Posts Tagged ‘Toronto’
I have in front of me a copy of a newly published book titled “Meetings with Louise Welch in Toronto.” It was issued in November 2012 by Traditional Studies Press in Toronto, which happens to be the city in which I now reside. The book will be of interest to students of traditional thought and this is expressed in the wording of its subtitle: “On the ideas and practice of the teaching of G.I. Gurdjieff.”
To me the book is of especial interest because, in a limited way, a long time ago, I knew Louise Welch – Mrs. Welch, as she was always called. That was a long time ago – some fifty years ago. Memories sometimes serve as bridge-builders, connecting the past and the present. They do so in this instance.
Before I discuss the contents of this book, I will describe the volume as a physical object. It is a sturdy production, a new book designed to outlast the years, as are so many of the titles issued by Traditional Studies Press, which is the publication wing of The Gurdjieff Foundation: The Society for Traditional Studies. (The organization’s website identifies the organization as The Gurdjieff Foundation of Toronto: Society for Arts and Ideas.)
The publication has no dust jacket but the pages are bound in heavy boards covered in dark green cloth, and the pages are sewn together rather than glued together, so the book may be opened without worry that any of its pages will loosen or fly apart! The volume measures 6 inches by 9 inches, and the pagination goes like this: xxii + 181 + i. It is curious that the first twenty-two pages, which offer the reader an analytic table of contents (like those in P.D. Ouspensky’s “Tertium Organum” and in many of Colin Wilson’s books), appear without page numbers.
The typography is more practical than pictorial; the type is large and the lines are well “leaded” or spaced apart. The text is fairly short (perhaps 60,000 words) and each page is easy on the eyes. There is a frontispiece photograph of Mrs. Welch, taken in Halifax in 1984, which makes her look much older than the women I remember meeting over a period of two years in the second half of the 1950s.
In memory I recall Mrs. Welch as sharing some of the facial features of Maria Ouspenskaya, the Russian-born actress and acting teacher. Here she looks rather more like Marie Dressler, the Canadian-born, Academy Award-winning comic movie actress. I prefer the image in my memory to the portrait in the book!
Louise Welch’s vital years are 1905 and 1999 (so she is not to be confused with the similarly named Louise Welsh, the much younger, English-born, Scotland-based author of psychological thrillers). Mrs. Welch – Louise Michel Blinken Welch, to give her name in full – was born in New York City of Ukrainian background. She was raised in a dysfunctional family setting and received little formal education, but through her own efforts she found work as a journalist and editor. At one time in the 1920s, she wrote the “agony column” for the New York American. (Walter Winchell quipped about her that “Louise Michel went from bad to Hearst.”) Later in her varied career she worked as a director of a writer’s group for the WPA – the Work (or Works) Project Administration, the U.S. federal government’s employment program of the 1930s, now despised by Republications and forgotten by Democrats.
During the Depression she married and bore a son and a daughter. She was abandoned by her husband so she became their sole support. (Her daughter is Patty de Llosa, a writer and leader who is well respected in the circle of the Work, has has written warmly about her mother and her stepfather, Dr. William J. Welch, in a memoir that appears on one of the webpages of the “Gurdjieff International Review.” The information shared here is derived in part from that source.)
In the 1930s, Mrs. Welch worked with Benton & Bowles, the renowned advertising agency, and there she met and was befriended by a somewhat younger co-worker, who later trained to became a medical doctor, qualified as a cardiac specialist, and eventually became her husband. Together the Welches were what later came to be known as “a power couple.”
This is not the place to review her meetings in the 1920s with the English editor A.R. Orage or how through him she met G.I. Gurdjieff, in both Fontainebleau and New York, if only because she accomplished all of this in her finely written, book-length memoir titled Orage with Gurdjieff in America (1982). Offhand I would say her temperament had much in common with that of Orage. The two of them appreciated fine writing, they were practical people and skilled editors, they had an understanding of the emotional problems of other people as well as the social problems of their times, and they were entirely committed to being leaders in the Work.
Hardly any of the above information appears in the pages of “Meetings with Louise Welch in Toronto,” a fact that limits the readership of this volume to readers appreciative of the subtleties of the Work. To all other readers, the book will be seen as a tribute to a well-liked person rather than as a valuable record of transactions and experiences. Traditional Studies Press did what it set out to do; that was its aim. Perhaps a wider perspective might have resulted in a more imposing publication. Yet readers of all persuasions should express gratitude for what has been achieved.
The Toronto group was founded in 1954, the first of the ancillary groups to be recognized by The Gurdjieff Foundation in New York which had then entered its second year of operation. Its seeds were planted by Olga de Hartmann and her husband Thomas, the composer who had worked so closely with Mr. Gurdjieff on those marvellous compositions for the piano. In fact, way back in 1919, it was the de Hartmanns who had introduced Alexandre and Jeanne de Saltzmann to Mr. Gurdjieff. In the same way, while the couple were living in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, anticipating their move to the United States, they introduced the Work to Canadians in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, and Halifax.
Among the prime movers of the Gurdjieff Foundation in New York were Dr. and Mrs. Welch. The latter was delegated to head the Toronto group, which she did from 1955 on. I met her a year or two later, never guessing that the Toronto group was not “ages old” but “brand new.” On our first meeting, I asked her if I could join the Work, once I had moved to the city and enrolled at the University of Toronto. She delayed answering that question. Instead she asked her own question, “How did you first learn about the this work?” It was a good question because there was very little information available to the public about Gurdjieff, especially in a small city like the one in which I was born and raised. (This was well before the arrival of the so-called New Age.)
I replied that I had borrowed a copy of “In Search of the Miraculous” (published four years earlier) from the local Carnegie library, and read it cover to cover, not once but twice. Etched in my memory is her grim rejoinder: “The Table of Hydrogens is quite difficult, you know.” Then I backtracked and admitted that I had not understood all that I had read! She was happier with that reply. In general, I knew about the Priory at Fontainebleau from Ouspensky’s description, but it was months before I heard anything at all about J.B. Bennett and the foundations, institutes, and societies, not to mention the estate at Mendham. I was nineteen years old at the time.
My first meeting with the Toronto group leader took place in the upstairs bedroom of the home of Mrs. Margot Dustin and her husband Ernest whose nickname was “Dusty,” both former Theosophists, about a mile from where I now live and am keyboarding this account, and I was regular in my attendance at weekly meetings for readings and for Movements held here and there throughout the city, especially at the monthly meetings convened by Mrs. Welch. She would fly into the city from New York to conduct the sessions, on occasion with Dr. Welch, a man of genuine presence and strong voice. Once, in later years, they brought with them a 16 mm, black-and-white print of performances of the Movements in Paris, which was shown to a small group at the Ontario Science Centre.
