CMS WORKSHOP FALL 2017
Monday, Oct. 2
October 2nd was a perfect fall day in this secluded valley in the Catskills. Surrounded by only hills and sky, there is nothing to distract one from the business at hand. Attendees came from around the Hudson Valley, NYC, L.A., and from Argentina, Italy, and Denmark. The music began almost immediately; as you walked around the grounds you could hear fragments of melodies coming out of windows and from behind stands of trees, which gave the impression of an orchestra warming up and added to the feeling of anticipation.
Cocktails and Orientation
It quickly became clear that for many attendees this was not their first rodeo. Many had come to workshops since they restarted in 2013 and/or to the original workshops in the 70s and 80s. The enthusiasm of these return musicians was matched by the first-timers, and there much talk of the benefits that this kind of total-immersion workshop provides.
After the attendees introduced themselves, Karl and Ingrid told the short version of their story and of CMS’s founding. They went on to set the mood for the week, something they’re probably naturals at but also have perfected through years of teaching. They emphasized the importance of listening and of thinking as a group. Karl told an anecdote about a Tibetan musician being asked to come perform in the U.S. and responding by saying they’d have to get at least one other musician because to these Tibetan musicians, the “music” was not what one person played but the interplay between multiple people. They also reminded the attendees of some of the things that students need to hear from the Master’s mouth at the outset of musical journeys like this: “Believe in your mistakes,” “Doubt comes and goes in waves,” and “Study never ends.”
Just a quick note about the food at Full Moon- it’s really good. It’s hard to quantify the benefits of eating a good meal in the company of friends, but for both mind and body, and especially for strengthening interpersonal and musical connections, it does wonders. The food feeds and fuels the body and the conversation feeds and fuels the mind. It’s a detail that if overlooked could do more to slow the momentum of the day than to build it, but luckily that’s not the case here.
Monday Night Concert
The performance the first night was held in the Roadhouse, Full Moon’s small club venue. It is an intimate setting where attendees have the opportunity to see and hear the guest musicians up close, and then later in the week perform themselves. The opening night lineup featured Karl on vibraphone, Ingrid on vocals, Omar Farouk Teklibek on vocals and different-sized Turkish ney (ancient open-ended flutes), Tani Tabbal on drums and Ken Filiano on double bass. This introductory concert showcased both the players’ skills and unique voices on their instruments, and also demonstrated what everyone here came to work on: listening to each other and playing together as a group. They played three improvised pieces that achieved both of these goals.
The first piece started with a theme played by Omar on the ney, which was restated throughout the almost 30-minute piece. This theme was developed and explored by Omar and Karl in a conversational style and was punctuated and embellished by Ingrid’s “Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire-scat,” which can really only be described as sounding like Ingrid Sertso. She has a remarkable ability to vocalize and convey feelings and ideas that are suggested by the other instruments, by both her use of pure sound and through her word choice. Ken played a contrasting solo section using the bow and effects pedals which gave the impression of a large string ensemble. Both Ken’s and Tani’s playing, while often taking on traditional supporting roles, were much more involved in the conversation the others were having than is often the case with bass and drums, in part because of the equal distribution of responsibility for the harmonies and timekeeping. The conversation continued until Karl brought the music to a climax that showed both his skill as a vibraphone player and as a masterful crafter of melodic lines.
The second piece began with an improvised melody on the vibraphone that Ingrid, and then Omar, decorated with vocals, over a repeated bass figure and drums played with soft mallets. Omar and Karl together sang variations of the melody, which was then taken up by Ingrid. Next Karl again demonstrated his virtuosity on the vibes, which was followed by an equally exciting arco solo by Ken that included sul pont passages (bowing near the bridge to get high, nasal harmonics) and microtones that were answered by Omar. The piece ended with a restatement of the main theme and Ingrid singing “The end … the end … .”
The third and final piece began with an ornate, trill-filled melody in 7/8 played by Omar, with Karl punctuating the rhythm on vibes, Tani playing a rolling drum part with mallets, and Ken sustaining a low pedal. Omar and Tani each took solos (Tani switching to sticks) and then Ingrid sang as Karl and Omar clapped the rhythm and counter-rhythms . Karl then took another blazing solo which outdid his previous two in terms of intensity, before finally ending with a wash of sound created by gentle glissandos on the vibes.
