updated 9 June 2015
© Laszlo Ruszka 1965 / Ina

Luc Ferrari

French composer born 5 February 1929 in Paris; died 22 August 2005 in Arezzo, Italy.

Luc Ferrari was born in France in 1929. He began his musical studies at the Conservatoire de Versailles (1946-1948), and then entered the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Paris, where he studied piano and composition with Alfred Cortot and Arthur Honegger (1948-1950). He also attended the analysis course of Olivier Messiaen at the Conservatoire de Paris (1953-1954). In 1956, he joined the Groupe de musique concrète, where he remained until 1966. During this period he worked with Pierre Schaeffer to create the Groupe de Recherche Musicale (1958). He headed the research group and oversaw its teaching activities while coordinating a series of broadcasts on musique concrète (1959-1960). He worked as a researcher in the field of new instruments, and the study of instruments and sound objects (1960-1961). During the same period, he took over as artistic director of the Ensemble International de Musique Contemporaine de Paris (EIMCP), conducted by Constantin Simonovitch, exploring schematic improvisation (1961-1962). He also oversaw a collective composition for tape and orchestra that involved all of the GRM’s composers, as well as a series of television broadcasts titled Chaque pays fête son grand homme, for which he served as co-director and worked on the sound recording and the musical illustration (1962-1965). In October 1965, he traveled to Germany for six months to teach at the Rheinische Musikschule in Cologne. The following year (1965-1966), he collaborated with author and director Gérard Patris on a series of French television broadcasts on contemporary music titled Les Grandes Répétitions (featuring Olivier Messiaen, Edgard Varèse, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Hermann Scherchen, and Cecil Taylor). In 1966, he left the Groupe de Recherche Musicale for a year-long post teaching experimental music in Stockholm. The following year, he traveled to Berlin on a fellowship from the Ford Foundation and DAAD. Between 1968 and 1969, he was the musical director of the Maison de la Culture in Amiens. In 1972, he founded Studio Billig, his own electroacoustic workspace, and was awarded the Karl Sczuka Prize for the radio drama Portrait-Spiel (a production of Südwestfunk, Baden-Baden). He taught composition at the Conservatoire de Pantin (1978-1980). In 1982, with the support of Maurice Fleuret, he founded La Muse en Circuit, a studio for electroacoustic composition and radio art. Between 1985 and 1986, with La Muse en Circuit, he organized a series of performances at the Café de la Danse in Paris, titled Vue imprenable sur l’acoustique. These included Sombres machines à sons, Radio sur scène, and La Leçon d’espagnol. Most of these performances were recorded by France Culture’s musical broadcasting program. In 1987, he was awarded the Prix Italia for his symphonic tale Et si tout entière maintenant, which was created as part of the multimedia project Brise-Glace. He was awarded the Karl Sczuka Prize again in 1988 for the radio drama Je me suis perdu ou Labyrinthe portrait (a coproduction of Südwestfunk and La Muse en Circuit). A major retrospective of his work was organized for the Festival des Manca in Nice in 1989. That same year, he was awarded the Grand Prix National by the French Ministry of Culture. In 1990, he was awarded the Serge and Olga Koussevitzky International Recording Award for the symphonic work Histoire du plaisir et de la désolation. In 1991, he was awarded another Prix Italia (Special Prize of the R.A.I.) for his radiophonic creation L’escalier des aveugles, co-produced by the Radio nacional de España and La Muse en Circuit. In 1993, he was a guest of the WDR electronic music studio in Cologne. On 21 avril 1994, he stepped down from his position as president of La Muse en Circuit. Parcours confus, a retrospective of his work, was organized in Groningen in October 1995, followed by a concert tour in the Netherlands. In October 1996, Ferrari built his own studio, which he called Post-Billig. In October 1997, with support from the French Foreign Ministry, he was invited on a three-week tour of concerts and lectures in California’s major universities. In 1999, he began work on a series of compositions titled “Exploitation des concepts,“ working on installations and improvising with young experimental DJs. Several pieces grew from these collaborations. In 2001, a retrospective of his work was organized by the Futura Festival, including a performance of all of his electroacoustic compositions. In 2002, the New Generation group invited to him a “monographic” festival in Japan. In 2003, a series of concerts was organized at La Friche de la Belle de Mai in Marseille, as well as a retrospective at the Chaux-de-Fonds in Switzerland. That year also included a concert tour in Japan, including stops in Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka. In 2004, he was invited for a residency in Poitiers with the Ars Nova ensemble, during which he gave several concerts. In October of that year, he was invited to Lille 2004 (“8 days of Luc Ferrari’s music”) and to Courtrai for the Festival Audioframes. The following month, he was a guest of the Festival Novelum in Toulouse as well as of the GMEA-CNCM in Albi.

