Georges Gurdjieff – Harmonic Development: The Complete Harmonium Recordings 1948-1949: A Review

Georges Gurdjieff – Harmonic Development: The Complete Harmonium Recordings 1948-1949
Basta DVD with mp3s plus 2 CDs.

Armenian mystic Georges Gurdjieff (1866-1949) placed considerable emphasis on music as a spiritual tool, a manifestation of his ideas regarding cosmic law, and an accompaniment to the various dance/movement exercises that he encouraged his disciples in Europe and America to practice. Gurdjieff was best known for his piano music, scored and arranged by his Russian disciple Thomas de Hartmann. Although Gurdjieff was not himself a professional musician, he also improvised and composed on the harmonium after his famous, well attended talks. In the last two years of his life, his disciples recorded a number of these improvisations, many of which receive their first public hearing on these disks.

Harmonic Development is an exemplary archival production, executed by Dutch musician and producer Gert-Jan Blom. The centerpiece is a DVD with 20 hours of mp3s, containing intelligently restored copies of all of Gurdjieff’s harmonium recordings. An attached 2 CD set includes selected highlights from the recordings. The whole thing is encased in a 140 page book with photos and numerous reminiscences of the circumstances under which Gurdjieff played – in particular at the Hotel Wellington in New York where Gurdjieff took over a suite and made dinners for 50 to 150 people, copiously watered with top-notch armagnac, conducting numerous toasts to all the types of “idiots”, as he liked to call them, in the room, before retiring to the salon to play the harmonium.

The testimonials to the effects of this music on his disciples range from ecstatic to indifferent, though it’s notable that there are few attempts in the documentation to solidly link the “noo moosics” heard to Gurdjieff’s philosophy. While devotees will be moved by these material traces rescued from sonic oblivion on paper tapes stored in a small shed by a pool in a villa in Southern Spain (amongst other places), to the non-devotee the recordings sound like sad Caucasian folk music, improvised around slowly building, simple forms. Or La Dolce Vita-style film music. Or, as a friend said to me, “some dude playing an accordion in a bar”. But there’s something going on that makes you linger with these sounds – contemplative, emotionally rousing, lacking in gimmicks or distractions – music perhaps for concluding something: a dinner, an investigation, a life.

Originally published in The Wire, 2005.

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