Mystic rivers

By JAMES PARKER  |  July 3, 2007

Basta Records has released a lovingly curated package called Oriental Suite containing four CDs plus a large and beautiful hardcover book. The book is a historical treasure trove, and the discs represent a feat of reconstruction: here for the first time, performed by Holland’s Metropole Orchestra with conductor Jan Stulen, is the strange and stately music that audiences at the 1924 demonstrations would have heard as an accompaniment to the dancing. Gurdjieff wrote the music with Thomas de Hartmann, a Russian composer who was also one of his most faithful pupils: Gurdjieff would “dictate” a melody — by whistling, humming or tapping out a rhythm or a few one-handed notes on the piano — and Hartmann would provide the orchestral setting.

The melodies came from way down in the Gurdjieffian memory banks, from his childhood and his wandering youth: dervish hymns, sacred dances, Caucasian folk songs, peasant riffs and prayers. Reclaiming this ancient, unrecorded musical language was part of the modernist project: in 1906 Béla Bartók had gone roaming in Transdanubia, transcribing more than three hundred folk songs. But Gurdjieff’s purpose ran deeper than ethnomusicology. When linked to the Sacred Movements he had devised for his troupe of dancers, the music on Oriental Suite was an exercise in mystical discipline. “The movements of which these dances consist,” explained one of his handouts, “have a double purpose: they express and contain a certain knowledge, and at the same time, they serve as a method of attaining a harmonious state of being.” Katherine Mansfield, after watching a rehearsal of the dance The Initiation of the Priestess, wrote to a friend, “It contains the whole life of a woman — but everything! Nothing is left out. It taught me, it gave me more of woman’s life than any book or poem.”

Inevitably, perhaps, American audiences were interested less in the spiritual grammar of the Movements than in the apparently telekinetic control the impresario had over his dancers: the “STOP!” exercise in particular, sometimes prolonged for minutes on end, made a big impression. From New York, site of the first demonstrations, the journalist William Seabrook reported the following: “The troupe was deployed extreme backstage, facing the audience. At his command they came racing full tilt towards the footlights. We expected to see a wonderful exhibition of arrested motion. But instead Gurdjieff turned his back, and was lighting a cigarette. In the next split second an aerial human avalanche was flying through the air, across the orchestra, down among empty chairs, on the floor, bodies pell-mell, piled on top of each other, arms and legs sticking out in weird postures — frozen there, in complete immobility and silence. Only after it had happened did Gurdjieff turn and look at them.” No injuries were reported.

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