A composer and his guru

This post leads down a path with the kind of salacious side turnings usually found on more click bait oriented music blogs. But there is a serious purpose to retelling the story of Olivier Greif, whose tragically short career and truncated talent have many disquieting parallels with another underrated composer of the late 20th century, Claude Vivier. Olivier Greif was born in Paris in 1950, his father was a Polish Jew who survived Auschwitz. Greif's musical talent was identified when he was three and he entered the Paris Conservatoire aged ten to study piano and composition. He went on to study composition with Luciano Berio in New York where he moved in the same circles as Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger, Andy Warhol and Leonard Bernstein. All the accompanying photos, with the exception of my header montage, come via the Olivier Greif website and include images of Greif with Dali - whose lost opera prompted another path - and Bernstein; see photos below.

In 1970 Olivier Greif was appointed Luciano Berio’s assistant at the Santa Fe Opera and started exploring the music of West Coast composers including Terry Riley and La Monte Young. Despite his eclectic musical tastes Greif rejected serialism and electronics and instead developed a unique style influenced by Britten and Shostakovich, and as a pianist made a now deleted commercial recording of Britten's piano music. Greif's compositions can be divided into two periods. 1961 to 1981 was the period when he developed his own voice as a composer. Then came a ten year creative hiatus which ended in 1991 with a series of darker and more intense pieces by the experiences of his father and other members of his family in the death camps. In later years his music became more experimental and in 1981 his chamber opera was premiered in the Centre Pompidou in Paris, a performance given in collaboration with IRCAM and Olivier Messiaen, who mentored Greif, with Pierre Boulez in the audience.

After two serious illnesses Olivier Greif was found dead seated at his piano in his apartment in Paris on Friday, May 13, 2000. The autopsy could not identify the cause of death but established that he had been dead for several days when found. He is buried in the Montparnasse Cemetery.

Today Olivier Greif is a forgotten figure, although, fortunately, he remains represented in the CD catalogue. At which point the reader can be forgiven for expecting a plea for Greif's music to be more widely programmed or a heads up for a new recording of his music or a book, coupled with a plug for an upcoming concert. But conventional narratives do not interest me, so instead we turn to the little known story of the composer's ten year creative hiatus.

In 1976 Olivier Greif begins a spiritual quest with his guru Sri Chinmoy who is seen in the photo above; two years later Greif took the new first name Haridas, which means “God’s servant”. Sri Chinmoy was an Indian spiritual teacher, poet, artist and athlete who moved to the U.S. in 1964. He was the founder of the Sri Chinmoy Centre organisation. a composer of sacred music, mainly songs in Bengali and English, and a prolific writer on music. Sri Chinmoy advocated "self-transcendence" by expanding one's consciousness to conquer the mind's perceived limitations. Among his followers were Mikhail Gorbachev, Roberta Flack, Olympic gold-medalist Carl Lewis, John McLaughlin and Carlos Santana. McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra takes its name from the spiritual moniker given to him by Sri Chinmoy. In the photo below a picture of Chinmoy can be seen on Greif's piano.

In April 1970, Sri Chinmoy was invited by UN Secretary-General U Thant to give twice-weekly meditations at the United Nations and in 1994 he received, jointly with Martin Luther King’s wife Coretta Scott King, the ‘Mahatma Gandhi Universal Harmony Award’ from the American based Indian cultural institute. But inevitably Sri Chinmoy's activities generated controversy. In a Rolling Stone interview Carlos Santana said his guru was "vindictive" when they split, and elsewhere there are allegations of homophobia. In 2009 Jayanti Tamm published her best selling book of life as a Chinmoy disciple Cartwheels in a Sari: A Memoir of Growing Up Cult in which she documents his "masterful tactics of manipulation", and there have also been allegations of sexual misconduct. Sri Chinmoy died in 2007, the Independent's obituary described him as "spiritual leader and peace activist" and Philip Glass and Ravi Shankar were among those who paid tribute to him.

During the 1980s Olivier Greif, or rather Haridas Greif, became the face of Sri Shinmoy in France. He curated conferences on meditation and opened a book store on the Boulevard Saint-Germain devoted to his guru. In 1979 he premiered his settings of Three poems of Sri Chinmoy for voice and piano and he also appeared on an LP of Chinmoy's music with the New Light Ensemble. The photo above shows Olivier Greif with Sri Chinmoy circa 1995, but during the final years of his life Greif moved away from his spiritual master and reverted to his given first name. Probably his best known work, his Sonate de Requiem (1979-1983) dates from the years of his involvement with Sri Chinmoy. In his own note Greif describes the single movement work as a dedication on death seen from three viewpoints: death as a departure, death as a journey away from the earthly regions through successive planes of consciousness, and death as contemplation as the soul meets with the Source.

Just as empathy with Cardinal Newman is not required to appreciate Elgar's Dream of Gerontius, so empathy with Sri Chinmoy is not required to appreciate Olivier Greif's Sonate de Requiem. The composer's dalliance with celebrities and an Indian mystic is just a fascinating sideshow to the main event - his music. There is a catalogue of Greif's three hundred and thirty one compositions online. They include an incomplete Symphony No. 1 for solo voice, male chorus and orchestra 'Hiroshima' dating from 1994 which which sets testimonies of survivors of Hiroshima in English and the Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit, and a Little Black Mass (1980) which combines the sacred liturgy with popular American songs. For those interested in further exploration the Olivier Greif website has a discography. A number of the listed releases are now deleted, but recommended are the Sonate de Requiem and Trio on Harmonia Mundi and the Battle of Agincourt for two cellos coupled with his Second String Quartet, which sets Shakespeare sonnets for baritone, on Zig Zag Territoires.

Revised version of post originally published in March 2012. No review samples involved in this post. Image credits official Olivier Greif website except header montage. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter.


Pliable said…
While editing my March 2012 post on which this article it became evident that many of the external links in the original article were broken. Many of these broken links pointed at important sources of record: for instance the UN biography of U Thant had moved without a redirect.

Tim Berners Lee created the world wide web as an information resource using hypertext links as the enabling tool. A 2014 Harvard Law School study identified that around 50% of the URLs in U.S. Supreme Court opinions no longer link to the original information. Link rot is serious problem that is undermining the value of the web as an academic resource, and it is a problem that is being ignored as the internet degrades into little more than a vehicle for here to day gone tomorrow social media chatter.

What use would a library be if 50% of the cited references led up blind alleys? When it will be realised that web pages – like audio downloads and streaming – are a useful supplementary tool that cannot and must not replace libraries of physical media?


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