Interview: Joan La Barbara

By Maria Murphy

Joan La Barbara in concert at Theatre du Marais, Paris, France
Photo: © 1977 Photo Horace

The last time Joan La Barbara was living in Philly, she was working with a local voice teacher on “The Bell Song” aria from Leo Delibe’s Lakmé, a signature coloratura soprano showpiece. Since then, her repertoire and vocal techniques have significantly shifted.The composer, singer, and actor is known for her iconic experimental vocal practices, which she created alongside some of the most celebrated composers in American new music, including  John CageRobert AshleyMorton FeldmanPhilip GlassLarry AustinPeter GordonAlvin Lucier, Steve Reich, and her husband Morton Subotnick. She will return to Philadelphia on September 28th to perform the program “Voice is the Original Instrument” at Annenberg Center Live at 8.00pm. Pre-concert talk at 7.00pm.


Performing “Double Rainbow”, composed by Alvin Lucier. Zurich 10/14/2016 
Photo: © 2016, Toni Higgins

Maria Murphy: What is the relationship between your previous classical training and your current vocal practice?

Joan La Barbara: I am educated as a classical singer, so when I began experimenting to find out what other sounds voices could make, I was relying on a strong education as far as my vocal instrument was concerned. When I talk to people who do different expressive work—what we now call extended techniques—we sometimes share similar sounds but have different approaches to making those sounds. My approach has always been to depend on my foundation of good training—to maintain a relaxed feeling in the throat, even with techniques like multiphonics [an extended technique by which the voice, in this case, produces multiple pitches simultaneously].

MM: Can you tell me a little bit about the program for “Voice is the Original Instrument,” which is also the title of your 1976 album?

JLB: The original “Voice is the Original Instrument” first came out on LP in 1976. I reissued it in 2003 with additional material from that time as a two-cd set, and the original recording was recently reissued on vinyl. I use this title “voice is the original instrument” because I think it is a strong statement of both design and purpose. It puts the focus on the voice, as my primary instrument, but also refers to the myriad of possibilities of sounds that can be made through the voice. The program begins with a work “Solitary Journeys of the Mind,” which features what I refer to as “real time composition.” Each time I perform it I have certain ingredients I always include, but change the order depending on how I’m feeling, how my voice is cooperating, and what sounds the room tends to warm to. Each performance of this work is a unique event, but it does include a broad range of extended vocal techniques.

The second piece on the program is “Shaman Song,” a suite of pieces that I formed using voice, keyboard, cello, percussion and some Indonesian instruments, such as a gendèr. I’ll also present what has become my iconic graphic score, “Circular Song,” which is inspired by the circular breathing of horn players. Of course vocalists can’t do circular breathing in this same sense. Horn players hold the air in the cheeks and push the air out of the mouth while continuing to breathe in through the nose and making sound. In my translation of it, I sing while I inhale as well as when I exhale. It’s absolutely incredibly rigorous. It’s very difficult to do. I’ve only heard two other people do it to date. Other singers have told me they only try in the privacy of their own studio and have not performed it in public. It’s difficult to get through because you’re actually forcing your body to do things it doesn’t want to do. Exhaling a descending glissando is very easy, but inhaling a descending glissando is very difficult. You think about normal vocal production [demonstrates a descending glissando while exhaling], and then there’s [demonstrates a descending glissando while inhaling] and so as I’m doing these patterns I need to engage my body throughout the piece.

My piece “Windows” is a very recent work and part of an opera-in-progress, inspired by the work of Virginia Woolf, but over the years I’ve become interested in American sculptor and visual artist Joseph Cornell, who is now also included in the work. “Windows” recreates a kind of voyeuristic journey that Cornell took. He lived in New York and spent most of his life in Queens without ever traveling much. On occasion, he took the train, which was above ground at that point, from Queens into Manhattan and would wander around, picking up various things, looking in galleries. He was an onlooker as opposed to a participator. And he had a fascination with young women. He did not actually consummate relationships, but was, again, an observer—so the whole concept of the piece is about how many of us are voyeurs in some capacity. When you’re walking around or riding in a car, you look into windows—you can’t help yourself. You wonder about the lives that are going on behind those windows. Living in a city—New York City, or Philadelphia—at night it’s just glorious to see all the mostly yellowish light behind the windows and imagine what’s going on beyond those windows. So in this piece, the materials that comprise what I call the “sonic atmosphere,” are recordings I made starting in 2003—some natural sounds, such as water, and others that I created, like wind. It’s incredibly difficult to record wind, so I had to create a wind tunnel with my voice. I include these elements of the sonic atmosphere with a live vocal overlay in real time.

