Perfect Sound Forever


"Imagination with Its Feet on the Ground":
Ferrari's Improvised '70's
by Daniel Barbiero
(February 2021)

Where does one go after having spent the better part of the 1950's and 1960's running through the experimental musics of the time--serial composition, musique concrète, composing for tape and acoustic instruments, pure electronic composition? For French composer Luc Ferrari (1929-2005), the place to go in the 1970s was the open, elastically-bounded territory of improvisation.

An Apprenticeship in Liberation

From the late 1940's on, Ferrari had witnessed or participated in many of the avant-garde tendencies animating--or irritating, depending on one's perspective--postwar European art music. It wasn't long after his early studies were completed that Ferrari became aware of the various avant-garde currents then running through postwar French music. Within a relatively short period of time, he moved with some agility from one tendency of experimental music to another; it was the beginning of a pattern of iconoclasm and nonconformity that he would follow for the rest of his life. He'd begun by studying piano at the Conservatoire de Versailles, which he attended from 1946 to 1948. It was during this time that he also started composing. He was enrolled from 1948 to 1950 at the École Normale de Musique de Paris, where he studied piano and composition with Alfred Cortot and Arthur Honegger. In 1953-1954, he was a student of Olivier Messiaen. In the early 1950's, he began going to Darmstadt, where he met composers Luigi Nono, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luciano Berio and John Cage, and by 1958, he joined Pierre Schaeffer's Groupe de Musique Concrète, later known as the Groupe de Recherches Musicales (GRM).

As he explained to Bridgette Robindoré in an interview published in the Computer Music Journal in autumn 1998, it was during this early period that he found himself buffeted from four different directions, each of which represented a major avenue of investigation available to European composers anxious to remake Western art music in the wake of the catastrophe of the Second World War. These four avenues were, in his words, "that of Varèse, musique concrète, serialism, and the total openness offered by Cage. " In what may be seen as a preview of the highly varied approaches he would take to composition throughout his entire life, Ferrari actively explored all four. As was also typical of Ferrari's subsequent career, he took each on his own terms and with a preference for freedom over orthodoxy.

Ferrari's flouting of orthodoxy comes out clearly in two early works for piano, "Antisonate" (1952) and "Visage I" (1956). Although both contain serial elements, Ferrari's handling of pitch relationships was relatively unsystematic and thus in defiance of the more dogmatic variety of integral serialism that was then becoming ascendant at Darmstadt and elsewhere. In addition, both pieces are marked by violently expressive dynamics more appropriate to free atonalism than to Darmstadt serialism. Thinking back on "Antisonate" in December 1995 as recorded in his "Analyses and Reflections," Ferrari noted that the piece was an "expression of savagery and noncomformism," a description that fits "Visage I" as well. With "Antisonate," Ferrari set out to subvert not only the strictures of the sonata form--that much is evident in the title--but the even stricter conventions of integral serialism as well. In 1995, reflections on the piece recorded on his website, he points out that it uses octaves, a practice prohibited by the rules of orthodox serialism, and in its second movement uses pitch relationships that imply tonality--a serious breach of serial orthodoxy. In the same set of "Analyses and Reflections," he described the serial structure of "Visage I" as consisting in a hybrid method of using pitch rows and superimposed cycles. If the surface sounds give the impression of belonging to a typically fragmentary integral serialist work, the structure producing them is instead atypical of an integral serialist work. Perhaps what was most atypical about the work's composition--atypical in terms of serialist practice, although typical in terms of Ferrari's own personal practice--was Ferrari's reliance on intuition rather than system to guide its organization. As he explained in his 1995 reflections,

I wanted the choice of desire to take precedence, so that it alone would decide the value of the transformations. In this way, a kind of sentimental and narrative mechanism could be articulated.
As a consequence of Ferrari's willingness to favor contingency over system and intuition over permutation, these two early pieces, while not being themselves improvised, nevertheless carry something of the liberatory spirit of improvisation. It is a spirit that would display itself more fully later, most notably in Ferrari's works incorporating, or fully constituted by, improvisation proper. To that extent, these two "imperfectly" serial works are of a piece with the open-form work Ferrari would be producing in the 1970's no matter how much these later works would differ from the serial compositions both in sound and structure. If an artwork gives access to a particular vision of art as well as to the world surrounding it, both these two serial compositions and the open-form works of the 1970's manifest a common vision of freedom, albeit one presented from different angles and at different stages of maturity. What they offer is a parallax view of the same project.

