George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff (1866(?) – 1949), born in Alexandropol (Gyumri), Armenia, is known to many in the West as one of the major spiritual figures of the 20th century. Experiences in Gurdjieff’s childhood awoke in him an irrepressible need to understand the mystery of human existence. After preparing for careers in both science and religion with studies in the fields of medicine, music, psychology and theology, Gurdjieff and a group of fellow “Seekers of Truth” set out on a search to understand the aim and significance of life on earth and in particular man’s place in the cosmos.
Gurdjieff’s search began in Armenia and took him throughout the Middle East and many parts of Central Asia, India and North Africa. Witness to a myriad of folk music and dance traditions, Gurdjieff also had significant contact with Christian brotherhoods, Buddhist monks, Sufi masters and Dervishes. After some twenty years, Gurdjieff returned to the West with a Teaching whose aim is what he called “the harmonious development of man.”
Gurdjieff attempted to transmit his ideas through a number of distinct but complementary modalities that include: 1. Founding several institutes, such as the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man at the Chateau du Prieuré at Fontainebleau; 2. Preparing and working directly with small groups of pupils; 3. Creating highly elaborate sacred gymnastics (now known as movements) and 4. Writing “Ten Books in three Series,” namely, Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson – An Objectively Impartial Criticism of the Life of Man; Meetings with Remarkable Men; and Life is Real Only Then, When ‘I Am.’
Gurdjieff and Music
Gurdjieff’s musical background was not trivial. His father was a well-known troubadour or ashough in the regions around Armenia’s cultural capital, Gyumri, and beyond. Gurdjieff himself acknowledges the deep impression made upon him from long evenings spent listening to legends and epics performed by his father.
As a youth, Gurdjieff was a gifted vocalist who sang in the church choir at Kars Military Academy. In addition, Gurdjieff sometimes accompanied his sacred movements on guitar and in his later years he improvised for his pupils on the harmonium.
Gurdjieff’s interest and understanding of traditional music was profound. He believed that the music of different cultures both preserved and revealed essential characteristics of those cultures and conveyed deeper meanings rooted in their traditions. With an extraordinary capacity for remembering the intricate Eastern melodies he heard during his travels, in the 1920’s he composed some 300 pieces and fragments for the piano in the manner of dictation to his pupil, Thomas de Hartmann, the Russian composer and pianist. Gurdjieff’s musical pieces have the vitality and spontaneity of pure improvisation and yet are deeply rooted in ancient oral traditions.
Gurdjieff’s musical output may be divided into three distinct periods. The first period includes music composed for the unfinished ballet “Struggle of the Magicians” as well as orchestral music for his public performances in theaters in Paris and the U.S. in the early 1920’s.
The second period comprises of mainly piano music and was almost entirely dictated by Gurdjieff to his pupil, Thomas de Hartmann, in a three-year span beginning in 1924, after a near-fatal car crash, and ending in 1927. Following this period, Gurdjieff never again returned to this method of composition. Although virtually unknown to the public for several decades after his death, this music has been increasingly disseminated through numerous recordings in recent years thanks to four volumes of sheet music published by Schott.
The third period consists of harmonium improvisations Gurdjieff made in the company of his pupils in the late 1940’s until Gurdjieff’s death in 1949. These pieces survive today thanks to primitive recordings made at the time.
About the project and Music of Georges I. Gurdjieff CD album on ECM records
Fascinating and highly attractive project which returns the music of Gurdjieff (c. 1866 – 1949) to its ethnic inspirational sources. Gurdjieff’s compositions have largely been studied, in the West, via the piano transcriptions of Thomas de Hartmann. Armenian composer Levon Eskenian now goes beyond the printed notes to look at the musical traditions that Gurdjieff encountered during his travels, and rearranges the compositions from this perspective. Eskenian draws attention to the roots of the pieces in Armenian, Greek, Arabic, Kurdish, Assyrian, Persian and Caucasian folk and spiritual music. Enlisting the assistance of some of the leading players in Armenia, Eskenian founded the Gurdjieff Folk Instruments Ensemble in 2008, and with them he has realized a remarkable album.
“What appeals most to me in Levon Eskenian’s instrumentation is the extremely meticulous, clear cut work approach without unnecessary ‘composing’ and ‘cleverness’ – when in the wilderness of silence the tiniest intervention is done with sound, which is very characteristic of Gurdjieff’s works. There is deep silence at the core of Gurdjieff’s music that relates us to the Ecclesiastes chapter of the Bible, or to the truth told of deep silences from faraway lands, a stillness that has not been darkened at all, and has the degree of density that leaves the Gurdjieffian silence immaculate.” – Tigran Mansurian
ECM has had a long involvement with Gurdiieff’s compositions, starting with Keith Jarrett’s recording in 1980 of the “Sacred Hymns”, which brought about an international revival of interest in the music. Now this fascinating project by Levon Eskenian and his ensemble returns the Gurdjieff music to its inspirational sources.
Gurdjieff’s compositions have been studied, in the West, largely via the piano transcriptions of his gifted amanuensis, the Russian composer Thomas de Hartmann. Now, however, Levon Eskenian goes beyond the printed notes to look at the musical traditions that Gurdjieff encountered during his travels, and rearranges the compositions from this perspective. This revelatory recording gives the listener the experience of hearing Gurdjieff in full colour and in close-up, as it were Gurdjieff from the source, rather than filtered through western classical interpretation, Gurdjieff with the instruments of the East. Eskenian draws attention to the roots of the pieces in folk and spiritual music, aided by Armenia’s leading practitioners of traditional music, with whom he founded the Gurdjieff Folk Instruments Ensemble in 2008.
G. I. Gurdjieff, philosopher, spiritual leader, author and composer, was born in Armenia, but his work and particularly his music is just being rediscovered there. Performances of his music, considered a double threat because of its progressive and religious implications, were discouraged during the Soviet years.
Levon Eskenian turned his attention to Gurdjieff while studying at Yerevan’s Komitas Consevatory. An encounter with ECM’s “Chants, Hymns and Dances” recording – the 2003 album with new Gurdjieff arrangements by Anja Lechner and Vassilis Tsabropoulos – also prompted him to think deeply about Gurdjieff’s sources, as he recognized a number of the tunes as clearly related to folk songs or sacred songs of the region, to songs he’d known since childhood.
The logical consequence of this work was the founding of the Gurdjieff Folk Instruments Ensemble in 2008. The group gave its first concerts in Gyumri (Alexandropol), Gurdjieff’s birthplace, and recorded its debut album in Yerevan in the winter of 2008. The recording was mastered by ECM in Munich in 2011.