The last piece on the program is a wonderful very short work by Morton Feldman called “Only,” which he composed in 1947 at the age of 21, which was also the year I was born! It’s only one minute long, so it’s a very short work and uses an English translation of a Rilke text.

Joan La Barbara in concert in Los Angeles
Photo: © 1984 Debbie Richardson

MM: Aside from the short Feldman piece, you’ll be performing your own works on this program. You have collaborated with and are an expert on John Cage, Morton Feldman, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich, among others. What’s the difference between performing your own works and the works of these other composers that you have realized as a performer?

JLB: It’s a very good question. One of the reasons that I moved away from classical music is that I wanted to engage with living composers. I wanted to be able to have a dialogue. As a classical singer, we mostly are dealing with music by dead, white men [laughs]. I got rather frustrated and moved more into the area of experimental music, to have a dialogue with living composers, and work with them to help solve problems and realize certain ideas: vocally imitating instruments and their timbres, experimenting with vocal production, or interacting with sine waves.

MM: It sounds like these were very collaborative experiences, in which you would also help influence the decisions these composers were making.

JLB: Yes. Absolutely. I would oftentimes demonstrate a technique or suggest an approach and some composers would use some of my techniques but others were concerned that they were imitating my techniques, and so some shied away from them, because they felt they might be accused of imitating or co-opting my ideas and sounds. In the case of doing my own work, I’m the composer as well as performer. I give myself liberty to introduce material that I may not have considered when I initially wrote the piece and also to work with the state of my voice at my age, which is an interesting thing. I’m making adjustments, decisions in real time, and that makes it exciting for me, and hopefully for the audience.

Joan La Barbara and John Cage playing chess before a rehearsal at his loft. Photo: © 1976 Michael McKenzie

MM: I recently saw that iconic image of you and John Cage playing chess—

JLB: [Laughs] Yes, I worked with John Cage for 20 years and that picture was from early on when he first asked me to do solos for voice from Song Books. In 1976, at a performance in France celebrating the American Bicentennial, I performed “Solo for Voice 45” from Song Books, along with two pianos playing Winter Music, and an orchestra playing Atlas Eclipticalis for 2 hours and 30 minutes. It’s an incredibly difficult piece to put together. It took me about 6 months to do all the work that was required to do that piece. The orchestra behaved very badly—this was 1976, a long time ago, and the attitude toward Cage was…some musicians just did not consider him a serious composer at that point in time. So some of them behaved very, very badly. They talked to each other during the performance. It was horrible. One oboe player actually walked on the stage carrying a couple bottles of wine and just sat there drinking the entire time and never picked up his instrument. It was one of these scandalous events and at the end of it, Cage was purple with rage, and of course the French journalists all came over with microphones to ask him what he thought. After his interviews he came over to me and said, “Joan you were marvelous. You did your job. You did what you were supposed to do and I want you to know that I’m with you always now.” And that was his commitment to me for the rest of his life. He really became a mentor and when I had concerns in my musical/compositional life, often times he would merely turn the question around back to me and say, “you already know what you think of this.” It was a wonderful way of being an advisor. His curiosity was boundless.

Joan La Barbara (kneeling center) in performance of her work “Winds of the Canyon” at Los Angeles Theatre Center (3/3/86), with set by Lita Albuquerque (standing in shadow at left).
Photo: © 1986 Debbie Richardson

MM: I’d like to ask you about the “Signing Alphabet” piece you did for Sesame Street, which incorporated speaking and singing the alphabet through various voice technologies with an accompanying visual animation of the ASL alphabet. I think it is wonderfully emblematic of your work in that it captures a sense of the experimental, visual, technological character of what you do. Do these elements comprise a method of interpretation in your work?