Serialism was germane to this project not by virtue of its methods and systems per se, but rather in its practical use as a means by which Ferrari could free himself and open up a path of his own to explore and develop. As he explained further in his 1995 remarks on "Visage I,"

What was the series for me at that time?
It was perhaps to vary the pitch of the notes to reach the maximum diversity, it was to have a kind of numbering which permitted the mortal deterioration of the tonal system from which one wanted to get out by smashing it. It was also a way of escaping from a constraining academic form and entering into the forbidden.
In short, these early works were part of an apprenticeship in liberation. It was a liberation that would take many forms over the years, and in the 1970's in particular, it took the form of works through which Ferrari actively pursued freedom--from genre, from a composer's completely scripted control over the work, and even from the repressive constraints of social organization.


One early manifestation of Ferrari's efforts to open up compositional structures through improvisation can be found in "Spontanés I-IV," a set of open-form works incorporating improvisations for small orchestras. Written in late winter and early spring of 1962, these four pieces, which were composed for nine, ten, eight and eleven performers respectively, were created in connection with experiments with orchestral instruments that GRM was undertaking at the time. Like many of the indeterminate or open-form compositions that American and European composers were creating during the 1950's and 1960's, its score is written out in a non-standard form of notation that combines graphic symbols with verbal instructions. As was the case with many other indeterminate scores, Ferrari's specifies which performance techniques or gestures should be used while leaving the specific values for given musical parameters to the performer's choosing.

A revealing film made in June 1962 captures a realization by the Ensemble Instrumental de Musique de Paris (EIMP) of "Spontané IV," the fourth piece of the set. For this performance the piece was arranged for twenty-two instrumentalists divided into two groups of eleven each, separated and facing each other on stage--a doubled ensemble, with one group of being conducted by Konstantin Simonovic and the other by the composer. As performed by EIMP, the piece consists of a series of angular and tightly sequenced lines, deliberately asymmetrical in phrasing and more-or-less evenly apportioned between ensembles. The performance is very much a conductor's affair--an improvisation, but a closely directed improvisation. Simonovic and Ferrari face each other and watch each other closely in order to coordinate their directions; it is they who sculpt the lines in terms of phrasing and color as they signal the instrumentalists' entrances and exits and consequently construct the color combinations--generally changing at a very rapid rate--that give the music its distinctive sound. At one level the music is pure klangfarbmelodie made up of abruptly beginning and ending lines of varying length quickly handed off from instrument to instrument. The melodic content thus consists in differences of instrumental voice played out sequentially rather than in sequences of pitch per se. There is no real harmony to speak of except those that arise when these continual, quasi-melodic threads overlap within or between ensembles. On paper, "Spontané IV" seems to consist of a series of isolated gestures distributed among the individual instrumentalists, but in performance these essentially discrete events are tightly woven together to form a coherent, if episodic, whole. The filmed performance has a real vitality to it, a raw energy at least partly resulting from the performers' quite visibly being in a tense state of high alert. We can speculate that this was because this kind of playing was a new experience for them--in 1962, open-form works and improvised parts weren't an everyday experience for orchestral musicians.

