Beatriz Ferreyra began her composing career incidentally, having been exposed to the wondrously disorienting musical methods of Pierre Schaeffer and the Groupe de Recherches Musicales, or GRM, shortly after moving from her native Argentina to Paris in the 1960s. Ferreyra’s passion for their unusual sounds jump-started an education that led to the creation of her own entrancing electroacoustic works, as well as collaborations with alternative instrument inventors like Bernard Baschet and assisting roles in the realization of compositions by Schaeffer himself.
Ferreyra has remained active in the five decades since her initial experimentations, including a stint at the Institute for Electroacoustic Music in Bourges and work in the field of music therapy, but official releases of her music have been few and far between. In 2015, her GRM Works was released via Recollection GRM in collaboration with the Viennese label Editions Mego, and the pairing of archival recordings with more recent compositions showcased a remarkable consistency and purity of artistic vision. In late 2016, Ferreyra performed at the Heroines of Sound festival in Berlin, where she spoke with Hanna Bächer for a Fireside Chat on RBMA Radio about her childhood in Argentina, the first time she heard electroacoustic music, her frustration with the younger generation’s emphasis on rhythm and the lasting influence of Bernard Parmegiani’s Violostries.
Listen to Beatriz Ferreyra in conversation with Lucrecia Dalt on RBMA Radio here.
Which sounds were the most impressive to you during your childhood in Argentina?
It’s very difficult to say, because I lived part of my life in the city, part of my life in the country. In the city the thing I liked a lot was the tram. We were at the top of a hill, and there was the tram that went “KUNGCLUCK.”
We lived in a big house. We were three families or four families. There was two living rooms – in the left and the right were pianos. When I entered from school, before lunch there was always friends of my mother and my father playing Schubert, something like that. My father was always a little bit impatient, so he was always playing without waiting. It was Schubert or Stravinsky, or perhaps something else, something very strange. Then they laughed a lot. At the same time, my aunt was playing Brahms and another piece, and all this was mixed in the middle of the hall. This is something that I always had in my head.
This was in the city. There were other things, children laughing and things like that. In the country was the horses... It was always, always sounds, everywhere.
You studied piano yourself and then got introduced to electronic means of making sound. What was your first contact with electronic recording devices or electronic instruments? Was that in Argentina or was it in Paris?
This was in Paris. When I went to France, I wanted to be a painter. Edgardo Cantón was a composer that I knew in Argentina. He was in France and asked me to come to a concert that he gave – “Concert Collective De Schaeffer.” In the concert I discovered electroacoustic music. It was not electronic, it was electroacoustic – affecting the sounds, the natural sounds, and that was something incredible. I wanted to do this.
With Pierre Schaeffer’s acousmatics, there was this idea that you listened to a sound but you don’t know about the source. I wonder if the fact that was possible also helped women, because you could just make a sound and the sound was detached from you as a person. So the sound was stronger than you, because I think at this time it was probably still difficult as a female performer.
A lot of people ask me what was the problem with women in the GRM [Groupe de Recherches Musicales] and this kind of music. Well, you know, the story of music and women, it’s always very, very difficult for women... I think I had a miracle with me. I don’t know how. I don’t know why. But I was there. Cantón took me in this place. Schaeffer was never against women, but in the GRM there were people that were very... I don’t know. For them, the music was men and not women.
But I was not something dangerous, you see? I think one of the people told me this. “You were not dangerous.” I didn’t have anything. I didn’t have a doctorate, I wasn’t a master. I didn’t have any diploma. Nothing. I was nothing. I had only my ears – that’s all. Cantón, when he saw that I was absolutely, “I kill you if you don’t let me go in there,” he laughed a lot and said, “Welcome.” He taught me how to cut the tape and what was a filter and all this.
In your own compositions, did the practice of music follow technology, or did technology follow the practice of music?
It goes together. I’m somebody that likes the relationship between things – I don’t like electronic sounds, because they’re a little stiff for my sensibility, but I made pieces with electronic sounds. I like electroacoustic sounds, because they are alive. They live. They have personality and all this. The technology is a way to compose. If the technology with the computers gives me the possibility to go beyond the technique of the tape, I take this one. If tomorrow there is a machine – if I am alive – a machine that you need only to think about the music and you do it, I will take this machine.
Music is something that can be done with anything. You put the things together. If you need a computer to do this, you use the computer. If you need the tape, you do the tape... If you need the violin, if you need the piano, you do it. It is the music that counts. The way you do it well... That’s the problem.
You made this one piece called “Murmeln” for Deutschlandradio Kultur. You wrote that it was a tango that had to be danceable or would be refused.
Yes... It had be danceable. No abstract dances. I didn’t know how to do it. I was in the car, and in the car I sing a lot. I hear music and I sing. I began singing [“Murmeln”] and [I thought] “Why not? I can do it with the voice like that.” So I began to do this.
Did radio matter to you as a creative input?