JLB: [Laughs] Well that was in 1977. I was using some commercially available electronic devices that would alter and modify my voice as I was performing: an Electro-Harmonix Frequency Analyzer, like an early ring modulator, which added tones above and below what I was singing into it, a phase-shifter, which could make sort of swoopy effects around the voice, and I was also using a Roland Space Echo, which is a little tape delay system in a box. “Signing Alphabet” was designed for children so I wanted it to be fun for them to listen to. It was purposefully playful, playing around with the sounds and with multiple layers, so in some cases you’d get a single voice or multiple voices doing things. In terms of working with visuals, I am strongly influenced and affected by visuals. I’ve done a number of pieces inspired by existing visuals, like “Klee Alee,” which was inspired by a particular painting by Paul Klee. I tend to see sounds when I’m singing, and so the vocal gestures are very visual to me. They are fluid, they have shape, a kind of dynamic range—like how breath flows through the vocal instrument to shape sounds in real time, so my scores tend to be a combination of graphic notation and traditional notation.

“Signing Alphabet,” (1977) Sesame Street

MM: It’s clear from this piece, but also from your broader oeuvre that you exercise multiple vocalities [vocal processing, multiphonics, guttural clicks, trills, hollers, whispers, sighs, squeaks, etc.] Do you also exercise multiple modes of listening when you’re performing, writing, or improvising?

JLB: I think in the case of improvisation especially I’m thinking about what I can contribute to the performance and texture. So whether it’s a solo improvisation or I’m improvising over a pre-recorded track or with a group of musicians, I’m constantly thinking and listening and analyzing. I follow my voice and make decisions: continuing with similar material, juxtaposing one musical idea with another, exploring consonance and dissonance, lending my voice to the texture, providing support for the current material or providing a conflict or alternative—often off-setting certain rhythms or accenting written material. All of those are factors of real-time performance.

MM: The voice remains a powerful metaphor, perhaps especially in today’s political climate, in which we have witnessed a broad, re-invigorated interest in direct action, demonstrations, and voicing our concerns—even in the form of resistbots. Do you see your work as participating in these dialogues? Is the voice still a worthwhile medium for our political constitution?

JLB: Well certainly the voice can be very powerful and it is absolutely essential that we speak out for what we believe in. I recently did a piece, written by my husband [Morton Subotnick] “Crowds and Power,” which was influenced by the book by Elias Canetti. The piece addresses the whole aspect of crowds: what happens in and to crowds and how crowds are manipulated. We started “Crowds and Power” with the voice being imagined, so there were more physical gestures and miming. I was really embedded in the video projections, and then gradually, I began to make vocal sounds that were modified electronically.

I looked at a lot of different dictators from different periods in time and various countries to consider different gestures and uses of the voice, like cajoling, where the speaker/politician was saying to the audience, “I’m the same as you. I want to help you. I can do something for you!” to draw in the crowd, but the reality of the situation, as we have seen in many instances, is that that person really has no interest in the public at all, but is merely interested in being elected and pushing their own agenda. The performance had a lot to do with vocalizing these kinds of things—the cajoling, the enticing, and then turning into a viciousness. There’s a point at which I’m offering food to the crowd with open gestures and demanding obeisance and adoration from my subjects, but then devouring them. It’s pretty horrifying and awfully timely at this point.

MM: Is there anything you’d like your audience to keep in mind during the performance on September 28th?

JLB: I’d like the audience to keep an open mind—not to have too many predetermined ideas or expectations, but to come and experience something new. And then go away and have something to think about afterwards. To the singers and performers who may be in the audience, it’s very important to work with living composers. You want to help them. My last voice teacher was absolutely adamant about that. She said, “You have to work with living composers. You have to help them compose for the voice because they may not understand fully how to do it.” Unless you’re a singer yourself, you don’t necessarily know how difficult it is to make big melodic leaps or to find a pitch without any musical cues of where to get it! For the composers working with musicians, you need, of course, to learn from them because players will know more about their instruments, for the most part. At least, be open to ideas from your musicians. When I’m creating a new piece, if I have time, I’ll demonstrate a sound and say, “what with your instrument can you do that approximates this kind of sound or some aspect of this sound?” So I’m constantly trying to learn from the musicians I work with.

Joan La Barbara in her NYC studio, January 2009 (for The Wire) 
photo: © 2009, Mark Hahaney