Composing on Tape Recorder
“Presque Rien”, or “Almost nothing”. That’s what Luc Ferrari called his ground-breaking tape recorded compositions, which collected and layered sounds from a single location into a sonic portrait of a time and place. One of the first avant garde composers to use a portable tape recorder, Ferrari composed “Presque Rien #1” in a small village in Dalmatia. “I wanted to be as radical as possible and take it to the limit in terms of using natural sound, by not including any artificial, sophisticated sound at all,” he explained in an interview with Dan Warburton in 1998.
“Presque Rien #4”, which opens Son Mémorisé, is the last of Ferrari’s “Almost Nothing” series. Recorded over an eight-year period in Vintimille, Italy, it opens with the roar of a motorbike and reverberates with the casual clatter of daily life. Children shout and giggle and run flat-rooted over cobblestones. Men and women murmur half-heard conversations. There is traffic, but not enough to suggest a very urban environment. A jangle of keys, a scrap of French or Italian (Vintimille is close to the French border), a series of rhythmic handclaps: all evoke a traditional town at work and play. There is no “music” anywhere in the piece, not a single note, unless you count the church bell near the end, and yet the piece is lovingly composed, each element placed carefully within the context of the overall mood. “La Remontee Du Village”, is a similar blend of neighborhood sounds, conversations, hammering, and children at play; in a particularly charming moment, someone asks a young girl what her name is (“Patricia”) and how old she is (“seven”). Here, though, there are some identifiable notes, coming from a percussive source—perhaps someone hammering on a metal railing. What’s interesting is how these more conventionally musical sounds immediately focus your attention. I’m not even sure they would sound like music if they were presented in a more traditional composition, but they pop right out of the fabric of this piece and grab your ear.
The four-part “Promenade Symphonique Dans Un Paysage Musical Ou un Jour De Fete A El Oued en 1976” pursues a similar approach, though it is set in a very different environment. Here the surrounding sounds are unmistakably North African: Ululating melodies, muzzein calls, farm animals, and, by part three, an entire wedding procession, complete with celebratory gunshots. Just because of the setting, these recordings tend to contain more music than “Presque Rien” did; apparently people would see Ferrari with a tape recorder and immediately burst into song.
The final piece, “Saliceberry Cocktail”, is the disk’s highlight, abstract and jarring and, at times, luminously beautiful. Ferrari wrote this piece in 2002, just a few years before he died, explaining it as a series of sounds hidden one under another. He wrote, “I took some old items and, since I didn’t want to hear some of them, I hid them under other items I didn’t want to hear. And since I remembered some of the sounds, I also had no choice but to hide the images they evoked, and I had to hide some other realistic items under synthetic sounds… Finally, I hid the whole structure under a non-structure, or the other way around.” The piece has just the sort of playful intellectual firepower that such a quote suggests, with big booming percussive sounds marching headlong over more delicate electronic sounds, beats spliced and disrupted, eerie wails of synth erupting into sneezes and snarls, and space-age atmospherics shattered by guitar strums. There are bits of recorded music tucked into these landscapes of abstract sound, the familiar next to the strange and new. The whole thing is endlessly fascinating in a puzzle-like way, as you continually find new bits of sound in the box and try to fit them into a whole.
This disc, the second in a planned three-album retrospective from Sub Rosa, is beautifully packaged, with extensive liner notes on each composition from Ferrari himself. A final installment in the series, including Ferrari’s later compositions for electronics, piano, and viola, is still in the works. Meanwhile, this is a fantastic introduction to Ferrari’s unique compositions on tape recorder as well as his later electronic compositions.