Moving into the 1970's: Tautologos III

Ferrari spent most of the 1960's in a variety of activities ranging from making electroacoustic and purely electronic music to directing Les grandes répetitions, a series of television documentaries focusing on the presentation of contemporary music. Interestingly in the context of his later improvisational work, one of the series' episodes was "Cecil Taylor à Paris," which featured footage of the Cecil Taylor Quartet (Taylor, Jimmy Lyons, Andrew Cyrille, and Alan Silva) rehearsing and playing in Paris in December 1966. As it happened, this was Ferrari's introduction to free jazz.

This was a period Ferrari described to Robindoré as being one in which he felt marginalized in France. Whether this marginalization was cause, consequence or regardless of his tendency toward iconoclasm may not be known, but it was a period during which Ferrari continued to experiment, not least with improvisation. In 1969, for example, he composed "Tautologos III," which he characterized as a "text-score providing the rules of the game." This open-form verbal work for an instrumental ensemble calls for the performers to create cycles of fixed duration by alternating a short action of their own choosing with a silence. The specific qualities of the action--its duration, register, dynamics, timbre, articulation and so forth--are to be chosen by the individual performer. Each action/silence pair in turn constitutes a unit, both constant and unique in sound and duration for each performer, to be repeated in a loop throughout the performance. When played together, these individual units intersect in constantly changing patterns by virtue of their differences in duration.

"Tautologos III" was first recorded in 1970 by the eleven-piece Ensemble Instrumental de Musique Contemporaine under the direction of Konstantin Simonovic. Although built from perpetually moving cyclical material, the performance's sound has a strangely static quality to it. The actions tend to consist of a single tone or sound repeated after greater or lesser intervals of silence; as Ferrari intended, the vertical coincidences of the parts are variable and unpredictable. The overall texture is constantly changing as the individual instruments play and drop out, but even as these momentary densities, accidental harmonies and fusions of instrumental color undergo continual shifts, there's no accompanying sense of forward motion. Instead, there is a sense of color relationships being defined and redefined within a fixed space. Because Ferrari leaves the instrumentation open and the definitions of the actual musical parameters up to the performers, realizations by different ensembles can differ considerably. An October 2017 performance in Milan by a seven-piece electroacoustic group that included Sergio Armaroli, Francesca Gemmo and Walter Prati, for example, is quite sparse and, given the instrumentation (cello, electronics, percussion, keyboard), played with a more restricted spectrum of color.

"Tautologos III" is an interesting work that embeds within its structure a seeming paradox. While it is an open-form composition--it leaves very basic, and significant, musical decisions to the performers--it makes at the same time for a closed system. If the specific values of individual musical parameters, and the gestures that produce them, are offered as open possibilities for the performers to realize, the way those specific values are to function within the overall performance is, by contrast, given. If the initial, performer-chosen input is an open variable, the ordering principle--what we might think of as the combinatorial system at the local and global levels--is, on the contrary, very much a well-defined thing. The score defines the shape local phrase structure must take (action + silence) as well as the iterative action by which individual phrases are combined (repetition). While the rules are simple, they do place specific constraints on the performance once the initial choice of an action and its associated parameters has been made. "Tautologos III" is in effect an indeterminate systems work that takes a defined input of the performer's choosing, situates it within a basic binary relationship and then subjects the resulting two-component phrase to an ongoing, single iterative operation.

As an indeterminate systems work, "Tautologos III" is striking from a historical perspective. Although it may not have been intended as such, in a sense it represents Ferrari's answer to a debate that had been going on between the serialist composers and their critics in the 1950's and 1960's. It was a debate fought over the question of how, or whether, individual expression could coexist within systematic compositional structures. "Tautologos III" suggests that individual expression could exists at the moment of choice of the initial input regardless of how systematic that input's subsequent handling might be.

