New blood revitalizes Woodstock’s Creative Music Studio

Karl Berger and Ingrid Sertso.

It hardly seems possible, but Woodstock’s own Creative Music Studio, that ethereal wonder of a golden age, was sent to the gym and returned rippling with muscle. Like the original Freedom of the City experience (known since 1905 simply as “The Maverick”), CMS remains, above all, an ever-tolerant mindset. So how do “always tolerant” and “overflowing with muscles” coexist? So it is: with a ripping new board, a frenzied trio of artistic directors, and World Music’s original godfathers and godmothers, Karl Berger & Ingrid Sertso, unflinchingly at its heart.

From the beginning, these two have tried to reconcile the irreconcilable. In the mid-1950s, Berger simultaneously studied classical piano, pursuing a doctorate. in philosophy from the University of Heidelberg, and secretly played jazz in local clubs. His doctorate. In hand, Berger began to teach philosophy at the university and answered Ingrid’s daily question: “Where are you going, Karl?” by: “I’m going to work”. Every morning, the patient response was always the same: “It’s not your job, Karl Berger.”

Exactly what their work would be revealed the moment the pair heard the opening bars of the 1961 release by the Ornette Coleman Quartet: This is our music, when each turned to the other and said, “This is what we want to do. The quartet’s trumpeter (and world music pioneer) Don Cherry led the way. Karl met him in a Parisian café. Then, as Karl explains, “I did something I had never done before and probably never will do again. I approached Don and said, “My name is Karl Berger and I want to play with you.” Don Cherry was a very intuitive cat. He looked at me for a second and said, ‘Rehearsal is at 4:30.

Karl became Cherry’s pianist and eventually appeared in New York to record Symphony for improvisers in 1965. Don introduced Karl and Ingrid to Ornette Coleman and a friendship evolved.

(With apologies for this interview not including Ingrid who today continues to fulfill her commitment to KTD) Karl continues: “In Europe we ate fresh food and interacted intensely with our friends and colleagues. In America, people ate out of cans and cut each other off. So, actually, we were pretty miserable here, until Marion Brown insisted on showing us Woodstock around 1971.” Then, through the example of Carla Bley and an exercise in existential irony otherwise known as joke, a peaceful revolution has begun. “Let’s start a non-profit music workshop in Woodstock,” Karl suggested to Ornette Coleman. “Would you do that with us?” “Of course,” replied the start of it all, “you’re doing the non-profit part…and I’ll make the profit.”

During the year Karl and Ingrid’s growing family rented a barn on Witch Tree Road and around 1972 the Creative Music studio was born. Hundreds of students, dozens of legendary “guests” (such as Jack DeJohnette, Karla Bley, Anthony Braxton, Oliver Lake, Marilyn Crispell…) multiple locations, and over a decade later, CMS has finally fell victim to Reagonamics, but not before seeding the music of planet earth with astonishing sonic awareness. Karl and Ingrid are not so much attracting “students” as they are adding new members to their vast musical family. In fact, the term “teacher and student” is unrecognized, and the Edenic belief that all human beings have music within them waiting for revival remains firmly embedded in their philosophy. As styles come and go, the CMS “Music Mind” continually seeks to discover commonalities in all traditions. Naturally, this sound river cannot be frozen, even if the techniques and exercises developed by the founders are indeed. Nevertheless, these are people who play, share, listen to and love music, and people live and die.

Billy Martin, Peter Apfelbaum and Steve Bernstein.

This truth was dramatically underscored on June 11, 2015, when the CMS Family led a four-day seminar at the Full Moon Retreat in Big Indian. Rob Saffer (who four years earlier had gradually taken over as executor) received a call at dawn informing him that Ornette Coleman had just died. As night fell, the clash inspired what insiders today call “CMS 2.0,” which is the means by which the co-op will be passed on beyond the lifetimes of its remaining founders. In this regard, the last week is also admirable New York Times the article said “Creative Music Studio Changes Hands…” Specifically, those inspired by Karl and Ingrid are now propelling CMS into the future.

Augmenting Karl and Ingrid’s legendary base, these new art directors are Billy Martin, Steve Bernstein, and Peter Apfelbaum, whose many accomplishments are later ridiculously abbreviated.

Although best known for the extraordinary versatility of Medeski, Martin & Wood, percussionist Billy Martin “came” to play alongside such luminaries as John Scofield, Bob Moses, Bill Frisell, Cyro Baptista, Dave Liebman, Jerome Harris; he worked two years in the mainstream with Chuck Mangione and participated in John Zorn’s Cobra improv game pieces, and performed with John Lurie’s Lounge Lizards.

