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Weird Rhapsody: Gurdjieff's Harmonic Development

Weird Rhapsody: Gurdjieff's Harmonic Development

by Justin Farrar  |  May 1, 2013

Weird Rhapsody: Gurdjieff's Harmonic Development

George Ivanovich Gurdjieff stands as one of the great spiritual teachers and esoteric philosophers of the early 20th century. Along with Rudolf Steiner's anthroposophical movement and Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky's Theosophical Society, the mysterious Armenian's Fourth Way discipline (sometimes simply referred to as The Work) served as one of the primary links between the myriad occult movements of the 19th century and what has been labeled the New Age. Gurdjieff's teachings -- a presciently interdisciplinary mishmash of ideas pulled from Sufism, archaic Christianity and yogic practice -- definitely mix the profound with the inscrutable. One minute, the dramatically mustachioed guru would offer his students the deepest of insights into the ills of modern man (e.g., we exist in a state of waking sleep dictated by habit); the next, he just might be ruminating on how "everything living on the earth -- people, animals, plants -- is food for the moon."

A key component to The Work is what Gurdjieff called "movements." Based on the enneagram, an abstruse symbol central to Fourth Way thought, movements are a kind of avant-garde dance that resemble the acrobatics of the Whirling Dervishes -- if, that is, the Whirling Dervishes were wind-up robots programmed for maximum synchronization and repetition. Thoroughly bizarre and exotic, the movements even made it to Broadway for a spell. But Gurdjieff was also a big fan of music. In addition to composing a string of classical pieces with collaborator and student Thomas De Hartmann (both Keith Jarrett and Robert Fripp have cited them as influences), he made extremely strange, sad music with his harmonium: Imagine Eastern European folk melodies pumped full of ether until they're crawling across the floor like 200-year-old tortoises and you get the picture.

Gurdjieff's rapt pupils would gather around him when he played and proceed to burst into tears because his performances were so powerful and moving. In 1948 and '49, the great teacher recorded approximately 19 hours of harmonium improvisations, all of which can be found on Harmonic Development, finally released in 2004. The fact that these recordings sound incredibly primitive and aged only adds to their weird allure.

Who knows? Maybe Mr. Gurdjieff will make you weep, too. Our playlist hits the highlights, or you can dive into the whole thing. Good luck.

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