Happy companionship, by Brunhild Ferrari

Interviews 06.03.2024

Brunhild Meyer became Brunhild Meyer-Ferrari after her marriage to Luc Ferrari (1929-2005). She was his closest collaborator for over forty years. Alongside her work as an interpreter and translator, she produces her own plays and devotes herself to the association she founded around Luc Ferrari, Presque rien, as well as to safeguarding and digitizing the archives of his works. In this interview, we look back at their collaboration and the way they worked together, as well as her own work as a composer.

Where did you grow up, Brunhild? Did you receive any artistic training from an early age, and if so, what kind?
I was born German in Frankfurt am Main, but never lived there. Then I grew up in Aachen with my parents, surrounded by music and painting thanks to my father, a clarinettist, composer and painter, and my mother, who never let a concert in the city go by without attending it and, a little later, without taking me with her. My artistic desires for theater and music were quickly abandoned, as the piano was my father's domain and my mother saw no future in being an artist. It was only later, in Paris, that I gained access to artistic practice.

What musical movement does your father follow?
Bela Bartok, Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich, Arnold Schönberg, Anton Webern and many others.

What year did you leave for Paris, and why? What did you expect to find there?
During my 6 months at the Alliance Française in Paris around 1956, I was friends with a lithographer and painter, Gérard Patris, whose studio I frequented. There I met some of the most fashionable Parisian painters who produced their lithographs there: Jean Dubuffet, Corneille, Roger Bissière and many others. After graduating, Gérard invited me to Corsica for the summer vacations, which my mother refused. In exchange, she offered to invite a friend to the following February's carnival in Aachen: Gérard Patris came, accompanied by Luc Ferrari. The idea had come to him spontaneously, as he thought it would be interesting to meet two composers, Luc and my father Wolfgang Meyer-Tormin. But the meeting was much more between Luc and me!
And in 1959, all I wanted to do was move to Paris and work with him.
I was thus able to witness the exciting young life of the RTF Research Department, which Luc had helped to create with Pierre Schaeffer, and from which the Groupe de Recherche Musicale (GRM) was born. It was within this Research Department that Luc and Gérard, among other collaborations, produced experimental music and films, as well as the television documentary series Les grandes répétitions(1964). For the first time in France, this series presented living contemporary music with Olivier Messiaen, Edgar Varèse, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Hermann Scherchen and Cecil Taylor.

What did your collaboration with Luc Ferrari entail?
With Luc, I collaborated in particular on the proofreading and correction of his writings, as well as on the recordings of some of his compositions, which sometimes included my voice, and I also kept up his correspondence. Luc suffered from writer's cramp, so my handwriting is often found in his scores.

You've produced a number of Hörspiel for German radio, mainly with Luc, were they commissions?
I've done programs, first for France Culture, then for WDR Cologne, including Requisiten der Erinnerung, for Bayerische Rundfunk in Munich for a program with composer Alvin Lucier, and for SWF in Baden-Baden with Luc's bilingual pieces: Contes Sentimentaux, JETZT and La Remontée du Village ... All these radio stations responded positively to our proposals, both to Luc and to me.

Before we talk about the shows with Luc, I'd like to talk about the one with Alvin Lucier in 2001. How did you go about it?
I recorded him in California at a symposium he was attending. When I got back to Paris, I phoned him several times to ask him to clarify certain details. I really enjoyed doing these interviews over the phone, because he was having fun too. He laughs very easily.

Did he see it as a bit of a game?
Yes, and - although he was very serious about his thoughts and research - he also had fun with what he was doing. He used to tell me about the instruments he'd found and invented, and that amused him.

Is the basis of this piece just an interview that you've reworked?
No, it wasn't like an interview. This piece was made up of aphorisms and excerpts from his musical pieces.

Was it only the pieces he mentioned during the symposium and your telephone conversations?
No, I didn't always follow the pieces he mentioned; I chose some from my CD collection. Because he had a stammer, I sometimes had a bit of trouble understanding him. His stammering in I am sitting in a room, especially towards the end, is also part of the charm of the piece. So I didn't talk too long on the phone. What's more, since I'm very shy, I stuck to what I had recorded in California.

Is this the only time you've done interviews, or is it something you've done again?
I did it mainly with Luc for this bilingual program Requisiten der Erinnerung, in 1996, in which I present different pieces by Luc that can be heard while interviewing him at the same time.

