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Sound and Vision

Luc Ferrari

Daniel Krall
Luc Ferrari

By Jess Harvell | Posted 12/28/2005

A pasty Frenchman who devoted his life to jumped-up sound-effects records, Luc Ferrari was never going to rate an above-the-fold obit in The New York Times. But whereas so much of the music made by his contemporaries—very serious middle-aged European men with tape decks the size of Univac—now sound quaint, Ferrari’s organic collages retain their power.

Ferrari was born in 1929 in Paris and studied with composer Oliver Messiaen, who acted as den mother for much of the post-war avant-garde, including Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Ferrari’s earliest pieces were based in the atonal serialism that was all the rage in mid-20th-century composition. In 1954, he hopped on a steamer and sailed for the United States, bound for a fateful meeting with that other titan of 20th-century composition, Edgard Varèse.

Ferrari had heard Varèse’s Déserts—composed for traditional orchestra and tape—and Varèse quickly changed Ferrari’s whole outlook, teaching him to appreciate sound as sound, rather than as something to be hammered into shape via instruments and notes. Varèse also inspired him to incorporate tape works into his own compositions, shaping the direction of Ferrari’s music for the remainder of his life.

At roughly the same time, back in France, Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry were codifying the experiments of John Cage and other composers into what would become known as musique concrète (“concrete music”)—essentially music made by editing together natural, industrial, and musical sounds into a new whole, the forerunner of everything from hip-hop sampling to glitch electronica. Ferrari, having returned to France, joined forces with Schaeffer in 1958 to form Groupe des Recherche Musicales (GRM), one of the more important post-war electronic-music studios.

In 1960, Ferrari started work on his first mature piece, Hétérozygote, a long stretch of stitched-together sound events with seemingly no direct relation. After that the hits came fast and thick. His best-known work is probably Presque Rien (“Almost Nothing”), a series of what he called “poor man’s concrète” created by “a secretly methodical use of polyphony,” which means he didn’t mess with the noises too much. “Presque Rien No. 2” begins with insect noises, surely the most overused environmental sample outside of birds and ocean waves, and slowly evolves into a hellish downpour of electronic noise. Yet Ferrari never abandoned traditional instruments or the music they could make. “Cellule 75,” from 1975, for example, is a crush of piano, percussion, and tape effects.

Ferrari’s music lacks the manic patina of Stockhausen’s or the hard-core, fuck-off, math-as-music density of Iannis Xenakis’. That’s probably a big part of what has endeared Ferrari’s work to a new generation, especially the rock kids. Ferrari was championed late in life by the usual suspects, such as Sonic Youth and, especially, Gastr Del Sol’s Jim O’Rourke and David Grubbs, who reissued Ferrari’s work on their labels, Dexter’s Cigar and Blue Chopsticks. In a weird turn of events, Ferrari, like many of his academic contemporaries, has been made a post-facto adjunct of noise, industrial, electronica, and all the post-concrète gutter movements that followed. He died Aug. 22 at age 76.

Musique concrète changes you. Like Messiaen himself, driven to the point of obsession by birdsong, suddenly the neighbors arguing in the next apartment or a duet for barking dog and car alarm becomes “music.” But Ferrari’s work was never just about recognizing the music in the everyday. Instead, as a musician not a tape recorder, he sought to create new music, new worlds, “imaginary landscapes” in John Cage’s words. Like poetry, it’s not for amateurs, and Ferrari was nothing if not a poet of cricket chirp and ring modulation.

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