CMS NYC Workshop Chronicles
By Michael Shore
FRIDAY MARCH 31:
WHY IS THIS WORKSHOP DIFFERENT FROM ALL OTHER WORKSHOPS?
I’ve only ever been to one CMS Workshop, June 2015 at Full Moon resort in Big Indian, NY. when I was mainly there to chronicle it for the CMS twitter feed and website, while lurking on the outside of the participants’ circle with a bag of small percussion devices…so I would say I was maybe a quarter participant. So, my frame of reference is limited—but I knew this NYC workshop would be very different from typical workshops: not being at a secluded bucolic resort but in the middle of noisy grimy NYC, and breaking up early the first two nights due to scheduled concerts at our host venue, Greenwich House Music School, would surely affect the sense of community that naturally grows among participants upstate. Also, no body awareness workshops ☹ (I still use some of the stretches I learned at Big Indian every single day).
It’s also different for me personally because this time I am a paying participant, bringing my own little 5-piece drum set-up as well as the small percussion. Small as it is, I as a very part-time amateur player still struggle mightily to cart it from my suburban Long Island home to the city via LIRR and subway, in a collapsible canvas duffel on plastic casters which I’m terrified the whole time will break off. They don’t, and I get a good taste of that dreary, back-breaking and unavoidable aspect of The Drummer’s Life. A valuable lesson indeed!
Finally, because I am much more participant than chronicler – and acutely self-conscious at how rusty and out-of-practice I am – I apologize up front for how different these notes will be than last time, with far less blow-by-blow detail and more hazily recollected impressionism. Due to my daily focus on focusing and not embarrassing myself during each master class, much of the weekend is a blur!
At Greenwich House we all meet and mingle during orientation, after setting up our gear…my fellow drummers and I somehow figure a way to fit all 5 kits onstage with the help of superhumanly patient production manager Alex. I’m suddenly grateful to have such a microscopic kit. In keeping with the spirit I’d felt so keenly at Big Indian and in all my dealing with CMS, everyone is cool and the vibe is mellow. The room gradually fills, a few faces familiar from the 2015 workshop I attended at Full Moon.
Eventually CMS Artistic Director/Co-founder Karl Berger calls us to order in a circle on the recital hall floor and asks us to introduce ourselves briefly. What an interesting group! The drummers include a student of Day 2 Guiding Artist Susie Ibarra’s, who will do wonderful gamelan-gong-type things with some small nesting metal mixing bowls, and one who works at the Jazz Foundation of America’s Jazz In The Schools program – so cool! There are around a dozen guitarists, including a “classical/theater composer by day, punk rocker by night,” another who’s brought a Chinese sanxian lute, and a long-haired young shredder who says he’s looking to learn how to contribute cool creative noises. There are names and faces I recognize from the stages at various downtown avant-rock and jazz gigs over the past few years. Someone came all the way from Washington state. There’s a dude with samplers and toys – “untrained”/”non-musician” company for yours truly! In fact, a lot of us say they’re like me: passionate music fans who put their instrumental dreams aside years ago to focus on family and/or career, but have rekindled that old inner mounting flame that never ever quite goes out.
