Luc Ferrari: Didascalies

Luc Ferrari
Sub Rosa

Composer Luc Ferrari (1929-2005) might not be a household name to casual listeners to avant-garde music, but he was a bona fide heavy hitter in Postwar Europe, nevertheless. Ferrari was a student of Honegger and Messiaen, an admirer of Varèse and (philosophically) Cage, an important part of the early Darmstadt circle of composers, and an innovator in electronic music; in particular musique concrete: electroacoustic music dealing with taped sounds, especially those from “real life”. In Paris in the late 1950s and ’60s, he co-directed the Groupe Recherche Musicaleswith another electroacoustic pioneer, Pierre Schaeffer. In addition to his work in the studio, including composing for radio and films, Ferrari wrote a number of instrumental works. Didascalies displays both his instrumental and electroacoustic writing. The CD is the third disc in a series devoted to Ferrari’s music on the Sub Rosa label. The recording features two of the composer’s last pieces and an open form piece from the 1960s, the recording of which was the last the composer worked on before his death.

The disc features three “virtual trios”, with two live performers vying against a tape part. Pianist Jean-Philippe Collard-Neven and violist Vincent Royer are sympathetic collaborators, rendering enthusiastic performances despite the myriad complications set in their path by the hail of concrete sounds supplied by Ferrari. “Recontres Fortuites” contains what the composer calls “clearly anecdotal” sounds, including an orange juicer, noises of a metal table being moved down a staircase, speech, and the sounds made by women in the dressing room at a fashion show! Despite the sometimes curious nature of the “music” made by the aforementioned sound environments, Ferrari crafts a beguiling work which manages to incorporate a sinuously post-tonal pitch language, attractive all by itself, as well as the rhythmic and gestural materials suggested in the taped “anecdotes”. Unlike some concrete pieces, where the instrumental accompaniment seems superimposed, on “Recontre Fortuites” Ferrari’s keen ear searches out an organic way to integrate two seemingly disparate media. While “Didascalies” contains a similarly attractive surface, here Ferrari’s eclectic approach seems to overreach a bit. In addition to the two instruments and tape part, the addition of stage directions and computer-generated sounds creates a somewhat confused textural polyphony that reminds one of that old adage about “too many cooks spoiling the stew” — perhaps better rendered here as too many ingredients. Although singly lovely, the myriad gestures contained in the piece form an interruptive colloquy that never quite coalesces.

Composed in 1969, “Tautologos III” is one of those relatively free-form “action” pieces so in vogue in the 1960s. Ferrari puts an interesting spin on the idea of a piece consisting primarily of text directions, rather than conventional notation, by proscribing brief actions followed by comparatively longer periods of rest. The result is a composition that channels both the European avant-garde and the post-Cagean American experimental tradition; in particular, the early minimalists. Collard-Neven and Royer perform as well here as they do on the notated material. The composer worked closely with the two instrumentalists on the recording; thus, while the piece is notated as an “open form” work, its performance has Ferrari’s fingerprints all over it. Long stretches of unchanging music — primarily motoric ostinati — are broken up by sudden surprise shifts. Rendered here, the piece’s finale is a stirring crescendo of additional textures: percussive interjections, piano glissandi, frenetic passagework, and furious chords. “Tautologos III” defies minimalism’s sometimes impoverished harmonic schema, all the while celebrating its use of inexorable pulse as a unifying device. It serves as a stirring finale for this multifaceted portrait of Ferrari’s enigmatic and versatile creativity.

RATING 6 / 10