Perfect Sound Forever


The Creative Music Studio, and the Universal Grammar of Music
by Daniel Barbiero
(December 2023)

Beginning around 1960 or so, jazz underwent an expansion of musical and conceptual resources that saw it truly become a music without borders. To be sure, the music had successfully integrated outside elements in the past, the adoption of the whole tone scale in the 1920's being one of the better known examples. But it was only in the postwar period, and in the 1960's in particular, that jazz musicians began looking in earnest beyond Western instrumental, melodic, and rhythmic traditions to enrich the music's methods and materials.

One of the outstanding figures involved in opening the borders for jazz and jazz-derived improvised music was Karl Berger. Berger's music was borderless in the truest sense: it embraced both straight-ahead and avant-garde jazz, European art music, non-Western musical traditions, and even contemporary pop, for which he wrote string arrangements. But his vision of music as a borderless and universal medium of human expression was most notably realized not only in his own playing and composing, but through his musical philosophy and the teaching methods he derived from it, which he put to work in the activities of his Creative Music Studio.

Europe and Don Cherry

Berger (1935-2023) was born in Heidelberg, Germany, and began playing classical piano at age ten. His formal education culminated in a doctorate in philosophy, after which he began a research project in ideology critique under the guidance of Theodor Adorno. His plan was to work in the field of philosophy, but he decided instead to pursue music and specifically, jazz. In postwar Heidelberg, he had had the opportunity to hear American jazz musicians who, as part of the occupation forces, played in the service bands stationed at military bases nearby. It was hearing these musicians at a jam session when he was fourteen that turned him toward jazz; his early influences in the music were Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, and Cedar Walton. In the '50's, he was house pianist at a club in Heidelberg where many of the American musicians came to play, and by the time he completed his doctoral studies in 1963, he was working as a professional musician. It was through music that Berger met Ingrid Sertso, a classically trained singer who became his partner in music and in life.

Berger had a musical epiphany when, around 1964, he heard Ornette Coleman's 1961 album This Is Our Music. What he found attractive about Coleman's music was its strong rhythmic element, an element he felt was missing in the German free players' music. On the strength of having heard the album, he and Ingrid went to Paris with the aim of meeting Coleman and his band. Two weeks after their move, they met Don Cherry in a club run by Bud Powell's wife. Cherry invited them to a rehearsal, and from there Karl joined Cherry's ensemble. Playing with Cherry was a turning point for Berger in a number of ways. Most immediately, it helped him to decide on playing music exclusively rather than pursing both music and philosophy, as he had thought about doing. But it also opened him to a concept of music without borders.

The group that Berger joined in Paris was a cosmopolitan ensemble whose five musicians were natives of five different countries. In addition to the American Cherry and the German Berger, who played vibraphone as well as piano, it included the Argentinian saxophonist Gato Barbieri; the French double bassist Jean-Francois Jenny-Clark, and the Italian drummer Aldo Romano. It was a group whose members were finely attuned to each other musically, and where little had to be said between the leader and the rest--because very little could be said. As Berger told Ted Panken, "Gato only spoke Spanish, Aldo only French and Italian, Cherry only English, and I only German and English, and Jenny-Clark only French and English." Communication barriers were not an issue musically, as can be heard on Togetherness, a live album the group recorded in Paris in 1965.

When Cherry went to New York to record his first album for Blue Note in 1965, Berger remained behind in Europe. What brought Berger to New York, in 1966, was a phone call from Cherry, who was about to record another album for the label and wanted his European ensemble to be on it. The album was the classic Symphony for Improvisers, which in addition to Berger, Barbieri, and Jenny-Clark, featured Ed Blackwell--replacing Romano on drums--and Pharoah Sanders on tenor saxophone and piccolo and Henry Grimes on bass. It was also in 1966 that the Bergers began residing in the US.

