Music

Music

The following writings provide insight into the importance of the Gurdjieff music as a major component of the teaching. The first is taken from an article titled “Gurdjieff and Music” and the second is an essay titled “Notes on the Gurdjieff Music.”

 

 

 

 

 

Gurdjieff and Music (excerpts)

That Gurdjieff was a composer of music is in itself a remarkable fact. A spiritual master who, in addition to the main body of his teaching, has created forms of art which can be viewed as essential expressions of that teaching is certainly a rare phenomenon. Gurdjieff’s sacred dances, or Movements, and the two hundred or so musical compositions he left attest to the importance he attached both to disciplined bodily movement and to the vibrations of sound in relation to spiritual practice.

Gurdjieff’s views on the subject of music, and indeed on art in general, stem from his differentiation between what he terms subjective and objective art. Most of the music we know, he says, is subjective. Only objective music is based on an exact knowledge of the mathematical laws that govern the vibration of sounds and the relationship of tones.

In either case, the particular configuration of sounds will evoke a response in the human psyche in which the relation of the tones and their sonic qualities will be translated into some form of inner experience. This phenomenon appears to be based on a precise mathematical relationship between the properties of sound and some aspect of our receptive apparatus….

. . . What can we consider to be the purpose of Gurdjieff’s music? Perhaps it is related to man’s work on himself, what Gurdjieff called “harmonious development.” He offered food for the growth of a man’s being through the different sides of his nature: ideas for the mind, special exercises and dances for the body and mind together, and music as a way to awaken sensitivity in the feelings, to arouse in the deeper level of the listener’s interior world questions and intimations beyond words. And, perhaps, in dissolving the barriers created by associations and conditioning, these sounds could bring the listener into closer contact with his own essential nature.

From the point of view of a musician, one must say that the Gurdjieff music defies definition. Its essential simplicity of language is difficult to relate to the complexities of the Gurdjieffian cosmology in any literal way. And it seems, in fact, impossible to compare it to almost any known music in a way that illuminates its special quality. One can find examples–not too numerous–both Eastern and Western, in which music of the greatest profundity and sublimity is composed of a bafflingly simple combination of elements. Gurdjieff’s music–the greatest of it–may indeed belong to this rare type.

 

 

Notes on the Gurdjieff Music 

Music, along with the Movements and the ideas, serves as the third means through which G.I. Gurdjieff transmitted his teaching.

The idea of music, or indeed of any art, as a vehicle for a teaching is perhaps unfamiliar to the Western mind. Our habit of thought is to give precedence to the external, whether in forms of nature or in human activity, and thus to focus on, and even to perceive, mainly differences. From this point of view, the idea that music, sacred dance and ideas could possess an inner unity not only of form but of “content” is difficult to comprehend. We are far removed from the mental outlook of traditional cultures, which seeks to grasp the fundamental unity of existence. Yet perhaps we instinctively feel, in the cultures of traditional India and Japan, the Native American cultures of our own continent, or the roots of our Western culture in the European Middle Ages, some taste of a very different approach to life which may illuminate the path of music as it exists, in reality and in potential, in the Gurdjieff teaching.

Setting aside for the moment the music which is an integral part of the Gurdjieff Movements, the main form which music takes in the Gurdjieff teaching involves playing and listening to the music composed for the piano by Gurdjieff working intensively with one of his pupils, the Russian composer Thomas de Hartmann. Speaking of the conditions in which this music was composed, de Hartmann wrote:

Gurdjieff sometimes whistled or played on the piano. . . a very complicated sort of melody—as are all Eastern melodies, although they seem at first to be monotonous. To grasp this melody, to write it in European notation, required a tour de force. . . I had to scribble down at feverish speeds the shifts and turns of the melody, sometimes with repetitions of just two notes. But in what rhythm? How to mark the accentuation? Often there was no hint of conventional Western meters. . . and the harmony that could support the Eastern tonality of the melody could only gradually be guessed. . . Of course it must be remembered that this was never just a matter of simple dictation, but equally a personal exercise for me, to grasp the essential character, the very noyau or kernel of the work….

Here, hidden as it were in plain sight, is a key to understanding Gurdjieff’s music.

Although this music draws on a number of musical traditions with which Gurdjieff was familiar, including Eastern Orthodox hymnody and the traditional instrumental music of the Middle East and Central Asia, the inner form or dynamic of the music differs from these sources in subtle ways. Musicians familiar with the source musics have often commented that in comparison with those musical traditions, there is something that Gurdjieff’s music doesn’t do. Certainly, from the perspective of Western music, there is a palpable lack of the musical cues that in general shape how we listen to music. The sense of harmonic movement, tempo, and phrase dynamics that carry the listener from cadence to cadence in Western music are either entirely lacking or subtly displaced. Our expectations are not satisfied; in a way—as one feels sometimes when listening to the music of traditional cultures—they are not even addressed.

For the musician approaching this music, as well as for the listeners in the special conditions in which this music is played, the challenge is to discover the inner journey of the piece without recourse to one’s familiar landmarks. Melodies which seem to be constructed on entirely different principles and yet which hold out the promise of an inner integrity of great refinement call for a kind of active listening that is not invoked by most Western music. Discovering the inner life of music with irregular rhythms more closely resembling religious chant or improvisation asks not only for a degree of rhythmic sensitivity not developed by Western musical education, but also for a freedom from the habit of being carried along by the energy of more conventional rhythmic dynamics. Yet in searching for the inner unity of the music, as in the Movements or the study of the ideas, we may be given glimpses of a profound understanding of universal laws and a precise depiction of processes in the human psyche.

This of course may also be said of the masterpieces of many musical cultures of both East and West. Part of the distinctiveness of this music lies in the conditions in which it is heard—in the course of activities intended for the study of attention, in conditions shared in the moment by the musicians and the listeners—and in the quality of silence which is allowed to live when the music is done. Another aspect may be approached by reference to the idea of objective art, as it is expressed in Gurdjieff’s teaching. Certain works of art, according to this idea—perhaps particularly the great works of ancient civilizations—embody exact knowledge, like a scientific text. Our ability to understand these works depends not on subjective taste or even aesthetic education, but on our level of preparation, our understanding of the science in question—call it the science of being. But everyone with the same level of preparation will understand it in the same way.

Again, this is an idea very much at odds with the modern, Western view of art, although again it resonates with the views found in both the civilizations of the East and in our own civilization in the medieval period. For our purposes, however, it can serve to open the question of another kind of intention in relation to art. Here it is not a question of inspiration or what we call genius, but of the intention of a spiritual teacher, which we can understand may be different not only in degree but in kind from the intention of even the greatest artist. Gurdjieff’s music is part of his whole teaching, part of how he chose to transmit the ancient and perennial wisdom of the East in a form corresponding to the needs and subjectivity of the West. To approach the possibility of receiving it may require the development of a new way of listening, one that arises out of the harmonious development of body, mind and feeling that is the aim of Gurdjieff’s teaching. But to begin, we could perhaps do no better than to listen to his own words: “Take the understanding of the East and the knowledge of the West, and then seek.”

 

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