Almost Nothing

I imme­di­ate­ly want­ed to like Presque rien no. 1, for a few rea­sons. I liked the name of its com­pos­er, the French musique con­crète spe­cial­ist Luc Fer­rari; he sounds made-up to an Amer­i­can, a stock Euro­pean that a teenag­er might use in a short sto­ry for class. I liked the sound of the words in the title, and I liked what they meant: almost noth­ing.” I liked the idea of com­pos­ing with almost noth­ing. I liked the weird­ness of the whole idea – do I even need to say it? But to be hon­est, I liked espe­cial­ly that such a piece might have a use for me.

To that end, as soon as I had acquired it, I imme­di­ate­ly set about using it as back­ground music. It suc­ceeds as that, although there isn’t any music. Fer­rari record­ed a day at the beach in what is today Croa­t­ia, cap­tur­ing the time from the after­noon to night, as peo­ple dis­ap­pear and the crick­ets start up. Peo­ple shout out, things resound and rus­tle, all at a com­fort­able dis­tance. If you lis­ten to it enough times, the sequence and log­ic of the piece starts to become famil­iar to you – you remem­ber a par­tic­u­lar man’s shout, and start to asso­ciate it with a father shout­ing to his son to get out of the water. This famil­iar­i­ty was a key point to Fer­rari, react­ing against the her­met­ic nature of the stu­dio cul­ture he had devel­oped in, which had prid­ed itself on its acous­mat­ic char­ac­ter – that a lis­ten­er could not tell the source of the sounds on tape. In the wake of May 1968, he sought to more direct­ly engage the pub­lic in lib­er­a­to­ry fash­ion – and would pro­ceed along the Godar­d­ian pat­tern to spice his long takes and mus­ings with nubile women and rhyth­mic music. On Presque rien no. 1 he end­ed up antic­i­pat­ing lat­er envi­ron­men­tal record­ings – the ones I was snob­bish­ly try­ing to avoid, while essen­tial­ly seek­ing to fill the same need – sounds to calm my nerves and help me focus. 

I need­ed that so much, I see now, that I grad­u­al­ly came to change the sto­ry of just what the piece was. I found, upon check­ing again 15 or so years lat­er, that Fer­rari cap­tured the source mate­r­i­al through record­ing a small fish­ing vil­lage, and assem­bling over a years a typ­i­cal pic­ture of its dawn, not its dusk. There is no sound of water, but there is the sound of trucks. As plain and trans­par­ent as his ingre­di­ents were, I suc­ceed­ed in mis­tak­ing a work­place for a bour­geois hol­i­day. I hope the late Fer­rari – who had a rep­u­ta­tion as an unre­li­able nar­ra­tor of his own life – would have appre­ci­at­ed the error.

As the title would sug­gest, Marc Treib’s new book, The Land­scapes of Georges Descombes: Doing Almost Noth­ing, delves into the body of work clos­est to Fer­rari in land­scape archi­tec­ture. Descombes’ art cen­ters itself on edit­ing instead of invent­ing, draw­ing atten­tion to what already exists rather than cre­at­ing new objects or spec­ta­cles. Where he does inter­vene, he tends to make do with poor,” plain mate­ri­als – con­crete and chain link. 

Treib’s title derives from a com­plaint in a Gene­va news­pa­per upon the com­ple­tion of Descombes’ sec­tion of the Swiss Way – he has done almost noth­ing. That the edi­tors’ rhetor­i­cal dis­dain can be exact­ly mir­rored by Treib’s implic­it praise speaks in some way to the par­tic­u­lar val­ues of land­scape archi­tec­ture, which assumes as a mat­ter of course that the prop­er approach to a land­scape of val­ue is to stay out of its way. I find that many of my stu­dents reflect my own sen­ti­ments as a stu­dent. They want to do no harm; they are inter­est­ed in things as they are cur­rent­ly; they do not feel com­fort­able spec­u­lat­ing. And I think, like I did, that they tend to con­flate these three impuls­es; they are still learn­ing which land­scapes are to be respect­ed and skirt­ed, and which are to be replaced wholesale. 

As Descombes under­lines the tran­si­tion from a work­ing land­scape to a leisure land­scape, he reca­pit­u­lates the process that Fer­rari start­ed and I end­ed – he at once pre­serves what is there and frames it so sub­tly with rhetoric that in the end is no longer what it was. To work in this way seems at once a use­ful exten­sion of hon­esty, and an invi­ta­tion to lie incessantly.

Pictures of Stockholm, around 10 years ago.

(March 2019)