talks with gurdjieff
george ivanovich gurdjieff (1866-1949)

the gurdjieff/de hartmann collaboration

the unique musical collaboration between george gurdjieff and thomas de hartmann properly began in 1918 in essentuki and continued until 1927, resulting in a remarkable oeuvre of several hundred compositions for the piano.

the gurdjieff/de hartmann catalogue can be divided in two main parts:

1. movements music, composed between 1919 and 1924 for the sacred gymnastics, the struggle of the magicians and the public demonstrations at the théâtre des champs-élysées in december 1923 and in america in early 1924. this music stream dries up in 1924, after gurdjieff's accident. the piano music for the movements has not been made available to the general public, but it was printed and published privately.

2. performance music. this is music from a wide variety of sources, but specifically not composed for the accompaniment of dancing or gymnastics. some 250 pieces were composed between 1925 and 1927. they contain dervish and sayyid music, hymns and prayer music, fold music as well as music from various religious ceremonies that gurdjieff witnessed or participated in during his extensive travels in the middle- and far-east and asia between 1885 and 1907. a large part of this music is available in the schott editions that have been published in the past decade.

from an ethno-musicological perspective, the gurdjieff/de hartmann catalogue is a rich source of information about eastern ritual, folk, and sacred music from an era before recorded music.

the hungarian composer béla bartók (1881-1945) conducted comparable research between 1906 and 1907. he recorded more than three hundred peasant songs in transdanubia by going on expeditions and writing the music down on the spot. impressed with the immense significance of folk art, bartók later extended his researches into slovakia, rumania, serbia, bulgaria and turkey, and even created his own special system for the notation of micro-tonalities that are so typical for the folk music of the eastern european countries.

gurdjieff, however, only began to compose his impressive oeuvre some thirteen years after he had returned from his travels. he did not rely on written notes but dictated his compositions to thomas de hartmann from memory!

the fact that a large part of the gurdjieff/de hartmann music seems so un-pianistic is because its sources are often oriental and therefore mostly untempered.

the exotic sounds of the tar, duduk, oud, kanun, saz, ney and other instruments, from which gurdjieff must have originally heard examples of this music, are all capable of producing quarter notes and other microtonalities that simply do not exist on the equal-tempered piano on which gurdjieff's compositions were eventually captured. it seems legitimate to ask how authentic gurdjieff's compositions really are. as a simple test, i compared a piece called "kurd melody for two flutes" with a field recording of authentic flute music by kurdish shepherds. not only was the structure of the piece accurate but also the particular mode and rhythm used for this type of music were truthfully represented in the piano composition.

the authenticity of gurdjieff's musical memory is further validated in several of his hymns and prayers which clearly stem from the tradition of early orthodox church music. these compositions were most likely inspired by the music of father borshch, gurdjieff's first teacher, with whom he had a very special relationship as a youth, when he sang in the choir of kars military citadel cathedral.

gurdjieff's father, ioannos giorgiades, was an ashok (a troubadour) who performed under the name adash. the ashok repertoire stems from a rich line of bardic songs, legends and folk tales that are epic in character. the lengthy narratives and their melodies are transmitted orally from generation to generation. it therefore seems likely that gurdjieff's astonishing musical memory was inherited from his father.

the ethno-musicological aspect of the gurdjieff/de hartmann music definitely deserves further academic study but, as such, it falls outside of the scope of our project.

sometimes when we read about the unique musical collaboration between these two men, the impression is given that gurdjieff was a primitive, a man who could neither read nor write music, and who dictated his compositions to de hartmann from memory by whistling or by playing the melodies on the piano with one finger while de hartmann feverishly attempted to notate everything he heard.