The concert illustrated how a group of musicians can collectively and spontaneously build compositions. It’s obvious that Karl and Ingrid have a near-telepathic connection and often seemed to finish each other’s musical sentences, but the other musicians, through good listening skills and a deep knowledge of the rules of the game, all played together with a feeling of cohesion that gave this completely improvised music direction, form, balance, and that magical something that can be achieved when a group of sympathetic musicians are all on the same page.
Tuesday, Oct. 3
After breakfast each morning, attendees gather in the barn for a 30-minute body awareness session led by Karl and Ingrid’s daughter Savia Berger, a professional dancer and Pilates instructor. Everyone was first instructed to stand with their feet pointed forward, instead of their natural stance with the toes pointed slightly out, which relaxes muscles in the legs and hips that are usually contracted. The main stretch, which was repeated throughout the session, involved imagining a string going down from the tailbone and another from the top of the skull, and then gently stretching as if the strings were being pulled in opposite directions.
As this is “body awareness” and not just “stretching for musicians,” Savia had everyone concentrate on their feet, ankles, legs, and on upward, to bring the attention to all parts of the body. She pointed out that since people generally have a dominant hand and foot, you might be able to raise one arm or leg higher than the other, and that this initial step of self-evaluation is important to see what needs work. The importance of focused, deep breathing and core strength was also taught. Core strength plays a major part in control of the limbs, balance, and breathing, and focusing on breathing is essential for proper stretching as well as for singing and playing wind instruments. Working from the top down, everyone slowly and deliberately rolled their necks, shoulders, and hips. Then after first balancing on each foot she had everyone rotate their ankles, knees, wrists, elbows and shoulders. Next was a motion similar to using ski poles, then side stretches, torso twists, and toe touches. Finally everybody shook out their limbs while vocalizing in a final push to awaken any spots they might have missed.
Basic Practice (Rhythm/Vocal)
This morning’s basic practice session did not require any instruments, aside from the voice. Ingrid began by talking about how the voice is everyone’s first instrument and had everyone exhale while making the most comfortable sound in their speaking voice, without any intention of “singing.” Next she had everyone sing through the vowels starting with “Ah,” arguably the easiest vowel to sing. Once the vocal chords were warmed up, she told everyone to tune to the person next to them, and then for about five minutes she conducted the group as it sustained a continuous sound which at times gave the impression of an orchestra or a church organ as much as a choir. After this she connected the voice with the movement of the body by having everybody walk in place and then crowd-sourcing a word, “Yes,” which she had everyone sing in time with the left foot. Soon “Yes” was transformed to “Yeah-Yeah-Yeah” which was then layered to sound like a kind of free-form round. Ingrid ended the vocal part of the lesson with a beautiful song from South Africa.
Karl took over for the rhythm portion, first expressing the desire to approach rhythm without any considerations of musical style, then defining three different levels of rhythm: pulse, the most basic; language rhythm – “Melody is language translated into tone”; and finally formal rhythm, as in, “This piece or this concert is too long.”
The rest of the lesson was spent working on what Karl calls “GaMaLa TaKi.” It is a way of counting musical time using the syllables Ga-Ma-La (for three-beat rhythms) and Ta-Ki (for metrical multiples of two) instead of numbers, which use a different part of the brain. “Don’t count to seven ever again, it’s just two TaKis and a GaMaLa,” he told the group. First he had everyone sing GaMaLa TaKi while taping it out on their legs, but, after reminding them to always project music outwards, he had everyone raise their hands off their legs to count, as a way of liberating the arms from their usual muscle memory. Then he cycled through different possible combinations of accents and finally repeated the process in 7/8, which can be counted as 2-2-3, 3-2-2, or 2-3-2. Karl said that if you lose track of the time “the best way to get back into the flow is not to play. Another train will come by soon, and you can jump on that one.”
Master Class with Omar Farouk Tekbilek
As it turns out Karl’s rhythmic practice was ideally timed before the extensive study of Turkish rhythms that began Omar’s master class. After a brief biographical sketch and overview of Turkish folk and classical music, and discussing Turkey’s unique position as a geographical and cultural bridge between the East and the West, Omar laid the foundation for his rhythmic studies by stressing the importance of the paradiddle. He showed that through practicing paradiddles one can attain greater equilibrium between the right and left sides of the body, particularly by feeling the fourth beat as a sort of turnaround; as you bring your hand down on 4, the other hand rises in anticipation and the pattern is reversed. Then, as Karl had done earlier, he had everyone raise their hands up instead of tapping them on their legs, and then went on to have everyone “tap the air” with their arms stretched out in front of them, down at their sides, and by moving individual fingers to further liberate the body from the usual clapping motion used to count time.
Next Omar systematically discussed the many different time signatures used in Turkish music. 3/4 and 4/4 were touched on briefly, but the main focus was on 5/8, counted as 2+3 with the accent on the second beat of the 3 section; 7/8, counted as 4+3 in Turkey and 3+2+2 in Greece; 9/8, counted as 6+3 as opposed the western perception of 3+3+3; 10/8, counted as 3+2+2+3; 11/8, counted as 4+3+4; and finally 15/8, counted as 8+7. Omar demonstrated each rhythm using his voice and a hand drum, and by the end he had done a good job at undermining the feeling of 4/4 as the “default.”
He next turned his attention to the harmonic and melodic structures of Turkish music, which had an equally undermining effect on the attendees’ perception of consonance and dissonance. Using a baglama (a three-stringed Turkish lute also known as the saz), he demonstrated the different sounds produced by the use of quarter tones and showed how the perceived tonality of a scale (called “makams” in Turkey) can be changed by simply emphasizing different notes. He then taught the group an old traditional folk song called “Dere Geliyor,” which gave everyone the chance to practice playing in an odd time signature and using quarter tones. He concluded by discussing and demonstrating three different variations of the Turkish ney.
Improvisers Orchestra and Listening Meditation
Karl began the Improvisors Orchestra session by saying, “Don’t think of notes as notes, but as sounds. Because of the overtones, you never play the same note twice.” The orchestra consisted of five vocalists, eight guitars, three double basses, two keyboards, two flutes, two trumpets, one tenor sax, one baritone sax, one cello, two drumsets, three percussionists, and Karl on melodica. As Ingrid had done earlier, Karl first had everyone “harmonize” (in quotes) but using their instruments instead of their voices. The goal here was not to all tune to one another, but to hear and feel the sound of the group. He then introduced some simple gestures he would use to conduct, and taught them the theme that would be the foundation for the day’s improv – a 16-bar riff in four sections.
The piece began with everyone playing the theme in unison, and then one by one Karl directed individuals to take a solo. Each player generally played over the theme for a few passes, then Karl had everyone except the soloist lay out for the first three of the four sections, and then everyone came back in and played the four section together. After everyone took their solos, Karl began layering the soloists until about half were improvising and the other half were playing the riff. He then brought the music back down and took the final solo himself on the melodica.
After this, Karl led the group in a 10-minute listening meditation session, where he directed everyone to “listen to the sounds disappearing” as a struck a Tibetan singing bowl.
Tuesday Night Concert
Tuesday Night’s concert began with two songs by a student ensemble featuring Mary Enid Haines on guitar and vocals, Bill Wright on guitar, Phil Pottier on vocals and Omar on percussion. Mary sang the classic jazz standard “Skylark,” and then the group was joined by Susan Larkin on violin for a humorous and sonically beautiful ballad featuring Phil’s spoken word.
The guest musicians then took the stage – Karl on piano and vibes, Mary Halvorson on guitar, Maria Grand on tenor sax, Ken on bass, Billy Martin on drums, and Omar on percussion and ney. Compared with the more free-form music of the previous evening, tonight’s concert more closely resembled a traditional jazz session, but one with incredibly sympathetic and creative musicians who were never in any danger of just going through the changes. Propelled by Billy’s constantly changing drumming and decorated by Omar’s equally intricate percussion, the group first played an unreleased composition of Karl’s called “Lines and Spaces” which featured solos by all the members, and after the restatement of the head ended with an expansive, free soundscape.
