The noted electroacoustic composer Beatriz Ferreyra was born in Argentina in 1937. She studied piano, and planned to pursue a career as a painter. In In the early 1960s, she moved to Paris, where she studied with Nadia Boulanger; in 1963, Ferreyra began her longstanding association with the Groupe de Recherches Musicales (GRM), the famous studio that played a key role in the history of 20th-century music. She currently lives in the French countryside, a few hours outside of Paris, and continues actively composing and performing at the age of 80. On Saturday, she is making a very rare stateside appearance at Issue Project Room.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: Tell us about the show you have planned at Issue Project Room.
BEATRIZ FERREYRA: My plan is to have four pieces made with the sounds of nature – it’s not electronic at all. I know that generally in the states, people do a lot of electronic music, but I’m coming from [Pierre] Schaeffer in the 1960s, and then I work a lot with real sounds, where I record myself and I do it myself.
Pierre Schaeffer is often thought of as the founder of musique concrète and one of the fathers of what we now know as electronic music. But it’s broader than that. Talk about your interests in electroacoustic music.
The idea with Schaeffer was the opening of the maximum, the opening of all the sounds in the world. Electronic music is only electronic – you know the difference. We do the music with all the sounds in the world, and with electronics too if we need it. With electroacoustic music, it is an opening of sound: of hearing, of composing, of imagination. Everything is possible. You can mix a voice with a dog with a piano with a car if you want to. The thing that is very difficult to do is that it must mean something.
We do music with everything – it’s an opening, it’s incredible, it’s marvelous. We can hear the sounds in another way; we hear the characteristics of the sound, the form, the color, the movement. In the city, if you go to a place where there isn’t too much noise, you will shut your eyes and hear the symphony, you will discover incredible things – and little by little, something opens in your head, and you hear [something] that you have never heard before…
When I discovered this music in the 1960s – in 1963, exactly – I saw something very strange. I saw that this music can be done for a thousand years, because it’s not mechanical music. I liked the way of Schaeffer, opening the possibility that every sound in the world could be musical… in electroacoustic music you can do music with everything – with instrumental sounds, voice, electronics, sounds of a car or something like this, noises, everything.
Everything is a sound – it is not only a machine that will give you sounds, like electronic music, but music you make yourself with a tape recorder, or with a Zoom now, or we have a lot of machines that record the sounds you want. We can do them, and search for the sounds in nature. You can [record] scratching a violin, at the same time scratching a dog! [laughs] You can do what you want. Everybody can dream about something and you have all the sounds in the world, just around you. This is electroacoustic music.
You grew up in Argentina. What motivated you to come to Paris, and how did you find GRM?
This was destiny, my child, this was destiny. I came [to France] in 1961. I wanted always to be a painter – I paint, I draw a lot. When I was a child I always painted, and I wanted to be a painter, so I began to do painting. Two years afterwards, in 1963, I knew a composer, Edgardo Cantón, who was at GRM. He asked me to go to a concert – and I was always going to the concert because I loved music. And it was at GRM, with Pierre Schaeffer. I discovered this place and I said to Cantón, this music is incredible. He was a composer at GRM – he took me with him, and [showed] how to cut the tape, and all the techniques with the tape, and afterwards when I did myself a lot of things…there were no teachers in the GRM, everyone did what they could. All the music you can hear of the GRM of this moment, nobody copied [each other], I don’t know why. Everyone did this music.
Everyone had a different style.
Everyone is different – I don’t have a clone, you don’t have a clone, we are unique, you can do something. Everybody can do it.
There weren’t many women working at GRM. Was it difficult to make music in a male-dominated place?
No, I had friends…I had to fight a little bit with Schaeffer for a moment, and then it went away, we were very friendly afterwards. When I saw him in a concert, I went to talk to him and sit, we had a long conversation. But no, it was not difficult, I don’t know why. I know that Bernard Baschet was one of the people that told Schaeffer to take me in the GRM.
With a background in painting, did you ever think when you were making music that you were painting with sound?
No – but [I have] synesthesia. I thought that everyone hears sound with forms and colors, but no, not everybody. Painting is something that’s very different for me.
There is a deep interest in how sound interacts with form and space at GRM – in spatialization, and diffusing sound across multiple speakers.
I did my first piece with 16 channels…when I perform my pieces, I can perform it for 6, 8, or more loudspeakers…it is incredible, you can hear the sound going on and on in the space. This music is done to be in the space, not to be in the stereo. In a stereo, there are only two points, right and left, and you can be surrounded with the sound, it is impressive, it is very nice, but… that is the meaning of a concert. Otherwise you stay at home and hear the piece in stereo with two loudspeakers. [laughs]
The idea of the concert is something else. You cannot have this with instrumental music. You can’t play with the piano running around – it is impossible – but we have this possibility with loudspeakers to give this kind of music in the space.
Technology has obviously changed a lot since you began making music in 1963. Is it better or worse now?
It was different [then] – I don’t know if it was better…it was very, very heavy, to do this with tape recording. The music I do, the mixing and all this, it’s very, very heavy; it takes so much time to do it. I asked Bernard Parmegiani, a good friend, I said, “Do you want to go back to tape?” And he said, “Never in my life, never!” You must cut the tape, put the sounds…it is terribly – how do you say this – heavy to do with tape. I stopped composing for four years, and when I had a little bit of money I bought my first computer…I prefer the computer because it is easier, but the tape, it has its charm too.
Are you still making paintings?
Yes, when I have the time. I have a series I want to do. Because I am very old, people ask me a lot of things, but otherwise I would like to paint this year — it is in my mind.
Geeta Dayal is an arts critic and journalist, specializing in writing on 20th-century music, culture, and technology. She has written extensively for frieze and many other publications, including The Guardian, Wired, The Wire, Bookforum, Slate, the Boston Globe, and Rolling Stone. She is the author of Another Green World, a book on Brian Eno (Bloomsbury, 2009), and is currently at work on a new book on music.