The Creative Music Studio

After a temporary sojourn in Europe followed by a return to the US in 1971, Berger founded the institution that would introduce hundreds of musicians to his and Ingrid's unique form of pedagogy: the Creative Music Studio. Berger got the idea that he wanted to teach as early as 1966, when he participated in the Young Audiences program, a state-funded effort to present music to elementary school students in New York. He played in a group that included bassist Reggie Workman, multi-reedist Sam Rivers, drummer Horacee Arnold and occasionally trumpeter Mike Lawrence; they worked regularly throughout the school year, giving as many as three 45-minute performances a day at three different schools. In a workshop-like touch, the program demonstrated how improvisation was done by asking students to sing melodies which the group then would spontaneously develop. During this same period, Berger taught a course in improvisation at the New School for Social Research when John Cage's departure as an instructor left an opening Berger was able to fill (Sweet, p. 24-25).

The Bergers founded the Creative Music Foundation, the parent body that was responsible for the activities that would become the Creative Music Studio, in 1971. Ornette Coleman, whom they'd met through Cherry, was co-founder. Coleman took an active role in the establishment of the foundation by putting Berger in touch with Cage as well as with Gil Evans and Gunther Schuller, all three of whom served on the board. Non-musician board members Buckminster Fuller and Willem De Kooning were chosen because Berger wanted to send a message that the focus of the new institution would be on art generally and not just on music (Longley, p. 9).

In the first years of its existence, the Creative Music Studio, which hadn't yet taken on that name, was itinerant. The Bergers held workshops in a number of different places both here and abroad--in New York, Germany, Italy, and Austria--before finally settling in Woodstock in upstate New York. They first saw the town when Marion Brown brought them there for a visit; what attracted them to it as a place to settle in was, first of all, its size. They simply preferred to live in a small town rather than in a big city like New York. And Woodstock, unlike the city, was quiet. This was a crucial asset for the teaching program they envisioned, since the town's rustic atmosphere provided the silence that Berger felt was necessary for the kind of music study he wanted to offer. And just as important were the local residents. At the time the Bergers moved to Woodstock it was home to a number of kindred musicians--Anthony Braxton, Dave Holland, Jack De Johnette, Carla Bley, and others. Berger thought that they would welcome having a place like CMS close by their homes, since it would allow them to pursue their creative work without having to travel (Panken). And Woodstock's musicians did in fact get involved with the studio from the beginning, with Braxton and Holland being among the first teacher-participants (Sweet, p. 27). Cherry also came to teach, as well as Bley and Cage, and over the years other musician teachers included Lee Konitz, Trilok Gurtu, The Art Ensemble of Chicago, George Lewis, Nana Vasconcelos, Pauline Oliveiros, Frederick Rzewski, and Collin Walcott to name just a few. Coleman, interestingly enough, demurred from teaching. When asked by Berger why he wouldn't, he replied, to Berger's amusement, "then people might think I know something" (Sweet, p. 26).

Thus it was at Woodstock that CMS marked its official beginning in the fall of 1973 (Sweet, pp. 27-28). Berger envisioned CMS less as a formal school and more as an educational environment--a setting in which student participants could engage in improvising music as a way of personal discovery and through that, of finding their own musical centers. The basic belief was that, as the brochure for the 1978-1979 session had it, "our personal material is already there, something to be discovered rather than learned" (Sweet, p. 18).

