Beatriz Ferreyra: GRM Works

Navel-Gazers #19 is an interview with Beatriz Ferreyra who is going to talk to us about the GRM Works collection. It would truly be no exaggeration to call Beatriz responsible for some of the most groundbreaking recordings ever heard - sound recording aficionados may know her as one of the architects of musique concrète, in her days at the GRM (Groupe de Recherches Musicales), an organisation led by the great Pierre Schaeffer in Paris which is where Beatriz took up residence after relocating from Argentina in the early 1960s. The GRM Works collection juxtaposes two of Ms. Ferreyra's compositions from the late 60s era alongside two longer, equally remarkable pieces, produced only a decade ago. It's a tour de force through the outer limits of sound recording, not to mention a nice "symmetrical" way to look back at an extraordinary career. Now we have perhaps the ultimate way to learn more about the origins of these sounds: an interview right here at Navel-Gazers... hmm, what shall we ask Beatriz?

AC: Thanks for talking to me! I'd like to say you are the first South American artist to appear on Navel-Gazers. In fact you have lived in France for many years and you are usually described as Argentine-French. When exactly did you first move over to France? When did you first become acquainted with electronic music? was that in Argentina or after you went to France?

Beatriz Ferreyra: Well first of all I don't really make electronic music! I make electroacoustic music. This means that in my pieces I use sound recordings from 4 different sound sources: everything that can be done with the VOICE, all possible and unimaginable types of Noise, all musical instruments from all the countries of the world, and, sometimes, not very often, electronic sounds. I have actually only made 2 pieces with electronic sounds throughout my 57 years of life as a composer..... My composition (a word which means to pose with; com + to pose, meaning what, with what, how, etc.) is strongly imbued with an awareness of the morphology of sounds. A whole world of sounds.

I moved to France in 1961 for personal reasons. In 1963 I discovered electroacoustic music, at a GRM concert (the Collective Concert) which Edgardo Cantón, one of the GRM composers at the time, had invited me to. After that, I was able to join the GRM in Pierre Schaeffer's Solfège group, created to analyse sounds according to his morphological ideas, and to provide an incredibly rich documentation of everything related to sound and its effects on human beings. You can find the list of articles that I wrote on this topic on my website.

AC: Apologies for conflating the terms, electronic/electroacoustic... your music is certainly electroacoustic since you draw from all these sound sources. In your explanation - and in your music - I sense a deep realisation of the possibilities of sound, and I'm interested in your concept of "unimaginable types of noise". So what do you mean by this? ...and as a composer, how do you access the unimaginable? That must not be easy!

Beatriz Ferreyra: Unimaginable noises are those whose sources we cannot locate, which are strange, unknown, and that one can produce through transformations or mixing. If you make sounds in those ways you know exactly what I'm talking about!

I am 83. Since my childhood, everyone, myself included, listened to instrumental music: folk, orchestra, jazz, etc. The first time I listened to extraordinary sounds, I was listening to an electroacoustic concert for the first time: Pierre Schaeffer's Collective Concert in 1963. In this concert there were, to my astonishment, a few pieces with unimaginable sounds: by Bernard ParmegianiLuc Ferrari, Ivo Malec and Edgardo Cantón. They were electroacoustic sounds. It was then, at the end of 1963, thanks to Cantón, that I was able to join the GRM. These sounds moved me so deeply that my life's path was defined after this concert.

After my concert in Moscow, two years ago, a Russian composer made this observation: it's the first time I heard music with these sounds... "fojas uno".

He had the same perception as I did in 1963.

AC: Schaeffer once said, "Let the composer beware. A sphinx watches over the gateway to every human endeavour in every particular discipline". It seems that just a few years after 1963 you started to compose electro-acoustic music of your own - first a piece called Mer d'Asov and then the longer Demeures Aquatiques. Can you tell us how you made this brave leap into the ocean as a composer in a radical new discipline?

Beatriz Ferreyra: Everything was new to me because I had never composed before. With these new sounds I imagined moving images, colours, etc, but you had to learn tape recorder technology. 'Mer d'Asov', a title given to this small study by Geneviève Mâche; I had called it Merdazov... It was a little training study, just editing a sound recording, in mono. You had to do other things - which I really can't remember anymore - to pass the test and get the opportunity to work at the GRM. Four of us wanted it.

