Interview by Jason GrossIt's only fitting that a great avant-classical label led me to a great composer. Unseen Worlds was holding a listening party at Brooklyn Music School this past January, unspooling their wondrous catalog (including personal fave Philip Corner's Satie Slowly) when they also jammed in some other related music, including a hypnotic, mysterious tape piece. Who was that I wondered? After tracking down the laptop and the iTunes playlist, I found out it was Beatriz Ferreyra, a name that sounded familiar but wasn't totally registering for me.
Back at home, I looked through some of the GRM compilations and found her work there and was stunned at how varied, dense and transcendent her compositions were, mixing silences, nature sounds, other-worldly noise, calming ambience, surprising blasts of sound and more. I was fascinated and needed to find out more and it only became more fascinating.
Argentinean by birth, Ferreyra studied with several notable pianists and composers, and later found her way to the famed French G.R.M. studios, working for composer and musique concrete pioneer Pierre Schaeffer in the 1960's (and alongside Francois Bayle) as well as conceiving several multi-discipline projects involving mathematics and audio-visuals. The 1970's saw her ramping up her composing work as well as teaching in the States, working on music therapy and receiving commissions for her work. During the 1990's, she also curated several electro-acoustic concert series and performed across the globe. In the new millennium, she has remained active not only composing but also continuing to participate in and judging assorted electro-acoustic competitions.
A bit more of research and online detective work led me to track her down for an interview. Through the wonderment of Google's translation tool, we were able to converse via e-mail (my French is pretty rusty since high school and she admitted that her English is a bit limited). We shyly apologized to each other about our linguistic short-comings but we were able to have a good, meaty conversation nonetheless though I admit that I was a bit humbled to hear that she didn't share my impressions of my work and she also had to school me about some dates for her works. Good thing we had this interview to clear that up.
PSF: What music did you and your family listen to when you were young?
BF: All the existing music, including the most popular (tangos, Jazz, Caribbean music, Altiplano (South American area), Indian, Japanese, etc.) and all the instrumental music and opera of all ages and all countries. My mother and my father and several members of the family played the piano.
PSF: Why did you want to become a musician?
BF: I did not intend to become a musician. I wanted to be painter.
PSF: Why did you decide to become a musician rather than a painter?
BF: When, during my adolescence, I played the piano, I liked to play jazz, improvise. Being a composer seemed impossible to me, working with notes to put them in a group seemed to me to be the greatest mystery. I was reading music to learn the scores but the mystery remained total. I did not hear music to write it. On the other hand, I did improv on the piano.
At the same time, (for painting) I drew all that passed through my head; characters, caricatures, trees and other things, always in pencil because the shadows and the lights are obtained by the pressure of the line. It was fascinating to see and feel how a black (line) with a continuous pressure becomes less and less dark and can be done until there is an absence of a line. Then a new line comes out of this silence through an imperceptible pressure that becomes in one go, more dense, strong, black. This technic gave light and continuity to the features as a whole. In music and in drawing, the silence is very important for me. It is like breathing.
But two years after landing in Paris, Edgardo Canto, composer of the GRM, took me to a concert. It was the Concert Collectif of Pierre Schaeffer. It was the revelation because for the first time, I heard, saw, felt and understood what sound could do. And I had a vision of a music that went into the infinity of time, which carried me away with it.
PSF: Do you find that music and painting have similarities in the way you create each form?
BF: Music and painting are very different rationally; one works with time, without visual support, and the other is static, visual, where time is given to the eye of the one who is creating a picture. But for me, I see the two as images in my head: sounds with its colors and shapes moving in space and the paint appearing under the brush stroke or the color of the brush. And with both disciplines, I can run them without thoughts, only by following the colors, shapes, movements that appear in my head.
I do not know if I can explain this properly because what happens when I paint or draw and I compose is indescribable.
PSF: Early on, you studied the piano with Celia Bronstein in Buenos Aires. What did you learn from her?
BF: I learned the technique of (Vincente) Scaramuzza from Celia Bronstein as one of her students. Scaramuzza was the piano teacher of (famed Argentinean pianist) Martha Algelich. Celia made me feel the touch, arm weight, phrasing, body relaxation, breathing, etc. etc. And I liked to hear her talk about music, and especially play. She had been a concertiste (a concert artist) but after the death of her husband, she had to stop playing and became a professor. If I have not become a professional pianist, it is because I was very shy and could not (yet now) play in front of people.
PSF: Later, you studied with Nadia Boulanger, Edgardo Canton, Earl Brown, and Gyorgy Ligeti. What did you learn from each of them?
BF: With Nadia Boulanger, I learned to work, that is to say, to the exactness of the combinatorics (branch of mathematics), the meaning, the structuring of the tiniest relationship between each element used in a musical composition.
With Edgardo Canton, I learned all the basic techniques of the analog studio and of the tape recorder. First of all, the use of scissors to cut the band in order to isolate or assemble recorded sounds. A special scotch tape (assembly), then the synchronization of the tape magnets with primers (color bands), to coordinate the overlay. (Mixing) of the different sounds and sequences between them.