On 22 August 2005, Luc Ferrari died in Arezzo, in Tuscany.

He was awarded a posthumous Grand Prix Charles Cros for the release of his albums Les Anecdotiques – Exploitation des Concepts N° 6 and Archives sauvées des eaux – Exploitation des Concepts N° 1.

© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 2015

Histoire du plaisir et de la désolation

By David Jisse

Histoire du plaisir et de la desolation (“Story of Pleasure and Desolation”): the title of this symphonic piece, which premiered in 1982, is a fairly accurate overview of the life and work of Luc Ferrari. His perpetual contradiction, his reverence for opposites, his ongoing quest for the impossible were integral to the man and his work, and left their mark on his entire oeuvre.

Ferrari stands apart in the second half of the 20th century. Beside composers of his generation such as Kagel, Ligeti, Berio, Stockhausen, Cage, or Boulez), he followed a singular path, not traced by institutions, schools, or styles, but rather a crisscrossing of backways and side streets, guided by an elegant sense of fracture, freedom, and pleasure. Added to this was a taste for provocation, developed at an early age – which pushed him, as a young student at the Conservatoire de Versailles in the 1950s, to play the strictly forbidden Bartók. A sense of adventure, as well: after hearing Déserts on the radio, he boarded a cargo ship and crossed the Atlantic to meet Varèse in the United States.


Ferrari’s musical life, which cannot in fact be separated from any other part of his life, his compositions, his institutional positions, his political perspectives, his life as a whole – it can all be summed up in a single word: freedom.

Stylistic freedom, first of all: not one of his compositions can be described merely by evoking any of the major movements that characterized post-war composition. Already, a perceptible taste for mixing is notable in Visage I for piano, a piece built on serialist forms and organized around repetitive cells that push atonal composition toward an almost modal form. The highly percussive playing also gives the piano an acoustic force that resembles that of musique concrète. A similar energy pulses through Tautologos I, an electroacoustic piece composed in 1961 for the INA-GRM. Ferrari was already showing his definite taste for sound and a freedom of style that contrasted with the era’s formalisms. An analysis of his writing shows this gap, and anything in his scores that might link them to a school or a stylistically identifiable form are constantly contradicted by an uncategorizable element. “Timeless” is therefore the best word to describe his oeuvre – which is more than a bit paradoxical for a man who saw himself at the heart of the reality of his time, and who even thought that a composer was a kind of sound reporter.

Ferrari’s freedom was institutional, as well: at no moment in his artistic life did he put any desire for power before his work as a composer. None of the posts he held were linked to any idea of career advancement. As soon as he felt they were holding him back in terms of his work and his freedom, he left them, at times with no difficulty, at times with pain and “desolation”.


Another emblematic example of Ferrari’s work is Hétérozygote, an electroacoustic piece composed in 1963-1964 whose title tells us that it will be exploring mixture in the biological sense of the term. Here, the composer called attention to mixtures of sound morphologies he considered to be fertile. He integrated natural, recognizable sounds into abstract electroacoustics. He liked to call them “anecdotal.” This was a small revolution for the time. To hear women speaking on a Southern beach amidst piping electronic sounds was to be party to the first cohabitation of “the acoustic and the musical.” To fully understand this, one must remember that when Pierre Schaeffer spoke about his solfège des objets sonores (theory of sound objects), he was connecting musique concrete composition to the formalized universe of music theory and composition. Compositions were thus expected to follow its logic fairly closely. The voices of women talking amidst concrete sounds did not fit into any prior classifications, which is no doubt why Schaeffer found the piece without form and described it as “noise,” a remark that deeply affected Ferrari, who did not understand Schaeffer’s reaction.

