portrait #09 Beatriz Ferreyra

© ima

How the Sounds Come Together Sabine Sanijo

Beatriz Ferreyra (*1937) is born into a well-to-do Argentine family. She grows up in Córdoba, Argentina, and moves to Buenos Aires with her family at the age of twelve. Even so, they continue to spend every summer together at the big house in Córdoba along with two other families and five pianos. The entire family is very musical, though everyone has his or her own inclination: her father has a preference for Wagner, Brahms, and Chopin; her mother is interested in everything new, Debussy, Stravinsky, jazz – she always brings home the latest albums when she returns from visiting her family in the USA; one of her aunts plays Brahms, another sings tangos, Beatriz and her brother receive piano lessons. Among her childhood memories is the utter cacophony that would fill the big house in Córdoba when everyone was playing something somewhere or when the great gong was sounded to announce lunch or dinner.

Convoluted Paths

It is a long and winding path that eventually leads Ferreyra to music and the life of a composer. Initially she wants to follow in the footsteps of one of her cousins who earns a living drawing. But above all she veers away from the life originally intended for her: Unlike most of her girlfriends she isn’t interested in getting married and having a family. In search of alternatives and new challenges 18-year-old Ferreyra first goes to the USA; later, in 1961, she makes her way to Europe, where she settles in with friends in Paris. Her parents, wanting her to come back to Argentina, refuse to support her. For a long time she does everything from babysitting to waitressing, lives in a small basement apartment to make ends meet.

Her attempts to make a living from drawing remain fruitless, she spontaneously takes advantage of an opportunity to study composition with Nadja Boulanger. From her she learns the earnest and meticulous side of this work. But when a composer she knows, Edgardo Cantón, takes her to hear a concert by the Groupe des Recherches Musicales (GRM), she is so fascinated that she quits her composition studies. For the first time she experiences something that comes close in intensity to the musical impressions of her childhood. The music of Luc Ferrari, Bernard Parmegiani, Ivo Malec, and Jean Baschet played at the concert stretches into infinity, as she puts it, and offers her amazing possibilities. She becomes Cantón’s assistant, learns how to edit audio tapes, work with filters, etc. Soon after, she takes a course with Pierre Schaeffer and in this way becomes part of the team that helps produce Schaeffer’s “Solfège de l’Objet Sonore”.

The road to recognition as a composer is long. While she is part of the GRM, she writes her first compositions, but it is difficult to assert oneself a composer in the GRM. Pierre Schaeffer
was surrounded by women doing the legwork for him, but he is often surly and not particularly cooperative. To gain independence from Schaeffer, Ferreyra leaves the GRM after receiving a composition commission. After that, all her energy and effort go into composing: She accepts every commission she is offered, enters every competition. And she is successful: After hearing her piece “Médisances” (1968), Françoise Barriere and Christian Clozier, who are in the midst of founding the Festival for Electronic Music in Bourges, commission her to write a new composition. Soon she is tightly connected with the festival, which commissions her to compose a new work every two years.

Collecting Sounds

One of the main activities of making electroacoustic music involves collecting sounds. Each of her compositions uses its own sounds. Ferreyra never reuses sounds from one piece for another piece; after all, there is no limit to the type of sounds she uses. Wielding a microphone, she records animals, people, or machines. The sound sources for “Les Larmes de l’Inconnu” are her gardening tools and household appliances: hedge trimmer, lawn mower, electric drill, chain saw. For “L’Autre Rive” she records every imaginable kind of scratching sound. With tape compositions, therefore, labeling the recordings becomes extremely important; she compiles lists on the computer. Ferreyra uses various codes as well as sketches, pictures, or the nomenclature of the Solfège to help her remember the sounds and give her a clear visual image of them. Nearly as important is the exploration of spatial surroundings, which she considers the main element of music. Space is always present in her pieces: “To me, music surrounds, music is like life: In a city I hear everything going on around me. Sometimes there are structures that coincide, quite surprisingly, a car, someone talking, a dog….” She also conceives her compositions spatially, to Ferreyra the number of speakers and tracks used is the direct result of the spatial structure of a composition: “Space is always part of the music, I can’t create music without size relations, distances, movement; even with static pieces, like the beginning of ‘Siesta Blanca’ (1972), that’s static, but there are things that come and go, that pop up, that are in the foreground or in a second or third plane.”

