We often talk about music as a spiritual language; a natural fit given that the art form was once reserved exclusively for sacred and liturgical rites. Yet while music has branched out into the secular, it often doesn’t lose sight of its metaphysical roots.
Take as Exhibit A Georges Ivanovich Gurdjieff, an Armenian mystic whose self-enlightened ideals coalesced into the Fourth Way. Gurdjieff balanced his brand of mysticism with a similarly transcendental canon of folk music composed by Gurdjieff and documented by his pupil (and Russian pianist) Thomas de Hartmann.
Written primarily between World Wars I and II, Gurdjieff’s music has had a constant stream of followers, experiencing a major revival thanks to Keith Jarrett in 1980. However, in performing his works in strikingly plain and unadulterated contexts, the eponymous Gurdjieff Folk Instruments Ensemble offers an ironically new twist on the composer’s works. Under the direction of Levon Eskenian, this 14-person outfit trades pianos for indigenous instruments like the oud, duduk and kamancha. They weave 17 of Gurdjieff’s songs, none lasting more than five minutes, into a lush and textured whole representing Gurdjieff’s native Armenia and indigenous lifestyle that spanned the Middle East and Central Asia.
While such a large number of brief compositions outside of a variations or symphonic set can seem jarring, there’s a fluid line running through these deceptively modest works. Eskenian and his ensemble proceed with vinyasa-like flow, indulging in spontaneous yet organic movement while full of curiosity and wonder. The music is at once unadorned yet lush in an extrinsically baroque manner. Moods shift drastically and imperceptibly, the plaintive dourness of Assyrian Women Mourners sounding not too far off from the vibrant Caucasian Dance. And therein lies the appeal: Like Gurdjieff’s own philosophies, his music does not demand that its interpreters abandon any attempt to control the body, emotions or intellect of the work. Rather, they incorporate all of these elements with their own artistic alignments to present a complete, contradictory, and at times even enlightening package.