As a small, rural educational institution encouraging freedom and the pursuit of personal expression in the arts, the Creative Music Studio naturally invites comparison to Black Mountain College, the famous alternative college in the mountains of western North Carolina. And in fact, in his history of the studio, Robert Sweet points out the many parallels. Both were located in beautiful natural landscapes; both were the objects of both praise and disparagement from participants, local residents, and others; and both were founded by German immigrants committed to a view of the arts as vehicles of personal expression (Sweet, pp. 9-10). There was a direct connection between the two institutions as well. Creative Music Foundation board members Cage and Fuller had also been involved with Black Mountain College in its later years. Less encouragingly, both institutions faced ongoing funding and cash flow problems, experienced shrinking student enrollments and protracted administrative difficulties, and eventually were compelled to close. For CMS, the 1980's were the crisis years, and after an overall decline in activities, in 1984 the studio folded. But not forever. In the mid-2010's CMS was revived, and it continues to hold workshops and other activities. Still, the studio's headiest times, when it was at the leading edge of musical cosmopolitanism and pedagogy, were its first ten years, when it pioneered the kind of cross-cultural musical exchanges that much contemporary music now takes for granted.

Music's Universal Grammar

Sweet, who was a student at CMS during the late 1970's, aptly summed up the mission of CMS as teaching "music as a personal expression in a universal context" (Sweet, p. 33). Both halves of that formula -- "personal expression" and "universal context" - are important for understanding not only how Berger--both Bergers, really--envisioned musical education, but conceived of music in its essence and its function as well. To take the second half first, Berger was convinced that the various forms and styles of music were just manifestations of what we might think of as an underlying deep structure of universal elements.

The inspiration for Berger's concept of musical universality went all the way back to his early collaboration with Don Cherry. Cherry's European group exposed him to the inclusiveness not only of the group's international makeup, but of Cherry's whole approach to music--which was to embrace the entirety of music no matter where it came from. Cherry did a lot of listening to short wave radio when he was in Europe, and consequently would hear melodies, modes, and rhythms from other cultures that he would integrate into his own group's playing. As Berger recalled to Panken, Cherry "used a real eclectic mix of materials" in his improvisations and in guiding the playing of the others in the ensemble. "He would use any material that he heard...he was probably the first guy who completely disregarded all boundaries of music...Don's way must be based on something that's common to all music." It was this idea that there is something common to all music that formed the kernel of Berger's own musical universalism.

Another, and perhaps less obvious, source was his research work with Adorno in ideology critique. This may seem strange, given Adorno's well-known antipathy to most kinds of music outside of the tradition of Western art music, and particularly to jazz. But as Berger told Panken, for himself if perhaps not for Adorno, ideology critique was "about crossing borders, getting borders out of the way." With borders between musical styles and cultures being crossed, ignored, or erased, one could then be freed to go on to find what Berger called "the common element of the different kinds of music."

For Berger, this common element consisted of the very basic elements prior to, and underlying, the specific forms of particular musical styles or cultures. Berger conceived of these elements as comprising the general perceptions of space and time, as well as the more specific binary relationship of odd and even. This latter, for Berger, consisted in a grouping of three representing the odd, and a grouping of two representing the even. These two basic units, Berger thought, were the underlying elements for all musical rhythmic and melodic relationships, and consequently all rhythm cycles and melodies, no matter how complex, could be broken down into groupings of two and three. Conversely, with these two cells as building blocks, more complex rhythms and melodies could be constructed through an additive process that Berger also thought was a universal feature of music. For example, a four-beat rhythmic cycle would be made up of the addition of two two-beat cells; a seven-beat cycle would be made up of two two-beat cells plus one three-beat cell, an eleven-beat cycle would consist of three three-beat cells plus one two-beat cell and so on. The same process would apply to melodies, the proper phrasing of which would determine in which order the groupings of two and three would go.

In order to represent this universal, odd-even binary, Berger devised what he called the "gamala taki" system. "Gamala taki" is a kind of rhythmic solfeggio in which the three-syllable "gamala" represents the three-beat odd element, and the two-syllable "taki" represents the two-beat even element. Berger credited Cherry with having discovered gamala taki in a melody he had heard on shortwave radio, which he brought in for the European group to improvise on. The melody, which Berger guessed was Middle Eastern in origin, was divided into two groups of three beats plus one group of two, which Cherry sang as "gamala gamala taki" (Sweet, pp. 34-35).

