holding its semi-annual workshops since its rebirth in 2013. For the rest of the week, a couple dozen participants were to be involved in daytime workshops, covering improvisation of course but also breathing, movement, voice, rhythm, world spirituality and more. Evenings would see more performances, including other guests and workshop leaders, including Fabian Almazan, Steven Bernstein, Iva Bittova, Pauline Oliveros and others.

But for now, they were just playing, with each other and for themselves.


Tuesday, September 20:


“I thought I heard some pretty good listening.” – Bob Sweet

“We don’t learn something here, we take it out.” –  Ingrid Sertso

“I don’t practice, I already practiced. If we keep playing the same licks, they’ll lose their spontaneity.” –  Pauline Oliveros

“Blend any note with any note. Don’t be afraid. Harmonize through dynamics.  Listen to all of it.” –  Karl Berger

“Pay attention to every moment, every sound, every sound of every sound. That’s beat for beat attention.” –  Karl Berger

“There’s no such thing as pitch, only sound that you constantly hear and adjust.” – Karl Berger

What does it mean to listen? The question needed to be asked, if not entirely answered (or so it seemed), before any instruments could be picked up on the first full day at the Creative Music Studio’s fall workshop on Sept. 20.

Such preparations involved workshops with Karl Berger and Ingrid Sertso focusing on breath, voice, rhythm and polyrhythm followed by a session led by composer and sound philosopher Pauline Oliveros focusing on active listening.

Oliveros described playing her accordion with Stuart Dempster on didgeridoo in a huge, demilitarized underground cisterns with a 45-second decay — a “hall of audio mirrors,” she called it — for five solid hours. That session inspired the name she gave to her work and research, “deep listening.” Ever since, she said, she has been working to define “the difference between hearing and listening.”

Oliveros also spoke about her work with instruments designed to allow deaf people to “hear” tones by receiving the vibrations tactilely. “I’ve learned there is a lot to learn about listening from deaf people,” she said. She then addressed her own hearing loss at 84 years of age and concerns about finding a hearing aid that isn’t designed solely for hearing speech.

The session included a 15-minute “listening meditation” after which the participants were divided into small groups to discuss their listening experiences and then to compare with the whole of the group. Implicit in the activity was the idea that if you can’t listen to your environment, you can’t listen to the musicians you’re playing with.

“I’m trying to transmit to players the deepest part of where we get our music from, if we are able to do that,” Oliveros said.

The morning’s exercises seemed to pay off. After lunch and a session of body awareness, the players committed a gentle group improvisation under Oliveros’s direction without giving in to the temptation to solo and found a mutual, organic resolution. The teacher, however, was not finished challenging her charges.

“What you misunderstood created an interesting texture but what was missing for me was reinforcing that environmental sound,” Oliveros said.
“I just want to wail on top of that,” said reed player Donny Davis, drawing laughs.
“I know, I could feel the tension,” she replied.

Oliveros instructed the group to reinforce (not to echo or overpower) a naturally occurring sound inside or outside the room through several rounds of solo, duo and trio exercises. They then tried another group piece, this time more daring, more variegated, exploring nonmusical sounds still without the intrusion of ego.

“I thought I heard some pretty good listening,” laughed drummer Robert Sweet, a workshop participant and author of the book All Kinds of Time, a history of the Creative Music Studio.

With that established, the participants undertook group playing in the CMS Composers Orchestra under Berger’s direction, beginning with an improvisation on a single note, then learning the system of hand gestures he uses to guide group improv.  Next he gave them a set of boppish lines, quickly woodshedded them and and then applied a quick 45-minutes of schooling to create a convincing performance reminiscent of the Charles Mingus jazz workshop.

The evening’s performances began with what could only be described as a significant meeting between Oliveros, Sertso and guest artists Czech violinist and singer Iva Bittova. It was simultaneously exploratory and charming. Then followed a very satisfying pair of jams on various two Ornette Coleman pieces with Berger and Sertso, Davis, trumpeter Steven Bernstein, bassist Ken Filiano, drummer Joe Hertenstein, pianist Angelica Sanchez and guitarist Omar Tamez.

A few student ensembles which seemed to bring the evening to an early end, with the name to watch out for being Nikki Malley. She showed herself to be inventive, exciting and not lacking in musculature on her vibraphone. A first-meeting duet with Guiding Artist Fabian Almazan on piano and Hartenstein on drums quieted the room. After a brief pause, unwilling to let the stage sit empty, Berger reclaimed his position at the keyboard after the students had finished for a series of duets on standards, including a wonderful take on “Take the A Train” with Bernstein and ending in a fantastically staggered reading “St. Thomas” with Hertenstein. Earlier in the day, Berger had told the workshop participants that “with music, when you play, there is no age.” But vamping on Duke Ellington and Sonny Rollins, the 81-year-old trailblazer displayed a wisdom that only comes with years.