The second piece was an improvisation that centered around a gently falling and rising theme played by Karl on the piano and Ingrid’s reading of the poem “True Love” by Chogyam Trungpa. Ken’s use of arco and sul pont, Billy’s use of the brushes, and embellishments by Mary, Maria, and Omar all contributed to the ethereal feeling of the piece. The music built to an ecstatic climax then returned to its initial calm, meditative quality.
The final piece of the night was a blistering version of Monk’s “Bemsha Swing.” Karl and Ingrid shared the first solo, followed by Maria, who displayed great creativity in her ability to play with the melody, then a scat solo by Omar which turned into a percussion duet between him and Billy, who had only first met a few hours earlier but who sounded like they had played together for years. Next Mary took a solo that easily lived up to her weighty accolade of being “NYC’s least predictable improviser,” even in this more straight-ahead setting. Finally Ken took a solo which turned into another duet with Billy, and the song ended with a restatement of the head. Afterwards even some non-smokers in the audience were overheard expressing their need for a cigarette.
– By LUKE AUGUSTA
Tuesday, Oct. 3
10 p.m. – Roadhouse Performances (Continued)
By the time I drove up the gravel drive of Full Moon Resort, the performances had already been going for over an hour. I rushed to the Roadhouse, walked in to hear Ingrid Sertso finishing a duet with Ken Filiano on string bass. She whispered softly into the microphone, her hand cupped around it as if she were telling it a secret.
Next Chuck Ver Straeten danced and swayed, elated as he scatted and bubbled his infectious voice out into the room. A guitar player, Rick Warren, mirrored him, sometimes following and sometimes leading. A few performances later, Ken Filiano again took the stage, joined by Billy Martin on drums, Maria Kim Grand on tenor saxophone, and Mary Halvorson on guitar. I moved closer, sat as close as I could, because I had a sense I was about to see something that I wouldn’t want to forget. Mary tuned as Billy caressed the edge of his ride cymbal with a bow, and ghostly overtones filled the air. Then Maria closed her eyes and played, as Ken laid a firmer foundation. Soon the sound went liquid and loud, Maria weaving her throaty saxophone wail in among Mary’s intricate intervalic latticework. Then Billy began beating his drums with straw broom-heads, and they settled into a deep pulsing drive. They soared. They returned to earth. They cooked on a sound that thrummed with anxiety, almost panicked, until suddenly: an explosion. Apocalyptic. A fever dream, a bomb, a forest fire – and then the aftermath, the post-disaster meltdown, and a slow decrescendo all the way down to a perfectly timed ending
Then Ken, Ingrid, Omar Tekbilek on ney, and Karl Berger on piano took their places. As the others played, Ingrid repeated “Lonely moon / sad and happy / coming together,” sometimes lingering on one phrase, sometimes another. I heard the lonely moon and the sad moon, but not the happy one until finally, at the very last moment, Karl hit an almost-major chord, proving that if you wait long enough, the happy will arrive after all.
Then Karl and Omar alone, the dénouement, milky ney vibrato over assured, simple phrases on the keys. When it was done, I walked out to stand by the fire a while, then came back to my room, still smelling wood smoke, my face aching from smiling.
Wednesday, Oct. 4
I woke up to silence so thick I could hear the pulse of blood in my ears. Full Moon is as great a place for silence as it is for noise, something that would come back to me in the days to come, as Karl stressed the importance of silence, of waiting, of space. After breakfast and some excellent body awareness work courtesy of Savia Berger, we settled in for basic practice.
10:15 a.m., Basic Practice – Ingrid Sertso
We began with meditation. Ingrid described it as a “simple help for our daily survival,” and lamented that even though simply breathing and being aware should be simplest thing to do, it gets ever harder every day. “If we don’t breathe, we die,” she said, “So we better do it.” It sounds so obvious, but when Ingrid said it, it had the flavor of a deep truth, something brand new and sparkling.
She also described meditation as a way of accessing our true selves, the child joy we all have inside of us, the joy of a three- or four-year-old. I thought of my own four-year-old, how he walks from room to room whispering to himself, how I catch him cupping his hands over his ears, opening them, closing them, just to experience the difference in sound.
