On a cold, rainy night, through an unassuming doorway on the corner of 9th Street and C Avenue, nine of New York’s most talented experimental musicians crowded onto a small stage amid the backlit steps from the Nublu jazz club to offer two hours of improvised magic. The Opera Orchestra, featuring guitarist Wendy Eisenberg, soprano singer Ju-Eh, violinists Charlie Burnham and Gabby Fluke-Mogul, violist Joanna Mattrey, percussionist Cyro Baptista, bassist Tony Garnier and drummer Asher Herzog was assembled by conductor Billy Martin and presented by Creative Music Studio.
The Creative Music Foundation, a non-profit organization, was established in the early 1970s by Karl Berger, Ingrid Sertso and Ornette Colemam. Focused on teaching and the union of experimental musicians and improvisers from different backgrounds, the Creative Music Studio has been the main program of the group since its inception. As President and CEO Martin said, “It’s not about style and it’s not about genre, it’s just about making music with everyone” .
The showcase featuring the Opera Orchestra reunited for just two sets in Nublu on December 8, while a second performance with slightly different lineup took place in Saugerties, New York on December 11.
The performers come from very different musical backgrounds. Martin, who teaches at The New School, is best known as one-third of the experimental music trio Medeski, Martin & Wood. Charlie Burnham and Cyro Baptista have a long and rich career as studio musicians, Wendy Eisenberg (my guitar teacher at TNS!) Has just released a banjo record called “Bent Ring”, among their myriad of projects, and Asher Herzog is currently a student at, you guessed it, the New School. Although they work in such different capacities, musicians find common ground in improvised music, offering a unique collaboration.
Each performer has come to find experimental music through contrasting outlets. âIt started in the 1980s when I got into Brazilian and Pan-African music,â Martin explained. He recalled how he “met a lot of jazz musicians in New York because of it – Bob Moses, Jaco Pastorius, Pat Metheny, John Scofield, Bill Frisell, those were all those older guys I was playing withâ¦ and that kinda rubbed off on me, that open way of playing.
âWhen Medeski, Martin & Wood were formed,â Martin added, âwe developed our own sound and I found my own voice. I love all kinds of music.â
Speaking about how they got into the field, guitarist Eisenberg commented, âWhen I was in jazz school, I didn’t feel too good doing this thing that seemed to be kept and super masculine. There was also a super huge racial politics thingâ¦ I thought to myself: “how can I explore what I love about jazz from all angles and not just through an often white supremacist lens” ‘led to a harsh noise, because I feel like jazz but is not. â¦ Then I remembered that I liked playing guitar and not pedals, so I started improvising some harsh noise, which turned into a hybrid of the two.
But why and how did this particular group of musicians come into being? âIt’s kind of intuitive,â said Martin, âa lot is just watching and listeningâ¦ admiring other players and looking for them.â
Listening is perhaps the driving force behind CMS and a lot of improvisational music. Martin explained, âListening is the most important thing, it’s something I always emphasize when I teach and when I work at CMSâ¦ with everything you observe in life that starts with you. inform in a certain way.
âCharlie Burnham is one of my favorite violinists in the world and Gabby is one of my best friends,â added Eisenberg, âCyro Baptista with this band Ambitious Loversâ¦ actually changed the course of my life.â
Throughout the performance, the overall tone of the music shifted in very divergent directions. Moments of great intensity, horrifying beauty and odious contempt for convention, juxtaposed with luminous, light and sometimes playful passages that emerged from the players as the night wore on. Prior to the performance, no discussion of keys, changes, time signatures, chords, rhythms, polyrhythms, substitutions, moods, or goals with regard to the music took place. âThe only thing we talked about as the show approached was, ‘this is going to sound like chamber music’ and ‘here are the hand gestures that mean the things they mean,’ Eisenberg said.
âIt starts with confidence and admirationâ¦ and being ready for anything,â Martin added, âthey’re improvisers, and they’re going to give up.â
Martin describes his driving style as “simple”. According to him, it can be taught in less than 10 minutes during a soundcheck. âSometimes it’s about intuitive driving, calling the players to play, other times it’s a systemâ¦ I call it ‘point-ill-ism’,â said Martin. âIt’s my own name for this steering technique that gives players the opportunity to create their own rhythmic pulse and choose their own note or sound, and then I can kind of change their pulse by giving them a signal, they have to watch and follow me, but they still have their own control and choice as to the subtleties that occur.
Even under the direction of a conductor, the sounds heard in Nublu could not have been predicted by Martin, or anyone. âIt’s not about knowing what’s going to happen or planning it,â Martin said. “You have to be open to taking in different directions, but it’s really up to the musicians to do it collectively Go over there. No one is in control, we have to work together collectively as an organization.
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