Tape, Cells and Liberation: 1975

The mid-1970's found Ferrari experimenting with improvisation not only in the context of open-form composition but in more fundamental ways as well. Perhaps his most radical engagement with improvised music was his organization in 1975 of the free improvisation collective Atelier de la Libération de la Musique (ALM)--Workshop of the Liberation of Music--which he put together to play a series of performances at Paris's Musée Galliera. In addition to Ferrari, who played organ, the collective comprised Martin Davorin-Jagodić on electric piano, Philippe Besombes on synthesizer and Alain Petit on saxophone, clarinet and flute. It was a unique combination of collaborators drawn from the worlds of Fluxus-Dada-inspired conceptualism as well as from more established avant-garde institutions. An exemplar of the former, Croatian-born Davorin-Jagodić (1935-2020), resident in France since 1960, had been a member of GRM from 1967 to 1969 and was a composer of electronic sound art and musique concrète in addition to creating indeterminate scores with graphic notation during the 1960's and 1970's. Besombes (b. 1946) during the 1970's was composing and performing music for experimental films, theater and ballet, as well as creating electronic avant-rock. His 1975 album Pôle, done with Jean-Louis Rizet, is a classic of French analogue synthesizer space rock. By some accounts, the group also included Rizet, who in the 1970's made some electronic recordings with Besombes, whom he is said to have met through the Ferrari collective, and David Jisse (1946-2020), sometimes spelled "Gisse," who composed electroacoustic and experimental music after having met Ferrari in 1973. Be that as it may, the one recording of the group, a set of rehearsals from February and March 1975 which were issued on LP in 2018, lists only Ferrari, Davorin-Jagodić, Besombes and Petit as performers.

As the ensemble's name implied, ALM was as much conceived in the spirit of social critique as it was a vessel for creating music. By virtue of its very format it embodied a non-hierarchical critique of hierarchy and an unscripted critique of scripted constraints on musical creativity. The thinking behind it was set out in a kind of manifesto signed with the name of the collective, which was included as the liner note of an LP issued in 2018 of recordings of the group's rehearsals of February and March 1975:

To free music from the constraints of style and aesthetics; to free the artist from the abstraction to train him for comprehensible actions; to be rather a craftsman of imagination; to use the dramatic dynamic of sound and image to suggest ideas; to ignore sensationalism but to observe with an intuitive eye/ear the everyday social environment; to propose visitors its realization of their own analysis... this could sum up our ideas and put this show in the perspective of a sociological art, insofar as it appears as a criticism of our society.
Atelier de Libération de la Musique
June 1975
As evidenced by the rehearsal recordings, the group's improvisations weren't easily categorized. Rather, they constitute a kind of non-idiomatic improvisation avant la lettre. Some of the improvisations are consistent with the sort of pulse-based, quasi-minimalism Ferrari had been developing since the 1960's independently of the minimalist music then being created in the US. An improvisation from 2 February, for example, is made up of looped and layered melodic fragments looped and layered, while the other improvisation from that date, with its flute playing over a drone on organ and synthesizer, is comparable to some of the improvisations Terry Riley was creating. The 17 February improvisation is rhythmically defined and structured with repeated two-chord figures and tonal centers. In general, the ensemble seems to work from within a matrix of self-imposed formal constraints with an emphasis on an intuitively arrived at structural coherence rather than on unbridled expression. It's possible to hear this music as a translation of elements of Ferrari's previous work into spontaneous, real-time composition and to that extent, as a kind of auto-critique of premeditated compositional thinking.

The critical attitude animating the Atelier de Libération de la Musique just was something that preoccupied Ferrari during this period. "Cellule 75" for piano, percussion and tape, which he composed in May-November 1975 was, like the ALM project, explicitly meant as a protest against social and aesthetic conditions as Ferrari saw them. With "Cellule 75," Ferrari was particularly concerned to oppose what he understood to be arbitrary divisions and compartmentalizations, whether of people or of cultural and intellectual fields. Here again, his feeling of being isolated from what he described to Robindoré as the "closed world" of French cultural politics and institutional support may have at least in part motivated his critical stance. The title he chose for the work can be read in two ways: first as an allusion to the cellular rhythmic structures he used to build the piece, and second as an allusion to the physical structures of cells as places of bodily confinement and separation. The ambiguity of the title reflects the dual nature of the conceptual basis of the work, which is to show how a regular rhythm can be at once a positive thing when embodied in the rhythms of life, or an oppressive thing when played out in the enforced cadences of lockstep conformity.