After meditation, we began voice work. First open sounds, and then a song, a variation on Osibisa’s Woyaya: “We will get there. Heaven knows when we will get there, and so do we …” The harmonies were as reassuring as the lyrics. Next we formed a tight circle and held hands as five students at a time took turns standing in the center. Ingrid told us to blast the center with our chosen sound and good intentions. The result was a temple of sound, a force strong enough to feel in your chest and belly and toes. It’s the oldest song, I think, that collection of human moaning. It reminded me of my wife during labor. Of church organs and bagpipes and monks. Of war and sex. When it was my turn to stand in the center, I closed my eyes and walked around. I cupped my hands over my ears, opened them, closed them again, just like my child taught me to do. Karl speaks about how every sound is different from every other sound ever made, but hearing those voices, hearing how they changed depending on how I situated my body, it occurred to me that every sound is different from even itself. Its many aspects are revealed by the listener, and position, and time.
10:45 a.m., Basic practice – Karl Berger
We began with a refresher on GaMaLa TaKi, the directive to experience each beat individually, to hear every beat even if we don’t play it, to subdivide. Then we talked about listening, and Karl told us how he was recently travelling over the Manhattan Bridge on the subway when he heard music in the screeching and clacking that was exactly the same music he’d heard decades before from Karlheinz Stockhausen’s massive machinery, in the very early days of synthesized sound. He encouraged us to approach all listening this way, to just notice sound, to hear it as music. The rest of my notes on this session require no additional context. Karl’s voice speaks more eloquently about these things than I ever could:
“Switch from scheming to listening. Don’t comment, just listen, and suddenly you feel you’re a part of the whole process.”
“Don’t play the beat in. Play it out. It’s a giving. I see some of you still playing the beat on your leg. Don’t play the beat down,” he said, emphasizing the outward motion of his hand. “Gravity pulls you down; you want to be up. You need to grow an inch while you play.”
On practice, he said, “Record yourself, and then listen. It’s painful, I know, but it’s painful because you have your own way of playing and you’ve never heard anything just like it before, so you think: how could it be right?” It was a reassuring thought.
11:30 a.m., Master Class – Mary Halvorson
We got out our instruments. Mary introduced herself, guitar nestled in her lap atop legs crossed so comfortably it looked like she was born that way. She began by telling us that she creates her own practice exercises. “It lets you develop things that come naturally to you.”
Her exercises? Intervallic work. Mary told us about how she came to work so heavily on intervals, explaining that she saw it as a way of breaking habits her fingers had developed over years of playing. She focused for a whole week on just doing minor seconds, up and down the guitar. Then she spent another week on seconds, another on minor thirds, another on thirds, all the way up. Each interval has its own character, so playing only in a certain interval can lead you to compositions or solos that make use of that character. The key, she said, was to practice until each interval became ingrained.
We began with a minor third. Despite the familiarity of the interval, it took some time for us to all to play the interval all the way up and down without hesitation. Then Mary created groups of three or four musicians at a time, who would play the intervals and take turns soloing with the interval in mind. When we moved from minor thirds to tri-tones and minor sixths, it grew much more difficult, but the difficulty was, I think, precisely the point. It didn’t come naturally to most of us to hear a minor sixth, but this is why the work is so important. Learning wide intervals opens you up to new sounds, and, as Mary explained, practicing them is a great way to train your ear.
Mary ended the morning session telling us about Yusef Lateef’s Repository of Scales and Melodic Patterns, and then suggesting a few other practice techniques. Choose a melody you know well, and play it in every key. Play a steady stream of eighth notes, sixteenth notes, or triplets, without stopping. Don’t consider anything a mistake, because hitting a “wrong” note might reveal something you couldn’t have heard any other way.
2:30 p.m., Master Class – Mary Halvorson (Continued)
After another warm-up from Savia, we sat again with Mary. She told us a little about her path to being a working musician, said that when she first came to New York she took an office job. After a while, she asked herself if she was OK having an administrative office job for the rest of her life. The answer was yes, which meant that every chance to play was a bonus, one that she understands could one day go away.
Mary said that at one point when she was recording herself, she sounded like a “nervous talker,” playing too much. So she made it extra sparse, with gaps and silences that felt awkwardly long while she was performing, but on playback it sounded right.
