Interview with Rob Saffer, Creative Music Foundation Executive Director

(Shot from CMF’s 2014 Fall Workshop. Courtesy of the Creative Music Foundation)

Key Elements Group LLC had the pleasure of sitting down with Rob Saffer from the Creative Music Foundation. Hosting workshops in Woodstock, NY, CMF brings together musicians from around the globe to form truly unique scenarios for artists to explore innovative concepts and ideas through improvisational sessions. Here, we discuss Saffer’s experience with the organization and what is on the horizon for CMF and other arts nonprofits.

KEG: What is the Creative Music Foundation’s mission?

RS: The Creative Music Foundation (CMF) makes it possible to profoundly experience and express our deep connection with the transforming energies of music, our universal language. CMF programs focus on the common elements of all music, emphasizing keen awareness, personal expression, intensive listening and cross-cultural communication, as well as provide unique opportunities for musicians, students and listeners from different backgrounds and traditions to explore together, share, develop, and broaden their musical understanding and sensitivity. CMF pursues its mission through workshops, residencies, coaching, concerts, recordings and archival projects that engage both listeners and musicians in the USA and around the world.

KEG: What role do you play in the organization, and what are some of the greatest challenges you face in that role?

RS: I’m officially executive director, but it’s really more of a producer’s role. I am responsible for getting stuff done: producing concerts, archival recordings, workshops, residencies, website and all manner of social media. I am the guy who figures out how to make stuff happen on shoestring budgets or less. As a former marketing and creative professional, I’m also figuring out how best to communicate what we do, how best to promote our work. I also get involved in board building and some of the artistic aspects of the organization, like helping choose which artists should come to our workshops. It’s a constantly changing situation that demands true improvisation.

KEG: What draws you to the organization’s work?

RS: I have been a huge fan of this music since I was in college at the University of Pennsylvania. This music has changed my life and has been the basis for much of my professional and personal success. More than anyone, I think it was the music of Ornette Coleman that – as I told him before he died earlier this year – gave me a strategy for living and an understanding of authenticity, creativity, democracy, and so many other crucial aspects to life. So I’ve always wanted to give back to the musicians and music that gave me so much. When I was living in Brooklyn, I volunteered my time helping cultural and musical organizations such as Celebrate Brooklyn, Symphony Space, Brooklyn Museum and Jazz Workshop – a Charles Mingus nonprofit.  When I moved to Woodstock and met Karl Berger, I got more involved with CMF. I learned that it was co-founded by Ornette, too. So, how could I not help the organization? Over time, my role grew from volunteer and fan to actually helping rebuild the organization. It’s a great honor.

KEG: How does the Creative Music Foundation fit into a larger context? What role does it play for culture and art in 2015?

RS: We’re trying to fill a role that traditional music conservatories do not: that is, helping people feel the basic elements of music so they can find their own voices to add to this wonderful gumbo of improvised music. We exist to help artists develop their artistry, giving them time and space to develop their own ideas and their own unique voice. Our workshops typically go way beyond music; they’re almost spiritual retreats, too. We constantly get feedback that our workshops don’t only help people become better musicians; they help people evolve as human beings! Could there be more rewarding feedback?  Additionally, we run an improvisers orchestra, led by Karl, that draws on nearly 100 musicians in the NYC area to create full scores of improvised orchestral music with astonishingly beautiful results. We have also digitized the Creative Music Studio (CMS) archives which are being housed for posterity and study at Columbia University. We’re just releasing the second three-CD set, following on the heals of the first that was hailed as ‘best jazz reissue’ of 2014 and received high critical praise around the world. We are considering starting a digital download label to release the majority of our catalog of 550 concert recordings made at the CMS in the 1970s and 80s. So, we’re looking back and getting out some great music from the past while helping to create the next generation of improvising artists.

KEG: How do you envision the Creative Music Foundation developing in the short-, long-term future? What are the organization’s goals?

RS: We want to build our board and build our professional capacity so we can fundraise more successfully to fuel some of the projects mentioned above. We want to become a more financially sustainable organization that will be around for another 45 years. We’ve recently begun working on a succession plan so that our co-founder and artistic director, Karl Berger, can focus on composing and playing and not be burdened with the requirements of running a 501c3.  Ultimately, we would like a physical home – a campus – where we could have year-round programming: workshops, residencies, recording projects, etc.

KEG: Is there anything that, looking back, you would have done differently in your work with CMF?

RS: Not yet but I’m hoping that over time we’ll take chances, innovate and do a bunch of things that we should have done differently. We’ll always be an improvising organization at heart, so we’ll make mistakes and hit home runs. That’s art.

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