talks with gurdjieff
george ivanovich gurdjieff (1866-1949)

the movements and music of gurdjieff
anthony blake

in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, gurdjieff traveled extensively in the near and far east and into central asia. he brought back with him many strong impressions of the music and dances of these regions. when he came to work with the russian composer thomas de hartmann, he was able to transform these impressions through the medium of the composer's musical sensibility into unique pieces of music. de hartmann had some of the same teachers as scriabin, whom he greatly admired. he was to collaborate with kandinsky on the remarkable opera 'the yellow sound'. responding to gurdjieff's suggestions of rhythms and melodies, he brought into being around 300 pieces for piano. the scores for most of this music have recently been published by schott, one of the most prestigious music publishers.

the pieces were composed between 1918 and 1927, though de hartmann added some pieces for movements much later, from sketches, notes and memories. they fall into five main groups:
1. the sacred hymns, especially the 'hymns from a truly great temple'. these revolve around the theme of death and resurrection.

2. the 'sayyid' pieces. 'sayyid' means 'descendent of the prophet (muhammad)' and de hartmann speaks of a 'tribe' of such descendants, though we have no evidence of such a tribe ever existing. gurdjieff, in his semi-autobiographical book 'meetings with remarkable men', avers that he studied sayyid songs and chants for almost two years, in order to pass himself off as a priest in his journey with professor skridlov into kafiristan.

3. the 'dervish' pieces. none of these are imitations of extant dervish or sufi music but tend to echo the patterns of 'zikr'.

4. folk songs and dances. these may be labeled as from 'tibet', or as of the 'aisors', but they spring largely from gurdjieff's own consciousness.

5. music for the 'movements' or sacred dances that gurdjieff worked on right up until the time of his death. there are around 100 such pieces.
the movements created by gurdjieff are uniquely his own. he said he wanted to be known first of all as a 'teacher of dancing'. in presenting the movements to audiences, they were sometimes described as deriving from this or that place or group, such as an 'essene monastery' but no-one had found any verification of such claims. the movements do not imitate ethnic dances. however, some of the 'tibetan' movements do suggest Tibetan ritual, for example.

he compiled his last movement, number 39 of the 39 series a few weeks before his death. it is uncertain when exactly most of the movements in this series were created. one of them, number 4, has the music of the essentuki hymn, or the 'hymn of the institute', which refers to a period in 1918 when gurdjieff and his small group stayed in the town of that name before fleeing russia altogether. john bennett believed that number 1 of the series, the 'automat' as it is sometimes called, derives from the choreography of the ballet 'the struggle of the magicians' which gurdjieff was working on at least as far back as 1914. some of the 39 have disappeared altogether. gurdjieff created the movements with people in a class, improvising music, rhythms, gestures as he went along, obviously working from some inner vision or sense. after his death, jeanne de salzmann undertook to record the latest versions of the dances and preserve them for the future.

there were various series of movements, including the all-important six 'obligatories'. there is then a second series of obligatories, tibetan dances, pythagorean dances, greek movements, dervish dances, rituals, special womens' movements (such as the sublime 'assyrian women mourners'), work movements (such as the shoemaker), prayer movements (such as 'i am, father-son') and others.