CMS co-founder Ingrid Sertso leads us in the first of her daily vocal exercises, focused largely on deep breathing and long vowel sounds. It’s great to see her so healthy and energetic where two years ago she’d been weakened by illness. Her deep-breathing exercise is just the refreshing system-cleanse I need – the kind of thing someone like me always forgets to remember to do each day as mundanities and work and such get in the way. I actually begin feeling a sort of a buzz from all the extra oxygen intake from the deep-breathing, combined with the joy of making music – and I swear, just as I feel that buzz, Ingrid says “you know, some tribes around the world use these exercises as a way to get high.” My jaw drops open at how she’s read my mind. She also teaches us a lovely somber South African hymn: “We are going, Heaven knows where we are going…”
Karl Berger then outlines the basic ideas behind the workshop and provides some basic guidance and practice in rhythm, using his Gamala Taki method of counting rhythms in divisions of 3 and 2, having us sing out “ga-ma-la ta-ki” with different accents to different meters, then having us sing only certain syllables while keeping in rhythm – a great way to treat silence as another musical note, and to make rhythm more musical and less pure-math. Karl calls it “beat for beat attention.” It reminds me of one of my favorite chants by one of my favorite artists, Sun Ra: “music is silence too, music is silence too…” Karl then leads us in similar exercises using the singsong chant “time is, time is in, time is in time…” which I recalled from the 2015 workshop. Then he acknowledges the elephant in the room, that we had set up our instruments and must be itching to play them so let’s hit it and see what we can do. All I remember is focusing on the basslines from assistant Guiding Artist, the great Ken Filiano, who’s right in front of me onstage, and trying to follow Karl’s conducting gestures. Feels good to bash a bit for sure. The first day ends with “listening meditation”: Karl asks us to focus on sound and its disappearance – again, like the object lesson in the note value of silence, the kind of against-the-grain zen-koan lesson in which CMS seems to specialize – then he strikes a cymbal… and does it again… and again… and again… Faint street noises mix in with the ever-more-discernible overtones of the decaying cymbal crashes. The focus in the room is palpable. Great training for the ears, and a good start to the weekend!
SATURDAY APRIL 1
“WE ALL BELONG. AND IT’S COOL NOT TO BELONG”
The first full day of CMS NYC begins with several of us early arrivals outside at 8:45 am, waiting for someone from Greenwich House to show up and unlock the place, breakfast having been called for 9am. We can hear someone upstairs practicing piano but they can’t hear us calling “helloooo” and banging on the door. Possibly a reminder that the calendar says it’s April 1. Someone does show up not long after 9, and the day proper starts with breakfast, and CMS Executive Director Rob Saffer putting out the word that today’s Guiding Artist, Wilco guitarist (among other pursuits) Nels Cline, wants us in a big circle with the drummer spaced out evenly around it. I immediately run upstairs to set up, wanting to make sure I have a spot. Breakfast is a welcome, delicious and filling reminder that the food at Big Indian in June 2015 was plentiful, naturally healthy and yummy. The spread includes eggs, chicken sausages, steamed potatoes, fresh berries, yogurt, Granola, OJ and coffee or tea…at least I think there were big skin-on spuds. Maybe I’m mixing that up with lunch or dinner. What I definitely DO remember is those sausages – and the herb that so powerfully and wonderfully flavored them…sage? Whatever it was, my compliments to Hailee the caterer!
Back upstairs we do more breathing and singing exercises with Ingrid, including a song by the great South African pianist (and onetime CMS Guiding Artist) Abdullah Ibrahim. Ingrid notes that once upon a time, before the oceans split continents apart, what we now call North America was joined with Africa – and that “we are all Africans,” something I have long felt in my bones. How next will this bruja read my mind???
We then take our places in our big circle around the floor of the Greenwich House recital hall, guitarists flanking me in the area by the front windows, reeds and keyboards across from me towards the stage. Karl Berger gives some brief “basic practice” CMS guidance – such as the instruction that music and rhythm can be like a train, a commuter train, that runs the same circuit repeatedly, so if you feel lost at any point wait til the train comes round again to your “stop,” that part you recognize and feel comfortable with, and come back in there. He also says, at one point, “there’s no such thing as an A” – before introducing Nels Cline, who will repeat “there’s no such thing as an A” more than once and remark how liberating he finds that concept. Nels takes his place at the center of our circle, a tall, gangly, extremely affable guy who tells us of his own musical journey on the road to open-eared listening, name-checking familiar radicalizing signposts from Zappa and Beefheart to Coltrane and Sun Ra to Harry Partch and Anthony Braxton, and telling school-days tales of his brother, master-drummer Alex Cline, and SoCal’s answer to Braxton, reedman Vinny Golia.
Nels begins loosely organizing an initial getting-to-know-you group-improv session, moving slowly around the room, pointing to different musicians to see what they could do. A warm-up, so to speak, similar to what we did with Karl yesterday. As Nels goes round the room to single out certain individuals and small groupings, I am instantly impressed by the playing of some of my fellow participants, especially in the reed and string sections, and all the other drummers again scare the heck out of me with their technique.
