Joan La Barbara is a pioneering vocalist/composer who specializes is extended vocal techniques. She began her musical journey at the age of 4 with piano lessons from her grandfather, although her mother told her she was singing at the age of 2. Throughout her youth she sang in a choir at church and formed a folk group in high school. After receiving a Bachelor of Science in Music Education from NYU, she experimented as a jazz and rock singer and would find work mimicking musical instruments in commercials. At this time Joan also began to build and develop a resume of uncharted vocal techniques with circular singing, whispers, ululation, glottal clicks, multiphonics and more. As the downtown avant-garde music and art scene was flourishing in the late 60's and early 70's, Joan became a sought after artist with her unique vocal abilities. She became a major contributor of historic trend - setting compositions in contemporary music. Some of the composers that she has collaborated with include: John Cage, Steve Reich, Morton Feldman, Philip Glass, Robert Ashley and many more. Today Joan continues to explore new techniques and compose her own works, as well as delve into other areas of the arts. I recently spoke with Joan in depth about her career.
R.V.B. - Hello Joan... Rob von Bernewitz from Long Island... How are you?
J.L.B. - I'm fine, how are you?
R.V.B. - I'm doing pretty good. How about this wonderful weather we're having in the North East?
J.L.B. - It's beautiful.
R.V.B. - Do you still have the apartment that overlooks the park and the little white doggie?
J.L.B. - We no longer have the apartment on Minetta Lane but we do have a white dog named "Sadie". Our previous dog was "Lizzie". I don't know which one you were thinking of?
R.V.B. - The one that was on the NPR program.
R.V.B. - Samoyeds are a beautiful breed. Do you still live downtown?
J.L.B. - We sold our apartment in 2013 and we now live in Westchester. We are right near the Aaron Copeland house.
R.V.B. - That must be beautiful grounds for your doggie.
J.L.B. - It's great for her (Haha)
R.V.B. - Congratulations on your career up to this point. You've really accomplished quite a lot. It must be a great ride so far?
J.L.B. - Yeah, it's a good life.
R.V.B. - Where did you grow up?
J.L.B. - Just outside of Philadelphia.
R.V.B. - When did you first figure out that you had musical talent?
J.L.B. - My mother said that I was always singing... and that I told her as early as age 2, that I wanted to be a singer. I'm not sure I believe all of it. (Haha) At age 4, I did start playing piano when my grandfather started teaching me. I always sang in choirs in church and formed a folk group in high school. The group consisted of 4 women and we played in coffee houses in New Hope.
R.V.B. - You did the standards?
J.L.B. - Yeah. Then I went to Syracuse University for 3 years and transferred to NYU. I have a Bachelor of Science in Music Education from NYU.
R.V.B. - Why did you choose Syracuse at first?
J.L.B. - When I was in high school, I auditioned for a number of different schools. I chose Syracuse for a number of reasons. When I initially went to college, I was dually enrolled in music as well as creative writing. I ultimately moved more in the direction of music. At a certain point I felt I needed to get to New York and I transferred to NYU.
R.V.B. - You studied with Helen Boatwright at Syracuse... did you bring anything that you learned with her to your current career?
J.L.B. - She was very supportive of singing contemporary music. She premiered a number of works by Hindemith... in particular Das Marienleben. She also had a marvelous career as a Bach soprano. What I brought from my studies from her was certain attitudes towards performance - certain aspects of what one brings to the stage as a performer. That was the most important thing that I took from my studies with her.
R.V.B. - Did you transfer to NYU because you felt more at home in the city life?
J.L.B. - Yes definitely.
R.V.B. - Did you live on campus at NYU?
J.L.B. - The entire New York City is the campus at NYU. (Haha) When I was going to school there I had an apartment on 14th St. and 7th Ave. Shortly after that I had an apartment on 15th St. and 6th Avenue. Then I lived in a loft on 18th St. I had an apartment on 95th St...on 81st St... a loft on Greene St...
J.L.B. - Well not so much but there were circumstances.
R.V.B. - Did you take part in the music activities and the scene in Washington Square park?
