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  • Ed Sciore

The Gurdjieff / de Hartmann Music as a Teaching -- 1

Educating the Three Centers

Original score - Thomas de Hartmann
Original score - Thomas de Hartmann

 My first exposure to Gurdjieff was through his music. I was in college. My roommate owned the three-disk album of piano music written by Gurdjieff and Thomas de Hartmann and played by de Hartmann. The first time I heard it, I was not impressed. To me, the music tended to have angular phrases, with sparse (or no) harmony and unusual rhythms. It fit into no category I knew of. Yet, I found myself coming back to the album more and more. Listening to it consoled and revived me in some subtle, imperceptible way.

When I joined a Gurdjieff group a few years later, I was told that Gurdjieff’s music is in fact one of the three main aspects of his teaching, along with his ideas and the Movements. I found this statement difficult to accept. How can music be a teaching? What does it teach, and how? Why is it valued so highly?


... for change to occur, the three centers -- thinking, feeling, and moving -- must be properly educated.


A fundamental tenet of the Gurdjieff teaching is that we spend much of our day in automatic, knee-jerk reactions, with each of our centers — the intellect, body, and emotions — having its own limited set. As a result, our inner lives are dull, repetitious, and unsatisfying.


How can we move toward a more fulfilled life? Gurdjieff asserted that for change to occur, the three centers must be properly educated. Part of this education consists in providing each center with new experiences. Such experiences broaden a center's understanding of its nature, suggest new ways for it to relate more intelligently to the other centers, and raise the question of how it can make use of these possibilities.


For example, consider Gurdjieff’s writings. The ideas expressed in these writings educate the intellect, by showing it new ways of reasoning about the world and one’s place in it. His writings also speak to one’s emotions, by instilling a feeling of the correctness of these ideas and developing a wish to embody them in one’s life.


The Gurdjieff movements are remarkable in their ability to educate all three centers. To educate the body, a movement forces it to adopt unfamiliar postures and transitions between these postures. Doing a movement can show me the tensions in my body, as well as how lazy and uncooperative the body can be as it constantly tries to modify each position to something more comfortable and familiar.


To educate the intellectual center, movements often have a complex sequences of positions, which the intellect must keep track of without interfering with the activity of the body. Such an effort requires that the intellect establish a new and unfamiliar relationship with the body, based on cooperation and trust.


And as for the emotional center, each physical posture invokes a corresponding emotion, and so the unfamiliar postures of a movement can invoke unfamiliar emotions. Doing a movement can be an emotional journey.


The Gurdjieff / de Hartmann music is primarily an education for the emotional enter.


The Gurdjieff / de Hartmann music is primarily an education for the emotional center. I think that all music is inherently emotional — it seems that listening to music cannot help but evoke emotions. This emotional capability of music has been used throughout history for many purposes, including dance, story-telling, entertainment, comfort. Gurdjieff’s music differs in that its purpose is not to entertain, but to educate.


The music can be roughly divided into two categories, according to their outer form: the secular pieces such as folk songs and dances; and the spiritual pieces such as hymns and prayers. Let’s look at these categories.


Most of the secular pieces have evocative titles, such as “Afghan Melody”, “Song of the Aisors”, and “Kurd Shepherd’s Dance.” Although these pieces are probably not authentic folk tunes, they feel authentic in the sense that they convey tonal pictures of various cultures. These cultures were very familiar to Gurdjieff but are very different from my Western world view. Listening to these pieces puts me in touch with different ways that others approach life, and the unfamiliar emotions that arise broaden my sense of how I can relate to the world.


Apparently, de Hartmann was equally in need of this kind of emotional education. In his book Our Life with Mr Gurdjieff, he relates how Gurdjieff would encourage him to hear the local music as they journeyed through Caucasia so that he could be a better musical collaborator.


Their emotional quality calls to me, inviting me to share an inner search.

Many of the spiritual pieces resemble music from different religious traditions, such as orthodox Christian hymns, Sufi chants, and Islamic prayers. There are also pieces that are clearly spiritual but have no clear category. These pieces educate the emotions in two ways. First, similarly to the secular pieces, they give me a more expansive view of how different cultures search for the spiritual and broaden my understanding of what such a search can be. Second, their emotional quality calls to me, inviting me to share an inner search.


One aspect of Gurdjieff's teaching is that one cannot participate passively. If I read his writings or do movements without a conscious attention, I absorb very little. On the other hand, if I am attentive to what the reading or movement is offering, my centers will be touched much more deeply. In this regard, listening to his music is no different — I need to listen with a conscious attention.

I need to listen with a conscious attention.


What does it mean to listen attentively to music? To me, it means that I let the music come to me, watching its effect on each of my centers. For this, I need a certain relaxation and quietness. By relaxing the body as I listen, the vibrations of the music resonate in it. As I sense these vibrations, it is as if my body is being played. Similarly, the music has the ability to permeate the emotional shield I build around myself and touch something more essential in me. (I suspect that this is what happened to me when I first heard the music.) And my intellect responds to the music by making comparisons to other pieces I have heard or even to other experiences I have had.


Attentive listening requires a willingness to not get distracted by my experience. For example, the sensations in my body might feel so good (or bad or unusual) that I stop listening to focus on what happened. Or my intellect notices that something didn’t sound the way I expected, and I stop listening to formulate a judgement on it.


In this sense, attentive listening to music is a form of what Gurdjieff called “self-observation”. Self-observation is the effort to be aware of what is going on inside me as well as outside me. Listening to music is simply the practice of self-observation while music happens to be playing.


In de Hartmann’s album of his music with Gurdjieff, there is a cut where he expounds on the role of the music. I want to focus on the following excerpt:


"If we compare the music of all the religions, we can see that music plays a great role, a great part, in religious services. But after the work of Georg Ivanich [Gurdjieff], we can understand it more, we can understand it better. That music helps to concentrate oneself, to bring oneself to an inner state, when we can assume the greatest possible emanations. That is why music is just the thing which helps you to see higher.”


De Hartmann is saying that this music is different from other music because it intentionally supports self-observation. Listening to the music not only educates the centers, but it allows us to have a deeper connection with our centers and for the centers to be more deeply connected with each other. And this state allows us to absorb finer, more vibrant energies that we are typically not aware of.

Listening to the music not only educates the centers, but it allows us to have a deeper connection with our centers and for the centers to be more deeply connected with each other.


I cannot attest to this last part of de Hartmann’s statement, for which I have little direct experience. However, it makes some sense. I do know that listening to the Gurdjieff music can induce an inner sense of stillness. In fact, I sometimes feel that it is more effective to not listen explicitly to the music, but to focus on self-observation. The music will support this listening of its own accord.

For more about the Gurdjieff / de Hartmann music, visit our MUSIC page.



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