Then you'd ask him to dig into his memories.
It's like finding tapes in an attic. You'd go into the tape, listen to it and be surprised.

Here again, it seems to me that it was a form of play.
Yes, it was a game. We mainly used this form of play in another Hörspiel, Les Contes Sentimentaux (1990-1994). Everything was recorded live, in German and French, with music. Luc would invent stories about the different pieces. It was quite funny because they were completely imaginary and absurd stories too. He loved inventing.

It seems to me that the question of play, the question of fun, is at the heart of his work, and I would even say of your relationship, of your way of working.
It was very, very important. He hated to be bored. Excuse the term, but he used those words.

Indeed, when you read some of his texts or when he describes some of his pieces, it's often full of humor, even quite irreverent at times.
Absolutely. And even for his very serious pieces, he always talked about them with a touch of humor. His writings also bear witness to this.

It's clear that this has greatly nourished his work. I would even say that he almost "steals" sounds. He also takes a lot of recordings or bits of scores that he uses in other pieces. He allows himself this freedom. Is this also his music, a way of reworking existing things?
Yes, and to renew the meanings of these extracts too.

Traveling has greatly nourished not only his work but also your working relationship.
Discovering the sounds of the world, discovering people's ways of doing things and hearing them speak. For example, he was very happy on the platforms of the Tokyo subway. He couldn't understand anything in the hubbub, but he heard everything. And by listening so much, he came to understand what people were saying. At last, it spoke to him. We often traveled together and I often took part in recording sounds with him. I have images that come back to me as I hear these sounds, where they were recorded, in what context, what mood and humor. And of course, I'm very moved listening to them now.  

That's a beautiful thing to say. You've never thought of writing about it.
I don't think it's of interest to anyone but me, but maybe I'm wrong. These are very personal impressions.

I find your travels very interesting. They seem to me to be markers of eras, of moments that go beyond the question of the work itself, i.e., highlighting a political context in certain countries, for example.
Yes, and that wasn't always easy. For example, when we were in Africa, we didn't know that recording was forbidden. We were confident. We went all over the country, and then when we got back to the capital, we were told that we'd been to such and such a place, without having the right, and that we hadn't asked for authorization.

Exactly which countries did you visit? Did this give rise to a particular piece?
Black and North Africa, for example, with the piece Algérie 76 n°2 Belghimouze, Village Socialiste (March 1976-January 1977). I also used some sounds, such as Kabyle chants, for the piece Brume du réveil (2009).

Did he tell you to record this or that sound, or did he also give you room for freedom?
He didn't tell me anything. When he'd stop recording, I'd borrow his camera and record myself. I would intervene afterwards, correcting. I'd give him what I wanted, that was normal. Some things were prepared in advance, but it was more afterwards that I intervened a little, with corrections. When we recorded in the same place, on a train for example, he also used what I gave him, which was normal.

When it came to assembly and installation, did he follow your advice?
He always did.

During our various interviews, I realized how much listening was a ferment of your collaboration. Your recordings in the same place were by nature different, since your sensibilities were not the same. Perhaps you weren't going for the same things, the same sounds?
Of course, I didn't feel or express what Luc wanted to communicate, but it was he who really taught me how to listen. Where to go for sound? What sounds might be interesting? Even at home, when he was still in bed in the morning, he'd listen to me in the bathroom, right next door, putting on my make-up, taking a shower, etc., and he'd record. That's how I learned so much. 

What might have been trivial, everyday, was very important to him, wasn't it?
Important, because it was life that interested him. When he composed Hétérozygote in 1963-64, he would take me straight to the Research Department to attend the weekly meetings, not to attend physically, but to listen - and perhaps also to have me present.

You were free to express your own individuality, weren't you?
Absolutely, we stimulated each other. He never, ever tried to dissuade me from expressing my desires. He supported me most of the time.

We've talked about some of the Hörspiel you've made. In what year did you start composing pieces?
It was in the 70s and 80s, early 80s, when we did shows at the Café de la Danse. All the Muse en Circuit participants had to compose something, whether it was voice or sound or staging. Luc pushed me to compose music, which scared the hell out of me. Of course, I knew a bit about writing music, so I plucked up my courage and did a little piece for cello. And I asked myself why not continue. I tried composing at home, on Luc's piano, but he needed it. So he gave me an electric piano that I could work on at night, whenever I wanted, with headphones. But that didn't interest me at all; I preferred his piano. And then I stopped writing music. I didn't feel comfortable.