however, the following quote from de hartmann's autobiography, in which he describes how the music for n7 (ho-ya) and n8 (the great prayer) was created, indicates that this was not really so:
mr gurdjieff continued the exercises he had given in tiflis, but at the same time he added new ones. i will describe the beginning of one of them. first he demonstrated a movement of the foot and leg, very sketchily. then steps and turns. we had to learn these. then movements of the arms and head. learn these as well. then combine with the leg movements. i observed all this from the piano. at first it seemed to be evolving into exercises he had already given in essentuki, schematic and rather dry. he gave me the tempo of the exercise and a melody he himself had written on paper, from which i was expected to improvise the music on the spot. but then he gave me also a separately written upper voice, which was meant to sound as if played on sonorous little bells. it was not impossible to play everything with two hands, so he told madame de salzmann to play the lower part and me the upper part. i struggled feverishly to get it all down on paper and we began to play. when he added the movements already given, in an instant everything was suddenly transformed into a dance of the dervishes. the more the pupils entered into the dance, the more exciting and beautiful it became, full of a magical force characteristic of all orders of dervishes.

copying and editing the music of the dance was very interesting. everything had to be done then and there, according to his instructions. the main melody was now in my left hand with the added voice above it. he told madame de salzmann to double the main melody one sixth lower with her right hand, and play the rhythm with her left. it was amazing how the accompaniment, the little high voice, and the two main voices a sixth apart, blended together like parts of a single machine.

soon after that mr gurdjieff brought me another piece of music paper, with an unusual combination of flats in the key signature—the notes of an eastern scale. the melody, with a monotonous beat in the bass, was music for another big dervish dance, for which he began to show the positions. later, in paris, when this dance was being orchestrated for the demonstration at the théâtre des champs-élysées, mr gurdjieff asked for some changes in the orchestration. to the fundamental melody he told me to add, in pianissimo, sub-voices, also constructed on the same scale. these supporting voices were to represent dervishes who were not active in the dance, but who, in low, muffled voices, were chanting their prayers. at the orchestra rehearsal mr gurdjieff told the musicians to pay particular attention to the pianissimo in the performance of these sub-voices. the sonority proved strikingly effective.
this throws a rather different light on gurdjieff's role in the composition process. gurdjieff was able to write music and he was also capable of arranging several layers of music into a coherent whole. gurdjieff's musicality is also reflected in de hartmann's own, modest remarks about their collaboration in later years, but de hartmann's role must not be underestimated. it was his amazing craftsmanship as a musician and a composer that was at gurdjieff's disposal for these awkward, and often stressful, composing sessions.

j. g. bennett was present at one such occasion in the study house in august of 1923:
while the new pupils were practising on the stage, some of the russians would gather round the piano, where thomas de hartmann sat with his bald head perked like a bird. gurdjieff would begin to tap a rhythm on the piano top. when it was clear to all, he hummed a melody or played it with one hand on the piano and then walked away. hartmann would develop a theme to fit the rhythm and the melody. if he went wrong, gurdjieff would shout at him and de hartmann would shout furiously back.
regardless of the stress involved, de hartmann was able to tap directly into gurdjieff's musical thinking as if it was his own, and thus he facilitated the means whereby this music could enter the world.

gurdjieff had anticipated this as soon as he met de hartmann and provided him with several profound learning opportunities concerning eastern music during the early years of their collaboration. this training had formed the necessary date in de hartmann for understanding gurdjieff's musical background and made the mind-link between the two men possible.

de hartmann's own work is far removed from anything he composed with gurdjieff. his ninety opus numbers include songs, piano solos, chamber works, concertos, orchestral works, a ballet and even opera.

only in 1950, after gurdjieff's death and at his teacher's specific request, did de hartmann revisit the old style when he composed the music for the thirty-nine series, gurdjieff's final set of movements.

gurdjieff's own recorded improvisations on the harmonium illustrate clearly that he wasn't a virtuoso keyboard player and that his improvisational skill was rather limited. nonetheless, even with these limited resources, gurdjieff was able to create music that had a life-altering effect on his listeners. it is clear that the science of vibrations held no secrets for him.

when they combined their individual musical styles, gurdjieff and de hartmann generated a body of work that is entirely original and unparalleled in the history of music.

the orchestral music, recorded here for the first time, demonstrates their musical collaboration at its peak. it is my hope that the orchestral gurdjieff/de hartmann music will someday be reunited with the movements that it was originally written for.

gert-jan blom, amsterdam, 1 may 2006