Sometimes in attendance at the meetings were film producer Tom Daly, teacher Peter Colgrove, Dr. Paul Bura, an engineer, and his wife Sheila, who was adept in Movements, who were “refugees” from a Bennett group in England, not to mention a stunning, exotic couple: an exquisite, half-Burmese, half-French woman of great beauty (named Olga, oddly, and former wife of BBC executive Cecil Lewis) and her tall, stylish architect husband who may have come from Cornwall, where they subsequently settled. Yet in general I found the original members to be drawn from the professional middle-class of the city, almost everyone being older than I was, and it was a somewhat staid gathering of people, certainly not one given to small talk or big pronouncements. There were occasional visits from the very Gallic Alfred Etievant who would lead the Movements with lithe assurance.
Mrs. Welch’s contributions were not limited to oral instruction, for she encouraged the group to break into print. She kindled the publication of “A Journal of Our Time,” a literary and artistic “little magazine” of some deft and delicacy; she wrote a play which the group produced and staged for public performance; she generated publicity for the commercial showing at Cineplex (the world’s first “cineplex” or multi-screen movie theatre) of Peter Brook’s film “Meetings with Remarkable Men”; she served as editor-in-chief of the first edition of “The Guide and Index to G.I. Gurdjieff’s All and Everything,” which remains an invaluable resource to this day.
References to a few of these activities appear in “Meetings with Louise Welch in Toronto,” which is dedicated to the memory of Mrs. Dustin, the very woman in whose house I first met Mrs. Welch. According to the editorial note, “This publication is compiled from notes taken at meetings spanning the years 1955-1965 and 1973-1989.” My experiences relate directly to the first period, not at all to the second period, and I have no idea what happened between 1965 and 1973, a span of years that I assume were busy ones for the Toronto group, which eventually acquired valuable real estate both in Toronto and outside the rapidly expanding city.
When I was in attendance, each one of us was encouraged – even required – to ask questions, and to ask them slowly, so that the two note-takers would have time to record them, whether in longhand or shorthand I never knew. Apparently these scripts exist today, and they form the basis of the text of this book. From time to time the questions themselves are recorded here, but in most instances it is only Mrs. Welch’s answers that are given. The text itself begins like this: “My search is your search. We must each have a common wish to find out who we are and the direction in which we can grow to reach the truth.” (For symmetry’s sake, the text proper ends like this: “We have a little help here.”)
Reading these passages I am able to imagine myself in her presence and hear her refined, modulated American speech tones and pronunciations. The content of the presentations brings to my mind the content of the entries that appear in the five volumes of Maurice Nicoll’s “Commentaries.” Dr. Nicoll’s presentations are quite technical, whereas Mrs. Welch’s are conversational, parallelling normal thought processes. Both books are organized topically with long, analytic tables of contents. Mrs. Welch is a communicator of attitudes from Mr. Gurdjieff; Dr. Nicoll is a conveyer of detailed information from Mr. Ouspensky.
Her expositions make good use of “I” and “me,” though they do so with great care so as to generalize about the “I” and the “me” and make the words apply to each and every one of her listeners. For instance, she writes as follows: “The important thing is my inner work. My presence is important. I live without meaning because I am not here.” Imagine hearing these words: the “my” and the “I” are those of you, the listener.
In later years, in an attempt to understand the thrust and direction of the Work, I came to define its essence in a single word, a compound word that is a personal neologism. That word is “psychopraxis.” Here the discipline is psychological even psychical rather than psychiatric, but it is also physiological, for it is concerned with physical expression and practice; it is also blessedly free of religious, theosophical, and psychological terminology. Such ideas would have been regarded as novel at the time. Mrs. Welch avoids such exercises, and the introduction into the text of specific Gurdjieffian terms is minimized. One unexpected exception is this one: “Trogoautoegocrat,” from “All and Everything,” which is defined as “real sacrifice” or “I eat myself.”
Preserved are instances of the common touch: “If you tell me you cannot Work for fifteen minutes a day, I say that you don’t want to …. Five minutes of struggle is better than twenty-four hours of daydreaming.” There is no attempt here to innovate or improvise; the expressions of insight are refreshingly free of argument and cant or special pleading. The result is the exposition is effective and the prose is durable and in no sense dated. There are no potted expressions meant to impress the listener or express the private opinion or reservations of the speaker.
At the time I identified Mrs. Welch’s message with a simple, three-letter word – “aim.” It seemed to me at the time that she was always after us to define our own “aim.” I was surprised to realize how difficult it was to comply, difficult when not impossible! Not much about aim has found its way into the text at hand.
What I took away from the Work, right away, was the notion that what lies at the root of most personal and social problems is mechanicality … in “mentation,” emotion, and action. “Mechanicality” is a word that is instantly meaningful, yet is seldom heard or used in this sense by the outside world. On one occasion, she asked a provoking question: “My pet mechanicality is what irritates you. What is there in me that I am unconscious of, and need to be conscious of and know better?”
If I had more time and space I would compare and contrast the records of these meetings, as fragmentary as they are here, compiled not by an individual but by “The Editors, The Gurdjieff Foundation,” with more elaborate records kept of meetings with Ouspensky, Madame Lannes, Conge, and other group leaders. But there are readers (perhaps those who have been exposed to multiple teachers) who are better equipped to do so than am I.
The beating heart of the book lies in its most extended passage, a veritable lecture, which runs from page 66 to page 97. This passage covers most of the subjects germane to work on self. Unlike the shorter sections, which range in length from one sentence to one paragraph or to one or two pages, some dated, the narrative arc of this passage moves from one aspect of the subject to another aspect of the subject, and it builds, as dramatists like to express it. It begins, “I can be stirred into uneasiness … ” and it ends, “We rejoice in the joy of the possibilities.” The beat of this heart marks the ending of the first section of the book.
The second section, which records exchanges between 1973 and 1987, preserves the question-and-answer format – observation and discussion – so it is somewhat more digressive than the first section, but perhaps more engaging. Its heart beats faster. In many ways it may seem less exciting but it is more experienced, less promising but more polished, yet not having been there I cannot comment on how well it represents the occasions themselves. I would say that they do show a leader who is probing, more deeply than formerly, the content of the Work, perhaps because the members of the group are able to absorb more than they did formerly.
The book ends with a selection of aphorisms. Here are some of the book’s aphoristic expressions or pensées, most of them taken from the text itself and not from the selection devoted to them:
* “Our search is not for miraculous results, not to achieve a result, but to learn a process.”
* “My body knows what it wants, not what I want. I must teach all of my parts what I want.”
* “My Gurdjieff said, ‘I don’t bring you a system of morality, but how to find conscience.’ We must find the outlines of a structure that is more valid.”