We worked hard, then, on learning a couple of pieces she brought with her, P#2 and Trio No. 15. Her unpredictable melodies, over pedal tones, gave us a good but challenging foundation upon which to improvise. Everything we spoke about in the morning was put into practice, and the power of her methods was made abundantly clear.
5:15 p.m., Improvisers Orchestra – Karl Berger
I wasn’t here for the first session last night, so I missed the tutorial on hand signals, but that didn’t matter. Karl’s movements are intuitive, his encouragement palpable, so as we began an open improvisation I had little trouble finding my place. The tuning was impeccable from the start, the ensemble sounding as though it had played together several times before.
Then it was time to learn a song. Our task for the evening was a piece based on the phrase “Time is in this if,” an additive rhythm that, in its full form, is heard as the following (using “•” as a rest):
Time • • is • time is in • time is in this • time is in this if • time is in this • time is in • time is • (repeat)
Sound simple? At first, it was, but then Karl laid the sequence over a steady 4/4, and we all had to adjust to the challenge of thinking of the phrase beyond words, and making music out of it. In time, we did, by adding dynamic change and relying on another drummer to accent the beginnings of each phrase. Then solos arced out over the ever-expanding and contracting rhythm.
8:30 p.m., Roadhouse Performances
The performances began with a double bass duet, chopsticks bouncing off the strings of both instruments, played by Leigh Daniels and Jeff Schwartz. Then Chuck joined them, adding his distinctive scat to the mix. Next came a trio of Marty Gottlieb-Hollis on trumpet (he was a popular addition to many ensembles over the course of the workshop, with his beautiful tone and spot-on instincts), Lee again on bass, and Phillip Pottier switching between hilarious spoken word about the day we’d all just shared and the squeaking of a trumpet mouthpiece. Then Marty stayed on, Chuck returned to scat, and Enrico Pulcinelli shared in the fun with a percussion style I can only describe as intensely passionate and remarkably physical. Enrico works his collection of bells, shakers, and blocks like he’s running a marathon, and by the time he was done he was soaked through his shirt. Soon after, Bill Horberg got help performing a composition in honor of the childhood friend who first introduced him to Thelonious Monk when he was in the eighth grade and, therefore, set him on his path to CMS.
Soon we were all treated to a performance by Ingrid, Karl, Omar, Billy, Ken, and Mary. A powerhouse combination, such incredible force in each of them, but they made room for each other just as Karl has been encouraging us all to do. Ingrid intoned her trademark poetry, Billy drove a hard swing – cymbals crashing, snare thwacking – while Ken climbed the walls on bass. Karl, on vibraphone, moved like a man half my age (and I’m only in my thirties), one foot routinely rising from the ground to swing in the air as he hopped on the other foot. Mary moved blindingly fast on her fretboard, and yet she was always controlled, always perfectly composed.
Then, a second tune, of Omar’s choosing. His beautiful voice brought the whole room back a century or two, and the piece ended with Ingrid saying, “And there is always a singer … and a song.”
Billy, Mary, and Maria improved on their collective work of the night before, if such a thing is possible, with a piece that was more raw, less tentative, and more joyful and furious than the magic they’d worked with Ken on their first collaboration together. Then more incredible student work, and an unforgettable composition by Maria, entitled Sing Unborn. With Mary on guitar, Maria’s impeccably formed phrases on tenor sax built to violence before giving way to a vocal performance, with original lyrics addressing an unseen child living in the sky. Her voice was so clear, almost reed-like, that it hushed the room down to the floorboards. “I love you,” sang Maria, “no matter where you came from. No matter who you came from.”
Thursday, Oct. 5
10:15 a.m., Vocal Practice – Ingrid Sertso
Today’s meditation tip: count up with each intake of breath. If a thought enters, go back to one, and don’t cheat. Once we completed our meditation, we again sang the “We will get there,” beauty from the day before, and learned another African song that Ingrid loved for how it’s melancholic, falling melody is reversed at the end, with an uplifting major rise.
