Friday, October 21, 2011

Review of The Gurdjieff Folk Instruments Ensemble CD

The Gurdjieff Folk Instruments Ensemble/ Levon Eskenian
Music of Georges I. Gurdjieff, ECM records

Tina Pelikan of ECM records kindly sent me a copy of this CD to review in this space.

 Let me begin by saying that this is a very fine effort indeed. Directed by Levon Eskenian,  fourteen of Armenia's leading folk instrumentalists came together to produce this group of pieces, which–naturally–focuses on pieces from the Gurdjieff/De Hartmann oeuvre with "roots in the Armenian, Greek, Arabic, Kurdish, Assyrian and Caucasian folk and spiritual music." Unsurprisingly, the instruments and performances bring the pieces back into that part of the world... with a vengeance. Played on these instruments, and in this manner, the music assumes an earthy organic nature that even Larry Rosenthal simply can't squeeze out of a piano.

Along the way, one is reminded how eerily a carefully applied vibrato can emulate a vocal performance; one gets to hear picks and fingernails skittering across strings like spiders, and human breathing modulating the sonorous notes of duduks and bluls. It's a pleasure to listen to this music brought back to the place it came from.

All in all, by reaching back into the past in such a comprehensive manner, this particular CD runs the risk of being– dare I say it?–New. You will not feel like you are hearing your father's Gurdjieff music here. It is not the same old, same old.

 Delightfully, it turns out that when one is working with this material, there are several pieces where it becomes necessary to flail away vigorously on stringed instruments. When one is called to flail, nothing else will do. I was (on a definitely irreverent note) at one point reminded of Pete Townshend's performance on Pinball Wizard. This kind of playing invigorates the music in a way that is, once again, impossible on a piano–the instrument we almost always hear this music played on. And all of the performances are equally spirited, even when the spirit that animates them is introspective or contemplative.

Having spent what seems most of a lifetime sitting primly in absolutely still rooms in order to carefully and attentively listen to reverently formal performances of this music, squeezed into what amounts to a parlor format–even though, of course, the aim is much bigger than the aim of any parlor music–it was refreshing to hear it unbound, scratchy, breathy, searching for a voice that authentically conveys origins. The performances well exceed the boundaries of what we have come to expect from our indoctrination.

Paradoxically, this also becomes a question. Arguably, one of Gurdjieff's chief acts of genius in his collaboration with De Hartmann was to bring this improvisational Eastern sensibility to a Western instrument. It worked rather well–in fact, it worked wonderfully. Because of this, bringing the music back to its own folk-instrument roots actually obscures some of its unique and remarkable qualities. Because it is here performed on instruments that one more or less expects such music to be performed on (you will see what I mean when you buy it and listen to it, as you must) it is -weirdly- easier to dismiss it as something ordinary and predictable, at least judged within its own context. One does not fall into that trap when hearing it on a piano. I can't explain exactly why it works that way, except to say, that for me, it does. In that sense it actually put a greater demand on me to try and understand it from its purportedly sacred context. Once again, when we hear the Gurdjieff/De Hartmann music in this form, we're called to hear it anew.

An additional and admittedly more personal paradox layers itself on to this music. There is something anachronistic and inexplicable about a Western man who has grown up listening to rock music and who composes on computers with MIDI, samplers, and synthesizers immersing himself in a world of people twanging, banging, and puffing away on instruments that are slowly (and sadly) being eclipsed and forgotten. (If you don't believe me, spend a night in a boat on the Nile, eating dinner at midnight, and listen to what the bands are playing there.  They aren't using ouds, bluls, and duduks to play their traditional music, they are using synthesizers and drum machines on amplified sound systems.)

The CD is, in other words, an excursion into a world that is being steadily lost to the relentless march of technology and the accelerating extermination of separated, unique world cultures.

I am not, however, a purist who believes that only acoustic music is “real,” and that the use of digital and electronic equipment is a Crime Against Nature. It seems fairly clear to me that Gurdjieff himself did not think this way either–else wise, why would he have owned so many tape recorders, which he so enthusiastically used to lay down an extensive repertoire of harmonium tracks? Like most men, he enjoyed using new technology... after all, he was only human.

Ultimately, I found myself wondering what the exact significance of this effort was apart from its lush ethnic sound and its ethno-historical value. This because, in a way, the whole point of what Gurdjieff did was to create a bridge between that world and where we are now–a bridge, so to speak, formed between the essence, in the form of folk origins, and personality, in the form of formal “classical” pieces played on the piano. In that sense his music legitimately represented the meeting of East and West.

In the end, I think the significance lies precisely in its re-invention of what we understand this music to be. Returning this music to its roots required considerable ingenuity in terms of both arrangement and appropriate instrumental interpretation. Mr. Eskenian and his artists with a doubt labored long and hard to produce a well-crafted work of integrity and value, yet they manage to make the result sound relaxed, informal, and effortless. The final transparency of the performances is refreshing.

Highly recommended.