Monday, 26 August 2013

The Desire of Luc Ferrari

I’m currently working on couple of projects but owing to the summer break and the toings and froings that this period naturally lends itself to they’ve been slow to develop. One is a two part essay with the broad title In Defence of Political Spirituality. This is firstly a response to a fairly recent text on Michel Foucault’s writings on Iran; a series of writings which I think have great import for our times, and particularly for ongoing events in the Middle East. Secondly this piece will address some aspects of Foucault’s later writings on spirituality and its relationship with other discourses like science, theology, and philosophy. The critique the authors of the above mentioned text make of Foucault hinges on what I argue is a misunderstanding of this admittedly strange idea; it is nevertheless an idea I consider worth defending.

The second project is a reanimation of my occasional musical endeavours in the form of a piece of electronic composition. The inspiration for this was a visit last month to the little Italian border town of Ventimiglia and my love for a certain French composer; Luc Ferrari (1929-2005). Ferrari has always been my favourite of the early electronic music pioneers.  Like Iannis Xenakis and Pierre Henry, Ferrari’s first electronic works were produced under the guidance of Pierre Schaeffer the founder of the style of electronic composition called Musique Concrete, and later the composing and theoretical collective Groupe de Recherches Musicales. Ferrari’s works from this period (roughly 1958-63) exhibit the abstraction and dislocation characteristic of Schaeffer’s school, with the latter’s signature acousmatic approach to sound (the isolation and transformation of recorded sound distinct from its source to create an uncanny effect) central to their style. But it wasn’t until the technology allowed Ferrari to take his recording gear out into the environment that he really found his voice. When he did it sounded very different to that of his contemporaries. Heterozygote of 1963-64 was the turning point. Where the Musique Concrete style would take a recorded sound, say a fragment of conversation, and transform  it through tape manipulations into something a little alien; in Heterozygote Ferrari collages numerous little snippets of incidental sounds, conversations and instrumental sources leaving them untreated. The results of this comparatively long form type of composition were a prototype for what he would later call anecdotal music.

The series of composition which fully realized this new direction (and much more besides) were the Presque Rien’s (Almost nothing) the first of which, Presque Rien #1 le lever du jour au bord de la mer, is one of the classics of tape composition and a precursor for what we now call field or environmental recordings. It consists of a daylong ‘out of the window’ recording Ferrari made whilst staying in a fishing village on the Adriatic. This long recording he edited down to a twenty two minute piece of almost poetic inspiration. The village wakes amid the slow buzz of cicadas, an antiquated van clatters into life and moves off into the distance. There are birds, dogs and other wildlife, people at work, and the occasional unintelligible voice. Being devoid of any conventional musical sounds or even any overt manipulation of the source Presque Rien encourages an entirely different form of listening, one that highlights the narrative quality of everyday sounds, the suggestive poetic juxtaposition of elements within an environment, and places a far greater demand on the listener’s imagination.The link below goes to an almost full version of Presque Rien n.1. For some reason the YouTube add-on to Blogger can't find it to imbed it in the text. 

It’s often taken to be the case that this piece was Ferrari’s attempt to realize John Cage’s famous statement that music was all around us if only we had the ears to listen. But I think there’s something more going on, and besides Cage’s use of environmental and concrete sounds never approached the subject matter with the degree of sensuality that Ferrari injects into his work. He wasn’t interested in abstracting the absolute quality of sound from its source, or opening up the composition to total indeterminacy as Cage had done. The anecdotal form which Ferrari termed this style of tape composition takes Schaeffer’s original insights on the uncanny quality of everyday sound and romanticizes it. Ferrari, something of the dandy, stands in stark opposition to Xenakis’s brutal modernism or Pierre Henry’s rendering of ancient religious texts into strange minimal concrete melodramas. Ferrari’s concerns were much more with what Andre Breton called the Marvelous; that strange aspect of an object beyond its everyday qualities suggestive of other more poetic meanings.

Like Max Ernst Ferrari deployed unconventional techniques to his objects of choice, rendering them displaced, in unfamiliar circumstances, open to metaphorical readings. In the fine tradition of surrealism he doesn’t construct narratives but rather rearranges objects from everyday life, highlighting possibility, movement, and emotion. But what make me love him most is that he creates sensual, dare I say sexy tape compositions, brimming with desire. Recall that for the surrealists one important facet of the marvelous is that it’s not so much found as “encountered” by chance. In the sleeve notes to a CD of sonic “souvenirs” he writes “the cycle des souvenirs also means that all the elements are structured in cycles which when superimposed, produce chance encounters. That’s why everything is turning. In this turning of sound and image, memory is written in a distorting mirror, but one where everything is true”.  Like Breton in Nadja he takes on the role of the flaneur stalking the streets with his microphone in search of a soul in limbo. His marvelous object might be something quite small like the cicadas in the Presque Rien’s or it might be something very loud like the fireworks in Promenade Symphonique Dans Un Paysage Musical Ou Un Jour De Fete A El Oued En 1976 (1976-87). But more often than not, like a thread in the labyrinth, it is a feminine quality that draws his attention. It could be the female voices that enter into Presque Rien Avec Filles (1989), the dialogue and building eroticism between the two young women at the centre of the astonishing Danses Organique (1973), or perhaps simply the sound of his wife Brunhild, an ever present companion on Ferrari’s travels. One of my favorite compositions of his from the 1970s is Place Des Abbesses (1977), named after a square halfway up the hill of Monmartre, situated suggestively between the Sacred Heart of God and the Pigalle area of sex shops and license; Breton would no doubt have approved.

Ventimiglia, to draw the discussion full circle, was the subject for the fourth of the Presque Rien series. It involved Ferrari and his wife recording their assent into the medieval part of the town. By this point in his career Ferrari had expanded his ideas on the form of the Presque Rien and now introduced what he called the lie or perversion into the concept. This involved a greater degree of intervention on his part into the raw material of the recording, adding effects or even (as he makes clear on this occasion) entirely foreign sounds into the mix to evoke an element of fantasy and interpretation within the anecdotal form. My composition which will be formed around a thirty minute recording I made whilst descending the medieval town with my partner will also include a considerable amount of fantasy and interpretation. The thing which struck me most when listening to my raw material and Ferrari’s piece was the similarity in the natural sound world considering the twenty-three year gap between the recordings; children playing in the square in front of the church, violin practice wafting out of an open window high above us, a scooter passes by, snippets of TV, radio, conversation, and the bells from the tower of San Michele Arcangelo ringing out at noon.  Here are a few photos of the area which might suggest the sort of sound environment we encountered.

Finally this is in fact the second Ferrari ‘tribute’ piece I have attempted. The first of which I titled Presque Quelque Chose (Un Voyage à la Cathédrale Avec des Oiseaux). This was recorded in Paris in 2006 and documents life around the street where I used to stay in the 15th arrondissement and a little journey around the Ile De La Cite, including a mass at Notre Dame Cathedral! In hindsight it’s a little rudimentary and the material (crowds, cars etc) a little mundane. Though, I still rather like how I used a flock of pigeons taking flight as a “jump cut” to change locations. If anyone is interested it can be downloaded here. I’m planning for this new piece to be quite different and more complex. After a period of inactivity after his death in 2005 there has recently been several re-releases and new interpretations of his work coming out. Under the guidance of his widow Brunhild, Ferrari’s considerable oeuvre now has a website worthy of it which collects archive material and other resources well worth checking out.