J.L.B. - Not really. I think by the time I got there I was no longer doing folk music. I never really played in the park.
R.V.B. - You mentioned a loft... at one point after your studies, you teamed up with Steve Reich in a loft. How did you network yourself from your studies into the professional world?
J.L.B. - When I got out of school, I started doing a lot of different things. I sang jazz... I had a rock group...
R.V.B. - What type of material did you do in the rock group?
J.L.B. - I had a horn based band like Ten Wheel Drive. The group was called 10th Street. We never got any place but I really wanted to try everything and see what I gravitated towards. I was also doing commercials. I worked for a couple of composers who also did commercials... one of them Being Michael Sahl. He was the pianist and music director for Judy Collins. One of the commercials that I did for Michael was for Japanese perfumes. They had hired a Japanese singer but the advertising agency people felt that she sounded too Japanese for an American audience, so they brought me in. They really didn't know what they wanted so we ran the gamut of my imitating the sound of a koto... which was not really a koto but a harp sounding like a koto. The agency people thought that a koto was too ethnic sounding. What we finally wound up with was a breathy... Astrud Gilberto type voice. When Steve Reich was looking for people who could imitate instruments, Michael recommended me. I worked with him on the development of his work "Drumming". I started working with him in 1970. I worked with him for about 3 1/2 years to 4 years on the recordings on Deutsche - Grammophon... of "Drumming" and "Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and organ."
J.L.B. - Yes. I did the European tours and I did the California tour.
R.V.B. - How did you find that experience of touring with a large group of people?
J.L.B. - When we went on tour, we didn't use that large of an ensemble. We picked up some people who could play percussion. When we went to Europe, we picked up musicians in Great Britain. We picked up Michael Nyman, Cornelius Cardew, Michael Parsons and Gavin Bryars. They're all very well known composers although Cornelius has passed on. At that point in time they were quite young. When we went to California, we picked up some musicians there including William Winant. It was still touring with a great number of people.
R.V.B. - At that point, were you concentrating on honing your own skills and your own techniques?
J.L.B. - Well I was doing that all along. When I graduated from college, one of the things I started doing was working with jazz musicians and imitating the sounds of instruments. I was basically learning to improvise... I was moving into that territory. At that time, the jazz and the new music world was flourishing. The musicians would get together and improvise together in each other's music. I was beginning to hone those skills at that point. Some of my first pieces were "semi-structured improvisations". I would set up a kind of sonic environment or parameter - that I would ask people to work within. After a few years I began to create - what I refer to as - etudes... studies of particular aspects of what is now known as extended vocal techniques. My piece "Circular Song" for example, was inspired by the circular breathing technique of horn players. Of course as a vocalist you can't do that, so what I did was to vocalize the inhale as well as the exhale. A piece called "One Note Internal Resonance investigation" explored the myriad possibilities one can make with just a single pitch... putting it in isolated resonance areas in the head... doing reinforced harmonics and multi-phonics. From that point I began to develop a whole vocabulary of extended techniques that were an orchestra of voices in a way. Certain sounds were more percussive... more string like... or woodwind like. When I began creating pieces, I would draw on some of these extended techniques as well as more conventional techniques.
R.V.B. - Obviously people started taking notice because some major composers started writing work for you. For example, Feldman's "Three Voices". There's a seminal piece that's now officially in the history books.
J.L.B. - (Haha) It should be. It's a beautiful piece and I'm very honored that he wrote it for me. I did the premiere performances and performed it for about 25 years. Last year I went to Belgium and coached several sopranos who were learning that work. A performance was put on with three sopranos doing different sections of the work. It was a performance that was sponsored by La Monnaie... the Belgian opera house.
R.V.B. - The recording has three different overlays. How do you perform that live?
J.L.B. - The way it was written... it's written in three lines and Feldman indicated that the top two lines were to be isolated and recorded. When played back there was one on the left side and one on the right side. The bottom line was the one that you sang live. That was the way the piece was supposed to be done - one live voice and two pre-recorded voices.
R.V.B. - Can you tell me a little bit about what went into your "Sound Paintings" work?
