Luc Ferrari - Biography

The work of composer and innovator Luc Ferrari is as diverse as it is unique. Running the stylistic breadth of serialism, minimalism and of course pioneering work in musique concrète and electronic composition, Ferrari’s music is often irreverent, humorous, shocking and always inspired. Throughout his discography it is perhaps his work with field recording, a technique that Ferrari introduced into the language of musique concrète and has since become a genre itself, which holds the most enduring importance. Using field recordings to create hallucinatory audio narratives, what he called “anecdotal music,” incorporating meticulous editing and electronic flourishes, Ferrari broke from the first school of concrète composers. This singular music would go on to influence a new generation of electronic musicians utilizing field recordings, from Chris Watson to Oval.

Luc Ferrari was born February 5, 1929 in Paris. He began piano lessons at a very young age. After a bout with tuberculosis in his youth, Ferrari focused almost entirely on composition. In 1953 he studied composition and musical analysis under Olivier Messiaen, continuing on to Darmstadt in 1954. Aside from beginning at Darmstadt, Ferrari experienced another major life event in 1954. After hearing a live radio broadcast of Edgar Varèse’s “Déserts for tape and orchestra,” Ferrari was so impressed that he boarded a ship and traveled to New York to met with the composer. From his time with Varèse, the young Ferrari learned to treat sound as an object, a thing in itself.

Ferrari states that while in Darmstadt he “met everybody who made up that generation that redefined post-War music.” He also says that his meeting John Cage proved to be a huge influence, in terms of philosophy, aesthetics and approach to making music. At the time Ferrari’s own music was being made in the shadow of serialism, a compositional form that Cage’s central ideas would strive to challenge and subvert.

At this same time Ferrari was becoming increasingly fascinated with noise and the sounds happening around him in everyday life. He attended some of the earliest concerts of musique concrète in the mid 1950’s and met Pierre Schaeffer, the man who coined the term. Schaeffer had been impressed by Ferrari and invited him to come to his studio. Wishing to pursue his work in instrumental composition, Ferrari put the invitation off until 1958. In that year Ferrari joined the Groupe de Musique Concrète and helped Schaeffer to found the now legendary Groupe de Recherches Musicales, or GRM studios. Ferrari would stay with GRM until 1966.

During this period there was an ideological difference between what was called musique concrète and what was called electronic music. Electronic music used pure sounds generated electronically, essentially extending traditional instrumentation and serial ideas through technology. Ferrari has said the early musique concrète composers like Schaeffer and Pierre Henry “…were working like samplers, their idea was to capture those sounds which couldn’t be serially calibrated because they were too complex in character.” Ferrari’s own early work at the GRM took this approach as well, incorporating repetition and working with sounds in motion. Several major pieces composed during the time between 1958 and 1966 can be found on Tautologos and Other Early Electronic Works (2003 Electronic Music Foundation).

In 1969 Ferrari released his first major solo record, Hétérozygote / J'ai Été Coupé (1969 Prospective 21e Siècle). Of the two pieces “Hétérozygote,” composed in 1964, is the masterpiece. Ferrari was the first composer of musique concrète to take the microphone out of the studio and record natural sounds. This technique is fore grounded on “Hétérozygote.” Beginning with a surge of electronic drones and treated percussion that builds into more active passages through the addition of processed field recordings, orchestral sounds and chopped female vocalizations, it remains one of the most meticulously edited pieces of musique concrète ever made. The detail is completely disarming, insisting on repeated listening. Ferrari’s intuitive sense of juxtaposition begins to take form here, including a striking section of blowing wind, far-off organ stabs, creaking door hinges and a woman’s voice echoing out in the implied space, building and flowing, only to be suddenly washed away by a giant splash that slowly morphs into the sound of outgoing tide. As with the best musique concrète, it’s totally absurd and schizophrenic but also very precise and evocative. “Hétérozygote” can be found on the essential Acousmatrix 3: Electronic Works (1990 BVHaast Records).

In that same year Ferrari’s second LP was released, Und So Weiter / Music Promenade (1969 Wergo). On this record, “Music Promenade” was the larger of the two pieces. A martial, underwater drum-line stomp sets the pace, with gurgling electronics and disembodied voices floating above. Hysterical, screaming dialogue ripped from its original context flashes across the stereo field, dodging electronic blasts and a rising middle-eastern folk song. Ferrari experiments with repetition here in interesting ways, editing small fragments of larger sounds and bringing them back into the mix later in the piece. By grafting the fragments into different settings he creates an eerie feeling of “the same but different” that’s engagingly disorienting, like enjoying a moment of déjà vu. Again, it’s a wild journey, with dislocated associations unexpectedly popping up at every jagged turn. “Music Promenade” is now available on the Presque Rien reissue CD (1995 INA-GRM) and “Und So Weiter” can be found on the Tautologos and Other Early Electronic Works CD mentioned above.