Ferreyra likes to compare expansive, densely woven sound textures with an orchestral score or a painting with lots of different – sometimes just briefly occurring – things or people. In these dense sound textures the character of the music shifts only very slightly over time, but at some point it is hardly recognizable anymore. The vast soundscapes in “La Rivière de l’Oiseaux” (1998/99) are based on patterns generated from short, overlapping tones. The composition deals with discoveries Ferreyra had recently made in Argentina, the death of her father, and an eerie, horrible dream about Uruguay – the name, which derives from a native Argentine word meaning the “river of the birds”, was what inevitably inspired the title of this work.

Analog – Digital – Intuitive

When composing, Ferreyra uses the technique of perspective shift, which she picked up from Pierre Schaeffer’s concept of reduced listening: The listener perceives the sound as such rather than as an effect or indication of something else. From Nadja Boulanger, in contrast, she learned to be precise and to track down incongruities: When listening to music, as soon as her mind wanders from a passage to other thoughts, is no longer focused, she knows something is not right. Ferreyra conceives music as something that comes very close to a person’s own energy. She herself sees and hears colors and sounds in conjunction with each other, and for a long time she thought everyone had this ability of synestheitc perception.
To Ferreyra, composing is a physical process. Even today she misses manually working with the analog medium she gave up after having more or less explored all the possibilities of analog tape. Everyone at the GRM had his or her own distinctive, personal style in working with tapes; in contrast, composing on the computer with a mouse and keyboard is abstract. Since she began working on the computer, her only physical contact with the sounds comes via the microphone when recording. Her method of composing is very intuitive, often she doesn’t remember how she put together a series of sounds the day before. She has no rules. “Either it works or it doesn’t.” For a long time she lacks the strategies for controlling the compositional process. At first she searches for themes, associates these with emotions, sounds, or colors. With “Médisances” (1968) she shakes off old memories of spiteful, gossiping people in Córdoba. Her musical imagination, however, calls for greater freedom. Gradually she realizes that she first needs to find an inner stance before starting each new piece. Sometimes it takes days for her to come to an inner silence, from which something in her springs up – from her dreams or from everyday life. Since “Canto del Loco” (1974), this intuitive way of working comes easy to her. For that piece she not only gave free rein to the loco, the fool, but also to herself. In the meantime, her associative composition process can start with anything, whether image, sound, color, or form.

An Ongoing Process

The trilogy “La Rivière des Oiseaux” was followed by another work series, which Ferreyra has completed over the past few years. In these four works, referred to by the composer as her esoteric pieces, Ferreyra again addresses very personal questions. In “Dans un Point Infini” (2005) the listener is transported by the sounds of the violinist Veronika Kadlubkiewicz to a boundless place. “L’Autre Rive” (2007) was put together from percussion sounds and inspired by the Tibetan Book of the Dead. “Un Fil Invisible” (2009/10) reflects Ferreyra’s readings of C.G. Jung on various phases of alchemy. And while working on “Les Larmes de l’Inconnu” (2011), the last composition of this series, she very vividly imagined a weeping Aleph, the first archetypical letter of the Hebrew Kabbalah.

“Les Larmes de l’Inconnu” is one of Ferreyra’s last composed pieces. Since 2011, she has again tackled a completely new musical field in which she performs live with Christine Groult, who is also an exclusively electroacoustic composer. Together they have given a total of four concerts in Marseille, Paris, and Montreuil. As always with Ferreyra, the musical material for these live performances stems from having worked deeply and intensively with the tape recorder.

Beatriz Ferreyra is now eighty years old. And even if she no longer needs to set herself any goals, she still likes to dream about what it would be like to set up her own studio at her little farmhouse in northern France. (Translation Kimi Lum)