J.L.B. - I tend to see sound. I see the gesture of the sound when I sing it. Some of my scores involve graphic notations as well as traditional notation. I'm also very much affected by visual art. Some of the works in Sound Paintings were actually inspired by specific paintings or a group of paintings by a particular visual artist. "Klee Alee" was inspired by the work of Paul Klee. Erin was inspired by a photograph that I saw in the International Herald Tribune, of a father carrying a coffin of his son, who was in the Irish Republican Army. He participated in a hunger strike and had died. That one was kind of dealing with Ireland... dealing with language. I created imaginary language in that piece and it ended in a thick layered multi-phonic drone... a kind of dirge. "ShadowSong" was inspired by some of the work of conceptual artists. Where they were dealing with placing oneself in a particular situation and exploring psychologically what happened to one in that situation. In "ShadowSong", I set up a kind of melodic material... line... and allow errant thoughts that were coming in to disturb that melodic line. All of these works were done on multi-track tape. You hear in that ("ShadowSong") different whispered words and fragments of melodies.
J.L.B. - Oh Yeah... A lot of the early work that I did with Steve Reich and with Philip Glass were performances in museums and galleries. In Soho - but also when we toured in Europe - some of the venues were museums and galleries. In fact, Steve Reich and Philip Glass were not very well accepted in those early years... particularly in America. The academic scene really shunned their work, so a lot of the touring that we did was in Europe. Their work and of course my work was more accepted there. There was a more open feeling about experimental work and contemporary visual art. The two went hand in hand.
R.V.B. - It also happened in other genres. They appreciated our blues and jazz players better. They were more open to them than America was.
J.L.B. - It's true.
R.V.B. - I think we're coming around. (Haha) How did you get involved with John Cage? Was it just a natural progression of your career?
J.L.B. - I first met him when I was on tour with Steve Reich... we happened to be in Berlin. I went to a performance of "HPSCHD", that was being done at the Berlin Philharmonia. It was all over the building. There were slides being projected on the wall in the lobby. There was an orchestra playing in one room. There were harpsichords all over. People were standing around and talking instead of playing. To me it was very chaotic and cacophonous and it upset me greatly. I found Cage... went up to him and said "With all the chaos in the world, why do you make more?". His devotees standing around him gasped. I thought, he's never going to talk to me now and I turned around and walked away into what was literally thousands of people. A few minutes later I felt this tap on my shoulder. I turned around and it was John. He was smiling beatifically and said to me "Perhaps when you go back out into the world, it won't seem so chaotic anymore". I tell that story because it's not that it changed my mind about that situation. What it did was, it gave me an incredible appreciation of the fact that this person who I had really affronted, cared enough to find me in thousands of people and tried to answer a question. About a year later, I was starting to do some of the first performances of my own work. I saw him at a concert in Phill Niblock's loft. I wrote down on a piece of paper, the concerts that I was about to do. I went up to John and said "I'm about to do some concerts of my own music and I'd like you to be there". He said "Ok", and he did. He came to a concert that I did in a loft in Soho. I was doing my work "Voice Piece: One-Note Internal Resonance Investigation". He came up to me afterwards and said "It's just marvelous what you're doing. Would you like to work with me?". I said "Yes". He gave me the score that he had brought with him (haha) - Solo for Voice 45 - from the Song Books. It's a huge work that requires a lot of intense work on the person performing it. It was 18 pages of what he referred to as aggregates... where you have to make a lot of choices. The aggregates are the 5 lines but 2 different clefs. A treble clef and a viola clef. There were numbers above the aggregate, telling you how many pitches to put in each clef. Then you develop the vocalise and learn to sing it using the letters that were underneath. It took me about 6 months to do all the work that I felt was necessary. I called him up and said "I'm ready for you to come and listen to this". He came over to my loft on Greene Street and I sang it for him. He said "It's very beautiful and it's marvelous but it's not as fast as possible". (Haha) I said "What do you mean?". He demonstrated and said "That's 10 pitches. It's to be like a calligraphic gesture... like birdsong. I want you to create the vocalise but learn it so that you're using the shape of the melody rather than singing each individual note". So I went back to work. We did the first performance of that work with 2 pianos playing Winter Music and Atlas Eclipticalis at the Festival of La Rochelle in France, in July of 1976. They were celebrating the American Bi-Centennial in France. We did a 2 hour and 40 minute performance of those works simultaneously.
