Gurdjieff International Review

Notes on the Gurdjieff Music

Gail Needleman

What do we mean by the phrase “the oral tradition”? In one sense, one could say that all tradition, all transmission, is “oral.” The eye divides, separates. I see distinctions, not wholeness. The eye tells me beings are separate, unrelated. No man has seen God: this saying is perhaps as much about the nature of seeing as about the nature of God. No man has seen God, but all the prophets have heard His voice. Close the eyes, and the world becomes one. The ear receives. The ear receives the sounds of the world, the voices of fellow beings—the voice, so close to the self, bearing forth some word, some power from within, as God spoke or sang the world into being. In the Hindu tradition, the world is sound. The oral tradition is that which corresponds to the nature of the world. Thomas de Hartmann

This is not to say that the oral tradition is wholly or even primarily a matter of speech or of sound, only that it represents what can be received, and the conditions that make it possible to receive it. It is within this greater context that the question of the nature of Gurdjieff’s music and its place in his teaching may resound.

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 that seek 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 that 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 transcribe it in European notation, required a tour de force... I had to scribble down at feverish speed the tortuous shifts and turns of the melody, sometimes a repetition of just two notes. But in what rhythm? How to mark the accentuation? There was no hint of conventional Western meters ... and the harmony—the Eastern tonality on which the melody was constructed—could only gradually be guessed... Of course, it must be remembered that this was not only a means of recording his music for posterity, but equally a personal exercise for me to “catch” and “grasp” the essential character, the very noyau, or kernel, of the music.[1]

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. As one feels sometimes when listening to the music of traditional cultures, our expectations are not satisfied; in a way, 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 Gurdjieff’s 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.”

~ • ~

Gail Needleman is a pianist who has long studied the music of Gurdjieff and de Hartmann. The graphic image of Thomas de Hartmann at the piano is by Lewis Boadle.

Copyright © 2012 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Featured: Spring 2012 Issue, Vol. XI (1)
Revision: April 1, 2012


[1] Hartmann, Thomas and Olga de, Our Life with Mr Gurdjieff: Definitive Edition, Edited by Thomas C. Daly and Thomas A. G. Daly, Sandpoint, Idaho: Sandpoint Press, 2008, pp. 241–242.