Friday, July 10, 2009

On the music

While preparing for a memorial service for my group leader Betty Brown, I had a new occasion to listen to some of the fine recordings of the Gurdjieff/DeHartmann music as performed by Larry Rosenthal.

At the same time, I listened to to a few of the harmonium recordings made by Mr. Gurdjieff himself. These two sets of impressions percolated in me for several days, and this morning, a distinct intuition arose.

If one listens to the harmonium recordings, it's quite clear that what we find there is different than the compositions created in the Gurdjieff/DeHartmann collaboration. And it became equally apparent to me that it is not possible that the person who was playing the harmonium -- that is, Mr. Gurdjieff himself -- provided the majority of the material for the compositions we now hear.

Why do I say that?

The harmonium recordings are stream of consciousness recordings. Individual chords, and some overall impressionistic effects, bear a relationship to the distinctive features of the Gurdjieff/DeHartmann compositions. DeHartmann's compositions, however, are complex, delicately structured pieces, with all of the professional nuances that one could and should expect of a musician.

Gurdjieff, of course, was not a trained musician of any kind, and his harmonium recordings reveal it. He was not, in fact, even what amounts to a fully competent "folk tradition" musician, judging from the recordings.

What we do hear in the harmonium recordings are a number of distinctive features of expression that are found in the Gurdjieff/DeHartmann compositions: an almost physical, and certainly emotional longing, a search; the sense that something ineffable and extraordinary lies in the distance, just beyond our grasp; major chords in juxtapositions that create a hint of joy and expansion. The sense that we are listening to an unformed, yet actively nascent, hymn.

I could say an equal number of negative things about the harmonium recordings, but I will restrain myself, lest my plastic angel's wings get a clipping.

Gurdjieff was, we may assume and believe, an ardent listener to and student of religious, sacred, and folk musical traditions--as well as somewhat of a genius in the remembering of them. This should come as no surprise-- after all, Gurdjieff displayed genius in many areas.

Genius notwithstanding, without Thomas DeHartmann, the achievement of the musical sophistication we hear in the Gurdjieff/DeHartmann music would almost certainly have been unattainable to him.

So I have reached the conclusion, mostly by listening with my head, my heart, and my ears-- that the majority of the material, including its overall structure, coherence, direction, and, yes, even emotional tone, is primarily attributable to Thomas DeHartmann.

I'm not sure if I am the first person who has ever said this -- I doubt it, because almost no idea is original -- but it seems worth discussing, because there is a veritable little industry out there devoted to making everything Mr. Gurdjieff did conscious, sacred, and perfect. There is a tendency to forget the fact that he was human -- a fact that C. S. Nott brings up in "Teachings of Gurdjieff-The Journal of a Pupil." Even when he was alive, people around Gurdjieff tended to ascribe his every single action to some higher level of cosmic consciousness at work, and every manifestation of his as coming from a fully enlightened, perfectly awakened Being.

The tendency to do this has not faded with time. Staunch adherents of the teaching become outraged when anyone suggests the contrary. I have been there personally and made the suggestions, so I'm not whistling Dixie about this little habit some of us have of pedestal-izing Gurdjieff... as though he might look better on our own soap box than he does on his own.

What interests me is that Nott dismisses any such romantic ideas. I think that what interested him more than anything else was how fully and absolutely human Gurdjieff was--human with all the foibles and failings that come with that. Many of us don't want angels as teachers. We are okay with a few devils, but above all, we want to learn from other human beings.

So just what was Gurdjieff's role in the composition of the music?

Gurdjieff was, above all, interested in helping those who worked with and achieve something for themselves. He did not want to do their work for them. He wanted to inspire them.

To inspire means, quite literally, to put air into -- to breathe into. Air, as we know, is referred to as the second being the food in this work, that is, it is a higher level of food at a finer rate of vibration than the ordinary food we eat.

Mr. Gurdjieff worked to help those around him acquire a higher level of food so that they could do their own work. In Thomas de Hartmann's case, he provided the inspiration, the emotional tone, the core relational experiences to be sought in sacred music. He provided the direction, the impetus, and he brought his own wish to the project. He helped DeHartmann turn his considerable compositional skills to a much higher purpose than that of putting on ballets. And yes, I'm sure he brought melodies and memories that powerfully informed the enterprise.

But he did not write the music.

That was DeHartmann's job. If Gurdjieff had, in fact, written the music, DeHartmann wouldn't have been needed. Not only that, he would have been taking the man's work away from him, and that was never the way Gurdjieff did things. (Nott describes the two of them as even having public spats over the process.)

