“The only thing I could do, was music.”
Beatriz Ferreyra is best known as an electroacoustic composer, who studied with both Nadia Boulanger and Earle Brown, among others, and who worked for much of the 1960′s at Pierre Schaeffer’s GRM in Paris. But when I met her in Bourges at the 2006 IMEB festival, we talked before this interview about all sorts of other things, as people do, including her early desire to go to the U.S. and be a painter. Curious about yet another composer who has or has had close ties with painting, I started off the interview asking about that. We switched very quickly to musical topics—this is a music magazine, after all—but the exchange about painting gives such a good idea of Ferreyra’s personality, that I couldn’t resist leaving this bit in.
Asymmetry: So when did you first start painting?
Ferreyra: When I was one year old, as every kid does.
Asymmetry:: Ah, so you are a human! How interesting.
Ferreyra: [Laughs] A human being… Well, let’s not go there.
My three cousins and my brother, they all drew. They never learned it; they drew because they liked to draw, do paintings, and they were very professional. They were only children—eleven, twelve, thirteen years old. But they knew how to draw a person—faces, hands. And they drew all the time. I just followed them.
My mother and father played piano, my mother from Debussy to new music, Webern. Not strict serial music, I don’t know why. My father played music from Bach to Debussy. Also my cousins, aunts and uncles played piano. So I had many possibilities to hear music. My mother liked jazz; and me too. I liked all kinds of music—Japanese, tango, Indian, Brazilian.
But I continued to draw. Made caricatures. That’s what I wanted to do. Go to America and learn technique and draw. I went to America when I was 18, but I had to return to Argentina because I was under age. But then when I was twenty-two, I went to France. I had planned to stay a month and ended up staying for forty-five years. When I was here in France, I wanted to go to the Beaux Arts and I had to learn French. So I had to work. Somebody asked me why don’t you try music, do some composing? I’d done some improvisation; some jazz. I had wanted to be a jazz pianist and play in the bar and have wine or whiskey and cigarettes and play all night. Work all day and do jazz all night and never to sleep!
I had never composed before my trip to Europe, but I did start to do harmony with Nadia Boulanger. Then one day I went to a concert of tape music with a boyfriend; it was the Pierre Schaeffer Concert Collectif with pieces by Bernard Parmegiani and other composers. I was shocked. This was what I wanted to do.
Asymmetry: So you worked then, studied with Schaeffer?
Ferreyra: First I learned with Edgardo Canton how to cut tape and what was a filter and what was a tape recording. And then I did a little course of two months at Schaeffer’s place in 1963. Well, he told me I had a very good ear for electroacoustic music, and he took me in the studio as an assistant to work on his book Le Traité des Objets Musicaux (Treatise on Musical Objects) and later on the recording that went with it, Le Solfège de l’Objet Sonore (Music Theory of the Sound Object). Schaeffer was a very interesting man. He was very interested in researching all about sound and perception .I was part of a group within the GRM (Groupe de Recherche Musicales) that we called Groupe Solfège, headed by Bernard Baschet, who made and continues to make very strange
instruments with glass and metal. There were four of us, Simone Rist, a singer, Guy Reibel, an engineer and composer, Enrico Chiarucci, a physicist, and myself. We researched in lot of different fields, such as the relation between sound perception and physical laws, time and timbre anamorphosis, working up to the key of distortions which occur between physical parameters and perception criteria. And we built an inventory of sound by providing a morphology and a typology. (All these are Pierre Schaeffer’s terms.)
Asymmetry: And you were composing then, too.
Ferreyra: Yes, I made music; my first concert was in ’67 and the second in ’68. In 1970, I left the research group and made my third piece with the GRM. Then I built my own studio, with three tape recorders and a mixer and a little synthesizer. Luc Ferrari had built his own studio when he left the GRM, but the general thinking then was that you had a studio at the GRM. In the GRM we had to go to one studio for reverberation, and another for the modulator, and another for stereo and the four track tape recorder, because all our work was done in mono. No studio had all these instruments together.We had three and a half hours one day in one studio and an other day of the week, another three and a half, for example. So perhaps seven hours a week. And then the next week maybe a few hours on Tuesday. It was terrible. And we worked like that.
Asymmetry:: I’d never heard that, that you’d have to go from one studio to another to use different equipment.
Ferreyra: Well, yes, it was like that because we were a lot of composers and only three studios.So I wanted to have my own studio, and a box with patches for connecting all my equipment together. I told Jorge Agrest, an Argentine expert in electronics, that I had three Revox and needed two more, but I didn’t have the money to buy them.” He said “There is a guy in GRM with two big machines, two old Ampex, with lamps that don’t work at all, but the mechanics are perfect. And his wife just wants to throw them out.” So he just took them away for very little money, and so I had four reading machines, eight tracks, and one to record. He made me a little patch box, with a table, for all the connections, with output to the recording Revox, then to the amplifier and the loudspeakers. Genius. I could hook everything up there, ask people to lend me a filter and hook it up to the box. It was incredible and absolutely free. And I worked with this setup until 1992.
I was living in an apartment at the time, on the twelfth floor, and I didn’t have good reverberation. My little synthi wasn’t very good for that, so when I wanted reverb, I’d go to the stairwell, 12 stories, and put the Revox and the microphone there, and get an extraordinary sound, natural reverberation. So I made music.
Then the IMEB, Bourges, asked me to do music there. They gave me ten days but it was too little time to do the music, so I’d ask for ten days more. And every piece was the same, I’d have ten days and need ten days more. But it was ten days, and not three hours. And it was my place, I had it all day.
Asymmetry: How did you first become associated with IMEB?