R.V.B. - How was it received?
J.L.B. - There was a bit of controversy. Although I and the two pianists performed as we were supposed to - the orchestra - which was the orchestra of the Hague in Holland, behaved very badly. I would say about 60 percent of them didn't play at all. Some of them just sat there and talked to each other. It was very controversial. After the performance was over Cage was just purple with rage. Of course he was mobbed by journalists asking him all sorts of questions. Afterwards he came up to me and said "You were just marvelous. You did your job and you sang so beautifully. I am with you always now.". That was a life commitment that he made. I actually consider him my mentor. I worked with him for nearly 20 years.
R.V.B. - I'm sure you enjoyed that time with him. How did you meet your husband?
J.L.B. - I met him on a number of occasions. The first time I met him I was on tour with Cage. We had gone out to Cal Arts in southern California and I sang Solo for Voice 45 with 20 pianos playing Winter Music... in the main gallery. I met Mort at that point. About a year later we were on the same concert program. Morty Feldman had invited me to be a visiting composer at the university in Buffalo. The Creative Associates, was something where the University of Buffalo had invited musicians and composers from all over the world to focus on playing contemporary music. We were doing a performance at what was then Carnegie Recital Hall. I remember that Mort was having trouble with his electronics and his rehearsal time spilled over into my rehearsal time... so I was rather furious. (Haha) The next time we met, he asked me to come in as a visiting composer and teach at Cal Arts while he was on tour. I went out there and I taught his classes for a couple of weeks. When he came back to town, we went out to dinner and that was the beginning of our relationship. Our relationship actually began around 1978.
R.V.B. - During this time that you were collaborating with these composers, you were also working on your own music. Were you experimenting with different genres such as electronic music or choral music. Were you just trying to experiment and be expressive?
J.L.B. - I used some commercially available electronics in the work Vocal Extensions. I ran the microphone through them and used the electronics the way I would work with other musicians... in an improvisatory setting. I would reconfigure the dials and work with what was happening in the way my voice was being modified. Earlier than that, when I was at Syracuse, I got to work with one of the early Moog synthesizers... experimenting with it. When I got to a situation where I was able to work with multi-track tape, I then created what you say was choral works but using my own voice. I was not going out and working with choruses in the early development of my work. I was more doing solo pieces and works in layers. I started composing in the early 70's and I have continued through today. While I was working with other composers, I was really essentially studying with them. I was learning the way they thought about music... their techniques... their interests... what inspired them. I also worked with Alvin Lucier, who uses a lot of scientific principles in his works. I worked with David Behrman who was building his own electronics. I worked with Robert Ashley on the development of many of his operas. So in addition to Glass, Reich and Cage, there were these other composers that I was also working with.
J.L.B. - In the mid to late 70's and 80's (because the recordings I did at Radio France ("Les Oiseaux qui chantent dans ma tête" and "Des Accords pour Teeney") were in 1976, in Bremen ("Twelvesong") was in 1977 and in Berlin ("Klee Alee" and "ShadowSong") in 1979.) The Berlin wall was still up at that point. I did some recordings in Holland at the radio station VPRO. I had more access to multi-track recording in Europe than I did in the States because I was not attached to a university. I was working solo, so if I wanted to do multi-track work, I had to go into a studio in New York, which was pretty expensive. So a lot of the recording work I did through in the late 70's through the 80's was done in Europe. There was one exception to that which was a work called Autumn Signal... which I did out at Cal Arts. That work was influenced by Merce Cunningham. The way that he dealt with his dancers and moved them in space. If you were watching a Cunningham composition as an audience member, you had to make a decision whether you were going to watch a particular area of the stage - so that you would get information about the very specific movements that were being done - either by an individual or a group of persons. Or watch the entire stage and see more of an overview. When I created that composition, I was using the Buchla synthesizer to move my sounds in space... the way I felt Cunningham moved his dancers in space. That was designed as a quadraphonic piece. It was premiered in Berlin at the Metamusik Festival. I did do a stereo mix down. I recently received several grants to transfer some of my early work "immersive" work from analog to digital and remaster them. One of this is called "CYCLONE" - that I did in 1977. It was a surround sound - spatial sound sculpture... "Autumn Signal"... and a work called "as lightning comes in flashes". I re-mastered those and they will come out on a Mode DVD in Surround sound. It's wonderful to go back and re-explore some of those early pieces and have the opportunity to offer them to the listening public in the way that they were originally conceived.