I think Schaeffer picked me to help write his Solfège De L'Objet Sonore which he was writing, thanks to Bernard Baschet, the inventor of Baschet instruments, who was responsible for the GRM at that time. I'm convinced he told Schaeffer about me because he always told me I was the best ear he had ever known.

We remained friends until his death.

AC: The description for Médisances mentions "unexpected technical defects" which contributed to the piece. Could you tell us how it was created? For a work like this, how much of the result is pre-conceived, and how much is down to improvisation, spontaneity and chance? Was it before or after starting that you decided on things such as the title, the length, the structure?

Beatriz Ferreyra: I remember the struggle of composing, finding a feeling, a sensation which would bring 'slander' - which is the translation of the title 'Médisance' ...... Personal memories ......

It was all about improvisation, spontaneity, and chance with tape music, as far as I'm concerned. Everything was new and mysterious. There was no teacher, nor compositional system, nor method, nor nor nor nor. Everything was new, to be invented. And one doesn't invent from something known. I knew nothing and everything was new, a discovery. I continue to compose this way now, starting from ...... nothing ......

In the three rooms of the GRM, there were schedules because there were several composers and only one studio. It took months..........

AC: Are you able to work faster nowadays, with the current technology? Un fil invisible and Les Larmes de l’inconnu are longer pieces, was it a very different process to the GRM pieces from the 60s?

Beatriz Ferreyra: It's like to have a car, or walk. The technique with tapes was very heavy and very slow. To cut the tape, to put it together, to control the mixing... if you cut a little bit you must come back and hear it again... all these manual techniques which you don't have now, and I'm happy because it was very, very painful and difficult!

Now you can put the sounds where you want without this kind of technique, cutting and coming back and hearing again, coming back, hearing again etc.

So, this technique is over but what is not over is the way we heard, where we didn't have eyes looking at the sound. When I have a sound now, when I'm composing, I don't look at it. I hear it. The looking doesn't give you anything. With orchestras, people were used to seeing something, the pianist playing, the violinist... but in our music, electro-acoustic music, you don't see anything. You hear. If you "look" at the sounds, the perception is double, and it's no good.

AC: 'Un fil invisible' is a piece about alchemy, dedicated to Christine Groult. Who is Christine Groult? And who are some other artists you've known and appreciated?

Beatriz Ferreyra: I've done a lot of pieces to give to people. So there are the pieces for Baschet, for Schaeffer, for friends who are clarinetists, violinists and so on.

Christine is a very good French composer. This dedication was because I had a problem with the computer, with ProTools, and Christine gave me a hand with it. Otherwise I'd have been unable to continue it, because I had a crash and she went into ProTools to retrieve it. And I figured the way to thank her was to give this piece to her, this piece which I could continue to compose. She's a good friend, and an excellent composer too!

She's different from me because she wants to do music in a place. There's often a relation with the place where she does the music - electro-acoustic music with "placement".

Michel Redolfi did this sort of thing too, in the sea, in the water. I don't know if you know Redolfi but he did this music in a swimming pool. You'd go down... and hear the music!

AC: Underwater?

Beatriz Ferreyra: Underwater! These are things that happened in the 70s and 80s, I don't know if he continued to do it. You must ask him. And he did another thing with a friend who died now, in Marseille in the south of France, they put loudspeakers in their shoes, and you'd hear the music of these two people coming and going. And they gave performances like that.

You know, the 70s was a very incredible time. The things we did in the 70s, I never saw them again because the computer killed all of this, in a certain way.

I remember these machines in Beligum, which were setup walking between the people, with a video with music inside... There were a lot of things in Bruges which were very interesting. There was the GMEB with Françoise Barrière and Christian Clozier. That began in 1971, all the way to 2011 I think, when they had to stop because the government stopped giving them money. It was an international centre for electro-acoustic and electronic music. They ran a 10 day festival where you could hear everything from all parts of the world. It was amazing.

AC: What do you think about contemporary music?

Beatriz Ferreyra: Well, I find that a lot of it sounds the same. I always say with artists that you are original - you don't have a clone and you don't need to copy anyone. You can do what you feel.

