What Is Creative Music?

The following post is an excerpt from the book All Kinds of Time: The Enduring Spirit of the Creative Music Studio (Arborville Publishing, 2016), copyright Robert E. Sweet. Please do not reproduce in whole or part without permission of the copyright holder.

Music is not something you can use words to describe. Music is either in the air, and you find it, or it is in the air and you don’t find it, but you just don’t try hard enough. You can be educated to play the piano, you can be educated about chords, you can be educated about scales, you can be educated about everything there is to do
with music, and you’re still zero, until you let go of what holds you back. And all of us could, possibly, not be held back, but most of us don’t let it happen.

Keith Jarrett

For years I have referred to the Creative Music Studio as the twentieth
century’s premier study center for creative music. Yet we find ourselves now well into the twenty-first century, and the Creative Music Studio is still uniting, exciting,and edifying musicians from around the world who are seeking opportunities for expression that themusic industry simply cannot provide.

It’s unfortunate, yet understandable, that journalists over the years have portrayed CMS as Karl Berger’s “jazz camp.” It’s not a jazz camp
or a jazz school. In fact it is so different from anyone’s conception of a jazz or music camp that some folks who were used to that kind of
experience were actually turned off by the freedom of the place. It was, and is, an environment where players are encouraged to develop a personal relationship with sound, rhythm, and harmony—elements that exist in all music, regardless of styles—and to express that most intimate and uniquely personal relationship by means of what we
typically call improvisation.

So, what is creative music? If you talk to enough people about the Creative Music Studio, it’s inevitable that you will hear someone ask
this question. And as a follow-up question, you can generally expect to hear, “Isn’t all music creative?” No. it’s not. All music is created but
not all music is creative.

When people ask what creative music is, they are asking from a frame of reference that tells them that whatever they hear must be categorizable. They want to be able to compare creative music with all other categories of music with which they are familiar. They wonder which bins in record stores they are most likely to find creative music—is it free jazz, is it prog rock, is it alt country, is it third stream? Creative music is not an outcome, it is not a result, it is not a product, and it is not a category. It is a process. “It’s not what you
play, it’s how you play,” says Karl.

Music is the art medium that communicatesinteriority, being only perceived by the ears, and received by the mind. A strict approach to
understanding music will consequently always have something lacking, as music theory, in essence, is primarily descriptive and not
prescriptive. The tendencies and practices in music are only observed and cataloged upon analysis, after the fact. It is the hearts and minds of human beings that shape and weave melodies, harmonies, and rhythms together into meaningful tapestries, imbued with the interior landscapes of their immediate experiences.

Jason Martineau. The Elements of Music: Melody, Rhythm, and
Harmony. Wooden Books, Walker & Company; 1st edition (October
28, 2008). http://jasonmartineau.com/

Creative music is a sonic expression of an individual musician’s unique inner experience. It is a feeling made audible, an expressive process that moves from the inside out.

Our Western music traditions have been based, for the most part, on a technical reproduction of what a composer managed to capture of his or her own unique inner experience, written out in notated form.

When a composer composes, it is a creative process. When a musician or an ensemble plays a composed piece, that process of translating what Leo Smith calls frozen information into a listening experience for an audience might or might not be creative. But it is definitely an expression of something that is exterior to the performing musicians.

The jazz musician is probably the only person for whom the composer is not a very interesting individual, in the sense that he prefers to destroy what the composer writes or says.

“Philosopher Jacques Derrida Interviews Jazz Legend Ornette Coleman: Talk Improvisation, Language & Racism (1997).” Open Culture, September 26, 2014. http://bit.ly/1E9OqTU

Creative music is, therefore, a process. It is also a musical environment in which the process is allowed to unfold, making it possible for what’s inside an individual to be expressed through organized sound. Creative music is not a category.

Your music is actually an expression of your inner state. If you are feeling doubtful or afraid or angry or tentative, it will be evident in the music. If you are feeling compassionate, relaxed, or confident, that, too, will come across. That is why some music that is very unsophisticated from a technical point of view can be so moving, and why some music that employs a high level of technical wizardry can be so disappointing.

Observing and becoming fully aware of one’s inner state in the present moment and then choosing to alter it by means of mental and emotional discipline to serve the music is the sign of a highly developed player. Getting to that point is a very personal process, but when you get a group of people working on the process in community,
magic can happen.

Although these skills can’t be taught—they must be discovered—it is possible to create an environment where the paramount purpose is the nurturance of the creative-music process. And that is what makes the Creative Music Studio unique. Regardless of who the guiding artists are at any particular workshop, or what those artists choose to develop, regardless of what practice methods are presented, regardless of how ensembles are assembled for exploration or for performances, the development of the personal sound and expression of each individual is valued above all else.

