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CD Feature: Gurdjieff: "Harmonic Development - the complete harmonium recordings"

img  Tobias

for years i've been obsessed with the piano music gurdjieff wrote with the assistance of composer thomas de hartmann (i think i have every version of this piano music that was released). several years ago i managed to score a copy of early "field" recordings of de hartmann himself, playing the pieces in his living room. the recording and performance are so intimate, casual and relaxed, that they create an emotional space much different than any of the other "proper" recordings. in terms of my own daily life, these are some of the most important pieces of recorded music i own.

gurdjieff's harmonium recordings have been legendary, as much as they have been impossible to hear. recorded privately on wire recorders and early tape decks, legitimate versions were last released on a double 10" in 1962; so it is an event of musical magnitude that basta has recently released the harmonium recordings in a magnificently COMPLETE package - this just might be my favorite release of the decade! the package includes 2 CDs of music, as well as 1 cd of mp3 files (136 tracks and 19 hours of recordings, plus some home movie footage of gurdjieff and friends circa 1949), and a really nice 144 page paperback book - essentially documenting every existing recording of gurdjieff's harmonium improvisations made from 1948 - 1949.

clearly the project was a labor of love for gert jan blom, who compiled and edited everything. four years in the making, the book is lengthy, and an incredibly interesting read. the first part documents blom's obsessive archiving and compiling the collection from tapes in various places. the second part contains "eyewitness reports from people in attendance when the recordings were made"- basically reminiscences from people who studied with gurdjieff, mostly written in diary excerpts from various sources. the beauty of the text is that it really gives one a sense of  the atmosphere of the performances. you can smell the food, get a sense of the evenings in which the music was played, and even read descriptions of gurdjieff's driving. the book contains a ton of incredibly detailed information on all existing wire recordings; plus pictures of the harmoniums, recorders, and various images of gurdjieff's life. it's a cross between an episodic poetic film, and an uber-index of facts for gurdjieff geeks - there are even nice pictures of record labels from vintage 78's, and close ups of poor condition master tapes; and most importantly there are transcriptions of all gurdjieff's talking before and after the music on the recordings, as his english is pretty tough to understand.

i hesitate to even attempt to describe the music other than to say it is absolutely wonderful. the melancholy eastern melodies are played slowly, and the music seems to hover with a kind of stillness - and it's full of breath. the home recording quality gives it an atmosphere of drifting back in time and the music is certainly trance inducing; but for all the mysticism surrounding gurdjieff, these recordings seeem very human. this is not mysticism that comes from technique; but from a human being's depth of feeling - like like blind willie johnson playing guitar, or skip james singing.

i recently saw kelan philip cohran* perform; and he spoke a lot about the power of melodic lines in relation to the spiritual aspects of music; and certainly these recordings are some of the clearest evidence of the truth in those ideas. when gurdjieff taps out a little rhythm with his fingers on the wooden case of a harmonium after playing, one is gently awakened from a trance-like listening experience induced by some of the most spiritual (and straightforwardly beautiful) music that i have ever heard. to say this is highly recommended would be an understatement.

* master of the frankiphone, an electric kalimba, and former sun ra collaborator

By Steve Roden

Label: Basta Music

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