Luc Ferrari, Tautologos, Situationism, Entropy (beginning, not to be concluded)

Thursday 21 February 2019

A map of the 16th Arrondissement drawn by Debord’s friend Paul-Henri Chombart de Lauwe, traces the routes taken by a student over the period of a year as she circulates between the School of Political Sciences, her residence, and the residence of her piano teacher.

Only got to one of the events as part of the Stereo Spasms festival, a week-long celebration of the life and work of Luc Ferrari. It was a good one: Tautologos III is one of my favourite pieces, heard before only from David Grubbs’ reissue of the 1971 LP version. Grubbs was on hand at Cafe Oto to join in with Apartment House and introduce the piece, first in ‘version 4’ as played on the record and then in the 2001 ‘Chicago version’. (Brunhild Ferrari joined in on piano for the latter.)

Grubbs reminded us of Ferrari’s particular definition of tautology, a repeated cycle of activity, as practiced in daily life, which was here transferred into artistic activity. While acting alone, yet necessarily as part of a group, individuals going about their business may interact with each other, on a regular or irregular basis. In doing so, their cycles are altered, which in turn may then intersect with and alter other cycles.

The music teeters on a precipice separating order and anarchy, and you’re never quite sure which side is solid ground and the other void. It’s a duality that seems representative of life in Ferrari’s native Paris, that particular understanding of liberté, an absolute freedom circumscribed by an innate sense of social order. A person is free to move anywhere, yet soon settles into a recognisable pattern. In Tautologos III, each performer is autonomous yet bound by obligations to others and thus the music begins to develop a logic of its own. As when reading a Perec novel, one becomes aware of persistent but elusive rules working beneath the surface, shaping a structure that at first seemed natural.

(Also played on the programme, the charming trio Bonjour, comment ça va? Bass clarinettist, cellist and pianist play interlocking repeating patterns, disrupted from time to time when each musician in turn is compelled to perform the social nicety of doffing their hat. Whether these breaks in each musician’s flow makes for an interruption or an ornamentation is a question left to the listener.)

For further consideration: in each version of Tautologos III it becomes clear that each cycle is contingent, subject to alteration. This mutability is a given condition of each performer’s loop. It’s a critical difference from other ‘minimalist’ works built on repetitions. There is no pre-existing, initial state for the material to be subjected to variation. The context of each performer’s interactions with each other becomes the defining force of the material. Everything is provisional.

In version 4, played first that night, the music started out varied and elaborate, and steadily reduced in melodic range and texture into a near unison of voices see-sawing between a handful of notes. As information*, any ‘message’ being conveyed was distilled to an essence, with increasing redundancy and lower entropy. As things became more and more familiar to the listener, was the music winding down, or becoming more forceful? Whichever may be true, would it be a good thing or bad?

* As with life: “Whether this information is valuable or worthless does not concern us. The idea of ‘value’ refers to the possible use by a living observer.” Leon Brillouin, Science and Information Theory.