Record Dork

Delving deeper than you ever wanted to go. This week: cult leaders and their tunes, starring G.I. Gurdjieff.

OK, so I'll fess up to possessing a real fascination with cults. I once owned David Koresh's Voice of Fire, but I sold it because Koresh sounded like a second-rate Jackson Browne. However, the same cannot be said of Charles Manson. His Lie: The Love and Terror Cult contains some truly great '60s folk-pop, such as "Cease to Exist," a tune the Beach Boys did a gorgeous rendition of and renamed "Never Learn Not to Love."

The latest addition to my "cult leaders making music" collection is the immaculately designed book and triple-CD set Gurdjieff Harmonic Development: The Complete Harmonium Recordings 1948-1949. For the uninitiated, G.I. Gurdjieff was an Armenian-born philosopher, hypnotist, and teacher who, in the early 20th century, opened the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in France, a proto-New Age live-in school dedicated to spiritual exercises and consciousness expansion. There, rich folks looking for meaning in their vapid lives gave Gurdjieff money, and, like a true cult leader, he allegedly slept with several of his female students.

Anyway, in his final years, Gurdjieff (who created a complex cosmology based upon musical octaves), made more than 113 recordings of himself giving intimate harmonium performances for bunches of rapt pupils. (Incidentally, every single one of those recordings is included on these three discs. Talk about obsessive.)

According to the 150-page book, which consists of numerous students' recollections of these impromptu and apparently emotional gatherings, Gurdjieff claimed, "The music I play you come from monastery where Jesus Christ spent from eighteenth to thirtieth year," which is yet another instance of some spiritual guru making an utterly unprovable claim.

Still, these six- to nine-minute pieces are lonesome, searching hymns that feel unmistakably ancient as well as vaguely Middle Eastern without ever revealing their exact origins. If creating an air of mystery about him was one of Gurdjieff's aims, which it is for most cult leaders, then these warbling old recordings perfectly capture the mystique of an individual once deemed the "unknowable Gurdjieff."

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