TORONTO CONCERT of GURDJIEFF/de HARTMANN MUSIC: REVIEW
John Robert Colombo reviews a concert devoted to “The Piano Music of G.I. Gurdjieff and Thomas de Hartmann”
Everyone recognizes the name of Glenn Gould, the famous pianist and musicologist, whose crisp and no-nonsense interpretation of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” took the musical world by storm in 1955. Almost as well known are Gould’s well-publicized antics – statements like “Mozart should have died sooner rather than later” and “The concert is dead.” The latter statement was proclaimed the same year that his Toronto neighbour Marshall McLuhan remarked, “The book is dead.” Both the concert and the book have been a long time dying.
Gould was a great eccentric and recluse rather than a great character or stage performer. Tragically, he was habituated to pharmaceuticals, and I believe that this addiction partly accounts for the hyper-real (almost surreal) quality of his interpretations and performances. If you suffer hyperacuity, you do not enjoy his recordings as much as you do those of his much less brilliant contemporaries. It does not take genius to perform with brilliance, emotion, and insight.
Gould came to mind as I paused in front of the statue erected in his honour at the entranceway to the Glenn Gould Centre of the Philip Johnson-designed Broadcast Centre of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in downtown Toronto. The statue may be said to stand, but the life-size, bronze effigy of him (wearing his characteristic rumpled raincoat) shows him slouched on a park-bench. I used to see him wearing that raincoat shambling through the halls of the old CBC Radio Building. The statue is a good likeness.
As I entered the Centre’s theatre, also named in his honour, at 8:00 p.m., Friday, November 21, 2008, I wondered what he would have made of the concert that my wife and Ruth were there about to hear. Gould was open to new ideas – indeed, he contributed a blurb to a book of Borges-like poems that I translated with Robert Zend, a lively Hungarian Canadian poet and radio producer – but to my knowledge he never once evinced any interest in either Eastern thought or any form of expression of the “wisdom tradition.”
The concert we took our seats to hear was devoted to the piano music produced by the collaboration of G.I. Gurdjieff and Thomas de Hartmann. Now one of the pleasures of writing reviews for this blog is that there is no need for me to explain the backgrounds of these two gentlemen or their unlikely partnership, probably unique in the annals of folk and ethnic musicology. The “Gurdjieff-de Hartmann music” has a devoted following among both students of the work and young professional musicians. I could reel off the names of a dozen well-known pianists who perform many of these 300 or so works, and there are discographies that list the innumerable CDs that they have recorded.
I maintain an interest in Canadian cultural expression as well a “watching brief” on Fourth Way work, so permit to combine interests by sounding another nationalistic note. The musical world of the Fourth Way is well served by the retired film producer Thomas C. Daly of Montreal, who remains the faithful warden and guardian of this music, in his capacity of executor of the estates of the late Olga and Thomas de Hartmann. He has worked overtime to make these compositions available to music lovers.
Count me among these lovers. I first heard these plangent, seemingly repetitive, chord-like compositions in the late 1950s, pounded out on an upright piano, as I awkwardly performed the Movements. Intermittently since then, I have listened to them in small concert halls and in the solitude of my study at home. Indeed, they have quickened my taste for the repetitive compositions of “the musical minimalists” (like Arvo Pärt) and the work of electronic composers (like Philip Glass). Gould himself experimented with musical constructions – splicing tapes of human voices together – to create compositions that sound like “musique concrète,” so he might well have enjoyed attending this concert as much as we did.
The concert was organized by the Society for Traditional Studies, the earliest and the largest of the numerous organizations which take an interest in these ideas and motifs that are scattered throughout the City of Toronto (population 3.3 million). As a bystander, I wish these groups would collaborate more often than they do to sponsor public occasions like this one.
The Glenn Gould Theatre seats about 340 and two-thirds of the seats were occupied by an audience of quiet-spoken, interesting-looking men and women, mainly middle-aged and professional or semi-professional in appearance. Tickets were priced at $25 apiece ($15 for students and seniors) and the two performers were Casey Sokol (percussion) and Charles Ketcham (piano).
I am placing Mr. Sokol’s name first because he is quite active in Toronto. He is an associate professor with the faculty of fine arts at York University where he has taught and performed since 1971. He is a familiar figure in Work circles, performing these piano compositions with flair, enthusiasm, and affection. In the past he has selected compositions for his programs that reflect the varieties rather than similarities that are to be found in this body of piano music. In person he strikes me as having compressed power and intelligence.
