The Composer. The Cult and The Musical Guru

By Philip Kennicott

Washington Post Staff Writer

Sunday, March 26, 2000; Page G01

Early one morning, a young man woke Socrates and tried to persuade the old master to attend a discussion by the hot-flavor Sophist of the moment, Protagoras. In Plato’s dialogue of the same name, Socrates gives the young man a warning: “If then you chance to be an expert at discerning which . . . is good or bad, it is safe for you to buy knowledge from Protagoras or anyone else, but if not, take care you don’t find yourself gambling dangerously with all of you that is dearest to you.”

In 1916, a very promising Russian army officer–with money and connections, a beautiful and brilliant wife, and a burgeoning career as a composer–gambled all he held dear, and apprenticed himself to the Armenian-Russian guru George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff. Thomas de Hartmann was poised to be a player in the tumultuous world of avant-garde music, a composer with the skill and worldliness to build a career in St. Petersburg, Paris or both. Instead, he signed on with Gurdjieff, a seer and mystic who promised that his guidance, known as “the Work,” would bring his students a new enlightenment, a greater level of consciousness, a deeper sense of what it means to be in the world.

Over the next 13 years, de Hartmann devoted himself to this teacher who claimed to bring the secrets of the East to the enervated West. In the process, de Hartmann also produced stacks of short, dreamlike musical works that presage today’s New Age aesthetic. That music, central to the teachings of Gurdjieff, is being recorded in a comprehensive anthology on Wergo Records and on a second series from Channel Classics, and can be found on a four-volume series from the French Auvidis Valois label. That this curious music, written three-quarters of a century ago for a hermetic cult, should suddenly inspire major recording projects is a small and lovely cultural accident.

Gurdjieff’s legacy is a few volumes of mystical rambling, a trunkload of music, some scattered followers in mostly secretive Gurdjieff societies, and some activity on the Internet. Yet in his lifetime, he had incredible luck making himself an intellectual presence throughout Europe and in the United States. After setting himself up in a rambling old chateau called the Prieure (outside Fontainebleau, near Paris), intellectuals, artists and the spiritually restless flocked to him.


He attracted followers as varied as New Zealand-born short-story master Katherine Mansfield (who died at the Prieure, a continuing source of scandal) and the Russian mystic P.D. Ouspensky. Though not a student, Frank Lloyd Wright married a Gurdjieff disciple, and may have incorporated Gurdjieffian ideas in his teaching style at the Taliesin architects encampment.


Gurdjieff swung with the shiftless aristocracy of Europe between the wars (often draining them of their savings) and scored invitations to salons, drawing rooms and, despite his appalling manners, the occasional palace. He gathered circles in Paris, London, Berlin and New York, and his dances–he considered himself a choreographer, among other things–were seen at Carnegie Hall.


After his death in 1949, he remained a presence, though a waning one. Artists, musicians and filmmakers have grappled with his life and ideas, from the photographer Minor White to musicians such as Keith Jarrett (whose 1980 recording of selected Gurdjieff-de Hartmann works will be re-released on May 23) and Robert Fripp, who led the band King Crimson. His widest popular exposure was probably Peter Brook’s 1979 film, “Meetings With Remarkable Men,” based on Gurdjieff’s book of the same name, an autobiographical look at the master’s early years as a wanderer in Armenia, Turkey, Russia and points east.


Most of the newly recorded Gurdjieffian music was written to accompany the master’s “sacred gymnastics”–rigorous dances filled with fluid motions and long, held poses, all organized with a vaguely Asian ceremonial look. Yet we know very little about how the music was actually written. By de Hartmann’s account, the master would whistle melodies he remembered from his travels in Asia, or finger them out on the harmonium. De Hartmann would take them down as Gurdjieff whistled, pen flying frantically as if he were a musical stenographer. Later he harmonized, organized and transcribed them (mostly for the piano). De Hartmann did the vast majority of the work, yet Gurdjieff delivered the tunes with such oracular self-importance that the “composer” of the music, currently being published in four volumes by Schott, is “Gurdjieff/de Hartmann.”


Collaboration is common between the arts. But jointly composing a work of music is rare. The music produced by the Armenian seer and the Western-focused Russian composer is also a stylistic rarity for its time: It doesn’t attempt to weave foreign sounds into a familiar, Western context; it takes those sounds and lets them exist in all their unstructured and exotic freedom. It is, by turns, meditative and vaporous, or sharply, repetitively rhythmic. It sounds “Eastern” not just in its melodic and modal twists and turns, but in its repetitions, open and vague harmonies, and extended chantlike forms.