The most important questions are, how well do you relate to the interior aspects of yourself that make music soulful, warm, and authentic? How well do you relate to the various universal elements of music? Are you alert, attentive, and in the moment? Or are you distracted, or even worse, censoring that part of you, which, if freely expressed, will result in your highest and best music?

Music education’s preoccupation with technical brilliance in general is far too wrapped up in what I call musical engineering. It’s even happening in so-called jazz education. The language of jazz masters’ improvisations—the expression of what was uniquely their own feeling and inner experience—has been formulized and codified.

Students are led to believe that they have only to learn the formulas, develop the technical aspects, and they too can be fantastic players.

But the warmth is not there, the soul is not there. True individual expression emerges only when one’s sound is deeply connected to one’s unique interiority.

When Karl was teaching in Germany at the Hochschule für Musik und Darstellende Kunst, Frankfurt am Main (Frankfurt University of Music and Performing Arts) he clearly saw this dichotomy between musical
engineering and music that constitutes one’s love.

As the vice president of the school I also had to go to exams of classical players. I created a few classical enemies because I wouldn’t agree with their judgments of players. I’d listen to a guy they called a fantastic pianist. I’d say, “He plays all the notes, but the timing is not right.”

Everything was so technically oriented and I was just listening for the music part. I was interested in the music part! There’s no difference whether somebody plays what’s written or he just sort of
makes it up—it has to sound like his music; it has to make sense and be believable. They were just looking for the great technology or techniques that those guys have. Some of the teachers had a feel for that, but the majority of them were just into this technical brilliance. So I did get some flak.

Karl Berger

The process of developing a relationship to one’s own music is primary, but how we relate to the interior aspects of the others in an ensemble is also vital to a group sound. Around 1980, a Senegalese talking drummer named Aiyb Dieng came to the Creative Music Studio. Karl soon discovered that he and Aiyb connected musically in an uncanny way. As they played together more and more, Karl came to realize that there is some indescribable quality that allows some individuals to form a unique musical kinship.

When we played together, it was like he was my other self, like we were soul brothers. We just played, no problem. Everything was wonderful—smooth. It just felt perfect. We had a thing going together,and he was from the other side of the world really. Then, when we got to Senegal, Aiyb introduced me to his brother, who he said was the better player. We got together to play and nothing happened. But it’s really a very personal thing. And you cannot put your finger on it in a scientific way.

Karl Berger

Just as a very personal relationship between musicians emerges in an organic, unpredictable, and unanalyzable way, an individual’s very personal relationship with sound, harmony, and rhythm will either develop or it won’t. It can’t be taught. It is certain, though, that if a musician finds this personal and intimate relationship with the music to be elusive, then he or she must develop mental disciplines that will shut out the ego and develop a deeper level of attention that allows him or her to really tune in to the sound. This aspect of what Karl calls music-mind training is what led him and Ingrid to connect with the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism while at the Naropa Institute in the 1970s.

Jon Kabat-Zinn says that the Buddha was able to encapsulate all of his teachings into one sentence: “Nothing is to be clung to as I, me, or mine.” Herein lies the great paradox and the great gift for a creative musician that a practice of mindfulness leading to a release from the attachment to I, me, mine offers. The more one is able to approach music making free of the restrictions and cognitive burdens of who “I” am as a music maker, the more one is able to open up and allow a creative expression that is uniquely one’s own.

During the fortieth anniversary CMS workshop in May of 2013, I had the opportunity to play with Ken Filiano, who is not only a brilliant bassist but also an uncannily insightful and perceptive human being. He said to me, after we finished playing, “You don’t really know me”—we had just met that day—“but do you mind if I say something?” I think that he felt that it might be OK to say something that he might not otherwise have said because of our common connection with Tad Weed, the pianist with whom Ken has collaborated over many years, mostly in L.A., and with whom I have been studying in Ann Arbor.

“Sure go ahead.” I was eager to hear whatever he had to say.

“I can see that you’ve got things together technically, with your hands and all, but if you just get it from your head down into your heart, you’ll really start to make things happen.”

I knew instantly what he was talking about. I knew it on an intellectual level. Of course, if I knew it more deeply on a heart level, he wouldn’t have had to say anything. The question that sprang immediately into my mind “How do I do that?” But I didn’t ask, because I knew that I was just going to have to figure it out on my own.

In a later email exchange, I mentioned to him that getting out of one’s head is something I have known about on an intellectual level, but that getting there is another matter. I asserted that more and more playing was the best route to get there, when a creative-music process was the goal.

Knowing how to get there you don’t have to worry about. You’re already there. Right now you just have to allow this to come through. It’s an evolutionary process of sorts where you learn to trust and observe that the heart and mind work together rather than separately.