The guest pianist was Charles Ketcham, who has recorded albums of the piano music but who is principally known as a widely travelled orchestra conductor. He originally studied under Eric Leinsdorf at Tanglewood and has made guest appearances or served as associate conductor at many of Europe’s important orchestras. With other musicians and musicologists, he has edited what has been described by knowledgeable people as the “definitive edition of the complete Gurdjieff / de Hartmann Piano Music” and he has “recorded the complete works for the German recording label, Wergo Schallplatten GmbH.”
Mr. Ketcham is not to be confused with his namesake Charles B. Ketcham, the American theologian and the author of “The Ontological Ground for a New Christology.” (I wonder if they are relatives.) Our Mr. Ketcham (the pianist) makes his home-base in San Francisco. He is a welcome visitor to Toronto; he arrived during a minor snowstorm, the first of the season.
He strikes me as a man who is able to wear two hats – the beret of the performer and the top-hat of the conductor – and bring to every musical occasion a strong sense of professionalism. For no good reason, I kept thinking of Messrs. Sokol and Ketcham as the “pepper and salt” of this concert, though both sported heads of white hair. Mr. Sokol supplied percussion accompaniment during the middle portion of the program.
The musical part of the concert went from 8:00 to 9:45 p.m. and was followed by an optional forty minutes of discussion. This took the usual, question-and-answer format. Some members of the audience left after the performances, but most remained and took seats closer to the stage. Those members who remained were in for a double treat: some good answers to reasonable questions, plus the spirited playing of two more compositions: “Mama” and a second “Sayyid Chant” (to match the opening number).
Now to the program. To whet the reader’s appetite for what we heard, here is a list (from the well-designed program that was distributed) of the twenty-one compositions that were performed:
Sayyid Chant and Dance, No. 1.
Tibi Cantamus, No. 2
Hymn from a Great Temple, No. 1
Ancient Greek Melody
Armenian Song, No. 1
Hymn (Jan. 6, 1927)
The Initiation of the Priestess
Hymn (Jan. 2, 1927)
Dance Rhythm (Nov. 29, 1925)
Armenian Song, No. 2
Untitled Melody (Jan. 1, 1926)
Moorish Dance (Dervish)
Prayer and Despair
It would be difficult for a diligent rapporteur (like the present one) to do any more than record some of his general impressions and responses to the musicians and the music. It is beyond his remit and competence to do more than that.
Mr. Ketcham offered a most professional performance of these works on a sleek black Steinway grand piano. In the past I would overhear the strains of “On the Steppes of Central Asia” whenever I heard other talented pianists perform these compositions. Mr. Ketcham added a new dimension with his broad sense of what constitutes performance and composition. So I kept hearing the unexpected strains of the compositions of well-loved European composers of the period (mainly the 1920s): Ippolitov-Ivanov, Khachaturian, Satie, Bartok, even Saint-Saëns’s “Aquarium” (from “The Carnival of Animals”), as well as echoes of the semi-notes of Arvo Pärt, the latter a legacy of attendance at the previous evening’s Estonian concert at St. Anne’s Church.
Mr. Ketcham also added to my appreciation of the range of the material, specifically the variety of subjects and effects. There were in effect the “ethnic” influences: rhythms and melodies described as Ancient Greek, Afghan, Moorish, Armenian, and “Oriental.” Then there were the moving and mysterious religious motifs: Sayyid chants and dances, Dervish dances, and prayers, etc. Finally there were the moods: elation, aspiration, dejection, depression. Finally there were complexities, solemnities, and intimacies aplenty.
All the pieces are quite short, yet each gives itself over to a seemingly complete expression of a rhythm, a feeling, even a thought, with a handful of the compositions ending abruptly, as if cut off in mid-expression. At various times I felt I wanted to march in a procession or step out into the aisle and perform a series of Tai Chi exercises. The printed program enjoined us not to applaud the compositions individually, but to reserve our applause for the end of each part of the program. So there was plenty of pent-up energy!
The concert opened with “Sayyid Chant and Dance,” a work of intricate complexity, very pianistic. The program ended with an encore performance of another Sayyid composition, one that expressed incredible longing … for what, who can say? These served as a pair of bookends for the musical portion of the concert.
During the mid-section of the program we heard and saw Mr. Sokol accompany Mr. Ketcham, taking delight in the use of a hoop-like drum with jingle-bells called a daff, a gourd-like drum called a darok, along with other unfamiliar, eye-catching and ear-holding instruments. The rhythms of dances familiar in ethnomusicology (perhaps given today’s climate of opinion it should be called “exomusicology”) were pronounced. The gentlemen performers worked together with a unity of aim or purpose as if they did this with delight every night of the year.
While listening to “Untitled Music” and other compositions I felt that parts of me were being energized and other parts being anaesthetized, so that various operations and procedures could be overseen and performed. It was a series of quite concentrated experiences, rather surprising in the same way that an acupuncture treatment is riddled with surface surprises: unexpected twinges, twitches, tweaks, and (to continue with the t’s) tastes.