What "Cellule 75" seems to convey is that the way regular rhythm actually functions depends upon its context and upon the critical will to imagine things as other than what they are or what they appear to be. ALM similarly seems to represent an attempt to imagine certain phenomena--social organization, musical interaction--as realizing possibilities that reach beyond the forms they usually take. It's hard not to hear in both an echo of the rhetoric of May 1968, one of the best-known slogans of which was "L'imagination au pouvoir" ( "all power to the imagination"). It is a sentiment that seems to find expression in Ferrari's musical intentions with both pieces, albeit with a kind of modesty the utopian revolutionary slogan lacks. As he explained in some notes on "Cellule 75" written in July 1976, the rhythms of the work were meant to bring about the release of imagination--but imagination with its "feet on the ground (contrary to the head in the clouds)." One very practical means of actualizing that freedom musically is through the discretionary choices embodied in improvisation, which "Cellule 75" includes.

The "Exercises d'Improvisation"

Two years after the ALM project, Ferrari explored improvisation again, but from within the framework of an indeterminate composition with a fixed electronic component. With the "Exercises d'improvisation" (sometimes known as the "Études d'improvisation"), composed in September 1977, Ferrari wrote a quintessentially open-form work--but one in which his hand enters indelibly into any given performance.

The "Exercises d'improvisation" is a suite of seven relatively short pieces for one to eight performers on any kind of instruments and is scored as a set of verbal instructions of a deliberately suggestive cast. The foundation for each exercise is a prerecorded track put together by Ferrari--and it is here that he enters into any realization of the piece--that is to function as another member of the ensemble rather than as a general environment in which the performance takes place. Ferrari intended the exercises for any of a number of uses--as exercises or etudes for practicing improvisation, as short works amateurs could play for their own amusement, or as pieces that could be presented in concert--and for any style of music, though the score encourages performers to play without regard to existing conventions (here again, Ferrari's dislike of what he considered arbitrary boundaries shows itself). Each prerecorded track sets out a tempo and a tonal center, the latter using what Ferrari calls "harmonic blur tones," to provide the performers with an initial point of departure. These tempos and "blur tones" place weak constraints on the performers' pitch and rhythm choices, but other than using the recordings as launching material and as a common framework within which to orient themselves, the performers are free to invent as imagination demands. Invention may take the form of spontaneous reaction in real time to what the recording and other performers are doing--pure improvisation, in other words--or it may take the form of a part worked out in advance of the performance. Ferrari leaves both options open as possible choices.

As with any kind of open-form work the "Exercises" are, in principle and often in practice, different with every performance. They've been recorded three times in versions that vary considerably from each other. The first recording was done in April 2010 by the GOL collective, an electroacoustic quartet of Jean-Marcel Busson, Frédéric Rebotier, Ravi Shardja and Samon Takahashi, with the cooperation and participation of Brunhild Ferrari, the composer's widow. This recording in fact represents the first time the pieces had been realized; shortly afterward, GOL premiered the "Exercises" at La Maison Rouge in Paris. GOL's interpretation has a pronounced electronic flavor to it; the prerecorded material seems to have stimulated the group's timbral imagination as much as it served to outline harmony and tempo.