The same thing happened with Presque rien N° 1, composed in 1968 using minimalist sound recordings that captured while at the same time reconstructing the sounds of a fishing village. In this way, Ferrari was, alongside Murray Schafer and others, participating in a movement that continues to this day: field recording. Now, many young composers record ambient sounds and consider these to be the bedrock of their work. An entire school of “naturalist” composing has grown up around this approach, and it should be noted that the movement now reaches far beyond the world of art music.

Ferrari and Schaeffer’s mutual incomprehension with regard to the former’s work was no doubt one of the reasons that Ferrari left the GRM. Yet again, his taste for independence led him to make painful decisions. Ten years would pass before François Bayle offered to publish Ferrari’s Presque rien N° 1.

Radio plays

In Germany, by contrast, Hétérozygote aroused great interest because the variety of its compositional languages brought it close to certain creative radio pieces and the movement founded in Germany in the 1920s by Kurt Weill, Alfred Döblin, Friedrich Bischoff, and others, who believed that this intermingling of sound, music, and text formed the building blocks of a new art form.

Stockhausen invited Ferrari to give courses in 1964 and 1965. He received commissions from German radio, notably Südwestfunk Baden-Baden, for which he composed Portrait-Spiel, which was awarded the SWR’s Karl Sczuka Prize, as prestigious in Germany as the RAI’s Prix Italia is in Italy or in France.

Unheimlich Schön, composed in 1971, is an excellent illustration of the composer’s approach. A young woman is breathing. She must be very pretty, but somewhat frightening (unheimlich), according to Ferrari’s instructions, which indicate that she must breathe in an unusual way while repeating the words “Unheimlich schön” over and over. Other than those made by the editing process, there are no audible changes to the performance: a few echoes, delays, and phase shifts weave together to form a fairly simple electroacoustic universe. This protocol, through the simple expedient of transformed breathing and the obsessive repetition of two words, shifts the reality of a situation into a new and unsettling space. In addition to creating an augmented reality, Ferrari uses the obsessive repetition of word and breath to drain them of their original sense, which become music before being meaning. As François Delalande explains, “The novelty is that a sound image can refer back to an explicit content” (p. 47).

Luc Ferrari himself said, “Creators and artists don’t live outside of society. Their history unfolds in the thick of the most brutal, terrible but also the most joyful events” (p. 47), and his deep originality comes from his inscribing this sensitivity to the world in his compositions, even if it means giving that world a recognizable form. His work is never cordoned off from life, and indeed Ferrari’s best work is born from this unceasing clash with reality. Its echo in his musical compositions is always there, without the listener ever knowing what the dominant vector is between the two forces. One can observe this in the titles of his catalogue from the late 1960s: Société I, Société II. Et si le piano était un corps de femme, Société IV - Mécanique Collectivité Individu. One observes that whatever the musical form (instrumental music, musical theater, radio dramas), this dialectic continued to operate enduringly in Ferrari’s inspiration.


As we have seen, the concept of stylistic purity held almost no interest for Ferrari, who always identified impurity as a positive value and a driving force. He remained steadfastly convinced of this, and all of his choices were guided by an opposition, sometimes discreet and sometimes violent, to conformity and systems. Toward the end of his life, he told Daniel Terrugi, “The reason I talked about emotions is because we had all but forgotten about them in the years 1960-65 – just like we had forgotten about pulsation” (p. 54).

For example, in Les émois d’Aphrodite, a woman’s voice creates a fleeting echo of music constructed around three dances, as a necessary signal that lights up the piece. “The sound of my skin traversed by nothing simply loosened…” A simple phrase hangs as if suspended amidst the rhythms.