* “Only when I have a certain level of being can I be open to a certain level of knowledge.”
* “I remember Mr. Orage saying, ‘I love you,’ said the man. ‘Strange that I feel none the better for it,’ said the woman.”
Readers of the book today may find the presentations of procedures of “the work” and the attitudes that are described in these pages less engaging than did listeners at the time. Some of the passages are more than a half century old; others have aged by at least a quarter century. Much water has passed under the bridge since then, and truisms and oral teaching techniques that were once novel are now found in best-selling books and courses on the human potential movement, leadership training, self-motivation, cognitive therapies, mindfulness training, and on the TED Lectures on the Web. Many of the formulations are indebted to Mr. Gurdjieff, who gave gifts of insight to the world, few of them acknowledged. Nevertheless, here are some of Mrs. Welch’s formulations that struck me as still valid, informative, or interesting:
* We want to go on repeating what belongs to another period. “Mr. Gurdjieff said that he wasn’t interested in anyone over five or under fifty-five.”
* “Gurdjiefff said one third of one’s life should be spent in pondering. Why was I born? Who am I? What is meant by waking sleep?” [This statement comes from the second section. I recall no earlier instances of the use of the word “pondering” in the earlier period, or any references to the importance of “sittings,” now staples of the de Saltzmann period.]
* “To me it is such an extraordinary thing that a Way exists in which one does not have to leave one’s life.”
* “In Movements we have enormous help. We have a taste of what it means to be close to attention.”
* “We are all members of the human race in a bigger way. All this is common to us. If you see this enough you can’t even hate Hitler. He was just a biological mutation of the wrong sort.”
* “When I first went to Mr. Gurdjieff’s apartment, I couldn’t bear the thought of where he was living. After I was there for ten minutes it was the whole world.”
* “Madame Ouspensky said we always have time for a love affair. This is the human condition.”
* “Mind is the greatest thing we have – excuse me, we do not have it. It is there. How do we find access to it?”
* “If wish doesn’t exist, the wish to wish does exist.”
I will end this appreciation of “Meetings with Louise Welch in Toronto” with one oft-repeated remark of Mrs. Welch’s. It is a favourite of mine and I distinctly recall her uttering it on at least two occasions.
She said, “Your aim is to find your aim.”
John Robert Colombo is a prolific author and anthologist with a special interest in offbeat Canadiana and traditional studies. His latest publication is the Foreword to Paul Beekman Taylor’s book “The Real Worlds of G.I. Gurdjieff” (Eureka Editions). Colombo was recently honoured as one of the “100 Graduates of Influence” of his alma mater, University College, University of Toronto. He holds the Harbourfront Literary Award, an honorary D.Litt. From York University in Toronto, and Bulgaria’s Order of Cyril and Methodius (first class). His website is . If you wish to be informed of forthcoming reviews and commentaries on this website, send him an email. His email address is email@example.com .
Barbara and James in Colorado
I am sitting in front of my computer in North Toronto and Barbara Wright is sitting in front of her computer in downtown Toronto, a distance of perhaps eight kilometres. We are twenty minutes apart by car, yet our communication is via the a geostationary satellite, with the signal travelling back and forth perhaps 500,000 kilometres in one or two seconds.
I reside with my wife Ruth in our three-bedroom suburban house in the city’s North York district, which is unequally divided between the Italians and the Jews, to such an extent the district is locally known as the “Kosher Nostra.” (The New York essayist Richard Kostelanetz once called our place “Colombo Central.”)
Barbara Wright – I’ll call her Barbara, as she is quite direct in manner – lives with her husband James (Jim) George in their suite in a highrise in the city’s downtown area. The balcony offers a sweeping view of the city’s exclusive Rosedale district, which Jim has known since his childhood.
The view is new to Barbara who was born in Colorado. She made California her home state for decades, at least until her late marriage, four years ago in San Francisco, to Jim. They make a formidable couple and their surroundings are awesome. The suite is richly decorated with works of Buddhist and Hindu art: statues, mandalas, rugs, paintings, etc. There is even a framed photograph of the smiling couple with a giggling Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, taken last year during a private session at the time of his last public visit to the city.
Perhaps I should recall that Jim served as Canada’s High Commissioner to India from 1967 to 1972. During his years in New Delhi he befriended two youthful spiritual leaders of the Buddhist-Bon tradition: the Dalai Lama and Chögyam Trungpa. The American disciples of the latter “crazy wisdom” lama accompanied him when he shifted his ashram from Boulder, Colorado, to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he established a thriving centre for Shambhala studies. Today Jim is regarded as one of the elder statesmen of the Work in Canada, a group that includes Ravi Ravindra and Tom Daly.
As for their ages – Barbara is in her seventies, Jim is in his early nineties – think nothing of it. Both are healthy and look great. Together they generate more energy than do the hydroelectric power turbines at Niagara Falls, an ninety minutes south of Toronto by car.
Barbara and James with HH the Dalai Lama
Barbara has kindly agreed to my request to reproduce this photograph taken with the Dalai Lama who, years earlier, contributed the foreword to Jim’s recently reprinted book, Asking for the Earth: Waking Up to the Spiritual / Ecological Crisis. Jim’s current book is “The Little Green Book on Awakening,” a kind of primer on the climate crisis and work on consciousness. She has also agreed to answer one dozen questions. So here are my statements and questions, with her responses and answers.
Q. Three cities: Boulder – San Francisco – Toronto. Although I could connect these three cities with a straight line on a map, it would not occur to me to do so, but for the fact that you have an association with these three North American cities. Let’s begin with Boulder, which by synecdochy I associate with the rest of Colorado. I understand that you were not born in Boulder, a spiritual centre in Colorado, but that you were born in the city of Grand Junction. Were you educated there? Do you see yourself as a “midwesterner”?
Boulder is important because it’s in Colorado and my younger daughter lives there. Also, there is a Gurdjieff group there which I have visited regularly for over twenty years, and during that time, I have gotten to know the people in the group very well, and value them very highly. It’s true that Boulder is a kind of spiritual center, and we are very aware of that. In fact, by coincidence or whatever arranges such events, my visits often coincide with special Buddhist gatherings. For example, the Dalai Lama was in Denver once when we were having a special weekend; and last year, the new Karmapa was there at the same time that the Boulder group worked together over a four-day period of time.
Last May, since some of our people were interested in studying Chogyam Trungpa’s ideas on work in life — and since the Gurdjieff Work is described as “a work in life” — invited several friends of mine, who live in Boulder and practice Buddhism, to join us. That made for an interesting time. So we feel very lucky to be in such a place, which is not only a spiritual center, but very beautiful. In only a few minutes, we can be walking uphill on a mountain path. My husband, Jim, sometimes goes with me to Colorado, and he loves the mountains; even though he was born in Toronto, he has climbed the best and highest mountains. Of course, I love the mountains because they are an essential part of me. I was born at an altitude of a little over 5000 feet.
I was born in the city of Grand Junction, which is on the other side of the mountains from Boulder, on the Western Slope of the Rockies. Though it has about the same mile-high altitude, it had a different feeling from Boulder, Denver, or Colorado Springs, which are located on the Eastern Slope and are related to the Great Plains in the central part of the United States. It felt a little less sophisticated and possibly more genuine. A little more desert prospector or sheep herder and less like the gold or silver barons. This is in the process of changing now as the powerful homogenous force erases those kinds of differences. Now, Grand Junction is becoming well known for its wineries; the thought of which would have horrified the members of the twelve to fifteen Protestant churches in the city when I was growing up. (I believe that the members of the one large Catholic church did have a glass of wine from time to time, and probably more Protestants than we knew of did also.)
Grand Junction is high-desert country, only a few miles from Utah and its fantastic canyons and rock formations. Two rivers meet there, and the valley they form is fertile and known for its warm climate. It’s also quite a beautiful valley, surrounded on three sides by completely different and completely amazing landscapes. In fact, on a recent visit, I felt quite strongly that the beauty and grandeur of that valley somehow comprise my heritage.
My education in Grand Junction gave me a pretty good start in life. We lived close enough that I could walk to and from school and come home for lunch each day, so the 3 schools I attended from grade 1-12 seemed like an extension of home life. Many of my teachers were highly educated in the now old-fashioned classics, probably similar to a Canadian education. And, I read a lot and was outdoors a lot.
For a town of around 28,000 people there many riches. For example, growing up in Grand Junction at that time provided special opportunities for anyone to study classical music that probably don’t exist now. Every elementary school, and the junior high and high school had an orchestra, a concert band, and a marching band, with very good teachers — several just back from WWII and one at least, a veteran of the Paul Whiteman orchestra that played for silent movies. I started piano lessons at five and violin at ten, and by the time I was in high school, I was taking violin lessons at the local college, playing in two symphonies, and performing chamber music in a string trio.
As to being a “midwesterner.” Very early in U.S. history, my ancestors moved from the British Isles, Germany, and Switzerland to Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and points farther east, and then to Missouri and Iowa and finally, just after the Civil War, to Colorado, leaving the southern part of the Midwest behind. Like them, I was and am a Westerner. Quite a different animal. Although I lived for six months in Iowa once long ago — and Iowa is definitely the Midwest — and I live now in Toronto — and Toronto is definitely the East — I remain a Westerner.
Q. Where and how did you first encounter the Work? Could you describe how its ideas and emotions initially affected you? Did it suddenly seem to you to answer your questions about life or did it gradually meet your inner needs?
I first encountered the work ideas in Grand Junction. A friend lent me a book by Kenneth Walker and I happened to notice the name Gurdjieff in it. Noticed and was galvanized. That’s the one, I thought. There was no reason; I simply seemed to recognize his name, just as I simply seemed to know that the ideas were true when I read them later on. The first work book I read was “Venture with Ideas” by the same Kenneth Walker, and while reading it, I really learned that I was asleep. While I was reading in the living room, too completely engrossed by new ideas and new possibilities, the water had been used up in the vaporizer I’d left running in my daughters’ bedroom, and it was beginning to overheat and starting to smoke. That was a definite shock. A wake-up call.
Another strong moment I remember was reading “In Search of the Miraculous” while waiting to have surgery the next morning. That book, and the particular passage I read that evening, also served as a call for a new way of living. Curiously, Jim and I are reading through “In Search of the Miraculous” with a small group of people, and a few weeks ago we read that very same passage. Again, a strong moment.
And I was lucky that my introduction to “Beelzebub’s Tales” was oral. The same friend who lent me the Walker books read the first chapter, “The Arousal of Thought,” out loud to me while I was ironing. It was amazing. To hear the words first rather than reading them was a very lucky event. Of course, I then read the book, as fast as I could, unintentionally reading it the way I would ordinarily read any book, in fact as Gurdjieff suggests.
Those books changed my life. The ideas seemed completely familiar, as if they spoke to my own experience and knowledge that had been forgotten. So many of my questions about my own and other’s behavior were addressed and the grandeur of creation and the living universe, which I had experienced myself in special moments, was evoked. I would describe the experience of reading these books as the experience of coming back to life. Of course, as the years went along, I discovered other needs within myself because the work gave me something in relation to those needs.
Q. San Francisco is the next city. What year did you move there? Did you raise your family there?
San Francisco was my home for forty-five years. It was there that I joined a group, met Lord Pentland and many other remarkable people, and of course, made many close friends in the work community there.
I moved to San Francisco in 1961, after going back to college in 1960 — I was one of two single mothers with kids, a rarity at the time — and getting a teaching certificate. My two young daughters and my twenty-one year old sister went with me. I was twenty-eight. In early September, we pulled a small trailer from Grand Junction to San Francisco across the desert and the Sierras, crossed over the Bay Bridge while reciting a little Hart Crane, and stayed the first night in a motel right on the beach south of San Francisco.
In the next few days, we found a place to live, a school for my older daughter and a babysitter for the younger one, and a job for my sister. I began my teaching career in a 6th grade classroom and felt very close to that class. We went to our first meeting on October 10th, with Lord Pentland and the leaders of the San Francisco work. Some notes from that first meeting are in the book Exchanges Within. That was the beginning of my work with the group in San Francisco.
Hopefully, my daughters were helped by our connection to the work. I had remarried, to an older man in the work, and we were very busy with groups and work activities. There were many people in and out of the house, and we were away a lot. But, we had music and crafts at home, and two dogs. Also, the city of San Francisco offered many cultural opportunities. There were many interesting people around our dinner table during those years. They never had what they considered a “normal” family life, but as adults they’ve realized that there is no such thing as the ideal, perfectly normal family. I’m hoping now that they feel their lives were very special, in good ways.
Q. I know you are a woman who cherishes family connection. Tell us the names of your children and grandchildren. Where do they live? Were they surprised when you informed them that you and Jim would live in Toronto?
My older daughter, Claudia, still lives in San Francisco and, along with her husband, is quite active in the Gurdjieff Foundation there. She is quite a good pianist and also quite a good poet. They have two daughters, Anne, just receiving her MSW from UC Berkeley in May, and Clara, an artist / poet who lives in Santa Cruz and is very active in community organizations. My younger daughter, Kristine, lives in Boulder with her husband. She is a healer, and uses flower essences, Jin Shin Jyutsu, and psychic healing to great and good results. Her daughter Jessamyn is finishing her third year of college and studying international law.
I do very much cherish family connections. After my mother’s death, I remembered conversations we’d had and after finding notes she had made in various books, I realized that my life, which had been so much about a search for meaning, was a continuation of hers. As is my sister’s. Now, as I get older and watch my daughters, and their daughters, becoming more and more wise, this continuity seems even more apparent. And, I wish for them all, wish that their own lives and their inquiries into the purpose of life can bring more freedom, wisdom, clarity, daring, and so on. The good things.
There were various reactions to my announcement that I was thinking of marrying Jim George. Surprise, certainly, because it all happened very quickly. Reactions ranged from excitement to opposition. A very positive Tarot reading from one granddaughter, a “Go for it, Grandma” from another, and a “You’ve got to be kidding!” from my younger daughter. Now, five years later, we’ve visited them and they’ve each have visited us in Toronto, and I think everyone agrees it’s been a good arrangement.
Q. Was it in San Francisco that you began your work as a Feldenkrais instructor? Are you still a practitioner?
In the late 70s and early 80s, Lord Pentland began using Feldenkrais lessons as part of his teaching. I believe that he could see that without real changes in the body, self development was mostly mental. Moshe Feldenkrais had been influenced by Gurdjieff and his teaching is highly appropriate for Gurdjieffians or for anyone interested in the development of the whole person. Those first lessons were astounding. I still remember the whole sensation and feeling of myself, of my whole self, as I walked down the hill after the first one.
About the same time, with his encouragement, I began to have lots of body work, which continued into the 90s. There was a double motive for this. Partly for deepening awareness and partly to improve a bad back that was the result of an early fall off a horse.
In 1992, I started my career as a free-lance editor, not only making a decent amount of money but also setting my own hours. By 1994, it seemed the time and the funds were right for me to take the Feldenkrais training in the Bay Area north of San Francisco. Again I was lucky. My trainers were excellent. They were Buddhists and tuned to the awareness aspect of the work. After four years more or less on the floor at least once a week and for longer periods several times a year, my back was many times better. Hopefully, the awareness was better also.
I graduated from the four-year training in 1999, and had quite an active practice, teaching classes in several locations, with a good number of private clients up until the time I moved to Toronto, but it’s been difficult to keep it going here. It takes time to be married! I taught some classes that met here in our condo for several months, substituted a bit at the Feldenkrais Center, and taught one at the Institute of Traditional Medicine on the Art of Sitting, in which I combined lessons for the body and sitting quietly together. I have had a few private clients, including a man who comes regularly when he’s visiting from San Francisco. Eventually I would like to be teaching more. The Feldenkrais Method is amazing.
Q. How long were you associated with the work in San Francisco? By the way, do you know Jacob Needleman, the philosopher who has published many work-related books?
I was associated with the Work in San Francisco for forty-four years — from 1961 to 2005, and I still travel to San Francisco and attend group meetings there when I can. I will probably always be related to the work in San Francisco. The San Francisco groups were begun by Lord Pentland around 1954 to 1957, shortly after Gurdjieff’s death in 1949. He continued almost monthly visits to San Francisco from New York, where he lived and where he headed the Gurdjieff Foundation of New York, the primary North American foundation.
The New York foundation had been organized by Gurdjieff himself during his last visits to the United States. Especially in the 60s and 70s, most of the leaders in the New York foundation were pupils of Gurdjieff. At the same time, there was a frequent exchange between New York and Paris, and Madame de Salzmann, and other pupils of Gurdjieff. Several times a year, some of us made trips to New York at Pentland’s invitation, usually when Madame de Salzmann was there. Often when he came to San Francisco, he brought people along with him from other work centers, like New York or Los Angeles, London or Paris. It was easy to feel part of a great, living organism, complete with a thriving circulatory system. The years until his death in 1984 were rich with opportunity to learn, study, explore and engage along with a group of like-minded, and like-hearted, people.
After 1984, at least once a month and for longer periods in the summer, Paul Reynard continued to visit San Francisco, until his death a few years ago, bringing his sensitive inner work in movements and with the ideas. He had worked as a very young man with Gurdjieff in Paris and has led the movements work in North and South America under Madame de Salzmann’s direction since the late 60s. I feel that the groups in San Francisco were given more than most of us can ever really make our own, and probably much more than we can share with others. This seems to be a theme of mine: we received many riches.
Jacob Needleman has been a friend since 1965. I value any opportunity to work with him, and admire him deeply. He has been able to find ways to bring finer, higher ideas into the main stream of life through his books and talks, and I know he continues this effort.
Q. The third city in your life is Toronto. I know why you came to this city: the catalyst was your marriage to Jim in 2006. Did you meet him in San Francisco at a Work function?
We were married on January 1, 2005, and it took me about six months to get things together for a final move to Toronto. As the third city in my life, as you put it, Toronto is very important to me, because this is the city where I live now, where my husband was born and grew up. It provides me with the opportunity to know a different set of human beings and to explore the ways they are the same and yet different from the people who live in San Francisco, New York, or Colorado. I have met some wonderful people here — especially some outstanding women, who are bright and intelligent — and have had the opportunity to widen my friendships to those not in the Gurdjieff work, which has been very good for me.
I had noticed Jim at various work functions and conferences over the years, but we had hardly had a conversation until 1999 when we were at the same conference in New York and had an opportunity to talk. Perhaps he noticed me earlier, but I wasn’t aware of it. Later, two of our granddaughters got to know each other and it was through this that Jim and I got better acquainted.
Q. You would expect that Toronto, a multicultural city with a population of more than three million people, close to half of its residents born somewhere else, would be particularly receptive to new ideas. In the 1920s it was hospitable to Theosophy. A Gurdjieff group was founded in the city in the early 1950s under the personal direction of Madame de Hartman. It was responsible for the publication of an index to “All and Everything” and also the Russian-language edition of that mammoth text. In the 1960s the city was recognized as the intellectual home of Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye. Currently groups like Theosophy and Anthroposophy are languishing here. It is common knowledge that in the city the Gurdjieff work, like Caesar’s Gaul, is divided in three parts, if not more than three. Did this scattering of energies take you by surprise? Can you offer any reason for it? Is the situation likely to remain fragmented in the future?
Because the last split happened so soon after I moved here, it did take me by surprise. It also makes me sad whenever and wherever a separation takes place — and it does take place too often within work groups — and within many other groups, even one as small as two people, such as in a marriage. There is a small, sad statement about human beings in “Beelzebub’s Tales,” in the chapter about the destruction of Ashiata Shiemash’s labors: “And gradually, as it also usually happens there, almost everywhere beings became divided into two mutually opposing parties…. ” I’m reminded of a brilliant Aldous Huxley essay entitled “Usually Destroyed” that speaks to similar human proclivities.
Also, one could talk about the problem of the ego, and I’m tempted to talk about the male ego in particular. But, having a philosophical bent, I would have to say that the underlying reason for divisions, in the Work or in religions or families or nations, is the inexorable quality of the great laws of “world creation and world maintenance,” which must govern all of life. Implicit in these laws is the fact that everything happens, and no intentional result comes about automatically. In a simple way, one can see that effort is almost always required in order to carry out any real intention. Anyone who’s married knows this, at least if they are interested in keeping their marriage intact and thriving. It takes work.
A Gurdjieff group is not immune to the pulls and pushes of life. Individual initiatives can become all important. Individual power can become all important. The need for recognition, for place, and so on — all the ordinary desires that we know too well — all that becomes important. Surely every one of us can speak about that from our own experience in many different situations, but I hope that some of us have some experience of intention, and really working toward something.
Will it ever change here in Toronto? Each of the three groups has many wonderful people, and many wonderful initiatives. In my experience with each group, I could say that the work is alive in each one. Most separations remain separations. Some separations were obviously meant to be, just as some marriages seem destined for divorce and some for a fifty-year anniversary. One hopes that areas of mutual co-operation or mutual need might arise, and this might happen someday. I hope it doesn’t require a great emergency for this to happen. However, it’s important to remember that, in my experience, the movement toward unity is always uphill. It’s neither easy nor automatic. At the same time though, the tastes we have of wholeness or unity begin to reveal to us that this work is in fact a great service. That realization helps in the ongoing attempt to struggle with the arising of individual initiatives, in myself and in others.
Q. Over the years has there been a single teacher or a specific book that has been particularly meaningful to you? Is there a musical composition that you find yourself humming in tense moments – if you have tense moments?
There have been several teachers who have been meaningful to me, starting with my fourth grade teacher and going on through college. In fact, I consider myself pretty lucky in this respect. As a college freshman, I enrolled in three consecutive Humanities classes that Neal Miller Cross taught, using a book he coauthored called “The Search for Personal Freedom.” That was just what I needed at that point in my life. I was also lucky later on to take history courses with a man named Peter Szymanski, a brilliant, Russia-educated, French-trained Polish professor who was by his choice hidden away in the high mountains of Colorado.
From childhood, I loved the Sherlock Holmes stories and Zane Grey’s novels, and read and reread a dazzling little book called “The Hidden Hand,” written in the late 1800s — don’t ask me why — I still enjoy it. When I was twelve or thirteen, I read that huge, shocking, and thrilling book, “The Brothers Karazamov.” It made a huge impact on me and inspired a certain rapport with Eastern Orthodoxy, which persists to the present time.
I have many tense moments, but no particular musical compositions come to mind. There is very often a melody humming around in my brain, but usually the one of the moment is the one I listened to most recently, or most recently played on the piano. The Gurdjieff-de Hatmann music is particularly haunting. I do love Schubert, Bach, Mozart, Bartok, and Brahms for humming. But also I like contemporary music. For example, John Adams’ operas, and most anything by Elliot Carter. Amazing, but not too hummable.
Q. You have traveled quite widely and visited Work groups in numerous countries, for instance, England, France, and Australia, in addition to the United States and Canada. Do you find characteristic types everywhere? From your perspective, are there national or cultural differences in the Work to be detected?
First of all, I would like to say that in my opinion people who are attracted to the work often — very often — have certain similar characteristics. Keep in mind that this is only my opinion, which I’ve shared with many groups over the past few years. I suppose someone could do a kind of survey someday to see if my opinion holds any truth. So, in my opinion, there are a lot of good-looking people in the Work, no matter what country they live in. The women don’t always let their beauty shine out, but still, the beauty is often there. In addition, I notice that people in the Work are very often intelligent and well-educated, artistically talented, and often creative and resourceful. They are generally very good at washing dishes, too, and figuring out how to get one hundred people in a space that really only holds sixty. But these are my very subjective observations.
Certainly every country has its characteristics. For instance, the Australians are even more independent than Americans. It’s the island — and a fairly isolated island at that — mentality. Self-reliance is the thing. There surely must be Canadian characteristics, as well as Latin American, French, English, and so on. But everywhere one goes there are similar types: the natural leaders, the real seekers who find a work for themselves, the ones who find it difficult to speak, the ones who are only interested in the Ideas and the ones who are only interested in the Movements, those who proclaim their devotion to the search and who disappear without warning, the silent ones who after years explode in anger, the drinkers, the dutiful wives or husbands who sometimes end up more devoted to the Work than their partner, the Martha types and the Mary types, and so on. Probably any group has most of these types. When you are in a community for a long time, you get to know people pretty well. In fact, you know their kids and often their parents, you go through deaths and marriages, and you all get old together, so everyone goes on being an “older” person or one of “the young ones.”
Most important though is the experience I’ve had again and again of the similarities. The serious questions are the same, almost word for word; the feeling tone of the meetings are the same. There is a kind of taste or flavour, like a delicate scent that lingers in a room, which is the same in meetings in many of the groups I’ve visited, when the serious work appears, no matter where they meet.
But a little more on differences. Usually the main difference comes from which Gurdjieff pupil first brought the work to a group. There is loyalty to that person, of course, and a kind of imprint in the mind and heart from the way he or she presented the ideas and the work. This connects to your next question, because people in the Work need to find ways to work together in spite of quite natural loyalty and fealty, which is perhaps more often unconscious and therefore stronger than we think. We need to beware of imitation.
Q. Do you have a clear idea where the Work is heading, that is, where it will be in ten years time or in fifty years? Still alive and still working are some people – Paul Beekman Taylor and Patty de Llosa spring to mind – who, as children, recall meeting Mr. Gurdjieff. I keep meeting people who knew John Bennett, but I think Joyce Colin-Smith is the only person I know who actually met Mr. Ouspensky.
This is the question that keeps me up at night. I don’t have a very clear idea where the work is heading but I can share some rather muddled thoughts about it. Some of the best people I’ve know in the Work have branched out to fortify their work using other disciplines. Patty de Llosa is a good example. She has a very serious work with the Alexander Method, which seems a good support to her work with the Gurdjieff groups. Also, as she mentions in her book, she has a serious practice of Tai Chi, and in this way, she can share her knowledge and experience with a wide range of people, using knowledge and experience that is very much influenced by her years in the Gurdjieff work.
Others use their knowledge of science or the religions to find avenues toward explaining the ideas and practices of the Work. Of course, there is always the danger of diversion or of dilution. This can happen when other traditions are brought in to help deepen or broaden the understanding. Although the study of the specificity of the Gurdjieff Work is an interesting one, it’s not easy. It’s easier to say what it resembles than what it is, so this study is too often neglected now. It requires knowing the ideas in the books as well as in the memory of the oral teaching, and you could say, it requires real thought, which is pretty scarce these day. And often, people get too interested and leave the Work in order to practise one of those other traditions.
There are others still alive who met Gurdjieff, but surely the future of the work does not depend only on having met him or Ouspensky. The future of the work will depend on what has passed from person to person. Gurdjieff uses the image of a staircase, and you can’t go any higher on this stairway until you’ve placed someone on your step. And that person must place someone on his step, and so on. Of course, we hear this and think it’s simple and straightforward.
The problem I’ve encountered is that one really does not know what that next higher step will entail, what will be required of one, having placed someone else and having moved up a step. We forget that each step is new territory, and I suspect that it is the shock of finding oneself in new territory, alone, so to speak, that may stop the development needed to help everyone ascend. It’s too easy to drift along using past methods. Imitation only works up to point. I have been very glad to hear reports about the next generation in San Francisco. It sounds like they learned something over the years and now feel the obligation to pass it along.
Up to now the Work has served as a kind of pollinator. Hundreds of people have passed through its groups and back into life. When I look at old group lists, it’s quite amazing how many people have come and gone. Once in awhile, in San Francisco, I was stopped by someone on the street who would say he or she used to be in my group twenty-five or thirty years ago, and is “still doing the morning work and / or reading ‘Beelzebub.’” The Work will probably never be huge, but I do very much wish and hope that it remains alive, even in people who no longer attend groups. It’s very much needed.
Q. That’s eleven questions. My twelfth question is the following: Is there a question I should have asked you but didn’t which you yourself would like to ask and answer?
I’d like to paraphrase Gurdjieff and be asked, Have you met any remarkable men or women through your association with the Work? The answer is yes, indeed. I never met Gurdjieff himself, but like so many of my generation, through a close association with two remarkable people who had worked with him, I felt something of the unique and specific force that Gurdjieff generated.
Since moving to San Francisco in 1961, many special people moved through my life. Some I met in the Work, others I met because of the Work, usually at special events — luncheons, lectures, and so on. Laurens van der Post, Carlos Casteneda, James Hillman, and Father Thomas Keating are only a few of the latter group who come to mind. There were many others, and many other remarkable men and women who had worked with Gurdjieff.
I heard Krishnamurti speak twice and feel fortunate to have witnessed his presence and clarity in person. I had a life-changing exchange with Muktananda in northern California, a special introduction and conversation with Chogyam Trungpa in San Francisco, and a surprisingly live connection with Lama Zopa. Also, more recently, through Jim, I have met the Dalai Lama and Chogyam Trungpa’s son along with several well-known Canadian persons of importance.
Even more important though are the people I’ve “grown up with” in the Work. There are maybe 150 people, in various locations, whom I know and care for — people I’ve worked with and now their children — and almost every one of them is remarkable.
All in all, so far, a rich outer life. As to the inner life, it is filled at best with many questions, and at worst with dreams of all that has gone before and that which will come later. But there’s always room for more.
No more questions … thank you!
John Robert Colombo is a Toronto-based author and anthologist who is nationally known as the Master Gatherer for his compilations of Canadiana. In his latest book of essays called “Whistle While You Work,” he has combined consciousness studies with Canadian references. From time to time he reviews Work-related publications for this website.
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.
Here she is telling stories to the children of Blue Rock School
His Master’s Words
JRC reviews a newly released spoken-word “Beelzebub’s Tales To His Grandson”
I am not really knowledgeable about “Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson” or about the commentaries that it has generated. Much has been written about G.I. Gurdjieff’s masterwork, and this is only reasonable given that it is a singularly difficult work to read aloud. One reason for this is the tome’s length, which rivals that of James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake” and Marcel Proust’s “A la recherche du temps perdu,” literary works that were written in Paris and Zurich in the late 1920s, at the same time that Gurdjieff at the Café de la Paix in Paris was labouring over the manuscripts that make up the Tales.
All three texts make mammoth demands on their readers, demands that include patience, application, concentration, commitment, and imagination. (By imagination I mean the powers of association, what
Ouspensky has called “psychological thinking” as distinct from “logical thinking,” necessary for an appreciation of this labyrinthine and often rococo work.)
Next year I will be in a better position to discuss the Tales as I plan to attend the “All & Everything Conference” which is being held in Toronto from April 22 to 26, 2009. I hope to cover the event in detail – presentations, seminars, panels, banquet, etc. – for readers of this blog who might wish to attend but do not live near Toronto and hence are unlikely to be there except in spirit. So I will not presume to discuss the Tales, short of reminding its readers of two facts.
The first fact is that the author has ordered his readers to read his text three times, all in different ways for different purposes and presumably different centres in man. The second fact is how the text itself begins, it commences with these words: “Among other convictions formed in my common presence during any responsible, peculiarly composed life …. ”
Now that fact introduces a problem because, as I write this review on my computer, I am listening to its audio system play the first of the four disks that comprise a newly released recording of the Tales
its entirety. Disk one begins, “Well, my boy …. ” What gives? What is happening? Let me back up and try to explain.
From time to time I have reviewed the books published by Dolmen Meadow Editions, which is the imprint of the Toronto Gurdjieff Group. Members of that group are quite active. They are responsible for the appearance of a Russian-language text of the Tales, a mammoth undertaking, as well as the first English editions of “Gurdjieff: A Master in Life” (the recollections of Tcheslaw Tchekhovitch) and “Inner Octaves” (the English translation of Michel Conge’s classic talks). Some of these publications are for general sale; others are not.
Some years ago members of Dolmen Meadow issued a set of four CDs in MP3 format of William J. Welch reading all of the Tales, I have yet to purchase those CDs of Dr. Welch’s reading, but one day I will. I recall he had a heavy and hearty voice and he always spoke “with a twinkle in the eye.” Then I will be able to compare and contrast his reading with the present one, which is an impressive and very womanly one done by Margaret Flinsch.
The four-disk set of CDs in MP3 format (suitable for playing on both a computer and a CD player) is titled “G.I. Gurdjieff: Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson: An Objectively Impartial Criticism of the Life of Man as read by Margaret Flinsch.” Dolmen Meadow’s website offers this details: ISBN: 978-0-9780-661-2-3. List price: US $60.00.
The jewel-box includes a model eight-page booklet that sketches in the background of the book and identifies the reader. Margaret (Peggy) Flinsch is one of those names that crops up in the literature of the Fourth Way, always in pleasant and positive contexts, for she knew Gurdjieff well, was respected by one and all, and at gatherings regularly recited passages from the Tales. She was born in Glendale, Ohio, in 1907; she taught in experimental schools; she married an Olympic oarsman and raised a family; she assisted in the preparation of the revised edition of the Tales which was issued by Penguin Books in 1992.
All of that information comes from the booklet. Let me add that Ms. Flinsch was associated with the Blue Rock School, a progressive primary and secondary school located in West Nyack, N.Y. Her sister made a contribution to the Work: the late D.M. Dooling, founder of the influential journal “Parabola.” The Work seems to run in her family.
The author or authors of the booklet relate the Tales to reciting, reading, and listening: “Peggy stresses that this book is meant to be read aloud. And Gurdjieff states that his book is designed to reach both the waking consciousness and the subconscious. ‘For me,’ Peggy has said, ‘listening is the path to the subconscious mind.’” Such is the power of the spoken word.
The recordings were made at her residence over a five-year period between 2003 and 2008. Volume levels of some sessions differ from those of other sessions, as one would assume, given the five-year eriod of recording. They also give the reader something of a jolt, a shock, a “stop” – perhaps not a bad experience in the circumstances! “Peggy is one of the last people alive who read from ‘Beelzebub’s Tales’ in Gurdjieff’s presence. She has studied the book all her life and is an advocate of its being read with the correct pronunciation of Gurdjieff’s special words.”
Not having a copy of the Penguin edition handy, I diverted myself by listening to Ms. Flinsch read the text while following it with a copy of the first edition of 1950 published by Harcourt, Brace and Company. After a couple of minutes of listening, it became apparent that the differences between the editions are mainly on the level of streamlining the expressions. For instance, on page 20, the text has a power “proceeding within.” Ms. Flinsch has it “aroused within.” I suppose this makes a difference, but how much of a difference I will leave that to specialists to determine – or to wiseacre.
If you want to hear six or so minutes of the text as read by Ms. Flinsch, check the Dolmen Meadow website and click on to “Becoming Aware of Being Duty.” If you do so, you will hear a representative part of the whole. You will hear a compassionate woman used to speaking with assurance and authority; an elderly person used to reading to classes and groups of younger people; a teacher used to articulating without pontificating; a human being who is certain the text has meanings that may be conveyed with intelligence and insight. She takes the text slowly, and her rhythm is that of someone who wishes to be heard and understood without the need for drama or melodrama.
Ms. Flinsch speaks the English of an educated professional person in an accent that is close to what Canadians describe as “mid-Atlantic.” She has no problems with the tome’s specialized vocabulary – “Sacred Vznooshlitzval” and “Askalnooazar” and so on – and indeed makes these expressions sound like English words. The key to her performance is that she reads these strange syllables quite slowly, whereas the attempt of the less-experienced reader would be to rush upon them and give them foreign intonations based on the derivations of their component parts. They are neologisms and legominisms, but they sound less like inventions than they do everyday expressions that are inescapable in the circumstances.
Amusingly, the only peculiarity is the pronunciation she gives to the French words “bon-ton” – a scowl comes through! Perhaps the sole surprise is that Ms. Flinsch speaks the language like an American: flattening some word-endings, dropping the occasional “g,” and turning the “t” into a “d.” These are minor matters indeed.
There is one other surprise. While the disks are playing, there are quasi-fractals that appear on the screen in shimmering colours. There is no relationship between the shapes and colours, on the one hand, and the words from the passages being read on the other.
I still do not know why the recording begins, “Well, my boy …. ” At first I had supposed it had something to do with the Penguin edition of the text, but upon replaying the opening, it does not recur. The text begins where the text should begin, so it must have been my computer’s fault: we all hear and read different things.)
My overall sense of the recording, however, is that this set of disks is Ms. Flinsch’s lasting legacy to readers and listeners of the Tales for decades to come. We sense in her voice an authority that seems to derive from that of the book’s author. She gives voice to the author’s words by finding each chapter of the book to be a repository of humour and folklore and insight into the human condition viewed from a cosmological perspective, lightened with verbal pranks and rogueries, all of which she recites with a straight face.
Here is a story-teller with a mission as well as a story-reader with a message. Indeed, she has shown how contemporary – and how postmodern – the Tales will sound when they are beautifully read.
John Robert Colombo is known in Canada as “the Master Gatherer” for his compilations of lore and literature. His current publications include “The Big Book of Canadian Ghost Stories” and “Whistle While You Work,” a collection of essays about Canadiana and consciousness studies. He is an Associate of the Northrop Frye Centre, Victoria College, University of Toronto.
THE 14TH ALL & EVERYTHING INTERNATIONAL HUMANITIES CONFERNCE
will take place in:
Toronto, Canada – Wednesday, 22 April to Sunday, 26 April 2009
The ALL & EVERYTHING Conference provides an open, congenial & serious atmosphere for the sharing of researches and investigations of G. I. Gurdjieff’s legacy. The Conference seeks to keep the study of the teachings of Gurdjieff relevant to global scientific, spiritual and sociological developments. The Conference includes the presentation of academic papers, individual view papers, seminars on chapters and themes in All & Everything, and relevant cultural events.
The gathering is open by invitation to all serious students of All & Everything. The Conference is not intended to be a ‘Group Work event’ and thus does not include work on Movements or on exercises that are related to personal or group Work. The program is scheduled so as to encourage time for dialogue and the developing of personal relationships outside the structured meetings.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE CONFERENCE
Originally conceived as a congenial meeting of the “Companions of the Book” in 1996, the conference has developed into a world forum for the presentation and discussion of recent writings, themes and music associated with the Work and writing of G. I. Gurdjieff. Conferences have been held in the UK, USA, Greece and the Netherlands.
for full details of
call for papers
STATEMENT ON INDEPENDENCE OF THE ALL AND EVERYTHING CONFERENCE
The All and Everything Conferences are totally non-sectarian, and not presented under the auspices or sponsorship of any Gurdjieff Group or umbrella organization. The Conferences are and will remain entirely independent. They are organized by a volunteer Planning Committee of students from many countries, supported by a diverse volunteer Advisory Board composed of academics and prominent students of Gurdjieff’s teaching. The composition of the Planning Committee and of the Advisory Board varies from year to year.
No individuals, groups or umbrella organizations are permitted to exercise influence over the conference programme or to make use of its facilities. No participant has any authority to impose his or her views or opinions on any other participant; all participants have an equal right to hold their own particular views and opinions. All participants are encouraged to exercise their right of liberty of thought and of expression within the limits of orderliness and courtesy to others.
“And all cosmic truths usually become known to all on these planets, thanks to the fact that the beings of the given planet who by their conscious labors learn some truth or other share it with other beings of their planet, and in this way all the cosmic truths gradually become known by all the beings of the given planet without any distinction.” (All and Everything, “An Objectively Impartial Criticism of the Life of Man,” or, “Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson.” p. 563)