More and more playing is the best route only if you exercise this observational balance—more observation, less judgment of the qualitative kind. By this I mean that we do have to line up the ducks, technically speaking. But then the second step of the process is to see/observe what part of one’s human spirit is being served by the technique. This should take you to some interesting places.

Ken Filiano

As I’ve pointed out, the technical aspects of music, the “theory” and the formulas, are what music education concerns itself with primarily.

The teaching of the observational balance that Ken speaks of, along with what Karl describes as beat-for-beat attention, are not the domain of formal music education in the West. Music is a way of being in the world. The most valuable thing about a life in music is discovering what it is about ourselves that interferes with our observation and causes us to become mired in self-judgment. And that discovery process can be applied to all other aspects of our lives.

Chardi Kala

We all have bad things happen to us. We all have levels of experience that could range from mild irritation to unspeakable horror. Can you imagine, though, that, regardless of your experiences or circumstances, you could find a place within you that is a true aspect of your being in which you could rest in perfect peace and joyfulness?

In the Sikh religion, there is a concept–or state of being, actually–called chardi kala. Diligently entering the state of chardi kala is a fundamental practice of Sikhism. No matter how lousy your life circumsatnces are, you can always access this state, where your sense of peace and well being is constant.

I learned about chardi kala from Valarie Kaur, civil-rights activist and founder of the Revolutionary Love Project. Kaur tells the story of Baba Punjab Singh, a revered elder in the Sikh community. Papa Ji, as Kaur refers to him, was the victim of a mass shooting by a white supremacist at the Sikh place of worship in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Despite becoming completely immobilized by his injuries, except for his eyelids, he was able to signal to visitors that he, indeed, was constantly able to go into the state of chardi kala and find peace in his being. It’s a remarkable story and a remarkable practice. Check out chardi kala. There are a number of videos on YouTube that deal with it.

Department of Peace

I first became aware of efforts to establish a cabinet-level Department of Peace in 2001, when Dennis Kucinich, a Democratic representative from Ohio and candidate for president in 2004 and 2008, introduced a bill to do so. A version of that bill was brought up in Congress again every year from 2001 to 2011. There seemed to be a lot of energy behind it at the time, at least, more than I had ever been aware of. But it wasn’t a new thing. Wikipedia tells me that in 1793, Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, came up with a plan for a Peace Office that would be on the same level as the Department of War. The first legislative bill calling for a United States Department of Peace was written and introduced in 1935. People have been pushing this idea in Congress and reintroducing legislation for a Department of Peace ever since. I have no hope at all that we’ll see such a thing in my lifetime, but it is most definitely long overdue.

The Music Mind Experience

Have you read Karl Berger’s book The Music Mind Experience? Check it out. It encapsulates the essence of Karl’s and Ingrid Sertso’s basic music practice. It is as close as words on a page can bring you to the experience of a Creative Music Studio session.

Karl is working with a European publisher on a new edition of the book . He’s been holding Zoom sessions with CMS participants to gain insight from their Music Mind experiences. I’ve attended two of these. It’s been really inspiring to meet some new CMS people and to bask in their perspectives.

The following is a review that I wrote of The Music Mind Experience. Please don’t publish it without permission.

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© 2021, Robert E. Sweet
There’s a story from ancient Japanese folklore* about a musician who studied with a great master to learn to play an exquisite new flute that no one had heard before. After countless hours of practice, he’d go to see the master to check his progress. Repeatedly, the master’s only response was, “Something lacking.”

Maybe you can relate. You’ve worked hard developing your musical craft. You’ve learned scales, chords, and theory. You might even have achieved technical excellence on your instrument. You’ve studied the masters. Maybe you attended a prestigious music school and got a couple degrees. Perhaps you’ve attained some level of professional acclaim and success, however you define it.

But there’s still something lacking. There is a constant yearning for some missing element. You reach and you reach and you’re not quite sure what you’re reaching for. And without exposure to the proper environment or the proper mentorship, you might never discover that the something lacking, the missing element . . . is you. There is an untapped essence of what is uniquely you, an essence that, when reached and unleashed, brings a warmth and a vitality, an ineffable quality to your sound that leaves listeners with an experience that stays with them, quite possibly even transforms them.

KarlBerger has committed himself to reaching and teaching about that essential nature that is within all of us, which, when expressed through sound, is a clear and unequivocal affirmation of our humanity. Since founding the legendary Creative Music Studio (CMS) in 1973, Karl has been teaching musicians and nonmusicians how to develop a personal relationship with the universal elements of music, which transcend style and tradition.