10:45 a.m., Rhythm Practice – Karl Berger
The theme of the session was flow – Karl’s sense of the word, and Don Cherry’s too. He spoke of our natural ability to react faster than we can think (you swerve to avoid an accident, shoot out a hand to stop a child from falling of a jungle jim), and how important this is to performance, and in every area of life. What’s more, flow isn’t just for improvisation. “Preconceived music should always sound like you’re making it up,” he said, and then he laughed as he continued, “And improvisations should sound more like you know what you’re doing!”
Then he shared his three keys for achieving flow in performance and life. 1) Waiting. Not playing brings in the flow. 2) Listening. Switch from scheming to listening. Listen. Listen more. Seriously, listen. 3) Using your voice. Sing or hum, loud or soft, and your mind will be forced to quiet itself. “If the U.S. Congress started the day by singing, they wouldn’t be fighting so much.”
He took questions, and the conversation turned to how technical practice fits in with the form of expression we’re all trying to learn at CMS. Karl made clear that flow is not a substitute for technical proficiency. There will be periods, he said, when your practice will focus solely on technique. He made equally clear, however, that technique is not the point of practice. “There is an element of virtuosity which is impressive to people. These are effects. They go away. People remember performances because of flow, not because of effects. … When you perform, get into a flow state, and act like you don’t even remember your own name.”
11:45 p.m., Master Class – Billy Martin
Billy started by telling us about his earliest musical memories. He did tap dance routines with his mother for years, he said, as he laughed. “Maybe it went on a little too long …” Despite the element of embarrassment, tap instilled rhythm and coordination in his body from before his memory began. It also shaped what he heard, as a child. His mother played him records of Ellington and Basie, show tunes and other dance standards. This, combined with the influence of his brothers (soul and funk and rock), and the music of his concert violinist father, was potent medicine. “I wanted to be a part of all of it.”
Once we were acquainted, Billy began his lesson. “You have to think of yourself as a composer right away. Develop your own unique way of saying things.” Billy’s method for finding his own unique voice? Begin each practice with a solo. It could be two minutes, or twenty minutes, but solo first. Record it, and listen back later. Figure out what you were doing after you’ve done it, not before.
The second practice technique he shared was phrase work. You play a short phrase, then wait in silence – for much longer than you think you need to – and then play another phrase that is as close to the opposite of the first as possible. The silence is what gives you perspective on what you’re playing. It should also stop you from scheming. We went around the room, trying this out. Billy pushed us to be as radical as possible. “Is that even music?” he said, laughing. “That’s what I want to be asking. What was that? Was that even a guitar?”
Another tip about this exercise: keep the phrases short. “It’s a phrase. It’s not a sentence. It’s I love you. It’s shut the fuck up. It’s not, Oh hey I wanted to tell you about this thing that happened to me the other day …”
2:45 p.m., Master Class – Billy Martin, Continued
The afternoon session was built around Billy’s Stridulations, a word that he picked up from the sound crickets make when they rub their legs together. Billy’s Stridulations are graphic scores of rhythms he’s gathered from around the world, combined with ones he’s made up or edited. The graphic notation is intuitive, with Xs marking a played beat and dots marking a silent beat. We were each given five lines of phrases on a page, each composed of a total of 12 beats. The first phrase was a clave, or key, which looked like this:
x • x • • x • x • x • •
The second was a symmetric beat, which looked like this:
x • • x • • x • • x • •
Play on the x, rest on the dot. The clave tells you where the “one” is (the first beat of 12) because it repeats only once in a cycle. Hence key. Play the first phrase, and then the second, and you’ll hear that the first sounds like it’s in something like 6/8, while the second is a straight-up four-on-the-floor. Play them together, and you have a polyrhythm. These multiple senses of pulse characterize the West African rhythmic traditions that informed Brazilian and Latin American claves and musical traditions.
At its heart, the Stridulations system is a way of experiencing multiple rhythms at once. Our exercises were aimed at getting us to hear how those rhythms lock together. The sensation of finally hearing how the disparate phrases spoke with one another as a whole was deeply satisfying. Once the basics were covered, we set out to make music. First we worked on the “closed” Stridulations, where there was a common beat. After having fun with that for a while, we played the Stridulations “open,” where each player could combine their chosen phrase, melody, timbre, tempo, and style however they wished. We were encouraged to avoid a groove, to sit in silence more than we play, and to think of ourselves as crickets in a field or stars appearing in the sky.
