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Developing a comprehensive “Music Mind” text

January 8, 2013

I am very excited to report that I finally found a way to develop a book for both listeners and musicians on what I call “MUSIC MIND” by collaborating with writer Violet Snow.  As we are proceeding I would like to post various stages of development and themes that I will be dealing with, in the hopes of receiving comments and establishing some dialogue. I also hope that this process will open doors for Music Mind training courses, particularly with the GaMaLa TaKi Rhythmic/Dynamic Training (for everyone) and Improvising Ensemble Workshops (for music students and professionals), which I conduct together with vocalist poet Ingrid Sertso. (For more detailed workshop info go to: 

I’ll start by posting some notes that I made while developing my Improvisers Orchestra  about topics we touch upon in our rehearsal/workshop part of each performance, of which we had over 40 now since the debut at The Stone in New York in 2011.Image

In April 2011 we started “Karl Berger’s Improvisers Orchestra” with a weekly show at The Stone, John Zorn’s performance space in New York (at the time it was still called KB’s Stone Workshop Orchestra). At first I thought it would be difficult to keep such a big project with professional musicians going for long, but the opposite was true: we now have a roster of some 50 players wanting to participate, with guests players from Spain, Italy, Germany, the UK, Belgium, Finland, Argentina, Brazil so far joining in.

Usually a group of 20 to 28 players forms, ranging from strings, flutes, woodwinds, to brass, percussions, drums and voice.

The regular routine we established remained the same throughout: first we practice what I call “harmonizing and blending improvised sound” and we work on collective expression, dynamics, spacing, pacing. We explore topics as outlined below. Then we learn a few lines by heart, world- musical or original compositions, or pieces by Don Cherry, for example. Lately we started incorporating some written lines (that were too long to learn by heart). Then we offer a one hour performance, which I conduct, bringing in soloists etc. Every player is also an improvising soloist, whose ideas I aim to expand on during the performance.

Why is this so remarkable ? I have done workshops with larger groups since the 70s at the Creative Music Studio,  and many of the ideas presented here were developed there with student groups. But with this group of professional players of the highest caliber we are now truly reaching into what I call the Quantum Zone of Music. Read on. I will explain. But just to show that it is not just me who finds this development of KBIO remarkable, here is are excerpts of the most recent review of a KBIO performance at the Shapeshifter Lab in in Brooklyn, New York:

“Karl Berger has been a pioneer in large-scale jazz improvisation longer than just about anybody, which explains why his Improvisers Orchestra swings as hard, and interestingly, and often hauntingly as they do…. Berger is an elegant and economical pianist, which informs how he conducts…. Like the best big bands, this crew use the entirety of their dynamic range. The ensemble weren’t often all playing at once, making those lush crescendos all the more towering and intense…, with the phantasmagorical sweep of the Gil Evans Orchestra and the rough-and-tumble bustle of the Mingus bands.”   — Alan Young, Lucid Culture 

So here are some of the points we make and topics we get into during the rehearsal/workshop periods:

1 The Quantum Zone of Music

I use this expression to describe the phenomenon that every tone is built of harmonics, or overtones, in fact thousands of them. It expresses itself in the infinite variety of timbres and sounds that we create with any given tone or collection of tones. The beauty is that we all have the innate talent to become more and more sensitive to these subtleties. The potential is there to “harmonize” any collection of tones together. And what is so remarkable: this orchestra of professionals is reaching a plateau where this potential is being realized more often than not. A reviewer recently described “the lush harmonies” that he heard, while listening to this orchestra , while there were no preconceived tones in play. It was all improvised sound.

Realizing that every sound is a trove of thousands of harmonics, that can never be repeated, starts the process of listening and playing more closely with a more detailed attention to tones we play. It begins to sensitize all of it: the playing of a simple melody, the personal sound, and the collective sound.

2 Infinite Dynamics

We generally use about 8 dynamic markings from fff to ppp in writing music..

24-bit recording recognizes over 18 million shades of dynamics.

In fact, there is no end to the dynamic shades that we might achieve in playing an instrument. This becomes obvious when we realize that every sound, every note, consists of thousands of harmonics (overtones). And the exact numbers and relationships of those harmonics are never the same.

If we look at the visual waveforms of a recording, we’ll have a very clear picture of that: tones, that we might experience as sounding exactly the same, show very varied waveforms. They are, in fact, not the same at all.

So no note or tone we play is ever exactly the same. Each one is a new experience, if you want.

We can sensitize our playing step by step to become, and remain aware of the infinite variety of sounds we produce; the multitude of sounds within a tone

3 Individual Sound

Everyone appears to be born with a peculiar, unique, approach to sound. Everyone’s voice is different to a point that identification by voice is as much or more accurate than fingerprints.

I heard that many singers, like Jimi Hendrix, Frank Sinatra and others, never quite got used to their sound. When you hear your voice on a recording for the first time, your reaction is that something must be wrong with the recorder. You never heard a voice quite like this before.

The same is true for the personal touch we may develop on an instrument. One afternoon I was in a concert hall for an interview. On stage was a piano tuner, preparing the piano for a Rudolph Serkin recital, hammering repetitive intervals. Out of a sudden the sound of those intervals completely changed. I looked up and Serkin was there playing the intervals. Same piano, of course.

