Bridget Ferrill’s music plays between composition and noise, exploring augmented instruments, handmade electronics, and experimental computer music. Her album with Áslaug Magnúsdóttir, Woodwind Quintet, was released in 2022, on Subtext Recordings. Her latest solo album is Only, released on ENXPL, a collaborative cassette series from Psychic Liberation and Enmossed.
You are based in Berlin nowadays, but originally come from the US. What led you to an active engagement in music?
I grew up playing music — my mom started teaching me piano when I was 4 — but I never took it seriously as a life path option until I was studying at university. I had been on track to study physics, but had just been living in Japan during the Fukushima disaster and that really changed how I thought about things. I was 18 years old and suddenly started prioritising daily life over long term ambitions when I realised how quickly everything can change, how unstable the narrative can be. So I looked at what I truly valued in life and realised it was dominantly the shared experience of live music. I was already devoting all my free time to that so I decided to take it seriously and build my life around it. Concurrently I discovered that there was an experimental music program at my school, and decided to switch my major to that, even though I felt very unprepared compared to the other students. I decided to just make a fool of myself and get the degree and then take it from there.
Besides being a musician and sound artist, you are also a sound engineer. Do you think these two professions are mutually benefitting, or is there a moment when you think they are not?
Absolutely they benefit each other! My background in engineering completely informs how I experience and work with sound. It’s a special way of listening, akin to Deep Listening, and exploring that sensitivity to the balance and materiality of sound is at the core of my creative work. Having experience as a musician also helps with engineering because I can relate to the artists’ experiences and ways of communicating about sound. The only downside is that it can be hard to balance the time that goes into each. I took a few years off of really focusing on my own music when I was getting established as an engineer in Berlin, and now that I’m centering my own creative work I’ve had to turn down or scale down engineering jobs.
You are also building your own instruments. Can you talk about this aspect of your work?
Yes! This has come in various forms over the years, but the love of instruments is at the heart of most things I do. I don’t know how to properly summarise it except to say that I’m interested in exploring greater possibilities of our engagement with acoustic instruments and in unconventional modes of synthesiser interaction.
So.. to go through some of these variations:
-I’m currently working with Reuben of Ruby Guitars to build a new form of harp: a gothic harp with electromagnetic pickups for each string.
-A few years ago I designed a drone synth for Common Ground/ Koma Elektronik called the Anglerfish. It has 6 voices and is played with skin contact and modulated with light.
-I tour with Bendik Giske, and my part of that project is computer-based processing of the live saxophone input. Rather than approaching this as ‘saxophone with effects’ I aim to act as an augmentation of the saxophone — I want the processing to be an organic part of the instrumental performance, as if he’s playing a Magical Saxophone.
-I use a lot of self-made Max patches in my music 🙂
-In school I studied physical computing and augmented instrument design, and during that time made some kinetic sound sculptures and a performable electroacoustic augmented lute.
-My day job in Berlin is building synthesisers for Patch Point.
Your release on fellow US – adopted Berliner, Nick Klein’s label Psychic Liberation, is de facto dedicated to musical instruments – modular synth, harp, zither, viola da gamba. The track titles are kind of studies in each instrument. Did you search for the instrument’s deconstruction, or novel use?
I really followed my heart as the motivator for this one. I love the sound of all these instruments (and many others… there’s just only so much you can put on one album!) and created the pieces as an exploration of and ode to the individual sounds. In some ways it was deconstructing the complexity of how they’re normally played… keeping the compositions relatively simple in order to focus in on what I find beautiful in their sonic textures, or in other pieces it was more of a semi-granular quest to pull out the heart of the instruments, find their overarching expression. Half of this came together during a residency at EMS in Stockholm — I had the room with the big Buchla system, and recorded hours of improvisations on that instrument. From that I’ve harvested material for a lot of songs, including the Buchla piece on Only. While I was there I also had a great time getting to see the experimental instruments made by Mats Lindström. One was an old zither with several guitar pickups installed in the body. I recorded that through a bass amp and then had loads of fun slicing those sounds up and creating the Zither piece.
You have set up a mixing, mastering and recording studio in Berlin called Real Surreal. Can you talk about this venture?
I started Real Surreal together with my friends Lizzie Davis and Salka Valsdóttir in 2020. We were all working as freelance sound engineers and had the dream to create a shared space where we could pool technical resources, as well as building a more abstract space where we could support each other, somewhat in the way of a union or a booking agency. The field of sound engineering is still extremely male-dominated, and we were all facing the strange thing of being one of the few ‘women’ in the industry. In some ways it’s a pain, but in some ways its fun because there are so many women/queer musicians who are really looking for a different kind of experience than the standard shitty dude engineer vibe, and so it felt useful to team up and take both sides of this reality from a shared position.
What are your current and upcoming projects?
I’m working on a new album at the moment. I’m currently in the thick of it~ but you can expect viola da gamba, clavichord, tuba, harp, and heartbreak. I’m also touring a lot at the moment. I’m using these live shows as a chance to explore and develop the material that is going into the album. I’m trying new things out at each show — live music is really the heart of the practice for me, and playing with ideas in front of an audience, in this shared moment together, feels really fruitful and rich. Otherwise, together with my bff Lizzie Davis, I’m curating a concert series called Power Loom at KM28 in Berlin and the next season is about to kick off.
Interview Lucia Udvardyova