Ferrari’s next record would stray far from musique concrète, as he would continue to do throughout his career, and return to instrumental composition. Interrupteur / Tautologos 3 (1970 Les Industries Musicales) was a major ensemble work in which Ferrari moved away from the serialism of his student days to incorporate influence from the American minimalism of Terry Riley and Steve Reich. This influence, however strong, was certainly filtered through Ferrari’s unique interpretational sieve resulting in two very personal pieces. Performed by Konstantin Simonovitch’s ensemble with Ferrari directing, both compositions have a cyclical structure and employ repetitive organ parts. “Interrupteur” is the more static of the two, consisting of long circling tones periodically interrupted by short dramatic events. The structure of “Tautologos 3” owes much to Terry Riley’s visionary “In C” composition from 1964. Ferrari creates a series of patterns of varying lengths that constantly fall in and out of phase with each other, creating ever new and changing relationships between the patterns. It’s a beautiful execution of this compositional idea. The debut release from David Grubbs’ Blue Chopsticks label reissued the original performances as Interrupteur / Tautologos 3 (1999 Blue Chopsticks).

If Interrupteur / Tautologos 3 wore its influences slightly on its sleeve, Ferrari’s next release would spread its own influential ripple out for years to come. Presque Rien No 1 (1971 Deutsche Grammophon) saw Ferrari return to the fold of musique concrète’s compositional processes, but the outcome would be at odds with the established ideology of the Pierre Schaeffer led GRM.

Musician, writer and label curator David Grubbs has called Presque Rien No 1 the beginning of what he terms “sound art”, as opposed to traditional “music composition.” The piece has no traditional musical elements; gone are the electronic flourishes, gone are the diced and heavily panned orchestral fragments, gone as well are the delirious pace and flashy editing techniques. Instead, Ferrari presents a subtly crafted sculpture of time and place. It is as if he took the minimalist techniques adopted in his instrumental music and applied them to this new way of approaching musique concrète. Using his portable recording setup, he captured daily elements of life in a fishing village, recording day after day the repeated occurrences he calls “events determined by society.” Ferrari layered, edited and delicately manipulated this material to breathtaking effect, creating a wholly self-contained world using no artificial sound. The result creates a sort of audio-only documentary film, with Ferrari as director, zooming in on naturally occurring events and drawing associations between them. Presque Rien No 1 defines Ferrari’s notion of “anecdotal music.” The piece is so subtle that writing about it is almost impossible. It quietly demands to be heard.

On its release in 1971, Presque Rien No 1 caused a stir. The established circle at the GRM didn’t consider it music. Elsewhere it was received more enthusiastically. Ferrari attributes its success in America to the minimalism emerging at the time, as well as the simplicity employed by artists like Andy Warhol, especially in his films. Certainly it has had a major influence on later electronic musicians. Today, a host of musicians identify themselves as “sound artists”. Presque Rien’s influence can be felt on modern day practitioners like Steve Roden, Ultra-red, Chris Watson and David Daniell, to name only a few. The piece, along with “Presque Rien No 2” and “Presque Rien Avec Filles” was reissued on CD as Presque Rien (1995 INA-GRM).

Ferrari would continue to focus on this subtle approach to composing throughout his career. Another notable piece composed in 1971 but released much later is Unheimlich Schön (1993 Metamkine). The tile of this work roughly translates to “eerily beautiful,” and that it is. Based around the simple sound of a woman’s heavy breathing, the piece is overwhelming. Ferrari creates an atmosphere of both unease and vague sexuality, playing with voyeurism and uncomfortable intimacy. He would explore themes of psycho-sexuality for the rest of his creative life, most overtly in Danses Organiques (1999 Elica) and Cellule 75 (1998 Tzadik).

Throughout his career Ferrari has moved freely back and forth between instrumental music and musique concrète, often combining them in scores calling for instrumentation and magnetic tape. The 1990’s into the next decade saw a resurgence in released work including notable records such as Matin Et Soir (1989 Adda), L’Escalier Des Aveugles (1991 Musidisc), Cycle Des Souvenirs (2002 Blue Chopsticks), Son Mémorisé (2006 Sub Rosa) and the “Far-West News” series resulting in Far-West News: Episode 1 (2002 Signature) and Far-West News: Episodes 2 and 3 (2006 Blue Chopsticks). Ferrari also began performing live with improvisers like ErikM, Noël Akchoté and DJ Olive. These collaborations resulted in several records, the best of which are Impro-Micro-Acoustique (2003 Blue Chopsticks) and Archives Sauvées Des Eaux: Exploitation Des Concepts No. 1 (2004 Angle).

By infusing the abstractions of musique concrète with a narrative structure through the use of field recordings, Ferrari created a new chapter in electronic music. By going a step further and grafting techniques from the American minimalists’ instrumental music onto composing with field recordings he created his own singular style, a style that has come to define his work. What does truly define him is a natural disregard for convention and predetermined structures, a strong sense of humor and subtlety, and a set of ears that pick up on the smallest, most engaging events. Luc Ferrari died from complications due to pneumonia in Arezzo, Italy on August 22, 2005.


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