R.V.B. - Technology is constantly advancing and the benefits are great for a project like that. Do you find that in this day and age that it is less expensive now to achieve what you want musically?
J.L.B. - Absolutely - with the whole advent of the laptop and computers - now I work in Pro Tools. The things that were really labor intensive years ago on multi-track analog tape, I now can do on my computer. I can record and work at home and do all of the stuff that I used to have to do in studios. It's marvelous now.
R.V.B. - Looking back on some of your performances - you have already explained a few of them - were there any of them that really gave you a "wow" experience either acoustically or just the general vibe of the performance?
J.L.B. - I have a piece called "Space Testing" which is different in each performance. I'm literally using my voice to bounce sounds around the acoustic of the space that I'm working in. That piece is always really exhilarating for me because I learn so much by doing it. That work in itself is a "wow" experience because of the very experimental nature of it. It's always different and it's always changing.
R.V.B. - Have you ever performed in a majestic church or a theater with great acoustics?
J.L.B. - There are two experiences that I can recall. One was singing Three Voices in a church in Ojai California. The church was all wood and it was the most perfect experience that I had singing that piece. The acoustics were perfect. I could hear everything beautifully and it was just an incredible experience. The other experience was singing at Carnegie Hall... the big hall. There is nothing like that space. I've sung there several times now. Just going in there and making a vocal sound in that space is one of the most incredible experiences.
R.V.B. - I've heard a few performances there. You can hear a violin barely touching the strings from any spot in the hall.
J.L.B. - Any spot in the hall. It's just beautiful.
R.V.B. - How do you enjoy sharing your knowledge that you've accumulated through the years with other people as an instructor.
J.L.B. - I'm having a marvelous time teaching. I teach music composition at NYU to individual students who come to me as a composer. What I try to do with them is to find out what they are interested in doing. I try to enable them to better explore the things that interest them. I teach privately for vocal students - who come to me to study extended vocal techniques. I don't do it on weekly basis. I do a single lesson and I give a great deal of information. I'll say "Absorb that... work with it... and when you're ready, come back and we'll do another lesson". That's essentially the way I deal with private teaching for the voice. Last year I started to work at Mannes The New School. I have a course that I teach "Advanced Vocal Workshop". I started my first semester by doing Cage's Song Books. Last semester I did a kind of repertoire course on Cage and Feldman. I am also coaching Robert Ashley's Dust. It's the first time that that opera will be done after the original cast did it. We did coaching sessions in the fall. We did an intensive rehearsal period this past spring and because it's not notated... it was really a kind of oral tradition where Ashley would work with the singers and deal with his way of speech singing - not sprechstimme - but his own personal way of speaking and singing. That's the kind of thing that you have to impart on an individual basis to the singers. Either they learn by imitating recordings or working directly with me on how to deal with the text and the chord structure... and how to create their own individual interpretation of the melodic material. It's a really long process. We're hoping to do a production in February of 2017.
R.V.B. - How did you enjoy the Tanglewood studies as a young person?
J.L.B. - It was fascinating. I went there to study with Phyllis Curtain. I had not yet begun studying with Helen Boatwright. I had just had my first year at Syracuse and I was studying with one of the faculty members there. I had decided to go to Tanglewood to study with Curtain. She was a marvelous teacher and she brought with her a doctor who came and lectured on vocal health. She also had a co-teacher who had a great deal of experience in working with young singers. The whole atmosphere at Tanglewood - with the young conductors who were there and the ensembles that performed a lot of contemporary music - was really stimulating. To get the experience of working with Curtain - who did a lot of classical repertoire as well as premieres of work by Ligeti and other contemporary composers - was a marvelous experience.