Wednesday, September 21:


“If you are shy, I am shy. So please, let’s tune.” – Ingrid Sertso

“We basically have a childlike nature, a purity that you have to get in touch with in order to do art.” – Ingrid Sertso

“We give the music to the world. We don’t keep it in.” – Ingrid Sertso

“It’s funny, we’re an intellectual society now and we’ve forgotten to sing together.” – Karl Berger

“When you sing, there’s a vibration in your head that doesn’t allow you to think the same way. Use that.” – Karl Berger

“As I go on in my own music, I find a play less and less. I leave more and more space.” – Karl Berger

Day 3 of the Creative Music Studio fall workshop proved to be was a foray into Cuban rhythms. With each of the semi-annual sessions, a different world culture is selected for a day’s investigation and pianist/composer Fabian Almazan was invited to introduce the music of his heritage for the Sept. 21 workshop/master class.

After the daily body awareness session and morning rhythm and voice exercises led by CMS co-founders Karl Berger (“When you sing, there’s a vibration in your head that doesn’t allow you to think the same way. Use that.”) and Ingrid Sertso (“We basically have a childlike nature, a purity that you have to get in touch with in order to do art.”), Almazan took over with a lecture on the history and practice of Cuban music that would last from 11:30 to 5 (with a break for lunch and another body awareness session).  He explained the history of various rhythmic patterns and how those ‘musical units’ affect melodic and harmonic composition.  He showed video of Santeria ceremonies, once ‘banned’ in Cuba, now celebrated by the new government and used as a form or tourism: “San-tourism” he called it. He also showed the group the variety of Cuban instruments and their derivation from other parts of the globe, while also explaining how in Cuba, everything is used as an instrument, tapping out rhythms on a nearby recycling bin as an example.

Almazan’s influence carried over into Berger’s afternoon Improvisers Orchestra session, where the talented young pianist (who came to America from Havana at age 9) led the ensemble of participants in instrumental explorations of Cuban themes. In the slow build of the week, the afternoon session marked the introduction of soloing to the collective process and armed with decades of Cuban cultural, political and historical knowledge, the assemblage set about exploring influences from south of the border.

During the first piece, Berger walked slow circles, playing his red melodica and eyeing individual players closely before signaling them to take their turn. Almazan moved from keyboard to clavé to drums to explain how the parts of a second piece would fit together into a succession of solos over group rhythms.

“There isn’t really pitched material except for the singers so when you’re not playing the themes, you’re playing percussion,” he explained, leading the players to mute their strings, tap their keys, clap their hands or drum on folding chairs.

The afternoon workshops ended with the ‘listening to the sound disappear’ meditation, a staple of CMS daily listening practice.

The evening performances began with the featured band this time, Almazan, Berger, Steven Bernstain, Donny Davis, Ken Filiano, Joe Hertenstein and Omar Tamez playing a far-reaching set, Almazan and Filiano both blurring the edges with deft use of volume knobs. Half phrases flew around the stage, “My Favorite Things,” “I’m Beginning To See the Light” and perhaps the alien message from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

The second half opened esoterically enough, with a duo of Jared  Samuel on synth and Filiano making even more dramatic use of his effects pedals and bowing, and another duo of Nicki Malley on vibraphone and Bob Drake on analog electronics. A quartet of flautists provided another break in the rotation but for the most part, the afternoon’s rhythmic practice seemed to push the evening jams. A final improv (by Drake and Filiano) was even postponed until the following day, the audience/performers seeming genuinely excited to leave their nightclub and rest up for the coming day.


Thursday, September 22:


When I saw the Grand Canyon, you know Ornette Coleman, “The Skies of America”? I wrote him a postcard. – Ingrid Sertso

We’re all a little lopsided in one way or another. We have to break through these habits. – Karl Berger

Think of music as the silence that is framed by a sound. – Karl Berger

We’re talking about really fundamental stuff, just feeling each beat, that’s enough. – Karl Berger

Anywhere you are, you can practice. – Karl Berger

We hesitate to use our voice and we don’t remember turning hearing into listening. – Karl Berger

Something happened, I don’t know why, but everybody just talks, nobody sings. – Karl Berger

We do a lot of involuntary thinking. You just use your breath and it’s gone. It comes right back, of course, but then you do it again. – Karl Berger

If I had a record store, I would just sort the records by name. – Karl Berger


Steven Bernstein’s Koan Factory:

“Everyone knows what diatonic is? It’s the key you’re in. You’ll die if you leave the tonic.

I’m interested in music that explores more than one key at a time.

Learn everything. There’s no such thing as wasted knowledge.

Even fixed rhythm is not fixed. There’s good changing rhythm and bad.

In this whole thing about western music, whether you’re talking about Count Basie or Bruce Springsteen, it’s all about arpeggios.

It’s good to know your scales but if you’re improvising, it’s important to have all the arpeggios under your fingers

What you play is not the music. The note that comes out of your instrument is not the music. To me, what people hear is the music.

If you have sound, rhythm, melody and a little bit of magic, there’s no chance of failure.

Take that soprano and put it under the back wheels of a car. I’m just trying to give you some good, professional advice.

If you can play one song really well and you really understand how it works harmonically, you can play any song.

Keeping your instrument out of the case is a really important habit to have. You need to develop the practice of practice so you play everyday.

