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)