Mentioning it is almost a platitude, when speaking of Luc Ferrari, but all the same it bears repeating that sensuality and physical relations play a decisive role in all of his work, both as a driving force for the imagination and a counterpoint, a constant echo ringing through his work. In 36 Enfilades for piano and tape recorder, the instrumentalist is in dialogue not only with the tape but also with a woman’s voice and the voice of the composer himself, speaking of silence and rupture. The work is both playful and heart-breaking, once again, a staging of pleasure and desolation.

In Chansons pour le corps, Elise Caron sings explicitly of skin, breasts, and female genitals, with a text by Colette Fellous, while the actress (Anne Sée) recites texts by women about their own bodies. This type of mirroring is typical of Ferrari’s work: it suggests a form that might resemble operatic song, a lied or an oratorio, but which, thanks to the tape, remains a sort of poetic testimony to his vision of the female body. The fact that Chansons pour le corps cannot be reduced to a single genre illustrates the way in which Ferrari endowed his work with an additional, unexpected dimension. Particularly in this piece, the degree of stylistic indeterminacy accentuates the sensuality of the subject and prevents us from reducing it to trivial or oversimplified images.

Attempting to understand Ferrari’s work by studying his scores alone, or by seeking to place his music in pre-established genres or into more or less defined categories (tonal, atonal, electroacoustic, spectral, minimalist, repetitive, etc.) is an impossible exercise. Indeed, his work speaks for itself thanks to its genre-crossing and the degrees of uncertainty it engenders. Perhaps its calling is to remain indefinable, and this very mystery is, in part, what makes it so precious. It maps onto the immense shadow that was Ferrari’s hidden self, who used humor to cloak his deep distress from the world.


Improvisation and chance play an essential role in Ferrari’s work, as illustrated by Et tournent les sons dans la garrigue, which was an attempt to answer the question, “How does one transmit musical ideas without using conventional composition?” All kinds of protocols emerged from this question, which is a recurrent one in his creations.

He also came up with other approaches, such as free improvisation. The album Impro-micro-acoustique 2001 in which, collaborating with Noël Akchoté (guitar) and Roland Auzet (percussion), Ferrari used his microphone as an improvisational instrument, is a good example. He was never satisfied with the music produced in these circumstances, however: he felt compelled to alter the sounds in the studio in order to return to the gesture of composition, through electroacoustic transformations, in order to give the project its final form.

The theme of improvisation – structured, this time – returns in Rencontres fortuites with Jean-Philippe Collard-Neven on piano and Vincent Royer on viola. With them, Ferrari explored morphologies and systems; as the performers reacted to what he proposed, they invented the music from which the piece emerged.

Working with chance did not mean abandoning rigor for Ferrari; in addition to determining his choices, he often added elements that enhanced the complexity of the chance operations and the determinism. In Tautologos 3, he invented a system for marking time using the regular opening and closing of a book, the sound of which helped to structure the piece as a whole.

His compositions must thus be listened to and performed as a subtle mix of the will to be guided by chance and a taste for controlled, precise composition.

This contradiction between disorder and organization, composition and improvisation, pure and impure, illustrates the deep tensions and struggles in which Ferrari was caught, between pleasure and desolation. In work and in life.


For the autobiographical dimension of his work remains a cornerstone. We spoke of it in relation to pieces that are echoes of society, but one must push further than that: it was Ferrari’s own private life, with its joys and its pains, that structured the composer’s career. Many composers dedicated pieces to the loves in their life, hid the initials of their mistresses, but Ferrari’s strength is in the explicit.

For example, in his Fable de la démission et du cendrier. In 1982, Ferrari founded a music studio, la Muse en Circuit, with some other composers. He left the studio in 1994 because he no longer felt free to work as he wished there. His departure was a painful one, and his music from that time, in its barely contained violence, bears traces of this event and its impact on his life. Speaking about Fable de la démission et du cendrier, he said, “I was writing a score for two pianos and two clarinets that followed all the ins and outs of this affair.”

