Monday, December 11, 2006

Almost nothing - Luc Ferrari vs Chris Watson

Presque Rien is quite something.

In Paris this weekend for a short holiday, I got the flue and wondered through the city's old and rain-swept streets feeling sick and bleached out like a ghost on a Victorian photograph. Nevertheless, I was able to buy my third Luc Ferrari album - Presque Rien - at 'Wave', a nice little record store on the Rue Keller (near the Place de la Bastille). 'Wave' is also an outlet for the avantish 'Disques du soleil et de l'acier' record label and distro.

Luc Ferrari (1929-2005) was a French composer, whose work is both highly varied and unorthodox: his compositions show influences from serialism, minimal music, music concrete, classical music and Cagean aleatorical music. Humour is an important element in Ferrari's musical world: on his 1985 composition 'Collection de petites pièces ou 36 enfilades pour piano et magnétophone" he quotes famous classical pieces such as Strauss's 'Also Sprach Zarathustra' to great comical effect. Ferrari also some wrote humorous spurious autobiographical texts; all in all, he comes across as a very likable person. With Pierre Schaeffer and François-Bernard Mâche, Ferrari founded the Groupe des Recherches Musicales (GRM, 'Group for Musical Research') in 1958, a studio whose contribution to electronic music cannot be overestimated. Since it's inception more than 200 composers have worked at GRM.

Presque Rien means 'Almost Nothing'. It is a series of field recordings, which have been treated electronically by Ferrari - in some cases only slightly, in other cases intensively. The first of the series, "Presque Rien n˚ 1, le lever du jour au bord the la mer", was recorded in 1970 in a tiny fishing village on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia (in those days part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia). In an interview for the Paris Transatlantic magazine, Ferrari recounts:

"I was in this Dalmatian fishing village, and our bedroom window looked out on a tiny harbour of fishing boats, in an inlet in the hills, almost surrounded by hills-which gave it an extraordinary acoustic. It was very quiet. At night the silence woke me up-that silence we forget when we live in a city. I heard this silence which, little by little, began to be embellished... It was amazing. I started recording at night, always at the same time when I woke up, about 3 or 4am, and I recorded until about 6am. I had a lot of tapes! And then I hit upon an idea-I recorded those sounds which repeated every day: the first fisherman passing by same time every day with his bicycle, the first hen, the first donkey, and then the lorry which left at 6am to the port to pick up people arriving on the boat. Events determined by society. And then the composer plays!".

And then the composer plays... To see how the composer plays, it is perhaps rewarding to compare Luc Ferrari's method on 'Presque Rien N˚ 1' to that of another great field recordist: Chris Watson, former member of industrial innovators Caberet Voltaire and The Hafler Trio, and now best known for field recordings made in nature reserves around the world. Both musicians edit field recordings of a long duration into relatively short tracks. For example, both Ferrari's 'Presque Rien N˚ 1' and Watson's 'Ol-Olool-O' telescope a day's recording into almost 20 minutes of music.

The composer's choices become visible first of all in the choice of material. The human world intrudes only slightly on Chris Watson's sound world (church bells on his recording at Embleton Rookery, Northumberland, England, on "Stepping into the dark"; talking Kenyan nomads on the first track of "Weather Report" and wellingtons sloshing through a rain-drenched Scottish landscape on the second track): the sound of nature always plays the main role for Watson. With Ferrari's field recordings however, it is the human world that takes centre stage: Ferrari records the fishing village slowly waking up, one hears motor boats, a truck driving away, villagers talking, chickens, goat's bells chiming, some singing.

Chris Watson is a dramatist - he creates beauty by dramatizing the recorded material through editing. The most telling moment is that moment in 'Ol-Olool-O' where a thunderclap is immediately followed by the roar of a lion. Juxtaposing these sounds creates drama by presenting together two powerful forces that both are threatening and frightening to mankind (the lightning and the predator). On the second track of "Weather Report", where three months in Scotland are condensed into 18 minutes, the dramatic moment is provided by the sound of a large bird flying away, followed by the sound of the wind - creating the dramatic illusion that one is flying ecstatically through Scottish stormclouds. Watson's 'wide-screen' editing style certainly helps the dramatization strategy.

Ferrari on the other hand takes a more understated approach: 'Presque Rien N˚ 1' sounds more like a chance meeting of John Cages 4'33'' and the Dalmatian sea coast on a tape recorder than an aestheticizing soundscape. Hearing it, it is easy to forget it was edited from a whole day of recorded sound, it is easy to forget that the work is a composition in the traditional sense of the world, i.e. sound organized by conscious interventions (editing) by the composer - even though no 'musical' sound is apparent.

Where Watsons work draws attention to dramatical, violently beautiful moments of wildlife , Ferrari's ' Presque Rien N˚ 1' might well be characterized by Steve Roden's description of lowercase music: ''Lowercase music bears a certain sense of quiet and humility; it doesn't demand attention, it must be discovered. The work might imply one thing on the surface but contain other things beneath. It's the opposite of capital letters -- loud things which draw attention to themselves".

For me, both Watson's and Ferrari's approaches are valid. After all, both ascecis and dramatization have been methods to achieve "an intimate cessation of intellectual operation" .


As a postscriptum, I must add that in later parts of the 'Presque Rien' series, Ferrari as a composer does not hide himself as much as he does in the first. For example, on 'Presque Rien N˚ 2, ainsi continue la nuit dans ma tête multiple' (a 1977 field recording made in Tuchan, a tiny village in Corbières, France), Ferrari's voice is both part of the recording and simultaneously commenting on it; both a diegetic and a non-diegetic sound. In the last movement of this piece, there are clear, musical interventions in the sound recording which sharply and dramatically highlight the sound of thunder on the field recording. Much the same goes for later 'Presque Riens'.


What if Chris Watson went to that very same Dalmatian fishing village and rerecorded, 'covered', 'Presque Rien N˚ 1'?

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