After a lovely lunch of hummus, babaganoush, pita, cucumbers-and-feta and olives that has me ready to smash plates in a Zorba dance (and with Karl, Ingrid, Ken and Nels sitting amongst all us participants in typical no-hierarchical CMS fashion), Nels gathers us and speaks about noise and microtonal music. At some point I recall him mentioning the weekend warriors among us reigniting our passion for playing, and saying how he honors that as much as any full-time player – very gratifying to hear! He also mentions the very audible 60-cycle hum in the room, which as a noise fan he enjoys as a legitimate audio element in the mix, and remarks upon the old wiring in the building. This will prove the next morning to have been a most prophetic remark
Nels says he wants us to create “something beautifully microtonal, Harry Partch meets Sonic Youth, over a 6/8 groove,” Oh sure Nels, no sweat! He also tells us he’s going to use cue cards to conduct this piece. In the name of microtonality, he “prepares” the guitars a la Fred Frith, offering the guitarists chopsticks to place under their strings. He says he had to borrow them from his wife, musician Yuka Honda of Cibo Matto fame, and that he’ll need them back! Nels’ cue cards say things like “A# minor” and “leave lots of space” and, at one point, “SCREAM!” – which Nels himself raucously joins us in doing. He also uses hand gestures and eye-contact, of course, to cue certain players or groups to start, stop, get louder or softer or harder. He tells the keyboardists onstage at the two Greenwich House grand pianos (yes, two grand pianos) he wants them to play inside the pianos – and during the jam he goes up onstage and ducks under the raised lids to show them how to really get in there and strum the guts of those pianos, like punk harps.
I’d like to hear this piece back to see how it really sounded but it was a blast to play, in more ways than one, though also a bit nerve-wracking for yours truly, with my extremely limited experience actually Playing With Other People. Nels is able to get us to a level of instant-cooperative music- and noise-making. He’s relentlessly chill, upbeat and supportive. His style as a Guiding Artist is a world apart from my last CMS workshop two years ago, where Steven Bernstein and Amir al-Saffr both spent a lot of time talking as one might expect a music teacher to talk, about chords and scales and modes and in Amir’s case, particular ethnic rhythms, before then applying them to carefully arranged improvs around specific themes. This is much looser and more open-ended. What I like about it is, it both assumes and offers a certain level of respect – to my mind, giving a palpable “you’re out of the nest, now fly!” sense of what it might or must be like to actually improvise music with fellow musicians and for listeners who have come to create or listen with you. Without even ever consciously specifically voicing it, this makes me profoundly aware of how terrifying and exhilarating a responsibility it is to be in such a position. It’s around this time, during a lull, that I remember to resume my role as CMS Twitter Feed Poster, and tweet out a couple of pix of Nels leading the workshop. I see that another participant, keyboardist Sugar Vendil, has mentioned CMS in a tweet: “@ music improv workshop today Karl Berger looked in my direction but I ducked so I wouldn’t get called on to solo #fear #hsjazzbandflashback.” Followed by: “I won’t duck tomorrow!” Sugar, I sure can relate!
Before our next and final improv with Nels, he talks more about what he’d heard and what he hoped to hear, and he says something that I think could serve as a sort of CMS credo: “We all belong, and it’s cool not to belong, too.” More prosaically, he asks the guitars to act as a Greek Chorus throughout our next improv, commenting on whatever had just come before he cued them. Nels feels good enough about this improv to stop guiding and take his guitar and solo at one point, then to sit down and lay his guitar across his lap and bang on it like a drum. Having Nels point to me at one point to solo, I am again made aware, in this minimally “directed” workshop, of the intimidating infinitude of choices anyone purporting to be a creative musician has to make at any time.
