On February 5th, 2002, Luc Ferrari celebrated his 73rd birthday in Paris. The work and aesthetics of Ferrari continue to have a singular impact on several generations of American avant-garde composers. Like Alvin Lucier, Ferrari first obtained a thorough, traditional technique in composition. He took piano lessons with Alfred Cortot, composition lessons with Arthur Honegger and musical analysis with Olivier Messiaen. But he proceeded to become interested in the recording process to such a degree that he began to make tape pieces using altered ambient sounds and later incorporated electronics into his work in an effective and original manner. In 1954, his life altered radically when he boarded a ship and traveled to New York to meet Edgard Varese, after having been impressed by live radio broadcast of his Deserts for tape and orchestra. From Varese, Ferrari learned to treat sound as a thing in and of itself; also to place sound objects in the right time and space, from both an audio and psychological point of view. By 1963-4 he had begun Hétérozygote, an extended tape piece in which ambient sounds unfold in narrative form, suggesting a dazzling variety of incidents, all unexplained. The composer's program notes for these scores, themselves works of a poetic imagination, only added to the fascination. By 1970 he had completed Presque Rien No. 1, a kind of musical photography, in which unassuming ambient sounds of a small village in Yugoslavia, recorded throughout a long day, are telescoped by means of seamless dissolves into a 21-minute narrative in which no apparent "musical" sounds are included. When the work was issued on a Deutsche Grammophon LP worldwide the response was first one of shock and then revelation. Finally, John Cage's exhortation that music is all around us if only we had ears, had been taken seriously by a fellow composer.
Shortly thereafter, Ferrari appeared on KPFA Radio in Berkeley, and his interviewers, Richard Friedman and Charles Amirkhanian, decided to follow his lead and solicit ambient sound recordings from individuals all over the globe. The World Ear Project of KPFA proceeded to broadcast hundreds of such tapes, made on then-new cassette machines in the field, and numerous composers on the West Coast began to incorporate such sounds into their electronic works.
Beyond the mere acceptance of ambient sounds as musical, Ferrari found that his forays with the professional tape recorder into public places added a level of social engagement to his work. This led him to compose pieces in which the audience becomes voyeuristically involved with a kind of audio home movie. In such a state, a great deal is suggested, which is why radio remains such a powerful medium, even in the face of the wide acceptance of television. The disembodied voice of a human being in Ferrari's work lures in the listener into an intimacy which is palpable.
Beyond his work involving technology, Ferrari has composed a large body of instrumental music, ranging from very early piano solos to works for large orchestra, such as Histoire du plaisir et de la desolation (1979-81), a towering 35-minute work in three movements which won the International Koussevitsky Prize for recordings when it was released in 1990. And among his important credits are a series of invaluable television films which he made about the rehearsal processes of Varese, Messiaen, Stockhausen and others.
Luc Ferrari died of pneumonia in Arezzo, Italy, in August 2005.