Citadel CD Cover, STC 77123

Gurdjieff International Review

Music for the Film
Meetings with Remarkable Men

Laurence Rosenthal

Very often people come away from a film totally unaware they’ve heard any music. “Oh! Was there music in that film? I never noticed it, I was so engrossed.” And yet all through the film the music was working on them. Music seems to come in through the pores. It enters our unawareness directly.

Every film has its own way of accepting music. Some accept more, others less. Peter Brook’s original musical concept for Meetings with Remarkable Men was surprising to me. The fashionable approach in current films—especially avant-garde films—is toward a sparing use of music, lots of powerful silence. But Peter envisioned the opposite: music pervading the film, music of all kinds and colors, a rich atmosphere of sound to be breathed in and constantly inform the film’s changing images. The score that eventually took shape was much nearer to this than to the sparse approach, although of course the crucial dialogue scenes containing essential ideas were all framed in silence.

You see, at first it was not wished to impose on this film one particular composer’s view. Somehow to take this story, which has its own special quality and meaning, and to color it with a foreign element, that is with someone’s subjective response, seemed to be a mistake. And so, a great mass of tapes and records were accumulated from a variety of sources, primarily from Central Asia, the Near East, parts of North Africa, the Caucasus and other places. This music is wonderful since most of it is anonymous and impersonal. However, effective and real as much of it was in terms of atmosphere, of local color, it was very soon discovered that it could not relate in a dramatic way to the inner meaning of the narrative. The film is, after all, not a travelogue. It is the story of a man’s search, a search that is to him the most important thing in his life.

And so, another idea was brought in. Gurdjieff’s pupil, Thomas de Hartmann, was, at the time he met Gurdjieff, still quite young but already a very promising composer of some repute in Russia. Gurdjieff realized that here was a man who was not only interested in his ideas but could be extraordinarily useful to him, especially in connection with the study of the sacred dances that are called “the movements.” Gurdjieff was not a trained musician; he was not a composer. He liked to improvise on a simple hand harmonium. But he had a deep sensitivity to music and especially to the music of the varied peoples—the Kurds, the Georgians, the Persians and, of course, the Armenians—that inhabited the part of the world where he grew up. And so, under Gurdjieff’s influence, de Hartmann found himself writing music which was markedly different in character from what he ordinarily composed. In a way, the collaboration, if you will, between these two men is unique in the history of music. And it is the result of that collaboration which eventually became the basis of the film score.

We were a long time deciding on the music for the opening of the film—the sequence of the father walking with the boy. In fact, what was finally used was version number three. I originally chose a piece which was unusually warm and open with serene harmonies. Something seemed right about it; it expressed intimacy, affection, tranquility. But then we began to feel this music was almost too comfortable, too reassuring. So we went almost to the other extreme and chose something of great concentration and inwardness, a piece called “Reading from Sacred Books.” We were all very enthusiastic. It seemed perfect. But the more we heard it against the image—the father and the boy, young Gurdjieff climbing the mountain—we realized that it was too remote, too austere. It fused well with the rocky landscape, but the feeling—of ascent, of scale, of the boy’s energy—was missing. Finally, I linked two entirely different pieces, combining the emotional feeling of the father and son, the mountain, and the unique atmosphere of the film as a whole. Copyright © 1978 REMAR, Inc.

A great deal of thought was also given the Ashokh contest which follows. The right solution seemed maddeningly elusive. One of the difficulties was simply to find musicians who could perform convincingly. Another was that of portraying believably on the screen any phenomenon or event of a truly transcendent nature. It is probably impossible. Yet, in spite of all that, the depiction of these rural musicians entering into a competition of a kind entirely unknown in the West, approaching their art from a completely different point of view, and with a different purpose, is surely unique in films.

I have never thrown out as much music, and replaced it, as I did in this film. The orchestra was amazed. Often a piece of music would stay in the film for several weeks until we decided, “It’s just not right. We have to do something else.” For me, the most unforgettable time was in the last few days of dubbing, the process of blending dialogue, music, and sound effects, the last crucially important step before the film is finally “locked.” Certain sequences had never been quite rightly realized. We all felt it. One of them, a very important one, was Gurdjieff’s arrival at the monastery. We were out of time, out of money, at the end of the line. Certain things in a film are unchangeable: the speed of the actor’s walk, the expression of a face. But other things could still be changed: the length of a scene, the sequence of shots, sounds, voices, music. Suddenly Madame de Salzmann had an idea. And out of a mood best described as one of resignation to the fact that the scene would never be right, a new energy began to emerge that seemed almost miraculous. Suggestions appeared for changes unheard of at this late stage, changes involving recutting film, re-recording and remixing music, major changes that would keep an already exhausted crew working into the night. Answers became clear that had eluded us for weeks or months. Not this music or that music, the voices or the orchestra, but an unexpected combination of both—artfully cut and interspersed—omitting a shot, and re-introducing one that had long ago been taken out. And so what had been wrong and wrong and wrong was suddenly now, two hours before deadline, exactly right. It is a mysterious process, how such things happen. For me those last days were worth the whole thing.

