Mr. Chiu’s interest in the mystical Gurdjieff was sparked by philosophical pursuits, encourage by a book written by Gurdjieff student Thomas de Hartmann about his life with his teacher. “I read it,” he reports Mr. Chiu, “realized he was also a composer, and found a bunch of scores in the Library of Congress.” Gurdjieff’s music had been notated and arranged by de Hartmann, a student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory when Prokofiev was also there. In an effort to do justice to the music, Mr. Chiu began studying Middle Eastern scales. “I consulted Julien Weiss, who started a Middle Eastern musical ensemble called Al Kindi, and he gave me a lot of insights.” The result is a recording that uses both standard “equal temperament,” and alternate tunings, which give the music “a sense of inspiration and expiration. We had a tuner adjust the piano before each piece,” he explains.
That presented a new challenge: how to create that unusual musical context in live performance. “I was able to accomplish the right effect using a Yamaha keyboard that allowed changes of intonation on individual pitches,” he reports. “Through the help of Yamaha’s technicians, I found that I could go back and forth between the sound of an acoustic instrument in equal temperament and a midi instrument with delicately shaded tunings. The changed scales have specific references to particular Middle Eastern traditions, and the sound really gets to your gut somehow. It’s subtle. Listeners don’t think, ‘That’s a nice intonation.’ Yet they know something different is going on. It’s a great effect.”