L’Escalier des Aveugles, or The Stairway of the Blind, was commissioned in November 1990 by Spanish National Radio (Radio Nacional de España). Asked for a piece to premiere as part of the European Day of Music, Luc Ferrari returned with a radiophonic concept that organised his anecdotal music into montage form, sequencing short, elusive narratives in a successive way.
The completed composition is formed of thirteen chapters containing a mixture of environmental and synthesised sound, commentary, chatter, and encounters with people and places. Each focuses on a small event within this playbook, and Ferrari notes that each “in addition to being a realistic photograph, will be the subject of a ‘setting to music’: fragments of voice and atmosphere will be sampled and will produce musical matter or a ‘song’.”
The sonic language of Madrid forms the setting to which Ferrari lays out the persistent theme of the piece, that of the composer being guided throughout the city by a young woman. Using a game-like structure (liners for this edition include Ferrari’s “Regles de Jeu”, or “Rules of the Game” which act as a script or score to the piece) the motivation is posed: imagine that one day you are told “I know a place in Madrid that sounds amazing (or bizarre)”, to which you reply “Let’s go to it together.” The recordings toy with the relationships between guide and tourist, translator, director and actress, and masculine and feminine that emerge as Ferrari and the actresses follow this action, documenting the shared experience and connections they make as they visit these places.
Six actresses guide Ferrari (and the listener) through locations simultaneously ordinary and sonically rich: the metro; the El Corte Inglés department store where we hear the gossip from changing rooms set against music emanating from the PA; vagabonds declaiming their political stance in the Conde de Barajas plaza; interactions buying apples in a market; the reverberant and spacious halls of the Prado Museum where one actress gives a moving description of her favourite painting – Goya’s The 3rd of May 1808.
Ferrari replies in French to their comments in Spanish, and there are several self-referential plots, devices, and word games that flirt with the poetics and rhythm of language and sound. A recital of Lorca’s poem “La Casada Infiel” in “Hommage À Lorca” in amongst the location recordings feels striking, and the call and response of “La Nouvelle de L’Escalier”, where one of the actresses descends the staircase of the blind – a long stone stairway in Madrid proposed to Ferrari as an interesting location to visit during the trip by producer José Iges. She replies to Ferrari’s vocal enunciation of the place (and title) in French – L’Escalier des Aveugles – with the place-name in Spanish: La Escalera de los Ciegos.
Using this repeated title and image of the staircase of the blind as a symbolic place, a line is drawn to a situational landscape experienced and diffused through snapshots and allusion rather than holistically overviewed, sound conjuring pictures within the imagination. In the sensorial qualities of Ferrari’s treatment of emotion and language—fortified with electro-acoustic motifs and musical properties—the piece accelerates towards a render that is truthful, beautiful, yet also surreal; somewhere between theatre and reality, a gonzo cinema of the ear.