Ruffling Feathers: Luc Ferrari December 28, 1982

Luc Ferrari is a name I have been hearing for a long time, but I had no very clear idea of the man and the music that go with it until I got to spend some time in Paris. The congenial 53-year-old composer is perhaps best known as an innovator, and his works have ruffled quite a few feathers over the years. What impresses me most, however, is that he has worked well in so many different genres. There is some consistency in his style. He is always concerned with social questions, likes to get along without a lot of musical traditions and theories, and is constantly moving on to some new challenge. Yet the pieces themselves can end up sounding extremely different, depending on the forms and mediums that happen to interest him at the moment.

One area that has attracted Ferrari off and on throughout his career, and to which he has made a considerable contribution, is musique concrete. The term dates back to the ’50s, when Pierre Schaeffer, Ferrari, and other members of the Groupe de Recherche Musicale first advocated making tape music by manipulating recordings of natural sounds, rather than using electronically generated sounds. The genre is sometimes considered dated today, now that the composers offer so many more sophisticated ways of putting sounds on recording tape. At the same time, however, the principle of musique concrete is so vast that I suspect people will continue finding fresh ways of making it for a long time, at least if they’re as creative as Luc Ferrari.

Ferrari’s approach to musique concrete, as to other genres, is particularly open and unencumbered by ideology. In 1959 he wrote (my translation): ‘It is important to understand that sound objects don’t always produce what you expect them to produce, and that the microphone can pick up the most unexpected things. Sometimes you get confused and just keep starting over until you get something interesting, later excusing yourself with the explanation that what you ended up with must have been just what you unconsciously wanted in the first place.’ This flexibility says much about Ferrari’s basic artistic temperament and may help to explain his ‘Promenade symphonique a travers un paysage musical,’ which he made 20 years later and which I heard on a G.R.M. disc. Here the material was recorded in Algeria, and there was no actual distortion of the sounds. It’s almost as if the piece was the soundtrack for a scene in a small desert town. At first it didn’t seem to me as if much was happening compositionally, but gradually I realized I was actually hearing a whole lot of scene and cast changes. It was just that the composer had blended separate takes so seamlessly that everything flowed together. It is an extraordinary mixing job, and I found the piece fascinating. The composer told me, however, that it had offended a number of people for whom the term musique concrete was not supposed to include tape pieces of this sort.

Ferrari is perhaps most widely known for some of the radical pieces he did in the late ’60s. One of these, ‘Tautologos III,’ is among the most open-ended scores I know. The instructions state that the piece may be done by seven or more players, that it may be performed in a concert hall, another kind of hall, or in a public space; that the performers may be either separated from the spectators or intermingled with them; that the words or gestures may be used in place of musical themes; and that the performance may go on as long as the players wish. About the only restriction is that each performer is supposed to repeat more or less the same thing at intervals during the performance. The piece has been done most often in workshop situations, where it enables performers to explore some improvisational techniques. But it has also been presented in public concerts, sometimes with remarkable results.

‘There was a performance in Stockholm around 1973 or ‘74,’ Ferrari recalled, ‘where the audience got more and more involved as the piece went on. At the end, and quite spontaneously, some spectators were actually taping the musicians into their chairs with scotch tape.’ ‘Were you offended?’ I asked him.

‘Not really. The people were involved in the piece, and they were enjoying it. I saw it as an offering of joy.’ Apparently others saw it as a scandal.

In another departure, Ferrari worked for a time with a jazz quartet, creating a piece that was later released on an album called ‘Folklore Imaginari.’ Here the sax, guitar, piano, and drums all improvise in a fairly conventional way, and on the surface the piece sounds like real jazz. But beneath that, a classically trained composer can also be heard. This is not only due to the prerecorded tape, which introduces interludes of nature sounds, but also to the way Ferrari controlled the harmonies and textures. It seems that the piece was quite successful with the public when it was premiered at one of the more prestigious festivals of contemporary classical music. That may help to explain why it was upsetting to many of the intellectuals, who expected something more post-Webern in style.

Curious about where Ferrari would go 1982/a-farewell-article, I asked him about his current projects, and, sure enough, he’s changing again. He explained that he had been working on relatively abstract pieces most of the time during recent years and that he wanted to do some more theatrical things, with text. He proceeded to describe two current projects, each of which is conceived as a full-evening work. One, to be premiered in Paris in March, is his ‘Journal Intime,’ scored for two actors and piano and utilizing a personal text about the composer’s daily life. Ferrari suggested that the piece had to do with sex roles and that it might be offensive to some.

‘You mean feminists?’ I guessed.

‘Certainly them, but probably male chauvinists too,’ he replied quizzically.

The other work in progress calls for 15 musicians, featuring Ferrari himself as narrator, and the subject matter is largely erotic. ‘It’s for adults only,’ commented the composer with a twinkle in his eye.

I forgot to ask him who might be offended this time, but there will no doubt be somebody. At the same time, there will no doubt be others who perceive that the composer is making a point and making it well.