The day ends with Karl doing a brief gamala taki exercise, followed by his asking us to play an on-the-spot improv based on his “Time Is” tune from the day before, which he plays on a melodica. Because the tune adds and then subtracts melodic cells over an odd meter (I think), it’s not quite as simple as it sounds, at least for an unschooled out-of-practice drummer like me, so I only remember trying to both stay on time and in rhythm and loosen up enough to actually play. That, and Nels sitting in with us participants, “teacher” grinning from ear to ear as he improved along with the “student” orchestra. Another concluding and very focused listening meditation, and while others take their axes to locked closets downstairs, it’s time for us drummers to break down our kits and cram them into Alex the production manager’s office, somehow, to make way for tonight’s Greenwich House concert. In classic CMS fashion, what at first seems laughably impossible turns out to be surprisingly doable.
SUNDAY APRIL 2
After two days of damp chilly weather, the last and longest day of CMS NYC is beautiful and sunny. But it is about to begin with some unexpected drama.
After arriving and running upstairs to set up my kit, I run back down to grab breakfast. The dining areas, which border a courtyard/garden in back of the school, are packed and buzzing with conversation. Just as I walk into the first of the dining rooms – the lights go out. I stop dead in my tracks and wonder aloud if someone leaned on a light switch. Reed player Lee Odom is the one who first notices there are FLAMES BEHIND A WALL OUTLET – an apparent electrical fire! Amid the general uproar I scurry through adjoining rooms til I find a fire extinguisher. Alex the production manager happens to be standing right next to me, so never having worked a fire extinguisher in my life, I hand it to him and he expertly puts out the fire with a quick blast or two. Someone calls the fire department , and no fewer than three hook-and-ladders arrive in what seems like moments. Welp! Breakfast – some sort of bacon facsimile and eggs – is flavored with the tang of baking soda-like fire extinguisher powder and electrical-fire smoke in the air…and relief that Greenwich House is still standing. After wolfing down breakfast, still tasty despite the fire, I overhear one of the firemen asking Alex if they offer guitar lessons at Greenwich House. Only then do I recall Nels Cline yesterday, remarking on the old wiring in this building. Oh, it’s gonna be a barn-burner today alright!
Back upstairs, today’s Guiding Artist, jazz and avant-garde drummer Susie Ibarra . arrives and when I ask, pronounces herself totally fine with the circular setup with the drummers spaced out around it. Now however we have to fit in the house kit she’ll be using as well. Somehow this works out. Susie manages to call us to order and introduce herself – and this in itself is quite a feat, because as great a drummer as she is (and she is great) she is incredibly soft-spoken. It’s actually hard at times to make out her requests and instructions, but I can tell you that at points she says “I’m going to ask you to, for instance, play texture…or play patterns…” As with Nels Cline, her actual “instruction” is minimal: remember, CMS calls them “Guiding Artists,” and sometimes effective guidance is that which leaves us participants to figure things out for ourselves. I’d call it an object lesson in spontaneously coordinated collective improvisation – not just on the level of the actual playing and music-making, but in the respectful and responsible way in which everyone responded, shared, and alternately led and supported. In a way, I think Susie and Nels were both letting us learn how much we already “knew.”
The first, morning piece to play is, like the day before with Nels, a sort of warm-up and getting-to-know-you session, with Susie checking out various groupings by instrument, then breaking us up into different smaller groups with guitars, reeds, keys and drums more or less evenly distributed in each. Again, I must apologize to you readers that my nerves and effort at focusing kept me from better remembering the blow-by-blow after everything happened, but I vividly recall Susie Ibarra slowly walking round the inside of the circle checking us all out as we played, at times staring at us, at others looking down at the floor to really focus on what she was hearing… gesturing at times to change dynamics or recombine us… demonstrating “texture” by gently tossing some small strung-together wooden rattles up and down in her hands… and I also recall more and more of my fellow workshop participants impressing me with their playing.
We break for lunch, which most of enjoy out in the garden since it’s so nice out. Soup, tabbouleh and arugula salad, some cold noodle-veggie salad…it’s all delicious.