It is music that pleases immediately yet disappears in the consciousness until, about a quarter of an hour later, the rational mind revolts: What was in the background is now in the foreground, the soothing is now distracting. Compared with the works that de Hartmann wrote independently of Gurdjieff (including the 1907 ballet “The Pink Flower,” which was choreographed by Fokine, and danced by Pavlova and Nijinsky), the collaborative music seems desperately simple-minded and childish.


And yet, as with Gurdjieff the man, the music runs us immediately up against Socrates’ basic conundrum: More than most unknown, unclassifiable music, these works seem to demand that we gamble on the possibility that this is good music before we can really enjoy them. By most standards they seem dreadful. Yet when you stand in front of something very strange and foreign, say an intricate weaving pattern from a culture you don’t know, there is an act of faith: You keep looking because you trust the authenticity of the object. But with the Gurdjieff-de Hartmann works, the act of faith is more difficult. You seem to have only two options: Take it all on faith and explain away the musical problems, or reject it wholesale as a kind of fraud.


The written works of Gurdjieff are still in print, front and center at bookstores that cater to the wide diversity of ideas lumped under some combination of rubrics: New Age, Occult, Philosophy, Spirituality. There are three major books, the first of which, “Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson,” runs to some 800 often-incoherent pages.


Gurdjieff, whose charisma must have been significantly more engaging than his turgid, self-centered prose style, addresses familiar philosophical questions: What is our place in the world? What does it mean to be human? How can we be better at whatever it is that we are? His answers fall outside Western philosophy, borrowing freely from what he learned on his extensive travels in Asia Minor, an elaborate cosmology that he partially invented and partially cobbled together from a wide array of sources, and an extensive body of conflicting epigrammatic observations of the world. It is profoundly anti-intellectual and anti-Western.


Gurdjieff hated the West’s intellectual and artistic production (calling its artists “masturbators,” a favorite and frequent term of derision), though, characteristically, he helped himself to Western creature comforts; he recovered from writing “Beelzebub’s Tales” by methodically drinking his way through dozens of bottles of Spanish brandy (which, he claimed, speeded the rejuvenation process). But his writing also has humor, earthy expressions and anecdotes from his childhood, and occasional glimpses of a mind wrestling with the bizarre fundamental fact of our existence: Isn’t it odd that we’re here, as opposed to nothing at all? And like many gurus who preceded and followed him, he offered Western intellectuals an appealing flight from rationality into something that seemed to have the imprimatur of the East.


Problem is, much of what is Eastern about Gurdjieff’s philosophy he simply made up, based on a jumble of remembered facts and outright fabrications. He held up Atlantis (which, he suggests, may have been “pre-sand Egypt”) as the site of a golden age, an object lesson to our own fallen times; he referenced his teachings to Middle Eastern, Greek and Asian societies whose existence has eluded historians; and, most troubling, he learned his “sacred dances” at something he called the Sarmoung Monastery, which, conveniently, he found while blindfolded. Subsequent research has yielded nothing about the Sarmoung issue: not the building, its location or the brotherhood who thought deep thoughts there. So, too, with the music, which makes specific ethnographic references–to Tibet and the Sayyids of the Middle East, for instance–that simply don’t stand up to scrutiny.


Charles Ketcham, one of the pianists heard on the Wergo recordings and an editor of the Gurdjieff/de Hartmann works, says that this doesn’t necessarily reflect poorly on the music.


“I think the music underwent a process in Gurdjieff,” he says. “Some of it was remembered specifically, but other works were an echo, or a tribute, to the people and the music he had heard.”


Which is to say that Gurdjieff created his tunes in much the same way that Western composers who use folk melodies have done for two centuries–through memory, theft and re-creation.


But Gurdjieff makes specific claims to the music’s identity, and insists that they are true. In short, he deceives, and much of Gurdjieffian exegesis is essentially an apology for the master’s constant and blatantly unpalatable intellectual bamboozling. The standard apology is a hermetically sealed paradox: His lies are intentional, and in them there is a kind of truth. Gurdjieff wants to challenge the reader, or listener, or student, to set aside literalist thought; jump to the allegorical level, he dares you. But jumping to the allegorical level–glossing over the implausible to create a “higher” meaning–is something we willingly do if the text has authority, such as the Bible, or a surface beauty that is compelling enough to make you take the leap, as in the poems of T.S. Eliot or the works of James Joyce. But Gurdjieff’s work, his music and his ideas, demand that you jump in at the allegorical level at the beginning, despite lacking historical authority or surface beauty.