In an interview with Thomas Baumgartner for France Culture in 2013, you pointed out that your electroacoustic pieces were generally only twenty minutes long.
No, it was always by chance. I told myself not to go beyond what I wanted to say, that it would become boring to listen to.

Have you produced many electroacoustic pieces other than those featured on the double CD, Programme Commun, released by the Sub Rosa label ?Sub Rosa in 2013?
A few, but I haven't done too many, and they're now published on LP. I have made some that have been used as improvisation supports, like for violist Vincent Royer who improvised on one of my pieces. This is published by Mode Records in the United States. It's not really a collaboration; the piece Le Piano Englouti (2012) existed, I gave it to him and he took it from there.

Have you done this again with other performers?
Yes, with Jim O'Rourke, Christoph Heemann... I'm currently preparing something for New York. But I don't yet know exactly what I'm going to give as excerpts of what I've done, as well as Luc's sounds. A small ensemble of 3 or 4 people will improvise on this piece before or after a screening of a documentary film made two years ago by Luke Fowler about my career. A short version was shown last year in Cologne; it will probably be finished for this occasion in New York. I was delighted with the documentary. Luc Fowler is from Glasgow, a musician and filmmaker, who shoots exclusively in sixteen millimeter and almost in black and white. He'd done a series of screenings in Paris, and the first film I'd seen by him, which really interested and moved me, was about the English composer Cornelius Cardew.

How did he meet you?
Through David Grubbs in the United States.

Like Luc Ferrari, you've used the voice a lot. Is it a specific tool for you, or an instrument like any other? Does the voice bring concreteness to music that is abstract by nature?
For me, the voice in the hörspiele is primarily used for narration, explanation and presentation. In the "music" pieces, it embodies presences, but without making it possible to understand the meaning of what is being said. 

Luc's collaborations were important: I'm thinking, for example, of DJ Olive or eRikm. Lately, you've been invited by artists you're close to. Are you the one behind these new collaborations?
Not really, I'm not the one looking for opportunities.

For his part, did Luc seek out these encounters?
When he needed an instrumentalist, he would go and find one. Otherwise, it was the others who came to him with proposals, or he took the initiative once they'd met.

He has worked extensively with eRikm to name but one.
It all started in Ghent at the Vooruit, where he was asked if he would do a piece with Dj Olive. He was very surprised, because nobody had ever talked to him about it and he had never thought about turntables. This excited him, and he got into it with great curiosity, then worked with eRikm, who did his own interpretation, and others joined in.

Luc Ferrari & eRikm from jetlag prod on Vimeo.

A few years after Luc's death, in 2011 you created the Prix Presque Rien. What motivated you to do this? Was it a way of keeping his work alive in a different way?
I knew that there were artists out there who would have loved to use some of Luc's sounds, so I had the idea of opening up his archives so that others could have access to them. In fact, he made a huge number of recordings, and it seemed important to me that they should live on.

Does this archive only include partially used sounds?
Most of them were sounds he hadn't used, and there were also short extracts he'd reworked. But as time went on, I preferred to make pure sounds and recordings available.

Were these sounds catalogued by family, for example?
No, they were raw sounds. It was in the course of recording and digitizing these sounds, these magnetic tapes in the studio, that everything was classified chronologically. We have sounds recorded from 1959-60 right up to the end of his life in 2005. 

You talk a lot about life, which was essential to you. You continue to marvel. How do you view current musical creation?
There are, of course, the classical composers of musique concrète and electroacoustic music, but I don't always find today's creation very rich and inventive.

In the end, do you find there's a lot of repetition?
Yes, and the work is far too focused on the working instrument, the technological instrument, on manufacturing and not on imagination. Often you can't feel what the composers want to express about themselves, and that bothers me.

Is that why you're more interested in hybrid forms?
I find it more interesting, because it creates a dialogue.  

What is your future as a composer? What do you still want to do?
I think I'd like to compose pieces based on my own recordings or on recordings that are close to my heart, and then leave them free or entrust others with any improvisations.

Interview by Anne-Laure Chamboissier

Photo @ Anne Foures
Photo @ Olivier Garros
Photo @ Alain Taquet


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