For the afternoon improv Susie asks someone to provide a melody. Lee Odom offers one on her clarinet: a lovely, descending birdsong which Susie immediately cottons to. I wish I could recall and describe exactly how Susie Ibarra managed to keep us all focused and contributing for more than an hour and a half on this, without seeming to do much of anything…but somehow she did. I am told we went at it for an hour and 42 minutes nonstop, as the music swelled and subsided, from delicate and tentative, to supple and lyrical, to bumptious and noisy, from thin to thick and hard to soft, with Susie’s hand gestures cueing everyone. At one point she sits down at her drums – finally – just a few chairs to my left, and lets loose, displaying masterly efficiency of motion, thrashing out kaleidoscopic polyrhythms while hardly seeming to move at all – her arms steady above the center-point of her 4-piece kit, pointing downward toward a spot right between her snare, mounted tom and floor tom, only her wrists and fingers moving in real-time time-lapse. Don’t mess with Ms. Ibarra cos when she plays, she don’t play!
Took me awhile to locate my lower jaw after that…. After Susie Ibarra’s afternoon master class, Ingrid leads us in the final vocal workshop: giving us different sounds, from sighs to coos to grunts, to make as she arranges and on-the-spot chorus. Then each of us taking turns inside the circle, instantly and intuitively harmonized notes – “mmmm,” “aaaaaaaahhhh,” “ohhhhh,” “ooooooo,” “eeeeeee” — sung at us, so we really feel the vibrations. We sing the solemn South African “we are going…” one last time and knowing it is the last time this time feels bittersweet. Karl then has us back in the big circle for a final session of “basic practice” with Gamala Taki, which I handle with much more confidence than the previous day, even though there are moments when I, and others, audibly come in early or late with a sounded syllable. I am reminded, again, that putting in actual physical practice time – especially for a drummer – is so important. The body has to develop that sense-memory of the actual activity. It’s the same with something seemingly as nursery-rhyme simple as remembering when to say “ma” and “ki” after several silent beats. Or singing “time is, time is in, time is in time…” It’s not easy – til it is…
Then Karl takes out his melodica to lead us in the last official orchestral piece of this CMS workshop. It’s another disarmingly and deceptively simple tune, his “Five Feelings,” which is, yes, in 5. And Karl arranges it so each drummer gets to take a quick 2 or 4-bar solo. This is big fun. No – it’s HUGE fun. After two-and-a-half days we are starting to get a real feel for each other, maybe…and that combined with the knowledge that this is out last collective shot, I think, has us all really leaning into it. I suspect the long-haired young guitar shredder would agree – I distinctly recall him, as the whole group absolutely ROARED, nodding his head in time, lifting both his arms aloft and making devil horns like some avant-garde Beavis or Butthead. I feel quite buzzed by the time it’s all over.
We break for dinner — lasagna and roasted veggies and some really amazing cheesecake – then concluding participant jams organized by Ken Filiano who’d set up a sign-in sheet for anyone who wanted to play. There are several small groups, all engaging in free-improv from quiet to stormy, often making sound use of silence (pun intended). Sana Nagano on violin, Lee Odom on clarinet, Ras Moshe on tenor, and all the drummers still left make big impressions on me: Aaron Latos absolutely attacking one poor ride cymbal as he erupts from a whisper to a thunderstorm… Will Glass living up to his name with quicksilver free playing that reminds me of Original Free Drummer Sunny Murray’s classic self-descriptive quote that he was trying to play “the constant cracking of glass”… Susie Ibarra’s student Michael LaRocca with ferocious technique and intensity – and then inventive in a whole other way in another, aleatoric ensemble, crouched on the floor making unearthly sounds with electronics. Guitarist Lorin Roser is kind enough to let yours truly sit in on a groove-oriented trio late in the evening, with bassist Dan Dybus – thank you Lorin and Danny!
