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Luc Ferrari, "Presque Rien"

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cover imageWhen Luc Ferrari first presented Presque Rien No. 1: Le Lever du Jour au Bord de la Mer (Almost Nothing No. 1: Daybreak at the Seashore) to his colleagues at the GRM, it caused quite a stir. Ironically for such adventurous experimenters in sound, Presque Rien was both too far away from music and too far away from the main principles of musique concrète. However, the four segments of Presque Rien represent some of the most exciting ideas and sounds in the history of electronic music. It goes far beyond an interesting experiment to being a landmark piece of composition whose effects are still reverberating today.

Recollections GRM

Condensing a day’s recordings from a beach into one side of vinyl with minimal processing or manipulation, the other members of the GRM probably felt Presque Rien No. 1 would be more at home with documentary makers. However, Presque Rien No. 1 was one of the major milestones following John Cage’s 4’33" in music embracing all sounds as valid ingredients for a piece. These noises are not just a moment in time in a sleepy village but music in and of themselves. It is hard to hear now why this approach would be so upsetting, as field recordings have become such a part and parcel of modern composition; Presque Rien No. 1 sounds pleasant, relaxing and contemplative but certainly not controversial.

Ferrari describes it as an "absence of abstract sounds" which is perhaps that is what was most unnerving to the concrète school at the time as the composer or engineer was immaterial to the music itself. Traditionally (it is amazing how fast tradition sets in, even in the most radical edges of the avant garde), sounds generated within the tenets of musique concrète were manipulated to the point where their origins became obscured. By leaving the sounds unprocessed and by using a completely transparent title, Ferrari blew open the doors of the GRM and opened the field of experimental electronic music completely.

Presque Rien No. 2: Ainsi Continue la Nuit dans ma Tête Multiple (Almost Nothing No. 2: And so the Night Continues in my Multiple Head) simply finds Ferrari exploring the nocturnal world as he did the break of day in the first installment. The title brings to mind Finnegans Wake as the night becomes more than just a change in time or available light also a means of focusing the listener on themselves ("a psychoanalysis of his 'nightscape'" in Ferrari’s words). The sounds of insects both near and far create a sense of space as Ferrari’s voice pushes through the curtains of darkness like an internal monologue (Ferrari’s intention was to introduce a new concept into each installment and in this case, he introduces the idea of narration). As shocking as the bareness of sound was to the early proponents of electronic music, today I find the sudden intrusion of ethereal music in the last third of the piece as unsettling. Is this the sudden switch from lying still listening to the nocturnal hum around oneself to a deep, dream-filled slumber? It certainly feels like it and, if that is so, the violent power of the thunderstorm that finishes the piece is as dramatic here as any natural phenomenon.

The third part of the series, Presque Rien avec Filles (Almost Nothing with Girls) shifts attention away from the general sounds of world around us to something more secretive: the sounds of a group of young women having lunch together out on the grass. Combining both a voyeuristic insight to their world with an attempt to fuse with their own viewpoints, Ferrari spans the gap between the slightly pervy outsider with the sensitivity of an artist trying to understand his subject fully. Again, my thoughts turn again to James Joyce but this time Molly Bloom’s famous soliloquy from Ulysses combined with the scene where Leopold Bloom masturbates as a girl lets him look up her skirt on the beach.

Again, there is a greater move away from the straightforward simplicity of the first part of Presque Rien as Ferrari introduces more processing and obvious edits into the work. This is in keeping with Ferrari’s idea of introducing the lie (are the sounds here actually part of the scene being imagined or is it all a stage piece?). The girls’ conversation is simultaneously highlighted and battered by an electrical assault before we sound like we are located somewhere in the vocal chords of one of the girls. This is almost psychedelic in its approach to break down the conceptions and preconceptions of the listener.

The final part, Presque Rien No. 4: La Remontée du Village (Almost Nothing No. 4: The Ascent to the Village) seemingly returns to bare elegance of the original work. This is the sound of Ferrari and his wife Brunhild ascending the hill to the Italian town of Ventimiglia and it is remarkably similar to the moods and feelings of the first piece. However, the sleepy isolation of the 1960s countryside has been lost as sounds from nearby televisions and passing scooters permeate the air around Ferrari’s microphones. Gradually, evidence of Ferrari’s tinkering becomes more and more noticeable as he slowly blends the sounds as they were recorded into something more akin to musique concrète. The climax of this is the powerful intrusion of a cow, preposterously embellished by Ferrari to sound super-real. This mix of documentary and postmodernism sows the seeds for Ferrari’s later masterpiece Far West News but never has Ferrari shown such a perfect control of natural and unnatural components in any of his pieces. It is not as ground-breaking as the original Presque Rien but it is aesthetically sublime.

While all four pieces have been released in dribs and drabs over the years (finally collected in the mammoth and highly, highly recommended 10 CD box set L’Œuvre Électronique), this is the first time the whole lot has been issued on vinyl. As with the rest of the Recollections GRM reissues, Presque Rien has been mastered perfectly. Considering how quiet some of the passages are, I was afraid that surface noise from the vinyl would detract from Ferrari’s work but all fears were unfounded. This sounds fantastic and, aside from the aforementioned box set, is certainly the definitive release of this classic.


Last Updated on Monday, 11 March 2013 10:30  


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