Ferreyra: Before they founded IMEB, Christian Clozier and Françoise Barriere came for courses at GRM in ’68, when I was giving Schaeffer’s solfège, and I met them there. When I left the GRM they commissioned music from me, and they presented my music at their festivals. And Nicole Lachartre, who created an organization (ACIC) between electroacoustic composers and instrumental performers in order to do mixed music, asked me to compose mixed music and also tape music alone. Other people asked me the same thing, so I could work.
Asymmetry: Could you explain a little about Schaefferian solfège?
Ferreyra: Solfège is a discipline of listening to different characteristics of sounds: their morphology (forms, attacks, decays, thickness, high and low position in the range, and so forth) and their typology (their general way of being in time, short, long, as a weave, with an evolution that moves very slowly, or not (homogene), iteratives (made with impulsions), complex (without a pitch) or tonic (with a pitch), accumulations, objects as short sounds with an attack, body, and a decay, something short as a musical note, dynamic variation. We have all these characteristics of the sound.
Now the problem of how to pass from one sound to the other is another problem that doesn’t concern this solfège. In tape and computer music (it is more or less the same thing for me) we have four major articulations: cutting, mixing, transformation, and silence. For me this is basic. Some pieces can be floating, without any articulation, and be music, but if a piece has a form, an evolution, then I think that it has some of these basic articulations.
In ’99, the university in Lille asked me to talk about how to do music with Schaefferian solfège. I said that it’s very simple.The solfège is a analysis system. To compose we must take the sounds and their characteristics out of any classification and… put them together. As I didn’t have the time to make examples on tape, I used my voice and mouth sounds to perform the examples. It was in front of two hundred kids, As I started to make the sounds, the kids began to smile, but little by little they were interested. I showed every characteristic and the four articulations.
Two composers were in this conference, and they expected me to make a mistake. Afterwards they asked me to do a film with this performance, which we did in 2003. Of course I can’t do real mixing with voice alone, but I can do dynamics, articulations, and transformations. It was easy and quicker to talk about it and do the sounds all at the same time.
It’s very easy to understand the Solfège with this system; I did it in Belgium in January 2006, and their teacher told me that this way of doing it made it easier to understand
Asymmetry:: Yes. It does seem pretty easy.
Ferreyra: Ah, but I always said to myself that to have a little bit of imagination is very very difficult. I always do the same kind of music, compose with the same kind of perception, even if what I hear is very different, and the sounds I choose are different. People said that this is our style. For me there are tics. However…Then I made this design, two flat circles: (In my real perception these are one infinite sphere, but two circles are easier to draw and to perceive). The circle on the left is objective characteristics. High pitch, low pitch. Piano, forte. Near, far. Pitch, complex sound. Iteration, continous sound. Stereo, mono. Homogeneous, iterative. With form, without form. Steady/static, dynamic/evolving. Polyphony, monophony. Thin, thick. I put down all the different elements and characteristics of music. This acousmatic music has infinite possibilities,
In the other circle, I put subjective characteristics. Tense, relaxed. Something doomed. Clear. Shaking. Metallic.Wood. Smooth. (I feel it smooth but maybe you don’t.) Lightly. Cosmic. Whatever I feel, whatever I need, whatever I hear.
Then the question is how am I going to do the sound? Scratching, tapping, smoothing, breathing. How to make the sound, to keep it running a certain time. With a form or without. With an attack or not. How am I going to get the effect of something I hear in my head? It is important to maintain the sound in time and the way to do it, which material am I going to scratch or push, and how am I going to do it. After recording this, how is one sound going to relate with another one? In tape music—or computer—there is articulation between sounds as I said before: we mix, we cut, we transform, and we do silences. We have the four articulations. I put them in the middle. When I did this design years ago, I felt my imagination growing up, moving around.
I did this design for my friends. And I remember two of the composers looking at it and saying “Why, you have made a bicycle!” [And at this point Ferreyra drew handlebars for it.]
Well, this is simple, it just suggests lot of possibilities for composing. It is possible to think about it playing with a violin, or with a train, or combining the two. The major point is how we combine them in relationship with the life of the sound, what the sound is saying to oneself. It was for me the beginning of the music for me, of what I love to do. If I take a sound from nature, or if I built an acoustic sound, I follow what the sound is saying. It’s something very different than making electronic sounds with a synthi. A sound that I do with my hands or my voice or with an instrument is very, very complex and has all these characteristics. Electroacoustic sound is like a person, it lives. It’s a living sound. Whether it’s something that it’s done by a person or not, as clapping my hands or a thunderclap, I’m always surprised by what I’m hearing. I don’t have any project or any agenda when I compose, I only listen and follow what I’m hearing and what the sounds give.
Ferreyra [this is not a typo]: But what if we were to have a cataclysm and not have any electricity? Would electroacoustic music just vanish?
Asymmetry [laughing]: Yes, well I guess that is the question!
Ferreyra: Well some would say, there would be nothing, we would do nothing. But I think ‘yes’ we would do something, because what’s happened with this music, this way of thinking about it, means that we can play with instruments, with sounds, combining sounds in a new way, with other ideas as in instrumental music. Years ago I did an experience with 25 young people, playing with boxes and instruments made by themselves. We did electroacoustic music direct, without electricity. We were making sounds, we were creating structures, without electricity.
Asymmetry: So it will be ok, if we have a cataclysm.
Ferreyra: Yes, well we will not have perhaps lot of good things in life, but in music we will have perhaps some strange sounds, created with our imagination…. If we can create bombs and terrible weapons, we can do instruments, too, we can perhaps create another way of producing sound with new ideas, new points of view, so…
…we can do music.