Of course the other drummers and I are last to leave. As we lug out our gear, I’m pondering the techniques, philosophies and approaches I’d learned by doing during this weekend – and how, if applied with any consistency, they could help me improve both my playing and my listening. I am also confident there will prove to be dividends from this weekend I have yet to even realize. And I am struck by the distinct possibility, the likelihood even, that we took lemons and made lemonade this weekend, making positive use of the difference I mentioned earlier in this workshop vs the ones at Full Moon – dispersing at the end of shorter days into the surrounding big city, rather than being together an entire weekend at a remote bucolic location. I think that may have helped us all focus more intensely and urgently in the more limited time we had together. Making this, perhaps, the streetwise in-your-face CMS workshop. Big thanks to Rob Saffer, Ken Filiano, Nels Cline, Susie Ibarra, Ingird Sertso, Karl Berger, Hailee Powell, Alex and Rachel from Greenwich House, the NYC Fire Department and all my fellow participants!
It was a great experience overall for me. I think the inclusionary and non-judgmental aspect to CMS was very comforting. Everyone has a very open and giving spirit.
Awesome! Everything was very engaging, for me. I can’t say that I ever got bored, or even less than excited. The material is amazing in how it engages musicians of different abilities and backgrounds.
CMS is one of the best things to ever happen to my playing and listening, and I am still processing what I learned at the most recent workshop. These days when I hear live or recorded music, I immediately pick up on how much the musicians are listening to one another – or not. Also, the CMS tends to attract nice people.
Basic Practice was truly, deeply illuminating and I will think of the breathing and rhythm exercises probably every day of my life, certainly every time I sit down to my instrument.
I noticed that since going to the workshop, “There is something different” in my playing. I can’t put my finger on it but there is a noted difference. (And, I’ve been playing nearly 50 years!
CMS is hands-on, learn-by-doing workshop that treats music at its most basic, universal level, developing principles that can be applied to any style.
CMS is the opportunity to get in a room with a rotating crew of legendary musicians to learn their processes in a wonderfully open-minded, accepting environment.
I particularly liked the phrases in compound meters (i.e. ta-ki ta-ki ga-ma-la) and the way that it kept the whole group attentive no matter their background.
A CMS workshop focuses on what is at the core of all music making. A participant can refine and take these elements into their life’s work no matter their specific path. That holds true even for the non-musical participants.
I found the content new and engaging. As a self-taught musician who does not read music, I was a little concerned that there might be moments where I felt a little behind, but this did not prove to be an issue. I am really glad that the CMS website accentuates that all levels of musicians are welcome, because that was one thing that really inspired me to “take a chance” and sign up. And I am so glad that i did because I learned so much and felt at home.
Working with Karl and Ingrid will stick with me for many years. Their approach to the universality of music and the curiosity with which they approach the unknown has given me a brand new perspective.
For me, a lot of this workshop was about getting back to the very basics – breathing, singing, using the body as an instrument. And Karl is such a good teacher, the basic “gamala taki” does not get old for me. At least not yet – ask me again after I’ve done another five workshops. He’s an extraordinary teacher. He says things that people have tried to tell me for years, but now I finally get it.
Nels Cline had good things to say, and for me the biggest takeaway was his open, welcoming attitude, the idea that almost anything can work in music as long as everyone is listening to one another and allowing room for one another. I also liked what he said about the ups and downs of being a visionary pioneer, that if you want to be totally original, it’s the hardest road to take, because that means you have to convince other people to do things your way. For the rest of us, said Cline, we have to learn the common language of notes and chords. That was insightful.
The secret weapon of the CMS? Ken Filiano! What a musician. No offense to the guiding artists, but as a practical matter, I learned more from talking with Ken or overhearing him in conversation. For instance, when you want to learn a short, staccato phrase, practice it slow, and *don’t practice it legato*. Even if you are practicing at a slow speed, stay true to the sonic image you want to achieve. Practice it staccato and keep the spaces between the notes proportional. Then speed it up. Wow – so obvious and so true. He said that when he tunes his bass, he doesn’t just tune one string to one note on the piano. He uses harmonics on the bass to tune to different octaves on the piano, so he is tuning the entire bass to the entire piano. Wow. And he said he hears first with the belly and only later with the ears. As for volume when playing with an ensemble, he said, “I can hear myself for four hours a day. When I’m playing with a group, I don’t need to hear myself. If I can hear myself, I’m playing too loud.” I would love to attend a workshop of Ken Filiano just talking about how to feel the “one.”