Another example: as he was composing Les Archives sauvées des Eaux (“Archives saved from the water”), his studio was flooded, and as he was in the process of digitizing tapes, the idea came to him to write a piece about it. It is probably no coincidence that his autobiography, which he began to write but did not complete, was supposed to be called Je courais tant de buts divers (“I was chasing so many different goals”): his love of live and learning was inexhaustible.


As I write these lines, I realize that I am speaking only of the outer shell: Ferrari’s work is such a complex and subtle maze that the real truth of it has yet to be discovered.

Musical theatre must be mentioned: in the 1980s, Ferrari, working with Georges Aperghis and a few others interested in this innovative form, staged performances that placed musicians in theatrical situations. The renewal of this approach was encouraged by Guy Erismann of Radio-France and by the Festival d’Avignon. La leçon d’espagnol, which premiered at the Café de la Danse in 1985 with, among others, Elise Caron and Michel Musseau, is an excellent example of this aspect of his work.

Ferrari’s taste for performance must be mentioned, too – his performances with young musicians who shared his adventurous outlook. Yes, youth must be mentioned, too!

So many other things must be mentioned, still.

And so I pick up a recording, one of the last albums released of his instrumental music. It is the Symphonie déchirée, in a performance by Ars Nova, which is, as he said himself, “a sort of oscillation between rebellion and voluptuousness, realism and abstraction, impulsive gesture and formalism” (p. 140). Yet again, this dialectic between pleasure and heartbreak.

As I listen to the movement titled “Les cloches de Huddersfield” (The Bells of Huddersfield), I am struck by the simplicity of the writing and the complexity of what can emerge from it. E, D, C, B – these notes are repeated almost obstinately, but are diverted, deflected, rerouted by the electroacoustic work, the shifts in rhythm in the writing – and suddenly I am very near to a place where I might truly feel what Luc Ferrari was seeking. This uncomfortable discomfort, this rhythm – always expected, always broken – the obvious fact perpetually contradicted. Yet again, pleasure teetering on the verge of desolation.

Yes, this symphony is really heartbroken, as his mind is broken (“déchirée sa tête”), as Ferrari’s voice whispers in Presque rien N°2. Heartbroken and at the same time so limpid that one feels one ought to give all of this music to the world, so that everyone might hear it.

All paginated quotes are from almost nothing with Luc Ferrari. Interviews, with texts and imaginary autobiographies by Luc Ferrari by Jacqueline Caux, English translation by Jérôme Hansen, Berlin: Errant Bodies Press, 2012.

© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 2015

Liens Internet

(lien vérifiés en avril 2020)


  • Jacqueline CAUX (dir.), Presque rien avec Luc Ferrari, Entretiens & Textes et autobiographies imaginaires de Luc Ferrari, éd. Main d’œuvre, 2002.
  • Daniel CAUX, « Les Presque Rien - Et tournent les sons dans la garrigue », in Silence, les couleurs du prisme & la mécanique du temps qui passe., éd. de l’Eclat, Paris, 2009, Pages 333-337.
  • Eric DROTT, « The politics of Presque rien », in Sound Commitments, p. 145-166, document Pdf à télécharger sur lucferrari.org.
  • Evelyne GAYOU, Luc Ferrari, coll. « Portraits polychromes », éd. INA/GRM, nouvelle édition augmentée, paru lors de la création à Paris le 11 mai 2007 de Morbido Symphonie.
  • Florence GONOT, Alexandre YTERCE, SONOPSYS N° 4 : Luc Ferrari, Cahier Musique Concrète / Acousmatique, éd. LICENCES, parution lors de la création de Morbido Symphonie à Paris le 11 mai 2007, numéro accompagné d’un CD.
  • Seth KIM-COHEN, « Sound-Out-Of-Itself », In The Blink of An Ear: Toward a Non-Cochlear Sonic Art, Continuum, 2009,  p. 175-185, Pdf à télécharger sur lucferrari.org.
  • John PALMER, Guilherme VAZ, Hildegard WESTERKAMP, « The Lesson of freedom - Remembering Luc Ferrari (1929-2005) » in Soundscape, Vol. 6 n°1.
  • « Luc Ferrari », Hommage posthume in MusikTexte - Zeitschrift für Neue Musik n°107, novembre 2005.