Edgardo Canton also taught some manipulations that were done with tape recorders like transpositions of the sound towards the bass and treble, that is to say, slowing down and acceleration of the magnetic tape as well as the variations between these two speeds. Then, more technical information about the filters manipulated manually, on the natural reverberation of the time, as well as the techniques of recording sounds with microphones.
I took a one-week internship in Darmstadt, Germany, with Earl Brown and Gyorgy Ligeti. Earl Brown taught us his technique (always on magnetic tape), the different possibilities of the improvisation that were made at that time. Gyorgy Ligeti gave us a masterful lecture of how to use opposition sound and tension as a way of composing.
PSF: When you started composing, who did you consider as your peers?
BF: I felt like my peers are all those who composed electroacoustic music (concrete of the time). But I loved every kind of music- classical, popular, jazz, Indian, Jewish, etc. etc. And those who wrote Partitions (scores) fascinated me because I did not understand how they did it. It continues to be a mystery to me. I do not know what to do it with notes on a range...
PSF: In the 1960's, it seems to me that your early work had a worrying, agressive tone to it ("Mer d'Azov," "Demeures Aquatiques"). Would you agree? Also, how did you compose your work then?
BF: Actually, I do not find that "Mer d'Azov" and "Demeures Aquatiques" are disturbing and aggressive. "Mer d'Azov" is the title given by Genevieve Mache (married to Francois Bayle), who was in the early sixties, responsible for the GRM sound library. "Mer d'Azov" was my internship study in 1963 when I did not fully know how to compose. I had baptized it as 'Merdasov' because it was a terrible bad little music made with only montages that lasted 2'30". Genevieve had not wanted to give it this name and she re-named it "Mer d'Azov." "Demeures Aquatiques" ('aquatic mansions'), my 1st piece for concert, included sounds that one could think of as water but there was no sound of water.
PSF: Perhaps I am wrong about this but it seems that there is not a lot of your work that's been released from the 1970's and 1990's. Is there a reason for this?
BF: I think I was very lucky to be published in this period, given the circumstances of my professional life because I was not working in a music group. Nevertheless, I was part, in 1975, of College de Compositeurs du IMEB (College of Composers). This is how they were able to commission works and publish a CD with my works of the 1980's.
In 1960, Philips published a vinyl record, 'Prospective 21 siecle,' with the works of the GRM, of which "Medisances" was included. In 1970, I left the GRM which put an end to the order of music of this group until 1999. I was called by the GMEB (Groupe de musiques experimentales de Bourges) under the direction of Francoise Barriere who commissioned my music until the disappearance of this group in 2011.
In 1975, "Siesta Blanca" (commissioned by GMEB) received the 3rd prize at the Electronic Music Competition at Fylkingen. This piece was included on a vinyl record (Fylkingen Electronic Music Competition 1975 Prizewinners) in Sweden, along with the other winning composers of the competition.
In 1997, Sonic Circuits, American Composers Forum 1997, proposed to me to publish "Souffle d'un petit Dieu distrait" ('Breath of a distracted little God') in a collective CD, Innova 114, USA (Sonic Circuits V). In 1998, the GMEB proposed to me to publish in a CD with "Le Petit Poucet Magazine," "Siesta Blanca," "Canto del Loco," "The U.F.O. Forest" and "Souffle d'un petit Dieu distrait," by the label Chrysopee Electronique, Bourges LCD 278 1109, France (titled Beatriz Ferreyra).
PSF: The early millennium (2000-2009) seems to be a very productive period for you. Was there a reason for that?
BF: Yes. In 1997, I bought my computer. Until then, I was composing with magnetic tapes on Revox. The computer freed me from the technical constraints of magnetic tapes, and I was able to compose faster and more easily.
PSF: The early millennium period seemed to have some interesting themes to your music. I hear a lot of nature sounds ("Un Fil Invisible," "La baballe du chienchien à la mémère," "Vuelo De Signos Y Remolinos," "L'autre Rive"), frenzied strings ("Dans Un Point Infini," "Jazz for Miles") and a playful use of voices ("Cantos de Antes," "Murmurel"). Were these themes that you did consider with your work?
BF: The titles of the works are inspired by the music I make, and the music (is inspired) by what I hear in my head and the images I see. I see in my head the shape of the sounds, their movements, their colors, their dynamics, and so on. Since the 1970's, I do not need to look for projects, texts, etc. because everything happens.
PSF: I also notice that a number of your compositions seems to use silence as a tool- there are silent passages inserted throughout your work over the years. Could you talk about how you use silence as a compositional method?
BF: When we talk, we breathe. Music also needs breathing. This breathing can be a sound like a connection, a joint between two sounds or moments, or as an inspiration, a silence, before continuing the discourse, whether it is with speech or music. I do not have a method for composing. I do not think of anything and the sounds with their colors, their shapes and their dynamics take me by "the hand" and take me where they want.
PSF: It may be a cliche, but have you ever felt that you did not have the opportunities you should have been given because you are a woman?
BF: I have always been lucky in making my music because it was, on the whole, very appreciated. I had a very good life as a composer and I continue to have it.
See Ferreyra's homepage (in French)
Listen to her music on her Soundcloud page
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