R.V.B. - You mentioned vocal health. Being that you take a lot of chances and experiment with certain sounds that most humans don't. (Haha) Did you ever have any issues with your voice?
J.L.B. - I have not. The way that I do my extended techniques is with a very relaxed configuration of the throat. Of course I was classically trained, so I have all of that technique to support the sounds that I make. If I do a sound and it makes me cough or I experience vocal fatigue... I always recorded when I was doing my vocal experimentation... so I can go back and listen to a sound and think about how do I make that sound using a proper technique. I know of a lot of opera singers who've had nodes because they're pushing... they're forcing... they're using the instrument badly. I never had any kind of vocal trouble.
J.L.B. - The thing that I'm most proud of at this point is that this year, I was awarded the Foundation for Contemporary Arts John Cage Award (2016). It was incredibly meaningful to me as a kind of reinforcement of the appreciation of the life that I have led in contemporary music - the focus on experimentation - and also the fact that the award is named for John Cage. It makes me feel very gratified. I really devoted my life and my work to experimental music. Trying to find new sounds with the voice... new ways of using the voice... incorporating instruments in my concept of this visual aural component. I feel that I'm continuing my work as I began this journey into this experimental realm. I've been working on an opera. It's gone through a number of different changes. I've done experimental sections of it. I've done sections that were more conventional... using conventional voices... and I'm continuing to explore this journey. It started out focusing on Virginia Woolf - her life and work - and has now expanded to being also inspired by the life and work of Joseph Cornell. Using these two artists, who I find very singular. I'm trying to weave a piece about these two people and their work.
R.V.B. - You do have a lot to be proud of. You went over to Europe to do a video shoot recently?
J.L.B. - Yes, I went over to Amsterdam. I met an opera director Sjaron Minailo - who was Israeli born but lives in Amsterdam - last year when we did the Feldman Three Voices project in La Monnaie Brussels. He came up with a concept that he convinced the Holland Festival to produce. It's called The Transmigration of Morton F. The story line... if you can call it that... I play myself it in some ways... and I've gone to Amsterdam and somehow imagine that I see Morton Feldman reincarnated as a young boy. I follow this boy to various locations in Amsterdam. It's in a way sort of an Alice in Wonderland story, that the young boy is kind of being the white rabbit leading me, and I Alice, following this path. We did the shoot for about 10 days in Amsterdam. They also simultaneously worked with virtual reality cameras. When the piece is finished, there will be a video piece that you watch and also a video game. You'll be able to watch the piece and/or play the game free of charge, once it has been launched. As I understand the game, you follow different paths and you pickup items as a player. When you collect these different items, then you can move on to the next level. It will be launched June 20th.
R.V.B. - I'll have to get my son to play it. Do you have any other hobbies that you enjoy?
J.L.B. - I swim... I ski... I started studying acting about 5 years ago and I'm enjoying that. I don't know if I would call that a hobby or a continuing education. It's an area that has always interested me and because my life has been so busy with concert work, I haven't been able to follow sufficiently my interest in the theatrical realms. I'm trying to get more into that at this point in time.
R.V.B. - That sounds great. You're a very well rounded person. You have a wonderful career and I appreciate you taking this time out of your schedule to talk with me. Thank you very much.
J.L.B. - Your welcome.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
this interview may not be reproduced in any part or form without permission from this site.
For more information on Joan La Barbara visit her website. www.joanlabarbara.com
Photo Credits: Mark Mahaney, Jeffrey Herman, Bryony McIntyre, Michael Mckenzie, Roberto Masotti, Betty Freeman, Donna Svennevik.
For information on this site contact musicguy247 (at) aol (dot) com
Musicguy247 has thousands of rare music items on Amazon... records, tapes, videos, books, CD's and more. Click here to view items