Most musicians try to follow someone else’s sound. They become interpreters of a particular style of sound that someone else created. Of course that never quite works. You can never get rid of your sound altogether. It always shines through, if ever so slightly. So you might as well get used to it, cultivate your sound and make a difference in any style of music that you choose.

The same is true with your personal timing, which is actually part of the individuality of your sound. ( see point 6 ).

4 Harmonizing Sound

Whether a sound of several people holding a tone together is harmonious or dissonant is not necessarily the choice of tones. Pretty much any tones played together simultaneously could sound harmonious or dissonant. The secret is dynamics. Since every tone contains every other tone in the harmonic universe, it is only a question of subtle differences in dynamics, whether the collective sound harmonizes or not.

As with all the Music Music points, to arrive at good results is a matter of regular practice. Our Improvisers Orchestra practices this before each performance. The result is that the listener experiences these improvised sounds as “lush harmonies”, as Will Friedwald in the Wall Street Journal stated, after listening to a set that was all improvised

4 Harmonic Tuning

When you hold a tone ( lets say an A ) and change the bass note or chord, that you want this tone to relate to, the tone itself changes, ever so slightly. The practice for realizing this is to sing or hum a tone while holding one of your ears closed, while some else is playing different bass notes or chords. Closing off you ear will allow you to hear your voice inside your head and notice the subtle adjustments needed to tune the tone to the changing bass notes or chords. You’ll realize the an A  as it occurs in D minor or a A in F# minor or an A in F major of Bb major etc is not the same tone. So the notes really are different tones,  when appearing in different harmonic contexts. One could say there is no such thing as an A , without further definition.

5 Timing

Timing is one of the most important elements when it comes to turn a great performance into an unforgettable one.

There is usually more time than we think to play, lets say, a musical phrase. The key is to learn not to think about the actual playing while playing. We have an uncanny sense of time naturally, that will come through, if we stop worrying about it. The thinking process is great for tracking forms ( where we are in a given piece, for example ) but gets in the way of the playing here and now. If we think the note we are about to play, it will be too early or too late. One cannot think “now”. It will always be before the fact or after the fact. More on that in part B below.

Reading music can get in the way of good timing, unless it is sufficiently rehearsed and internalized. Classical soloists almost always play their parts by heart, in order to focus on timing and dynamics . Performances of complex contemporary written music often suffer from being under-rehearsed. Although all notes are being played correctly, the piece doesn’t take off as planned. Orchestras often have only one reading before a performance ( And half of the orchestra members may not even be interested in performing this music )

6 Sense of Space

In interpretations of written music, the notes all have to be played. However, there often seems to be more time, more breathing space, to bring into an interpretation.

The music should sound as if the ideas just came to the player. As if it was just made up; improvised. That requires a moment of silence between the phrases, wherever that is possible. A sense of suspense of what will happen next. There should be no sense of routine, whatsoever.

In improvised music there appears to be more room for a sense of space. However, many improvisers, particularly in jazz-oriented improvisations, overplay, play too much, too many notes. Of course there are pieces, and concepts or sections of playing, that require fast sequences of notes being played. But the general expectation is one of instant composition, asking for a balance of silence and sound.

It is the moments of silence when the listener plays, is playing in her head. Silences,

at the right time, can be more powerful than any notes one might be playing.

If composed music should sound fresh, improvised, then improvised sound should ideally come out as sounding composed: as if no note could be substituted by another; where all the breathers of timing and  all the sounds, silences and dynamics are placed perfectly etc. Obviously, there is not time to compose, or even think about anything.

Its in the silences where the listener begins to play. Subconsciously, the listener enters what I call the playing mode. We can learn to listen in the playing mode throughout a piece of music that we came to listen to.

7 Impulse and Feeling

In a rehearsal a player asked Ornette Coleman what he wanted him to play in a particular passage. Ornette said: “Play what you feel”.  When the passage came, Ornette interrupted the player’s solo and said “That’s not what you feel !”

What Ornette heard was an impulsive approach,  not a feeling approach. When we play impulsively there is still our thinking mind involved: we may push an idea we have. “Feeling”, in this context, is something we are not pushing, or even doing. The music that we authentically feel, bubbles up like water from a spring, surprising us as much as the listener. We need to be in our spontaneous state of mind and have the patience to see, feel, what will happen.  Invariably, music will happen, if we create the right situation for it.

Impulse is somewhat spontaneous but mostly over-reaching, pushing. We usually end up repeating habitual patterns.

Feeling the music means, that we are simply readying ourselves to receive it and broadcast it, like a radio station.

8 Beat-for-Beat Attention

 Just like for timing in general: feeling time/pulse and playing with it requires us to bypass the thinking mode and enter into the zone of spontaneous action. This is a natural space for us to be, nothing contrived or fabricated. We just have to develop the knack to be there and stay there throughout a performance. Our natural sense of spontaneity needs to govern improvisation and interpretation, with the thinking processes confined to form elements and overall positioning of our playing. We need to be comfortable with moving past the thinking syndrome. The natural state of mind is empty and spontaneous. We use our thought processes but we don’t let them use us.

A constant process of focusing and re-focusing is necessary here. But it needs to be playful. This is not about concentration as we know it. It is a constant process of letting go, lighten up, letting things happen, a state of effortlessness. We are born that way. We are born with the Music Mind.

Stay in tune. More to follow shortly.





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