The Sound Comes From Everywhere: A Conversation With Beatriz Ferreyra

Photo by Reinhard Mayer

It’s honestly difficult to know where to begin with Beatriz Ferreyra, an electroacoustic composer who has always walked a unique path. From her earliest days at Groupe de Recherches Musicales (GRM) beginning in 1963 through her recent works for Room 40, Ferreyra’s ear for sound and ability to craft expansive ideas, often from a singular aural source, is unmatched. Through her early work and studies at GRM with Piere Schaeffer, Bernard Parmegiani, and others, Ferreyra developed her own compositional style that has shifted and evolved over the subsequent decades while still remaining uniquely her own.

Her newest collection, Canto+, is available now from Room 40, her second such release on the label. Our conversation went in directions I did not expect, but that’s second nature for Ferreyra. She simply uses her curiosity and intuition as a guide and follows the path it lays out before her. To hear her talk about sound and listening, truly hearing is a gift.

I spoke with Beatriz Ferreyra in late May from her home in France. 

So the first question I always like to ask is about your early memories of sound. What sort of sounds first made an impression when you were a child?

In my family, many people were musicians. My father and my mother, both played piano. There was always somebody around that played piano. In the big house, there was a mixture where two pianos were playing at the same time in different parts of the house, and somebody would be playing a violin on top of it. So it was always a mixture between Brahms, Beethoven, and Mozart, and it’s a good mixture when you do this. If you want to, you can do it. In my childhood, music was often mixed. Not always but a lot of the time it was mixed like that. And in other places, well I heard all this jazz and the music of the countryside as well.

Do you think that working with natural sounds in electroacoustic composition, can change our perception of those sounds or maybe even the feelings we get from those sounds?

Look, I have an idea about this because you know, everybody is different. I don’t know how other people will change their way of hearing. In a certain way, it’s true that when I heard the Concert Collectif for the first time, there were sounds I had never heard before. These sounds took me very, very far away, and I knew that the music would go very far. 

You see, I see the sounds in my head and the colors and all this as well. So I saw this, and I knew that I wanted to do this because it was something very fascinating. [Pierre] Schaeffer gave us the possibility to be aware that we can change our point of view, hearing something different when we hear this complex sound. With electroacoustic music, it’s a way of changing your way of hearing the same sounds. It’s possible to do this with different techniques. In this early time, there were very few techniques. It was a filter and variation. And trust the position of the sound with a tape and cutting, mixing. It was not the end of this automated journey. The other three are for me a miracle. So you can do this if you hear in certain ways. And if you always hear a cat, dog, or something else, you don’t hear with an electroacoustic way of hearing because you must change your way of hearing. You must hear the sound not from where it comes. You see what I mean?

Yes, very much so. Do you think this music can function as its own type of language?

No, I don’t think so. Everything is a language, even the movement with your body says something. Yes, in certain ways, the way you talk, not what you say, but the way you talk is a language. It’s a way of connecting with other people. So if you make a sound, like a shout, then perhaps the sound is saying, “I have a pain” or, “I am very scared,” or even, “I’m just trying to get your attention.” But language, it’s a way of relating and connecting with a person. You can call it a language, but I think it’s a way of shutting all the possibilities you have about something that is going on with a sound.

Something I’ve thought about a lot in the last year is how sound, as a medium, can bring people together. 

Sure, you can bring people together. Music is one of the things that gives you an emotion or sensation or a way of hearing things. Sound is one of the things we have in our life. So you can hear things, you can do things, you can move. You can do lots of things that make people come together. Music is one of these things, I think.

I think too, for me, like, along those lines is if you hear a sound or a piece of music that makes you feel a certain way, and then somebody else hears that piece of music and it makes them feel as similar way like that can be a way of connecting with people through that sound.

For me, music is a lot of things. I see it in my head. I hear it. When I compose I breathe. When we put a sound with another sound, if you don’t breathe, then you make a cacophony. If you hear my music, I breathe all the time. The silence is not one second or two seconds, it’s breathing. You have a sound like, ‘bum-bum-burummm’ [inhales and exhales] ‘ticka-tinga-tick-tick.’ You have these two sounds, but in the middle, that silence, is breathing about what comes before and what comes afterward. 