These cats who come out of conservatory, I say ‘man, you can play everything but a gig.’

It doesn’t have to be notes. Notes are just easy, that’s why I like them. There’s only 12 of them – how hard is that?

After a couple of full days focusing on listening and breathing, of feeling their bodies and finding their singing voices, the final day of sessions at the Creative Music Studio fall workshop offered some nuts and bolts under the guidance of trumpeter/composer Steven Bernstein. In particular, Bernstein reinforced to the participants the need for strong instrumental technique and an awareness of the audience.

“What you play is not the music, he said. “The note that comes out of your instrument is not the music. To me, what people hear is the music. A lot of times, what people see onstage is the music. It’s all about getting music to other human beings.

He had the assembled players work through exercises with arpeggios then apply them to a piece of his own written in an Ethiopian mode. After the previous day’s exercises in Cuban music, it was compelling to see how readily an orchestra can be recalibrated with a few tools and some careful guidance.

“In this whole thing about western music, whether you’re talking about Count Basie or Bruce Springsteen, it’s all about arpeggios,” he said. “People talk a lot about scales. It’s good to know your scales but if you’re improvising, it’s important to have all the arpeggios under your fingers.

He then offered to the group what he said are the four essential elements of music:

• Sound – ‘You better have a good sound. Once you have a sound you listen to other people and say ‘how can my sound fit into this music?’

• Rhythm – ‘A rhythm that is not continuous is still a rhythm. If you go out and stand by that stream for 10 minutes, there’s a rhythm there. It’s not a Motown song but you might still want to play it.”

• Melody – ‘Melody is the mind’s way to make sense of things, it allows us to create order. One note repeated three times is a melody because your mind is going to go ‘oh, you played three notes.’

• Magic – the fourth element, he said, is magic. “Those four elements are all you need to make good music. If you have sound, rhythm, melody and a little bit of magic, there’s no chance of failure.”

The afternoon session was spent working through Ornette Coleman’s “Round Trip” and with Bernstein extemporizing on the value of knowing one song through and through.

“If you can play one song really well and you really understand how it works harmonically, you can play any song,” he said. “I really believe that works, because there’s only one set of rules for music. How does the melody function, how does the harmony function, how does the rhythm function?

And, of course, he stressed the importance of daily practice.

“Keeping your instrument out of the case is a really important habit to have,” Bernstein said. “You need to develop the practice of practice so you play everyday. It’s really something everyone needs to develop in order to play an instrument.”

Karl Berger took over the rest of the session to lead the group in another piece with a focus on dynamics. “For not doing this more than once, that was amazing,” he said after they finished, in what would be the last piece of formal instruction. “There’s nothing else to do but listen to the sound going away.”

The evening performances began with Bernstein on slide trumpet and Berger on vibes, joined by vocalist Ingrid Sertso, saxophonist Donny Davis, guitarist Omar Tamez,  bassist Ken Filiano and drummer Joe Hertenstein for a take on “Art Deco.” Together they connected the dots between Don Cherry (who wrote the tune and with whom Berger played) and the spirit of multiculturalism and global music (which Cherry embraced and Berger and Sertso have followed in their work with the CMS) collective improvisation and a vision of jazz that looks not just forward but backwards as well (Cherry wrote the piece for Billie Holiday). They then took on “Round Trip,” the 1968 Coleman piece they’d worked on during the afternoon, Berger switching then to piano. (A bit of incongruous irony there: The piece was originally recorded during Coleman’s classic quartet’s tenure but as a side project without Cherry.)

Plenty more went down that night, the premiere of the CMS Gamelan Orchestra (of a sort) including Bob Drake on analog electronics, standup comedy from Bernstein and Sertso, a nice duet of electronics , solo trombone,  some verse backed by bass, a little country-fied bop – all the participants played, along with guiding artists, and just past 12, a lovely “Round Midnight” by Berger and Bernstein. But let’s just say it ended there, with Billie, Don and Ornette, on a small stage at an out-of-the-way Roadhouse somewhere in the Catskills.

Notes from Rob Saffer, CMS Executive Director:

Another great week: abundant generosity among musicians, among people; ears changed, lives changed (at least a few).  Thanks again to our guiding artists – Pauline, Fabian and Steven – and to Ken Filiano for his constant presence and help organizing the evening jam sessions, to KB and Ingrid, Matthew Cullen, Geoff Baer, Karin Wolf and Kurt Gottschalk. Thanks to our family at Full Moon who always make us feel at home. And, ultimately that’s what CMS is about – feeling at home. Participants constantly tell us how CMS is like no other music workshop, retreat or camp – the non-competitive nature of CMS offers participants a chance to do things they’ve never done, take chances, make themselves vulnerable in a safe, supportive encouraging atmosphere. “It’s like coming home” many have told us. This week was no exception. People took musical, emotional and personal risks, rose to new challenges and came away excited by new tools to try over the coming days, months even years. As one participant told me, “Three days was hardly enough to absorb all that musical wisdom; I don’t know if a lifetime would be!’  And, that’s what CMS is all about.

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