In 1976, at 15 and 16 respectively, Steve Bernstein and Peter Apfelbaum were the youngest participants in CMS history. They grew up together playing Bay Area jazz while the rest of America was content with disco. Bernstein, a multi-honored arranger, is a trumpeter and multi-instrumentalist best known locally since 2004 as a player/arranger for Levon Helm’s Midnight Rambles, with horn arrangements on Levon’s Grammy Award-winning Electric Dirt. Other arrangement credits include Lou Reed, Rufus Wainwright, Marianne Faithfull, Elton John and Marvin Pontiac (as well as Bill Frisell’s Grammy Unspeakable.) His group Sex Mob has gained international acclaim since its formation in 1995.

Peter Apfelbaum began his professional career with Carla Bley’s band (1978-82) and has played with Berger since his teenage years at CMS. He played with Don Cherry’s group “Multikulti” and was its musical director from 1988 to 1995. Longtime leader of the New York Hieroglyphics big band and more recently of the vocal/electronic sextet Sparkler, as saxophonist/pianist/drummer and composer, Peter Apfelbaum’s current music is a mash-up of world music saturated with avant-garde jazz aesthetics.

The thing is, Martin, Bernstein and Apfelbaum, though based in the sonic adventure previously known as “jazz,” all continue to make inroads into pop. From a Woodstocker native’s perspective, this is critically important as an ingrained piety avoiding “Rock ‘n Roll” in the original CMS (although the prejudice was formally avoided by Ingrid and Karl) served – according to this writer – to prevent a complete reconciliation between art and commerce. Today, these walls between “schools of music” have largely melted away. Thus, the initial objective of the CMS has been provisionally achieved. Unfortunately, the infrastructure of the music industry as a whole has also melted away, with the result that a brave new world of musicians is indeed freer to starve.

A brief conversation with the Chairman of the Board of CMS 2.0, Stuart Leigh, does not affirm but seems very soon informed by this reality. Ingrid and Karl only returned this week from a six-night smash hit series Karl hosted at John Zorn’s prestigious Lower East Side listening space, “The Stone,” featuring the fiery core of a completely revitalized CMS. Meanwhile, Stuart Leigh remains the indispensable ballast of a small vessel superbly accelerated by a strong wind (due, in large part, to the extremely enthusiastic play of The New York Times.) Unlike the other team members, Leigh doesn’t gush. Reading between the lines of the ‘board bios’, it not only seems like a powerful but well-endowed band, but referring to future gigs and workshops not related to real estate, Leigh is careful with her assertions, and definitely, careful with a hard-earned budget.

Ironically, this is some of the best news yet for CMS, otherwise filled with evangelists who embody “living proof” of ecstatic truth.

For example, board member Bill Horberg arrived in Woodstock with his children in 2014. Some unmet expectations disappeared when he met Karl and Ingrid. Bill’s email from his vacation in Maine includes: “…the thing I’ve been subconsciously looking for since dropping out of Berklee College of Music in 1979 has suddenly found itself under my nose…Karl has this way of bringing you into his sphere, treating beginners and virtuosos just as much as people with a voice and something to say… Soon I was hanging out in his studio on the weekends, joining the impromptu musical gatherings that s were there, meeting CMS alumni and newcomers… I asked how I could become more involved and help the organization which was beginning to experience a renaissance under the leadership of Executive Director Rob Saffer.

Unsurprisingly, Rob Saffer’s story serves as a prequel to Horberg’s.

“I met KB around 2008. Peter Apfelbaum introduced us. We met again when Karl offered a rhythm class here in town. In one class I knew he was a masterful teacher…playful with words and ideas [with that] mischievous and mischievous smile. I started volunteering my time on projects and quickly became much more involved… I was general manager for about five or six years. I’m coming from a listener/fan perspective — I’ve been to thousands of gigs over decades… But what CMS tries to do is make sure the music communicates deeply, not superficially. . We try to help great musicians become great artists, great communicators through music. We want them to learn how to use their considerable craftsmanship and talents to reach people’s ears, hearts, minds and bodies. There’s so much interesting and good work out there, but a lot of it also leaves me (at least) feeling empty. We push in the opposite direction.

It all comes down to wonderful, increasingly rare news. The Creative Music Studio is about to lead another musical revival. Ingrid and Karl feel reborn, their performances and instruction have never been so joyful and passionate. At a recent private event, Ingrid told delighted listeners, “It’s easy to forget this…but it’s our job to remember.” Then she sang “What a Wonderful World”. Tears in my eyes, I was tempted to believe her.

“Karl and Ingrid’s warmth and wisdom have touched generations of students and performers who now make up this expanded creative musical community,” Horberg said. “There is a surge of energy that comes exactly as a reaction to these dark times that we are going through culturally and politically… the need for listening, for dialogue, for meaning, which is really at the heart of what we do, has never been greater.”