By contrast the second recording, made by Ciro Lombardi of a live performance given on 17 December 2011 in Forli, Italy, is for acoustic piano/prepared piano along with the prerecorded tracks. Lombardi's interpretation cleaves closely to the rhythmic patterns and harmonic centers of gravity defined by the recordings, so much so that his interpretations read as variations on or elaborations of each electronic ur-text. For Lombardi, the recordings function as does the tamboura in a raga, setting out the harmonic center for the pianist to work within, or as skeleton compositions for him to fill out with the finer details of narrative structure and melody. For the first exercise, for example, Lombardi offers a simple drone oscillating between major and minor tonalities; on the fourth exercise, he constructs ascending scales based on a Lydian dominant harmony, with succeeding iterations becoming darker with more complex, chromatic interpolations; the fifth exercise is a largely rhythmic foray into syncopation; the seventh exercise has him worrying short phrases and setting up rapid cascades of sound in response to the recording's rhythms.

A second realization of the exercises for quartet was recorded in October 2017 by an ensemble made up of Sergio Armaroli on vibraphone, Francesca Gemma on piano, Walter Prati on cello, and Giancarlo Schiaffini on trombone. As interpreted by this group, the seven exercises work together as a long suite with an overall arc of development that begins with low-density textures comprising sparely-played melodic material; gradually, it works up to a polyphonically and rhythmically more elaborate collective sound. Throughout the suite, the group deftly plays with field-figure relationships and with combining and dividing the four instruments to create striking sonorities.

As with the best open-form works, the "Exercises d'improvisation" are an invitation and a provocation, a solicitation and a dare. These three interpretations of the work demonstrate its potential to elicit creative responses that, diverse as they are, uniformly take into account the harmonic and rhythmic integrity of the prerecorded material while at the same time opening up fields of possibility to be realized as only the individual performer can realize them--with his or her own voice, playing with, through and even, if desired, against the composer's presence as manifested in the recordings.

With the "Exercises d'improvisation," Ferrari produced a particularly elegant expression of the postwar open-form aesthetic. The composition is notable for taking some of the ideas Ferrari had put into previous work, and refining and elaborating on them. "Spontané" had been an open form work, albeit of a different type, but a more direct precursor can be found in "Éphémère," a work from 1974-1975. Like the "Exercises," it was conceived for either amateur or professional musicians of any instrumentation. Also, as with the "Exercises," at its center was a fixed, prerecorded part on tape, in relation to which the performers were to invent their own parts. Ferrari envisioned "Éphémère"'s instrumentalists as composers whose contributions would nevertheless be ephemeral when measured against the tape, the fixed sound of which would be a constant even as the instrumentalists' contributions might differ from performance to performance. The parallels to the "Exercises" are striking. Both pieces have as musical backbone a pre-recorded, fixed element, and in responding to that element performers are encouraged to bring a compositional sensibility, the better to structure their performances in terms of the continuities--harmonic, rhythmic and textural as the case may be--given by the prerecorded material.


The "Exercises d'improvisation" may stand as both the culmination and pinnacle of Ferrari's efforts with open-form composition and the fostering of improvisation--efforts that he largely abandoned afterward. From the end of the 1970's, Ferrari's attention turned increasingly to an anecdotal sound art based on capturing the external and internal phenomena of daily life. What interested him was recording the audio traces of concrete, lived experience--which is to say the social realities and relationships revelatory of behaviors, individual psychological states, and that thick, but often overlooked, affective field between people where much human interaction is played out. He was just as likely to take his own experience as a starting point as he was the experiences of others. In the early 1980's, for example, he produced works based on his diaries. This aspect of his work involved recording and preserving what he described to Robindoré as "bits of intimacy," increasingly as embodied in the spoken word as it occurred in mundane contexts. Interestingly, he told her that he found the "musicality" of the natural voice to be something "close to improvisation." Perhaps there's a thread connecting this work to his improvisational efforts and open-form work of the 1970's, a thread spun from a consistent fascination with the contingent and unregulated moment, free of artificial boundaries and imposed constraints. And this thread is encountered through--and transfigured by--imagination, with its feet on the ground.

Exercises d'Improvisation is available at Boomkat.

Cellule 75 is available from Tzadik.

"Visage no. 1" is available from Muziekweb.

Also see more of Daniel Barbiero's work at his website

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