But even in electro-acoustic music you have now - we didn't have this in the 60s - teachers. We didn't have teachers. Schaeffer was not a teacher... I never thought about copying Parmegiani or Malec or other composers. Nobody taught me how to compose.

So now we have the little Messiaen-itos, the little Stockhausen-itos, the little Boulez-itos... you have the professors and the little professors!

AC: Inevitably!

It didn't occur to me that Schaeffer wasn't a teacher.

Beatriz Ferreyra: Schaeffer was a researcher. He had an idea and a discovery about the sound apart from its source... the sound material, where it's not a car or a voice or a violin, it's a complex sound. He was in radio, he'd have to search through the vinyl for sounds until one day, the vinyl suddenly had a problem and he heard... something else.

In all his books that he wrote at this time, he wanted to point this out and say that we can do music in another way, hearing differently. But he never told us how to put them together. That's the composition. We did this, each of us, the way we wanted to.

I worked with him, and with three other people, on the book that he wrote on this kind of sound/music perception: Simone Rist who was a French singer and 'metteur en scène' that did a lot of theatre, singing and dancing, Henri Chiarucci who was a physicist that died at the age of 48, and Guy Reibel who is a composer, more of instrumental music than electro-acoustic music. We researched the sounds with Schaeffer for 6 months, in 1964.

But there were no teachers. Nobody taught Parmegiani how to do Violostries between 1962 and 1964. How did he do that with the technology of that moment? Tapes, with only a filter and reverberation... he was a very good technician but for me it's a mystery. I never understood how he did this. It was incredible, a miracle.

AC: And no one taught you either...

Beatriz Ferreyra: I didn't even know I was a composer! I built it little by little. I wanted to be a painter, not a composer.

AC: How similar are the two?

Beatriz Ferreyra: When I hear sounds I see forms and colours, whereas I cannot say that a note is A or B or C. I see only the colour. The ABCs are for instrumental music and scores, but then again even with the scores you can make a tree if you want to make a tree!

AC: Now that is something to ponder!

Generally speaking why do you do music?

Beatriz Ferreyra: I do music because I am absolutely fascinated by sound. It's sound that makes me do things - I see things in my head, so it's like painting for me. I feel something, and I follow what I feel. Music is something you cannot see, you can hear it and so, it goes inside you. Emotion is the foundation of the music.

You can talk about music, but it's not the same as hearing the music. It's a thing where: you feel something, or you don't feel something. You get bored, or you like it. Afterwards, it's only an intellectual exercise.

AC: So although we're talking about music now, what you're saying is that you can't really talk about it.

Beatriz Ferreyra: No, I cannot really talk about music. I can talk about techniques, but not about music. You can see the difference - I could talk about how composing is putting two things together, how if you have only one sound, you can do music but it's not a composition.

You can move a sound for hours and hours with electronics, and it can be very musical. This is technique, how we learn to hear something differently, changing the point of view of hearing. Insetad of a car... we hear a car but the sound is complex and has a beginning and an end, it's high-pitched or low-pitched, it has variation, etc.

We learned, in electro-acoustic music with Schaeffer, to change our point of view, to hear something which is a sound and not that which produced the sound. If it's a car, a voice, a violin, we'd hear this too, but we could hear something else. I don't know how others do music, but I do music with this other kind of hearing.

AC: What a thought... and what a discussion this has been. Before we wrap up, are you currently working on anything you'd like our readers to know about?

Beatriz Ferreyra: I have now a piece which GRM asked me for, "The Spirit of the Earth" it's called. It comes from the collective unconscious and all the things which come before the symbols we have and the ways we've related ourselves with the world. It's a really strange one... I don't know, you will hear it when I've finished it!

AC: Can't wait.

We've got to think about what images you will provide for this interview... any ideas?

Beatriz Ferreyra: One day last year, a large cat showed up and she had 6 kittens in my salon, in front of the chimney. 6 little cats, and I had 2 others, and there were 2 others that came, and eventually I had 14. They are very nice, there are one or two that are a little bit sauvage... but I can send you a photo where they are sleeping on my bed.

AC: I can think of nothing more fitting or preferable than a photo of 14 cats.

Thanks for talking to me.

Beatriz Ferreyra: Thank you very much Andrew.

Beatriz can be found at her website,

This interview was translated to and from French by Iris Colomb.

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