It’s very difficult for me to talk about composition because there are so many things that go into it and these things go very fast. You cannot stop all the time to think because you don’t think about it. You do it! [laughs] At the same time, you’re breathing all the time because you’re alive. So it’s a combination between the sound you hear and the sound you have. 

I can understand that. It can be difficult for me, too, to talk about my process whether it’s in composing or even when I’m writing about music, or writing in general. Often it feels like this natural thing that just happens for me.

This is why good writing has a rhythm to it. There are ways to say quick things and ways to say very slow things, and a good writer can feel that. Well, music is the same. We are human people and we all have our way to breathe, and there’s a rhythm to it. It goes very fast. And then it goes very slow. And then it’s a mixture between the both. You write like that! Sometimes you stop and then you go and then you think and new phrases come to you. Then sometimes you change what you wrote because it is not in the rhythm of the words. Music is the same thing.

We are all people. We are all breathing. We are people with sensations and emotions and the head is only there to put things together. That’s all. If you don’t have an emotion or something like this, then you cannot do anything. With the head only, you don’t do anything. You must feel something.

I like that description a lot. It really resonates with me.

I would tell you what I feel. What I think? I don’t know, but what I feel… I can tell you. This is the sensation I have of the sounds. One sound is waiting for the second. And when the second comes, if it’s not a good sound then it doesn’t work. If the emotion is not there and the sensation is not there? It doesn’t work.

If you think about all of this… How the people are in the world with sound. How you are in the world with sound. How you put the sounds together and how you will talk about the sound. The sound comes from everywhere.

That’s how it is for me. It all comes from a very personal, very emotional space like it’s the sound of my whole life. I think that’s why it becomes a central part of everything we do, right? There’s this feeling of it and the emotion behind it. Sometimes the actual sound of the music is less important than the feeling of it.

We are all a little bit bad about it now because of the technology. In the 60s and 70s, and in the 1700s with Bach and Beethoven and all these people, the technology then was an orchestra. It was instruments. Now, we have a computer to compose. They need paper and pencils! Well, you see then, they played a note and they heard the note. Now? I put a sound in the computer, but I don’t hear anything because it’s only an image. So the relationship with sound is very different. Even with those younger, I always have this problem. Are you looking at the sound when you put it in the computer or do you just close your eyes to hear? They looked at me as if I were absolutely ill! But it is not something that you see, it is something that you hear! With a computer, you are looking only at an image. So the image will tell you technical things, but the sound, if you don’t listen while shutting your eyes, you will not hear the music.

This is a thing we learned from the tape. Because with a tape, you didn’t see anything! You did every cut and every mix and you had to hear because you don’t have a screen. You don’t have anything. And with your hands, you could feel the sound. It’s very, very strange, but it’s very different working with tape. Parmegiani, he made the most beautiful sounds and very beautiful music through the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, and until he died, and he did it this way. When he had the computer – and yes, I did too – we would say, “Well, now you can put the sound like this and that, and you have all the techniques. It’s very easy.” But we always shared the sound by shutting our eyes and feeling how one sound goes with another. That comes from the tape.

I was in Argentina, maybe 10 or so years ago, and somebody asked me to come and to talk to the young students. I went to and there was a young man that wanted me to hear his music. He was a student. So, we were there and he is sitting at a computer, and he put his work on while looking at the computer. I turned his chair, so he can hear without looking. He was so panicked. He wanted to see what was happening. I had to take him by the arm so he would not turn again to see the computer. He had to hear, and he had never heard what he was doing. Then I said, “Well, you see, this is terrible.” He thought that he knew the music because he was seeing something on a computer. But he didn’t hear what happened. It’s visual. 

I told this to a young composer, “Go to a city. Put yourself in a place and shut your eyes. You will hear the streets. You’ll hear the sounds of what’s going on and sometimes good electroacoustic structures. Structures between somebody walking and a car driving, or somebody talking happily. You have structure all the time and you have the space. The sound can be very far away, it can be near; it comes from the right and also the left. That is the space of electroacoustic music. Even people that play electroacoustic music, they don’t have this sense of space. It’s not the same thing when you compose with the space as when you compose without. And when listening, everybody can’t sit in the same spot. You have something on the right, something on the left, something near, and something a little bit further. With an orchestra, it’s all frontal, but you don’t have an orchestra in your bag. 