Karl, along with coauthor Rick Maurer, has distilled decades of his unique training into the 2020 book The Music Mind Experience: Playing, Listening, Singing, Moving (Creative Music Studio; 978-1-7352380-0-5; https://amzn.to/3jFDWsX). The Creative Music Studio has always offered a prime environment for the development of one’s own relationship to the universal elements of music. In the early days, CMS sessions would last for weeks. They were a total immersion in a communal setting that was prime for playing, listening, singing, and moving together with some of the world’s most celebrated creative musicians. There really never has been anything else like it. Billy Martin, a.k.a. illyB, writes in the book’s foreword that the CMS experience has “profoundly shaped [his] evolution as an educator, composer, performer and most importantly, as a human being.” And while you can’t reproduce that experience in a book, those who have taken part in CMS sessions will instantly recognize in The Music Mind Experience a codification and succinct explication of all the concepts that Karl has conveyed over the years.

A fundamental principle found throughout the book is awareness. Karl and his wife Ingrid Sertso (vocalist, poet, and cofounder of CMS) have been heavily influenced by the teachings of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and the connections between Buddhist mental discipline and music are implicit in their approach to imparting musical wisdom. The more awareness one can devote to rhythm–Karl calls this “beat for beat attention”–dynamics, and overall deep listening, the less one is likely to be captured by thoughts. “Thinking is much too slow,” Karl frequently tells us. But if thinking does get in the way of heartfelt playing or listening, Karl offers the remedy, which is what he calls retuning.

And while mental discipline and awareness are key parts of The Music Mind Experience, awareness of sound’s effects on the body–and the body’s effects on sound–is also essential. In fact, the total involvement of the body is what is required to know ourselves as musical beings; and we’re all musical beings. In order for us to express what drummer Ra Kalam Bob Moses calls “living music,” we must go beyond the technical aspects of our chosen “axe” and fully involve our total being in playing, listening, singing, and moving.

The Music Mind Experience is a quick read at 178 pages, but don’t let its brevity belie its depth. Listeners and musicians alike will come away with a new appreciation of how music functions in their lives. It’s presented in a question-and-answer format, with valve trombonist Rick Maurer doing the questioning and Karl doing the answering. The appendix contains exercises that will enable you to dig in and explore the concepts that emerge in Rick and Karl’s conversation.

John Medeski, John Scofield, Carla Bley, Joe Lovano, Markus Stockhausen, and several other music luminaries provide testimonials for the book. But the words I’d like to leave you with are those of designer and composer Larry Chernicoff, whose association with Karl goes back to the late sixties when Larry enrolled in a course at the New School for Social Research, which Karl had taken over from John Cage: “You can read about scales and rhythms and chord changes in a lot of other places, but Karl’s teaching goes beyond all that. It’s about where we find ourselves when we play: in the sound and in the moment, in the silence and the story.”

*I discovered this story in Stephen Nachmanovitch’s book Free Play.

Nijinsky is not there.

Vaslav Nijinsky, “the God of Dance,” was regarded as the greatest male dancer of the early twentieth century. When he was asked what made it possible for him to do seemingly superhuman leaps, he said it was possible for him to do so only when Nijinsky was not there. In other words Nijinsky could be Nijinsky only when he danced with no sense of self. He was able to disidentify from any sense of his personality–to dance with no fear, no doubt, no judgment, no anxiety, no awareness of the audience or the person named Nijinsky. This is what the pianist Marilyn Crispell (and many others, I would presume) calls getting out of your own way. It’s a must for creative improvisers. Many musicians–Art Blakey, Sonny Rollins, John McLaughlin, to name just a few with whom I am familiar–talk about being simply a means, a channel, a conduit, through which the spirit of the music can find expression. How does one develop the capacity to not be there while performing? It’s going to be a different path for every individual. For some, it will come quite naturally. For others, it’s a lifelong endeavor.

The universe hangs on sound.

Nada yoga is the yoga of sound. A common expression among nada yoga practitioners is “the universe hangs on sound.” It’s a funny expression. It suggests that there is the universe, and there is something that the universe is not, upon which the universe hangs, like a jacket on a coat rack. Despite the semantic twisting one could get into picking the expression apart (Isn’t the universe all that is? How can it hang on anything?), there is much to be gained in a discipline that regards sound as a fundament to everything that we experience. At the Creative Music Studio, we practice listening to sounds disappearing. Try it. Strike a gong or a cymbal or a bell or a singing bowl. Listen to the sound and exclude all else from your awareness. Try to identify the exact point at which the sound disappears. You will become a better listener, and that is crucial for creative musicians. It was said of Leonard Bernstein that the thing that made him great was simply that he heard more music than anyone else.

Explore Nada yoga. Start here.