No, never. I never understood the idea of creating something for radio. For me, the radio when I was a child was always novels – people that were killing other people, love, terrible things – and the stories and all this, but music, no. Not radiophonics. I don’t understand very well what they want in the radiophonic thing.
I had “Petit Poucet Magazine” that I did for children in ’86. It was a child that is telling me the story. She tells me something, I say, “No, it’s not true.” “Yes, it’s true.” When children tell you a story they’re very monotonous. “Once upon a time... and then we did... dah, dah, dah.” I said, “No, it’s not true.” “Yes, it’s true, because once upon a time...” Then they begin to be real, you know? The story in “Petit Poucet Magazine” is incredible. I put three different stories together because it was very nice. This is the only radiophonic I did in my life, but it was the stories, not the music.
Is music a story for you, then? Is music a language or is music science?
Well, you know, it’s a language. I think it’s a way to touch somebody in a certain way that you cannot do it with words – with emotion, with sensation, with breathing, with time, with imagination, with something that’s not words. It’s something different. It’s like painting is something different. It’s like sculpture. It’s like literature. All these touch people in a different way.
The youth, if you don’t put “boom, boom, boom, boom,” they don’t know what they are hearing. They put “boom, boom” to Bach. Bach is a 4/4. You don’t need “boom, boom.”
When you worked in the ’60s and ’70s electroacoustic and electronic music was so new. What was the prejudice that you usually encountered with audiences, when you had an audience that wasn’t accustomed to this kind of sound yet?
The first thing was “It’s not instrumental.” There was not a theme with notes. You don’t see anybody playing – there are sounds, and sounds you don’t know. People generally – and it goes on now, too – there are preconceptions they have. “Music is this, is this, is this.” The youth, if you don’t put “boom, boom, boom, boom,” they don’t know what they are hearing. They put “boom, boom” to Bach. Bach is a 4/4. You don’t need “boom, boom.” It’s incredible. In 2004 in a university I played the tango and I asked them, “OK, what do you think about [this]?” They told me, “You must tell us, because we were listening to the rhythm.” I said, “Well, and the other thing?” “No no no, the rhythm.” I said, “But it’s all together.” No, they [only] listened the rhythm and then something is going on.
Before it was the theme, the melody with instruments, and suddenly you don’t have this. The people didn’t know what was happening. “This is not music. This is only sounds.”
Why do you think that is that people are focused so much on rhythm now?
I don’t know. It comes from jazz, but the jazz was much more interesting. The rhythm was there, but it was not “boom, boom, boom.” It was very composed. There was the good and the bad [drummer]. They don’t put a machine... They did the rhythm. It was not something like a machine. They did the rhythm. It was part of the composition. Now everything is absolutely mechanical. It’s horrible.
There’s a Pierre Schaeffer quote that I want to talk to you about, where he said that “Finally music can be made as a team of people instead of just by one lonely composer.” How much of a solitary worker are you when you write music?
I don’t have any particular way. People say, “You can do this and not that. You can do this way, not that way.” I just throw away all this, because everything is possible. For me personally, I have a lot of difficulty working with somebody, but I [composed] for performers with Christine Groult. I had performances with Bernard Baschet and his instruments. I can work with them, too. The composition for me is something very personal. There are people that can compose with other people – why not? Everybody can do something that is possible for one and not possible for the others. It’s a question of our nature.
Was Pierre Schaeffer a team worker?
I think yes, because I think he had to work with somebody to cut the tape. I saw him cutting the tape. It was terrible. I had to do it again. He was not a manual man. He needed somebody to talk about it with, a technician or composer that does the works with him... When the tape was there he was not very able. I don’t know how to say, very... Handy.
He needed to be with somebody, and in the radio I think he worked a lot with other people, too. He was engaged in something much more with other people. I am more a person that lives alone. I need to be in my thing. I think it’s possible to do both... I can do it, but not in a real composition. I can do it in improvisation and things like that, yes.
You said that now the piece that you’re doing is dedicated to several French composers.
The one I’m doing now, the composers are Bernard Baschet, Bernard Parmegiani and a friend that died. I had to go to Uruguay with him to create a new electroacoustic thing with doctors and all this. I dedicate this piece to these three – Bernard Baschet, Bernard Parmigiani and Carlos Pellegrino.
Parmegiani opened my ears. In ’64 he finished Violostries – only the tape part, not the violin. I remember that he came to ask us to hear it in the RAI. We were four, five – Cantón, everybody that was in the GRM, the secretaries. He had this, and I said, “That’s the incredible thing. We are playing with little sounds... Suddenly you have a symphony.” You have Wagner, you have Stravinsky, you have the world! You have infinity with big sounds... For me it was heaven and the sun and the light. When I heard this I said, “Everything is possible. I don’t know if I am going to do it, but it’s done. Bernard did it.” That’s what I felt. I will never be able to do something like that, but he did it. Anything’s possible.