For Berger, rhythm was the foundation of everything in music. In its original state, he thought, rhythm consists of an unmarked pulse, or regularity of beats, prior to any particular meters or determinate cycles. From this underlying sense of movement, specific rhythmic forms with their determinate beat cycles could be generated. As he told Panken,

[W]hat I've discovered was that in any music, you look at three levels of rhythm that are going on--in any piece. That's pulse, that's language rhythm, and that's form. Any form...Form has repetitions and so on. Larger forms and so on. Language rhythm is always asymmetrical. Pulse is non-descriptive. You don't count actually. It's just 1-1-1-1-1. So basically, just out of that alone, we could study, first of all, openness of meter. Any kind of meter could come from there. Any additive rhythms could be realized that way.
In effect, what Berger is describing is, to borrow an analogy from linguistics, the deep structure of music's universal grammar. Like any analogy, this one is suggestive rather than precise down to the last detail, but it does seem apt. The pulse of basic, pre-metered rhythm, in tandem with the phrase structure of melody, determines the additive function operating on the fundamental elements of odd and even in a way analogous to the way grammatical structures and combinatorial rules work in language. And just as universal grammar is realized in the endlessly novel utterances of specific languages, the universal elements of pulse and odd-even are capable of inexhaustibly generating melodies and rhythms in the specific forms proper to the world's different musical cultures.

Universal Musicality and the Freedom of "Music Mind"

The corollary to Berger's musical universal grammar was that all people have a facility for music. As he told Panken, "the capacity of every person is really to be open, and to really get involved in all kinds of [musical] concepts and ideas." Just as he believed there was a common sound grammar underlying all music, he and Ingrid believed that music itself was universally present in all people. Consequently, CMS's pedagogy was centered on facilitating its students' capacity to open themselves up to the music Berger felt was already inside of them. To return to the language analogy, they would be given the opportunity to become fluent in their own musically expressive dialects. Ingrid Sertso, speaking to Panken, succinctly summed up the CMS philosophy by saying, "I believe that everybody is a singer and everybody is very musical...everybody has it. That's what the Creative Music Studio was about, to wake up the talents that are in people. Not to teach them something, but to wake up, to get it out."

How CMS got its students to "wake up" was through teaching what Berger called "music mind," which he described to Panken as "basically not a fully conscious state of mind." It is, in other words, a mode of action in which one is simply absorbed in what one is doing, leaving behind any sense of separation between oneself and the music one is creating -- "being in the zone," as musicians like to say. The pathway to music mind was what Berger called "beat-for-beat attention," which he taught through the practice of additive exercises he had developed using the "gamala taki" system of two- and three-beat cells. Berger described this training as allowing students to "go into that kind of place where you're no longer thinking bars or forms of that kind, but you are just adding odd and create a sense of freedom for yourself, for beat-for-beat attention."

And freedom ultimately was what all of this--music without boundaries, the Creative Music Studio, the universal grammar of "gamala taki"--was about. It was the kind of freedom best expressed in a phrase Berger borrowed from the Tibetan lama Kalu Rinpoche: "liberation through sound." Not, though, the kind of liberation from all constraints that leads to license or a blind groping in the dark, but rather the ideal liberation arising from an ingrained discipline that requires no self-conscious direction. As Berger told Longley, freedom in music "is all about focus, how to focus without thinking too much, without trying to kill your spontaneity. You need to learn how to listen to your spontaneous mind."


Martin Longley, "Karl Berger: Freedom in Discipline," All About Jazz New York No. 99 (July 2010), p. 9. Available online

Ted Panken, interviews with Karl and Ingrid Berger, 24 Oct 2008 and 12 Dec 2008. Available online at Internal cites to Panken.

Robert E. Sweet, Music Universe Music Mind: Revisiting the Creative Music Studio, Woodstock, New York (Ann Arbor, MI: Arborville Publishing, 1996). Internal cites to Sweet.

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