The name Gurdjieff calls up images of mysticism, esoteric spiritual doctrines, perhaps to some extent a certain wild-eyed fanaticism. Georges Ivanovitch Gurdjieff was, in point of fact, one of those restless wanderers in the realm of ideas who crop up from time to time in our history, seeking something a little more than most of us think about, and inspiring others to follow in his footsteps. A great part of Gurdjieff’s philosophy centered on what we would call “heightened consciousness” or “expanded awareness” of things outside the mundane, making him an early forerunner of today’s fixation on “personal realization.” To a large extent, Gurdjieff sought to reconcile the mundane and the spiritual, and among his tools in this endeavor was music.
Essayist Steve Lake provides this somewhat humorous glimpse, from J. G. Bennett’s “Witness,” of Gurdjieff at work: he would begin a musical composition by tapping out a rhythm on the top of the piano, at which sat his amanuensis, Thomas de Hartmann; Gurdjieff would then hum a melody, or tap it out on the piano and walk away. Hartmann would begin to develop the melody into a theme, which normally occasioned a shouting match between master and scribe, with all attendant gesticulations and a general air of chaos, until it was right. (Hartmann insisted in his memoirs, however, that the music was not his, it was Gurdjieff’s.)
Gurdjieff was subject to a wide variety of influences; born on the border between Turkey and Armenia, he drew upon the rich ethnic diversity of the region of the Caucasus. Hartmann, a Ukrainian who studied at the St. Petersburg Conservatory when Rimsky-Korsakov was its director, was a composer who drew on many influences, as well. Sent by Gurdjieff to Armenia shortly after the end of World War I, he spent eleven years wandering around the Ottoman Empire and Central Asia. In the early 1950s he recorded a group of the compositions from the late 1920s; later, pianist Keith Jarrett, who had recorded another group, was asked to help in the restoration of Hartmann’s recordings, which were issued in 1985 and led to – well, not a flood, exactly, but a number of releases of Gurdjieff discs. It must be remembered however, in the context of Gurdjieff’s music, that Gurdjieff himself was firmly against the intrusion of “personality” into art: he felt that modern art was a series of postures of little value, while ancient (and usually anonymous) art had an “objective” quality that made it a legitimate transmitter of information.
That said, what does the music actually sound like? At first hearing, the overall impression is of quiet, a slight exoticism, strongly reminiscent in places of the piano music of Erik Satie. While there is a strong element of romanticism in these works, one gradually becomes aware that there is also an uncompromising modernism to this music (which must, after all, be Hartmann’s contribution, considering Gurdjieff’s opinions on such things). The Armenian influences are readily apparent, masterfully translated to a fully Western idiom without losing their character. It should be noted that most of the sources of this music are from non-text-based traditions: the “oral” tradition of traditional music, national epics, and folklore in general. All the same, it is very thoughtful music, very well suited to contemplation of things spiritual (although I can also see sections as accompaniment to a dance performance with little trouble).
Vassilis Tsabropoulos, five of whose compositions form a “middle movement” to this disc, has long been interested in and drawn inspiration from the early music of the Orthodox Church. The first, from “Trois morceaux après des hymnes byzantins,” displays, in what little melody there is, a very strong Eastern influence, but is more remarkable for the extended near-drone that provides both a foundation and a motive impulse. Others are not so blatantly non-Western in origin, but are characterized by sweetly appealing melodies that are kept from the saccharine by the austerity of the rendering.
Cellist Anja Lechter has also worked extensively with music from the Ukrainian-Armenian axis, and shares with Tsabropoulos an affinity for improvisation, which seems to stand them in good stead in apprehending Gurdjieff’s music: although not necessarily subject to improvisation itself, there does seem to be a connection between Gurdjieff’s compositions (not to mention Tabropoulos’) and the sort of free-form experimentation that characterizes much avant-garde music as well as jazz. Both performers are well equipped for the challenge: the performances are deft, understated, and yet sometimes of compelling intensity.
All told, this is another one of those collections in which it is nigh unto impossible to point at a track and say “Highlight!” Frankly, it would be ludicrous to try. The overall experience is seductive and intriguing, sometimes almost hypnotic, whether or not you are a follower of Gurdjieff, or even if you are not quite sure who he was.