If you think about all of this… How the people are in the world with sound. How you are in the world with sound. How you put the sounds together and how you will talk about the sound. The sound comes from everywhere. Are you conscious or not? The sound has a place in the space. It can move or be without movement. It’s near and you have access to it. Right, left, and all the infinite points between these two movements. Very near and very far. In the back of you and in front of you. Infinite points. Infinite ways that the sound can be. You have sounds that are very, very high pitch. You just feel it in your head more than your stomach, and the lower pitches you feel in your stomach. So you have all this kind of movement in reality. Why do you do music with just a computer?

I was thinking about this yesterday – it was my birthday – and thinking back about how technology has changed just in my life when it comes to recording and making music. For me, sure the technology has changed but I still use it in the same way – I just use the computer the same way I used a tape deck 30 years ago.

It’s this simple. Hear the sound, And in hearing the sound, you must shut your eyes. That’s all. Then you will feel the way it runs. That’s why, when I have the young composers ask me things, I say, “Well, you have electrical signals. You have four sources of sound. You have everything you can do with the voice. Everything. You have all the noises in the world. You can have all the things you can do with musical instruments. You can do it with every instrument in the world. And you have electronic sounds.” 

We are in a world of sounds. Sounds are all around us. The computer is only an instrument. The music is the thing you hear

Photo by Reinhard Mayer

Sitting and listening to music, or just sounds especially, like in the garden or something, with my eyes closed… Really experiencing it in 360 degrees, that’s important to me and is part of my process when I’m creating. Whether it’s something I’m writing about or it’s a piece I’m working on, that’s part of what I do. I think it changes your perception of the sound in such an important and meaningful way. 

Everything you’re saying makes a lot of sense to me. Even though you say it’s hard to talk about music or sound, what you are saying really resonates with me. I appreciate this so much. I also think about how when I am going into work… So I work downtown, around a lot of tall buildings and busy streets. When I walk from the parking lot a few blocks to my building, part of my morning ritual is listening to the city as I walk. I love just listening to the city. And the same when I leave for the day because the city sounds so different early in the morning compared to the afternoon. And in the same way, those sounds tell my brain and my body to adjust and be prepared for work or to relax and let go of the tension as I leave. It’s a big deal to me.

Yes, because look, if you think, if you hear, then you feel. The Walkman is terrible because when you have something in your ears, you don’t hear what is around. The people like that, with the things in their ears, they’re a little bit deaf, you know? They don’t discover all the sounds in the world around them. 

When I said this to a group of five or six or seven young students, the only one that did this kind of thing where they put themselves in the city with their eyes closed, the only one was a woman. The rest? The men? They didn’t do it. It was one girl. She was from India. She did it and she told me it was incredible. She said she had never heard the city like that. If you don’t use your Walkman, you hear what’s happening. There’s not a lot of people that do this.

Yeah, that’s interesting to think about how technology has helped contribute to this.

Well, when I was 40 years old, I was doing tape music. The computer was there, but nobody had a computer. Somebody, back then, asked me to come do music with a computer and I said no because I didn’t know how it worked. I had my first computer in 1997, so I did music all this time, from ‘63 until ‘97 with tape.

I think it was probably around that time that I had my first computer, and just thinking back to what that computer could do compared to what a computer can do now. It feels like an entirely different thing.

Oh, yes, I know. The thing where you were able to see the sound has changed a lot. The composer thinks that he is hearing the sound because he sees the sound. No! It is only looking at something that’s like a little drawing. The sound is something else. 

It’s hard for me to even imagine creating in that way.

It’s only a tool. I can say that there are people that can go out from their bodies and go where they want. They don’t need to have a car or a plane. [laughs]

Oh, yeah. Right.

Yes! Yes, you can do it. But you must do some exercises to do this like you must learn how to work with a computer to have sound. You must do some exercises to learn this. You’re in your bed and you’re able to go see other people. 

So what I’m saying is, you can have experiences that you don’t understand and go on without asking yourself what’s happening. With music, you have the same thing. With the Walkman, you’re stopping a lot of things and missing a lot of things. And with the television and with the little telephone we have now, we are stopping relationships with other people. There can be two people together and there is no relation between them. There is nothing. 

But… We can still stop and try to understand. We can stop doing these things, and we can listen. Then, we can hear

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