As to whether or not the pieces actually represent real hymns and dances that Gurdjieff heard in his travels, well, we may never know. To the best of my knowledge, none of the Gurdjieff/DeHartmann music has ever been "rediscovered in situ," that is, stumbled across in its original form in some temple, monastery, or village.

If they were really from such sources, this makes every single existing such piece, for the time being, a "golden hamster"-- that is, a species discovered only one single time in the wild, and then never seen (i.e., heard) again.

I think it far more likely that we have here original works, in the overall spirit of their purported origins, which were created for Gurdjieff's own admirable--and, as it turns out, lasting--purposes.

In DeHartmann, in other words, we find a man who reached an extraordinary potential under the tutelage of an extraordinary teacher. The body of work that emerged from that is, primarily, his own. I say this because it is all too easy to take this work away from the man, all too easy to pretend that his teacher was all and everything.

We owe the man a tremendous debt of gratitude for the personal sacrifice he made -- personal sacrifices are always required when one puts oneself under the tutelage of a master -- and the enormous amount of work he did to create a body of music which has become one of the core experiences of the work.

Jeanne DeSalzmann may, apparently, have been of a similar mind, because many years later, when she needed additional music for the movements, she turned to him to write it.

So, today, a little Bravo to Thomas DeHartmann.

May our hearts be open, and our prayers be heard.


  1. i had the supreme good fortune to get to listen to Mr Rosenthal in person at a concert recently through the Oregon Gurdjieff Foundation...i sat mesmerized and grateful for the moments to enjoy these wonderfilled musical pieces...Mr. Rosenthal even gave us his own insight on each piece he played...After the concert i had to shake his hand and sincerely thank him...Thanks for the reminder to remember...e*

  2. Re Gurdjieff/DeHartmann music: Simply put, i think that alot of it is too consistently extraordinary to not be from some actual different microcosm (not originating from only one person [arguing against the DeHartmann thesis here].
    So Imo, it would've had to be produced as a byproduct of a esoteric school. What i'm now about to say may sound pompous but it seems to me that for example, Shostakovich, genius as he was, has music that has the quality of musical genius at its essence, but somehow his, Dmitri's music, doesnt compare in easily producing the richness of true (in Gurdjieff's term) "Subjective Emotional state"[s] (my capitalization), at least not for myself. .

    To continue. .with putting a real face on our hero(s): I recall, from the literature somewhere (one of Nott's books, I believe)walking in the dark, Gurdjieff happened to bump into someone, and thereupon he lashed out with his fist. Later on, Gurdjieff saw the poor fellow, scarred for life and it caused him real remorse.

    While we're on the topic of de-frocking, permit me to reunearth an old 'saw' about 'Christ never laughed' -says who??
    . .Unfortunately, this was perpetuated by Gurdjieff in "In Search".
    I remain firmly skeptical of Gurdjieff in this particular context, unless i'm missing something obvious, which is entirely possible, given my native consonances, proclivities, usual mental formats that are incommensurate with the spiritual (path)

  3. Thank you for your comments "on the music", your blog and your various articles on your other site. Everything you have placed "out here" is well worth spending time with.
    Did you know that The Movements' final shaping was largely up to the work of Jeanne DeSalzmann? Gurdjieff demonstrated choreographic themes and left the final form to her. Her Dalcrozian background left its distinctive stamp on all those which are left to us.
    BEELZEBUB too was largely shaped by committee from material "instigated" by him.
    Is this, perhaps, another way he encouraged others to put the fragments together for themselves?

  4. I think all the things you say are right. Gurdjieff was not a musician and Hartman was. But even disregarding the formal structure of Hartman's music, the deepness of feeling and "sensing" the music may produce comes not only from the sweetness of the harmony as in the harmonium interpretations. I think it comes from whatever was awakened in Hartman and whatever is needed to play that music in the piano.
    Jimmy Nott helped me to understand what is necessary to play ... pushing me aside in a movements class and improvising some music instead of the Hartman's I was playing. The effect in the dancers was amazing in all those cases. It took me months (and many rude pushings) to grasp what was needed from me. Nott didn't study piano ever but his playing was a real support for the class.

    In regard to the spiritual pedestal granted to Gurjieff I also agree with your opinions. When I read Fritz Peters "Childhood with G." I felt that the simple common sense of a child could see more than the elaborated structure of an adult. (His books were nor recommended in the Foundation).
    As always thank you for your writings.

  5. Thanks for all your comments-!

    A friend and mentor who has some expertise in the history of the work advises me that Mme. DeS. said that Gurdjieff "helped put DeHartmann in the state which made it possible to write the music."

    All in all, perhaps, we should simply focus on the search that we are called to when we hear it.


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