On a summer day in 1979, Anthony Braxton walked into a banquet room in the Oehler Mountain Lodge, set up some hot lights and videotape cameras, and launched a big band of music students into motion. Literally. We were supposed to not just play the squiggles on the diagrams before us; we were to move them — to translate the lines into physical gestures. Ducking and weaving and writhing, the horn and string players traced arcs and wiggles in a spaghetti-bowl of musical stew. Drummers jumped and bull fiddlers twirled. While the cameras rolled, he shouted, “Piano players, you too! I’ve seen Keith Jarrett — I know you guys can dance while you play!” When the tapes were filled, he gushed, “I gotta take you guys to Europe with me! This band is the greatest! We’re gonna blow those European cats away! They won’t know what hit ‘em! Call me next Sunday!” How could you not idolize this lovable lunatic?
The band: twenty-three or so young done-with-jazz-as-usual kids, full of the devil and bad coffee. The room: a former dining hall in a faded Catskill resort. The setting was the Creative Music Studio, a loose, swinging, New Music music school set up by Ornette Coleman, Karl Berger and others, and run by Berger, his wife Ingrid, and some grant-honeyed worker bees. Braxton was leading a weeklong composition workshop under the curation of Roscoe Mitchell, fellow AACM’er to Braxton and, like him, thorny reed master and composer from Chicago. The school was a threadbare, do-it-yourself improvisation of cabins, cats, composers and granola-chomping hippie kids, thrown over a patch of isolated Catskill forest near Woodstock, New York. A sign on the wall in what used to be the bar read, “Absolutely No Horseplay.” CMS got its mojo from Zen, enthusiasm, sweat, and the occasional slash of messianic ruthlessness (not to mention a felicitous proximity to the center of the universe, New York City). Right then, it was the best place in the world you could possibly be.
The CMS experience depended on when you were there. Many remember it as primarily a “world music” village populated by the likes of Nana Vasconcelos, Trilok Gurtu and Collin Walcott; for me, it was all about the AACM proposition of new creative music that envisioned an far wider horizon of sounds and structures than jazz had theretofore allowed. The Art Ensemble New Years’ Intensives and Mitchell’s Composer’s Intensive in July-August of 1979 put this vision forth. Some grumbled about the lack of structure and protocol, but if you put a lot into it, you got a lot more back. Bob Sweet’s book Music Universe/Music Mind reflects his particular encounters with the ever-evolving CMS ethos. Although it seems far too coincidental, I remember Bob as one of my two roommates at the 1978-9 New Year’s Intensive led by the Art Ensemble of Chicago (the second of two such events). The third inmate of our bunker was Hugh Ragin, from Colorado like me (he was fond of invoking “the Colorado connection.”), but soon to be a musical citizen of the world, through his connection to the AACM bandleaders who taught at Woodstock (also due to his incredible talent and chops). It was a good place to meet such people.
Besides the Art Ensemble and Braxton, others we studied under were Leo Smith, George Lewis, Spencer Barefield, Olu Dara, Oliver Lake, Ursula Oppens and Garrett List. For a day each, Richard Teitelbaum, Fred Frith, Becky Friend, Steve Reich, Ronald Shannon Jackson, and Byard Lancaster stopped in. Throughout the fall semester, Ingrid and Karl would lead daily singing and rhythm classes using a sruti box and hand percussion. Every weekend, there’d be a concert. Students would play under the baton of a workshop leader, or there’d be all-student concerts. Often the workshop leaders would play a set or two. Less frequently, there’d be an all-night party where the beer, wine, ganja, patchouli, and replays of Dancing In Your Head never seemed to end.
Buddhism and vegetarianism guided our young, hairy bodies and spirits. The former was the life philosophy of Karl and Ingrid, and was transmitted subtly, through ways of being rather than meditation or sutra chanting. The classes they led were usually outdoors on the grass, and possessed of a gentle yet insistent push into deeper levels of not just music-making but life-living. Every day at 5 p.m., there was an hour of no music — neither playing nor listening. Although it was a drag if you were really into something when the daily quiet time came around, the peace routine probably kept some of us from murdering each other. The vegetarianism was enforced by staff cook Ted Orr, who decided unilaterally one day that he was done with the American Flesh-Industrial Complex; there didn’t seem to be much organized resistance to the new regime, so the rest of the fall 1979 session was cruelty-free. Ted was my roommate that season. We shared one of the cabins on the hill above the main building. Some of the other cabins served as practice rooms. There were assorted dogs and cats bunking in some of these rooms, breeding bristling clouds of fleas that swarmed your legs while you were trying to run down a chart. The antidote was to run screaming down the hill and jump in the pool.
There was one room inhabited by a hermit student who never emerged but once in the time I was there. Evidently his family had the money to keep him up, and the school was reluctant to divest of the precious funds his invisible presence provided. Hermit didn’t attend classes, practice, or bathe. He took his meals in his room. The one day he came out, I met him sitting on a picnic bench chatting with a couple other students, his raggy pants completely ripped out at the crotch so that his balls were resting comfortably on the wooden planks. He was bearded and smelly, but seemed intelligently sociable, talking quietly but easily of this and that, just as if he were a full member of the human community. He must’ve seen his shadow, though, for Hermit went back into his hole and we never saw him again. I heard later that, after Hermit was finally evicted, his warren was pretty much permanently uninhabitable – knee-deep in trash, and featuring a mysterious giant lump on one side of the bed, a kind of Burroughsian domicilic canker sore swimming with a pus of discarded pizza crusts, moldy baked beans, candy wrappers, grimy chips, lint, hair, and unsavory matter of excretory origin.
CMS was a setup that’s impossible to conceive of now — a precarious, government-entitlement non-academic playpen of kids and outside musicians that even managed to hand out college credits, too. It came to an end practically overnight with the (s)election of Ronald Reagan and his intrepid politburo of free-marketeers, who yanked the CETA grants that funded a lot of CMS activity. To a self-involved twenty-two-year-old music nerd from the Rockies, the political underpinnings were invisible until the accompli had been fait. Tom Cora made an entrance into the scullery one day and announced dramatically, “It’s all over.” Actually, it wasn’t — CMS kept going in other manifestations and venues, but the Oehler’s Mountain Lodge glory days were numbered. Yours truly had already moved on, to the dubiously greener plateaus of freelance copying for the aforementioned Mr. Braxton. In doing so, I joined a long, motley queue of Catskill copyists and flunkies who supported the galactic imaginings of that singular American metamusician.
During Braxton’s week at the intensive, the CMS student band swooped and squiggled and squawked and stomped. Braxton was engaging and accommodating, but demanding too. When most of the band couldn’t sight-read Composition 40 (Q) — his zigzaggy atonal march studded with major sevenths and ninths — he let us know that wasn’t what he expected of students “at this level.” Improvisation was of course heavily emphasized; listening even more so. One reading of his student-study chart (a big cardboard diagram with colored notes hanging off sometimes imaginary staves, connected with dashed lines and other notatey paraphernalia) started very quietly, and he motioned in an alto clarinetist for a solo, who maintained this peaceable mood. Next he cued in a trombonist, a big, puffing fullback who proceeded to lay waste to the soundscape with a jazzy blat-fest. “Hold it, hold it, hold it,” waved Braxton, stopping the music. He thought for a moment, then started, “Now, I’m gonna say this, and I don’t mean a word of it…We had a nice thing going there.” He pointed to the ‘bone dude. “But you came in,” making a Mussolini fist here, “and it was like, RRRRRGGGHH!!!”
Continued in two weeks