Friday, June 8, 2012

Free Improvisation Series: Georges Gurdjieff [updated]

So what makes an improvisation a free one? Does a truly free improvisation require that one create new combinations of notes every time? New timbres? New instruments? What is the improvisation free from? Composition? What is composition? Are Fluxus pieces "compositions"? Does realization of these "compositions" require improvisation? If you're improvising within the context of a composition, are you really improvising? Are you really free?

Trying to interpret a phrase like "free improvisation" in an absolute way can lead to some frustrating intellectual gymnastics. It is helpful to take pause.

An improvisation is free when a musician feels free to make the kinds of musical decisions he or she wishes to make, within a musical form that is determined by these decisions. In other words, if your improvisations happen to sound like traditional Armenian song, this does not make your improvisations un-free. Your free improvisation will sound like your experience.
Georges I. Gurdjieff
(originally posted June 19th, 2011. Updated June 8th, 2012)
Georges Ivanovich Gurdjieff (1866?-1949) was born in Alexandropol, in the Russian Empire (what is now Gyumri, Armenia). His life was spent as a spiritual/philosophical teacher and mystic, in which he emphasized work on the individual self as a primary means to improve life on Earth. One of his most prolific students was Peter Ouspensky, who influenced literary figures like Aldous Huxley and T. S. Eliot. There is also evidence of Gurdjieff's influence on Jean Toomer, a prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance.1 Modern musical figures like Robert Fripp,2 Keith Jarrett,3 George Russell4, John Zorn,5 and Kate Bush6 have cited him as a philosophical influence. In addition, he was an influence on members of AMM.7

Gurdjieff's work took the form of books, lectures, plays, dance instruction, and musical composition and improvisation. In the 1920's he worked with pianist Thomas de Hartmann, a former student of Rimsky-Korsakov8 who translated Gurdjieff's musical ideas to Western notation. Between July 29th, 1925 and May 1st, 1927, their collaborations produced 184 compositions for piano.9 After this, although Gurdjieff's compositional activities apparently ceased,10 he continued to incorporate music into his life and teachings.

Photo by Dushka Howarth

Although the earliest available recordings of Gurdjieff's harmonium improvisations date from late 1948, there is evidence that he used this form of musicmaking for decades. Gurdjieff's instrument, a Parisian Kasriel harmonium, was built around 1926,11 and the earliest written references to his harmonium music date from this year as well. In a letter to his wife dated November 2nd, 1926, Gurdjieff pupil A. R. Orage described a service held in a cemetery the previous day, All Saint's Day, during which Gurdjieff used his “piano organ” to make “three quite marvelous noo moosics”12 (spelling Gurdjieff's pronunciation phonetically). Orage mentions Hartmann's presence, helping to corroborate this date. Similar references are found throughout the next two decades. Describing an event in late November 1936, Gurdjieff pupil Georgette Leblanc writes: “One can see the music 'pass' through him. He plays it, but is not the player … One is watching a man – a circle – live.”13

On December 16th, 1948 Gurdjieff traveled by ship to New York City and stayed for three months at the Hotel Wellington. There, he entertained dozens of visitors night after night, cooking elaborate meals in a make-shift stove built in the bathroom. Stories and jokes were told, and selections from Gurdjieff's writings were read. Late on Christmas Eve, his harmonium improvisations were recorded for the first time, using a wire recorder. In the following year, dozens more improvisations were recorded, both on wire and tape.

A Webster Chicago Model 80 wire recorder, similar to the type used to record Gurdjieff. Photo from the Oregon State Applied Magnetics Laboratory.

Hours of recordings, released by the record label Basta, reveal that Gurdjieff's improvisations are quite consistent: they are usually long, slow-moving modal pieces, in a minor key. Scholar Laurence Rosenthal writes, “[the] essential simplicity of [the language of his music] is difficult to relate to the complexities of the Gurdjieffian cosmology in any literal way”, but notes that “one can find examples … 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.”14
The sombre reverence of Gurdjieff's music on the 1948-49 recordings provides a starting point for understanding its meaning to him. Testimony from his pupils convey some of his thoughts: “Ears are no good for this music, the whole presence must be open to it. It is a matter of vibrations.”15 After one improvisation, he spoke, “It is a prayer.”16 Careful listening to the Basta recordings will reveal several instances in which he concludes an improvisation by intoning “Amen”17. A story related by Kathryn Hulme reveals more. Gurdjieff asked someone identified as Miss Gordon which she liked more, the food or the music. She asks him if the two were different, and Gurdjieff responds “For me all is same. Different octave but from same scale I compose … everywhere is same.”18 Gurdjieff died on October 29th 1949, just two weeks after the last known recording of his harmonium music.


1  See Woodson, “To Make a New Race: Gurdjieff, Toomer, and the Harlem Renaissance” and Taylor, “Shadows of Heaven: Gurdjieff and Toomer”
2  Fripp wrote the introduction to Blom's "Gurdjieff: Harmonic Development". See note #9.
3  Carr, Ian. “Keith Jarrett: The Man and His Music”, p. 41
4  Nettl, Bruno and Melinda Russell. “In the course of performance: studies in the world of musical improvisation.” p. 155
5  Zorn, John. “Mount Analogue”, liner notes.
6  Bush, Kate. Interview on BBC Radio 2, Sept. 13 1982. Transcript available at
7  Prévost, Eddie. "No Sound is Innocent", p. 20
8  Lipsey, Roger. "Gurdjieff Observed", in "Gurdjieff: Essays and Reflections on the Man and His Teaching", ed. Needleman & Baker, p. 339
9  Blom, G. J. "Gurdjieff: Harmonic Development. The Complete Harmonium Recordings 1948-1948", p. 20
10  Rosenthal, Laurence. "Gurdjieff and Music" in Needleman & Baker, p. 305
11  Blom, 22
12  Ibid.
13  Blom, 21
14  Rosenthal, in Needleman & Baker, p. 310
15  Blom, 62
16  Blom, 63
17  See, for example, #25, Ist and #47, Ist (Basta 2005)
18  Blom, 21

No comments: