Resurrected music of an unsung master

Last modified: Monday, November 09, 2015
*Archive Article*
A man may be born, but in order to be born he must first die, and in order to die he must first awake.

G.I. Gurdjieff

Pianist Elan Sicroff has given a good chunk of his life to serving as interpreter for the music co-crafted by self-styled mystic, G.I.Gurdjieff and his student/acolyte, composer Thomas de Hartmann — and he’s still at it, some 40 years later.

His upcoming concert, “Thomas de Hartmann: Uncovering a Master” — a trial run for an upcoming New York appearance — will take place Oct. 26, at 8 p.m. at the Warwick Town Hall, with a suggested donation of $10.

So taken was Sicroff with the de Hartmann archive that, from 1975 to 1979, he worked with the composer’s widow, Mme. Olga de Hartmann, going on to perform widely across Europe and North America in such venues as London’s Wigmore Hall, Carnegie Recital Hall in New York, and the Santa Fe Symphony, as well as at educational institutions such as McGill University, UCLA and the Longy School of Music in Boston.

Since 2006, Sicroff has dedicated himself to the Netherlands-based Thomas de Hartmann Project, bringing the composer’s music to wider audiences, especially de Hartmann’s rich cache of classical music. He has released three CDs: “Journey to Inaccessible Places”(1985, Robert Fripp, Producer); “Sicroff Plays Gurdjieff” (2002), and “Laudamus”(2009), a selection of Gurdjieff/de Hartmann music and de Hartmann’s early classical works.

In 2016, a five-CD set of solo piano, chamber and vocal work will be released.

George Ivanovich Gurdjieff was the offspring of an Armenian mother and a Caucasus Greek father — and a man who ceaselessly wrote, composed, choreographed, and preached a philosophy asserting that the great majority of humans were not really conscious at all, but rather living in a kind of waking trance. When such an intense personality goes into creative mode — the result is guaranteed to be art loaded with a heavy dose of metaphysics.

The less comfortable flip side of Gurdjieff’s controversial claim that earth is populated by clueless sleep-walkers is the inherent implication that, by some grace of birth or endeavor, Gurdjieff himself stands as one of its few awakened beings — a tough nut to swallow for most. Deeper research yields as many cult-like as Messianic accounts of this admittedly charismatic soul — but there we must be content to leave him shrouded in mystery.

Whether art conceived with a rarefied philosophical superstructure necessarily produces deeper or more meaningful results than art which springs forth untrammeled by such lofty notions is up for grabs.

The debate is an ancient one, and ardent advocates continue to voice their convictions on both sides; and the smarter they are, the more bitter the debate. But ever since humans began embracing their belief systems, ideas which differed from or threatened their own have, alas, loomed as red flags to raging bulls.

A transatlantic chat with Sicroff, Netherlands-to-Northfield, follows:

JM: It seems as if, given how long you’ve been involved with de Hartmann and Gurdjieff, this must be the reason you’ve incarnated on planet earth this time around?

ES: (laughing) That’s a good theory. ... I don’t know, but definitely it’s keeping me active, and it’s giving me an aim.

JM: Is it your feeling that the depth of this music exceeds that of most other music? Is that why you’re giving yourself so wholeheartedly to it?

ES: Don’t forget that comparison exists on a very low level of being. ... I would say that the first reason I’m doing this is simply because I’m an obedient servant and Madame de Harmann wanted me to do this job; and that (mystical teacher) J.G. Bennett said I should share music with the world.

JM: But isn’t that a little disingenuous, Elan? — because you wouldn’t just be serving any old random agenda — there’s something within you that affirmed or confirmed this request on their part.

ES: Oh, I have no doubts — well, right now I don’t know where I am with my inner life — I would say it’s nonspecific at this point, in my but I would say, certainly, for many, many, many years Gurdjieff was it, for me; so anything that would help to serve that teaching was something that I could do, especially if I was the only one that could do it. And that’s what (guitarist) Robert Fripp said to me, “If you don’t get this music known, nobody is going to do it.” I’m not talking about the Gurdjieff, because the Gurdjieff music is safe. Many, many people are playing the Gurdjieff now. It’s the de Hartmann classical music that is still sitting under a rock. And that’s the story that I’m most interested in at this point. I would say that de Hartmann is definitely a composer of high value. In March and April we recorded a trio for violin, flue and piano in the Netherlands, and they were blown away by this really odd piece. I love it! The Gurdjieff period was just a slice of de Hartmann’s life — it was a 12-year period — but there’s a big before and there’s a big after.

JM: I get the sense, listening to the music that they co-crafted together, that it was circumscribed by a devotion on Gurdjieff’s part to the charming, quaint modal writing (ancient scales) in the manner of say, (19th-century Russian composers) Borodin or Balakierev, but didn’t go harmonically far beyond that into a wider color spectrum.

ES: (chuckling) That’s very curious that you should bring up that point — yeah, well — the collaboration between Gurdjieff and de Hartmann has many, many layers. The funny thing is, when I first studied the Gurdjieff music, I didn’t really know the de Hartmann music. It’s only in the last five years that I became aware of how much music he actually composed – the huge variety of music he actually composed.

JM: Will recordings be available at your concert?

ES: Not of the most recent music – 2 of my CDs will be available, but a 5-CD set will be available next year.

JM: That will be a relief.

ES: (laughing) A relief or a release?

JM: Both!

(Readers may tune in samples of Sicroff playing music by de Hartmann and Gurdjieff at: http://www.sicroff.com/audio/)


The tuba recital by UMass professor John Bottomley, on Sunday, Oct. 25 has been canceled.

An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at josephmarcello@verizon.net.