The thought and music of Gurdjieff force us to confront one of the paradoxes inherent in Socrates’ question from the Protagoras: With some kinds of art, you must decide to like what you read, see or hear before you know too much about it. Entering into the Gurdjieffian world without faith that he is absolutely right can only be frustrating; there is simply too much embarrassing flapdoodle to be explained away.


De Hartmann and Gurdjieff lived in a world in which it was easy, and perhaps excusable, to be highly credulous. Science and pseudo-science commingled so promiscuously in the early 20th century that laymen can’t be blamed for failing to distinguish between them. Much of what emerges about Gurdjieff’s practical interactions with his students suggests a malevolent form of what was becoming a legitimate discipline: psychoanalysis. Gurdjieff established strategic intimacy, and in many cases dependence; he had an ability to learn quickly a great deal about his students, and then use that knowledge to fire back at them emotionally charged questions and challenges.


With his wife, Olga, de Hartmann wrote a memoir, “Our Life With Mr. Gurdjieff,” which is painful though fascinating reading, filled with tales of Gurdjieff’s humiliating treatment of his disciples, and their passive acceptance that it was all in their best interest. Gurdjieff was particularly brutal to the de Hartmanns, leading them on a grueling journey across Russia and over the Caucasian mountains, during which the young composer contracted typhoid. At the end of the journey, the physically weak and impecunious de Hartmann began to put his musical career back together; Gurdjieff demanded that he stop his musical activities, an outrageous act of selfishness very likely caused by the master’s fear of being eclipsed by his student.


At the Prieure, the day-to-day behavior of his pupils was under constant surveillance, their schedules subject to random whims designed to test them. De Hartmann makes apology after apology: “The art with which Mr. Gurdjieff brought us this pain was so great, his mask so well assumed, that in spite of our having decided in advance not to react . . . when the experience took place we were quite sure that there stood before us a cold and even cruel man.”


But if they protested: “Mr. Gurdjieff’s face would at once begin to change. He resumed his usual expression, but looked very sad and would walk away without a single word. We were then consumed by a feeling of terrible dissatisfaction with ourselves.”


Intimacy, manipulation, cruelty, guilt.


Perhaps unwittingly, the young de Hartmann stumbled into a cult organized around the force of Gurdjieff’s personality. His reason for wanting to learn from Gurdjieff is universal. He wanted meaning in his life. The world was complicated–especially so in Russia, when the old czarist society from which de Hartmann came was being blasted out of existence. Like thousands or hundreds of thousands of other people across the world who were exploring theosophy, Eastern religions and new “scientific” forms of Christianity, de Hartmann was looking for something transcendental, something beyond the messiness of the world.


Music has been fundamental to cults since Pythagoras and his followers worked out the fundamentals of Western musical theory and then freighted them with cosmological fantasies. Gurdjieff was very much a descendant of Pythagoras; he understood the world in supposedly musical terms, and he understood music as a vast allegory of the universe and creation. Notice, he tells us, how the first two letters of the word Dominus (God) are Do, the first note of the scale; Re is derived from Regina Coelis, or Queen of Heaven, the moon; and so on up the scale. Vast philosophical issues are derived directly from the problems of music theory; music, which is of this world, seems to connect us to the entire cosmos. Was it the flattery of imitation, or just coincidence that the leaders of the Heaven’s Gate suicide cult, which went Hale-Bopping gentle into the night in 1997, adopted the nicknames Do and Ti, for the first and last notes of the scale?


Music partakes of both the rational and the irrational, a system of sounds that produces a deep and inexplicable emotional resonance. Not surprisingly, it is a favored art form for those in the spirituality-cosmology racket. Yet the vacancy, the emptiness of the Gurdjieff-de Hartmann works seems like a warning, an aural suggestion of the intellectual black hole that mysticism represents in a rationalist world. And the music itself, slow and trippy, exotic and other, is absent of musical ideas; Gurdjieffians will claim that it focuses the mind, but taken in large chunks it proves that less is indeed less. That a man of de Hartmann’s sophistication created it seems almost pathetic.


It’s a commonplace in 20th-century musical history to see the importation of exotic music into Western classical forms as a kind of liberation. In many cases, it was. Yet, despite the free form of the Gurdjieffian music, it is, in fact, a document of a kind of oppression. The “sacred dances,” which Gurdjieff would often interrupt during performance by barking orders at the dancers, were less about artistic expression than physical and psychological discipline. And in the case of de Hartmann, the very obligation to produce this music–which de Hartmann undertook willingly–is a case of music in the service of self-annihilation. De Hartmann gambled with all that was dearest to him; his music suggests he lost it.

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