5:15 p.m., Improvisers Orchestra
Karl introduced the students to two different games for Thursday’s orchestra. The first was built around the phrase “All we can do is all we can do.” Another beautiful, simple affirmation turned into challenging additive rhythm. In this case, each word got a chance to take up two beats instead of one, in succession, except for “is,” which is so important a word that it got four. (“Aaaall we can do is … all weeee can do is … all we caaaan do is …). The result was a phrase that felt roughly like eight bars of 3/4 followed by two bars of 4/4, but of course, as Karl pointed out in the morning session, “You have to break free of those bars, they’re like a jail.”
The purpose of the song was to again reinforce the attention to every beat, to explore the multiple pulses, and to make beautiful music.
The second exercise was even more complicated, based around four variations of a melody that swung up and down, with each variation resting different portions of the phrase. This one proved a little more troublesome to remember, but by the end we again “changed our shirts” when we were done practicing it, and made a little music. Then it was time for the final listening meditation, and final words of wisdom from Karl, Billy, and Ingrid.
8:30 p.m., Roadhouse Performances
Tonight’s performances had more of a party flavor. There was a good old fashioned blues-based barn-burning organized by Gus Mancini, a reggae-infused bop led by Lorin Roser, a sing-a-long (Blue Moon, accompanied by the collective howling of the entire workshop) led by Mary Enid Haines and featuring Susan Larkin on Violin and Rickie Lee Kroell on vocals , and several more jams that had the feeling of old friends enjoying each other. Such a warm way to end the workshop
When it was Karl, Omar, Ingrid, Maria, and Ken’s turn to speak their piece, the results were electrifying. What struck me most about their collaboration was how each member got the chance to shape the rest of the band in his image. This was not trading solos over an established beat. It was a seamless transition between multiple modes of playing, each player’s personality shining through with the help of the others. So much flow. So much listening. And, crucially, so much laying back and listening until the need for more sound was felt.
A string quartet, made up of Jan, Jeff, Ken, and Lee, provided a holy-sounding combination of chest-melting low drones and wonderfully overtoned bow work. Then, a duet by Karl and Ingrid: What a Wonderful World. Ingrid’s voice was so filled with pain and hope that I wanted to cry. Karl’s choice of chords and intervals was equally powerful, equally emotive. After it was over, Ingrid said, “We need that. The world is so messed up. So messed up …” Perhaps she was being specific – that we needed that song, that message – but I don’t think I was alone in hearing it as a justification for the entire CMS workshop experience.
I stepped outside to sit by the fire. When I heard music that I knew could only come from Billy Martin, I stepped back in and watched as he and Enrico danced on stage, hands vibrating, fingers bouncing across the heads of tambourines. I knew it was what I wanted to hear as I walked back down the hill to my room, so I gathered my things and headed out into the quiet of a full moon night.
Notes from Rob Saffer, CMS Executive Director
Mark and Luke have marvelously captured the sights and sounds of the CMS Fall 2017 Workshop. I don’t have much to add, but since this was their first CMS workshop, they wouldn’t have been able to see and feel something subtly different than other workshops: the distance between Guiding Artists and Participants, while usually quite thin, grew even more non-distinct. Artists and Participants interacted in ways I hadn’t seen in the past ten workshops we’ve conducted. Whether it was mingling at meals or mingling during evening performances, it was hard to tell who was who and who was teaching whom. This was best exemplified Thursday night, perhaps the most musically diverse and thrilling yet; the night culminated with Billy Martin and Enrico Pucinelli playing a percussion duet that (d)evolved into what seemed like children alternately fighting, playing and exploring together. There was so much physical and sonic movement it was hard to tell who was doing what. And, it didn’t matter. This was a four-armed, four-legged creature, singly focused on playful, creative sound.
As always thanks to Matthew Cullen (sound), Geoff Baer (video), the entire Full Moon Resort staff (and whoever finally found the secret recipe for strong coffee), all the wonderfully talented and loving Guiding Artists and the equally talented and loving Participants who made full moon at the Full Moon so special.