  • Luc FERRARI, « Acousmatrix 3 », Petite symphonie intuitive pour un paysage de printemps ; StrathovenPresque rien avec fillesHétérozygote, 1 cd BVHAAST 9009, 1990.
  • Luc FERRARI, Unheimlich schön, coll. Cinéma pour l’oreille, 1 cd METAMKINE MK CD 008, 1993.
  • Luc FERRARI, Patajaslotcha ; L’Escalier des aveugles, Xavier Legasa, Donatienne Michel-Dansac, Michel Musseau, Ensemble Le Banquet, direction : Olivier Dejours, 1 cd MUSIDISC 201302, 1993.
  • Luc FERRARI, « Presque rien », Music Promenade ; Presque rien n°1 ; Presque rien n°2Presque rien avec filles, 1 cd MUSIDISC 245172, 1995.
  • Luc FERRARI, Suite pour piano ; Antisonate ; Suite hétéroclite ; Visage I ; Fragments du Journal Intime ; Comme une fantaisie dite des réminiscences, Christine Lagniel, Michel Maurer : piano, 1 cd AUVIDIS MONTAIGNE MO 782110, 1997.
  • Luc FERRARI, Cellule 75 ; Place des Abbesses, Chris Brown : piano, William Winant : percussion, 1 cd TZADIK USA - TZ 7033, 1997.
  • Luc FERRARI, Interrupteur ; Tautologos III, Ensemble de Musique Contemporaine de Paris, direction : Constantin Simonovitch, 1 cd BLUE CHOPSTICKS USA BC1, 1999.
  • Luc FERRARI, Chansons pour le corps ; Et si tout entière maintenant, Elise Caron : chant, Carol Mundinger, Sylvain Frydman : clarinette, Christine Lagniel : percussions, Michel Maurer : piano, Michel Musseau : synthétiseur, Anne Sée : voix, Nouvel Orchestre Philharmonique, direction : Yves Prin, 1 cd MODE records USA MODE 81, 1999.
  • Luc FERRARI, Far-West News Episode n°1 ; Histoire du plaisir et de la désolation, Nouvel Orchestre de France, direction : Michael Luig, SIGNATURE, France Culture, 1999.
  • Luc FERRARI, Cycle des souvenirs - Exploitation des concepts n°2, 1 cd BLUE CHOPSTICKS USA BC8, 2002.
  • Luc FERRARI, Danses organiques, cinéma pour l’oreille, 1 cd ELICA 4VL 3704, 2003.
  • Luc FERRARI, « Tautologos and other early electronic works », Etude aux accidents ; Etude aux sons tendus ; Visage V ; Tete et queue du dragon ; Tautologos I ; Tautologos II ; Und so weiter, Gérard Frémy : piano, 1 cd EMF CD 037, 2003.


  • « Presque rien avec Luc Ferrari », Jacqueline Caux, Olivier Pascal, 1 DVD ELICA, Milan, 2005.
  • « Luc Ferrari – Portrait d’un réaliste abstrait », Hideyuki Miyaoka, Tazz Nishihara, production Studio malaparte, Hiroshima, Japon, 2005.
  • « Slow Landing », Luc Ferrari avec Otomo Yoshihide, in CD/DVD Les Archives sauvées des Eaux, Disc Callithump CPCD-001, 2008.
  • « Luc Ferrari Face à sa Tautologie – Deux Jours avant la Fin », Guy-Marc Hinant et Dominique Lohlé, SR261 luc ferrari “didascalies” / CD + DVD, 2007.
  • « Contes De Symphonie Dechirée », Jacqueline Caux, production : La Huit, France, 2010.
  • « on line : Collection de petites pièces pour piano et bande », Michel Maurer : piano, concert du 2 décembre 2011 à Aix-la-Chapelle (Allemagne) avec une interview du pianiste à Montreuil, filmé par Haijun Park et Alessandro Mercuri pour la revue de création ParisLike, www.parislike.com/FR/invaders-michel-maurer-video2.php.