The discussion began with Mr. Ketcham asking two questions: Where does music come from? What does music express? He did not attempt to answer these perennial questions, but he added that he had directed the first question to those composers he had met. They all drew a blank. He directed the second question to members of the audience.
One member stated that she felt that the music was coursing through her blood stream, going from the heart to the head. Another member said he felt it affected his breath and his breathing. A woman said she sensed that the music was being “disclosed” rather than composed or discovered.
In answer to the direct question, in effect, “What is Gurdjieffian about this music?” Mr. Ketcham gave a considered and measured answer: “Man has a purpose in life that cannot be realized as we are. There is something more complete to be found, and it is through consciousness that this transformation is to take place.”
He went on to sketch Mr. Gurdjieff’s cosmological view of man in the universe, the sense of scale.” I expected him to mention the word “harmonious” but I did not hear it. Instead he said, “Every tone is a mystery.” We really hear not one tone but composite tones, vibrations, overtones, and they “represent something that is universal.”
One observant questioner asked him how he “prepares” for a performance. She had presumably noted how he would pause at the keyboard before tackling a composition. He momentarily looked like the little boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar. In reply he quoted a previous speaker who had said that the music caused him “to make space.” “I make space,” he said, economically.
Toronto audiences are inclined to be tongue-tied, so I asked two questions to which I received responsible replies. The first question was: Do musicologists recognize the Gurdjieff-De Hartmann collaboration to be unique, given that ethnomusicology was a characteristic of the 1920s? And why are these three hundred compositions not part of the repertoire of contemporary performers and repertory companies?
Mr. Sokol replied that the character of the interaction between a professionally trained composer-performer and an untrained traveller-collector of indigenous traditions is recognized to be unique. Mr. Ketchum added that the musical scores were not published until the 1990s, the decision having been made late in the day by Michel de Salzmann to make them readily available. Also, the compositions are “intimate” and involve one or two interpreters, not all the players of symphony orchestras.
Later he made a case for the fact that these compositions were composed and are performed to have an influence on parts of the body seldom touched by other music or even observed by most people. They were designed to produce feelings we do not normally notice. Mr. Sokol said that the compositions are not folk music, saying, in effect, “You may go to Afghanistan but you will not find ‘Afghan Melody’ being performed there.”
Like the rest of the audience, Ruth and I left the Glenn Gould Centre with the sounds of the piano and percussion instruments vibrating within us. We paused before the bronze statue of the great pianist on the sidewalk in front of the building. Despite the fact that his gaze is averted, I bent down and peered into the sockets of his eyes. It seemed almost sacrilegious to do so. But (it may be my imagination) I observed – a wink.
Here is a related review of a new CD.
Not everyone is privileged to live in a large city like Toronto which hosts concerts of the quality of the one that we were able to attend. But for those people who have a taste for this music, but who live elsewhere, it is possible to have an aftertaste (so to speak) of what was missed through the release of a new CD.
Elisa Denzey, Toronto-based pianist and fabric artist, has had a forty-five year association with group work. She studied with Annette Herter who was a pupil of Thomas de Hartmann, from whom she learned that performance does not exist for the sake of performance but in the interest of … self-knowledge. Music is there not for performance “as we usually understand it, but rather the cultivation of a sensitivity to or an understanding of what each piece of music is saying or describing.” (I like the subtle distinctions between “sensitivity” and “understanding” as well as “saying” and “describing.”)
That quotation comes from the program notes that accompany the newly released CD of piano compositions performed by Ms. Denzey titled “Gurdjieff / De Hartmann.” The CD is available from By the Way Books or from the : ExGurdjieff Foundation of Toronto experimental Group. (Both organizations have websites.) The list price is $25 CDN, the price charged for a single concert ticket.
Ms. Denzey recorded all of the twenty-one compositions in her seventy-sixth year during one six-hour session in 1999. The tastefully produced CD includes three or four of the compositions that we played at the concert. (Curiously, both the disk and the concert include the same number of compositions.) Her interpretation is a less dramatic and far softer one than the interpretations offered by Messrs. Sokol or Ketcham. Perhaps it is more feminine. This in itself is neither a positive nor a negative. In fact, it is an attestation to the power of these compositions to move men and women in the same direction, each at his or her own speed, each in his or her own way.
John Robert Colombo is known throughout Canada as “the Master Gatherer” for his compilations of Canadiana. His two latest books are “The Big Book of Canadian Ghost Stories” (Dundurn) and “Whistle While You Work” (C&C). The latter 400-age paperback book consists of essays and articles of general cultural and specific esoteric interest.