I remember as a young musician reading Gurdjieff’s book, Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, being baffled by the importance Gurdjieff seemed to attach to the capacity of music, for example, to raise a boil on a man’s leg. Was this the function of great Art? But clearly he was also concerned with music’s magical properties, how it could influence—even visibly, physically—people, events, all phenomena. And beyond that, he seems to have viewed music as a microcosm in which the architecture and dynamism of the universe is precisely expressed on a scale perceivable to us as ordered sound, with its ladder of octaves, its triads, intervals, cycles and pulsations in time. In other words, he was approaching the ancient source of music and all art as a real science, remote from its later uses as entertainment or as a decorative fixture in the “cultural” life.

De Hartmann’s role in all this was surely a remarkable one. I never knew him, but he seems to have been a man of genuine humility. He once told someone, “I don’t know whether I’m a great composer, a good composer, or a poor one. I only know I must compose music.” I feel that quality of humility in his work, especially in his Gurdjieff music. His own identifiable style is that of a Russian post-romantic, or early modernist composer. But with Gurdjieff he seems to have placed himself voluntarily under an influence from which a different music emerged, simpler, more inward, speaking, as it were, of other things. What force gave him the courage to abdicate his conditioning, his background? He was after all celebrated: Nijinsky had danced to his music. And yet he was willing to be influenced, taught, criticized by a musical amateur whom he had accepted as his master.

Of course, as we went on, we also discovered that there were certain episodes for which we could not find corresponding qualities in the de Hartmann music, for example, the long journey to the monastery with Gurdjieff’s head covered by a hood. There was a new element in that sequence which went beyond the earlier stages of the search: the idea of a man setting foot into the void, risking everything with strangers who take him to an unknown place, an almost vertiginous state of fear and uncertainty, but always underneath, his passionate wish, his inner core of determination. Somehow we couldn’t really find a piece of existing music that would work for that scene. We tried. In fact, I put together an entire sequence which was all based on de Hartmann themes, variations of them. But we all agreed that somehow it seemed to take us back to what was past. It felt stale. We’d heard that, we’d had it. Now, we had to go on to something quite different.

I had to compose completely new music, to try to express the strangeness, everything that was unknown and unguaranteed. So for the first time there are heard in the score suggestions of atonality, deep, exotic horns, metallic percussion. Yet it was essential not to violate the aura of the earlier music still hovering in the air, even while using musical techniques of the present. How to compose a kind of music that is not—must not be—simply an imitation of de Hartmann, but something that is my own, and yet can still live in harmony not only with de Hartmann’s music but also with the fragments of ethnic and indigenous music heard throughout the film? It was a question of making these three elements hang together and feel like a single organism.

Most of the conversations which we had in the last phases of post-production, concerned the tempo of the sequences, the flow of energy in the film. This is what interested Mme de Salzmann so much. She said very often that the film contained two levels and qualities of energy in constant motion, one level related to life and to everything that is exterior, the other to an unseen and almost secret inner movement in a totally different tempo. Somehow the music had to correspond to both of these. And very often, what I think has been perceived as a kind of abruptness at certain moments in the score was in fact a sudden movement from one level of energy to another in a way for which one is not normally prepared. Perhaps I occasionally went overboard. But one absolutely feels at certain moments—you can almost taste it—this is the instant when something has to change. And if it doesn’t change at that moment, you’ve spoiled it. You’ve spoiled the moment. You may have even spoiled the film, if the moment is important enough. Film moves forward the way a piece of music does. In fact, it can be the tempo and the rhythm, the pace, which will convey meaning as much as all the right words or the right images. It’s a question of how they are juxtaposed in relation to the inner pulsation of the film.

The music for the “movements” at the end of the film was recorded before I joined the project. There was a question, however, about the use of the choir to accompany the Great Prayer. The danger was that the voices would sound sentimental. The technique has been so frequently abused with angelic choirs bringing a picture to a glorious, transcendental cinematic conclusion, that by now its use is extremely hazardous. However, I feel that this music (originally composed by de Hartmann for piano) is an extraordinarily moving accompaniment to the movement, and its transcription for chorus and bells was accomplished with purity and faultless taste by Alain Kremski. In the case of the movement called the Enneagram, a completely new piece of music—simply a traditional Turkish melody—was used, played by three Turkish musicians. I thought it was remarkable, in its relevance to the movement and in its sheer haunting beauty, utterly devoid of conventional “aestheticism.” Eventually, it became almost my favorite music of the film.

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[This article is drawn from a conversation between the author and Lord Pentland in San Francisco, 1978. The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack for Meetings with Remarkable Men has just been released on CD by Citadel Records, 1999, STC 77123.]

Copyright © 1978 Laurence Rosenthal
Photos © 1978 REMAR, Inc.
This webpage © 1999 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Featured: Summer 1999 Issue, Vol. II (4)
Revision: June 1, 2019