Soprano / Composer  Joan  La Barbara

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


JOAN LA BARBARA's career as a composer/performer/sound artist has been devoted to exploring the human voice as a multi-faceted instrument, going far beyond traditional boundaries, creating works for multiple voices, chamber ensembles, music theater, orchestra and interactive technology. As an acknowledged pioneer in the field of contemporary classical music and soundart, she developed a unique vocabulary of experimental and extended vocal techniques, including multiphonics (the simultaneous sounding of two or more pitches), circular singing, ululation and glottal clicks that have become her "signature" sounds.

The brief statement above, taken from the Lovely Records website, seems to sum up the career and impact of this fascinating artist.  She truly does it all, and has been on the cutting edge throughout her life.  Married to fellow-avantgardist composer Morton Subotnik, her life has been one of stretching boundaries and exploring possibilities. 

In August of 1991, she was in the Chicago area for a concert at the Ravinia Festival, and I had the privilege of spending an hour with her the day before her debut there.

Here is what transpired at that time . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    You are both a composer and a performer.  How do you divide your time between those two, and how often do they overlap?

Joan La Barbara:    It’s a juggling act, as you can well imagine.  I think that more and more they’re overlapping, in that the composer is doing a lot of thinking about the music that the singer is singing.  So a lot of the way that I think about music goes into the performance of it, and one character learns from the other.

BD:    Even the music of other composers that you perform?

JLB:    That’s what I mean, exactly.  In thinking about the way I construct music, I’m also focusing more on the way other composers construct music
what they’re thinking about, the shapes of thingsand one feeds back and forth between those two functions.

BD:    Is this, perhaps, the advice you have for all kinds of performers
to do a little bit of composing to get into the mind of the composer?

JLB:    I think it certainly helps, yes.  When you start to analyze exactly how a piece is put together — if you are also a composer, that can then feed back into that other function, and you start to analyze the way you’re doing something as opposed to the way someone else might handle the same situation.

BD:    Is your way better?

JLB:    [Laughs]  No, just different.

labarbara BD:    Are all of your compositions written specifically for you?

JLB:    No, they’re not.  In fact, I have a piece that is being premiered in September at the University of Iowa that was commissioned by them for ten instruments and no voice.  They were very specific about that.  [Laughs]  It’s the anniversary of twenty-five years of their experimental music studio, so I guess they considered it to be highly experimental to have me write something not for the voice.

BD:    Is this the first time you’ve written something without including yourself?

JLB:    No, about two years ago I wrote a solo oboe piece.  It had a little tiny segment for tape in it in which I used the voice.  I used a pitch follower, a kind of electronic instrument that analyzes what is being fed into it.  I was then able to adjust some of the pitch material and play it back as though by an oboe and a bassoon.  So it didn’t actually use my voice, but it translated the voice into this taped material.  I also wrote a piece for Joan Tower a number of years ago.  [See my Interview with Joan Tower.]

BD:    For her, or for her group? 

JLB:    For her to play as a solo pianist.  That also had voice on tape, and the voice was playing through tiny speakers that were inside the body of the piano.  So it was a kind of performance piece in that it was a duet between the pianist and the instrument.  The instrument was not only responding as the piano responds, but also with a kind of voice.  So it got into a psychological play between the pianist and the instrument.

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  You mean, there’s more to music than just sound???

JLB:    Oh, absolutely!  [Both laugh]  Performers tend to have a very complex relationship with their instrument.

BD:    Is it different when you can put it back into a case rather than carry with you all the time?

JLB:    A singer is obviously living in the instrument, so you have to take care of the instrument in a very particular way.

BD:    Interesting that you would say the singer lives in the instrument, rather than the instrument lives in the singer.

JLB:    If you think of the violin as having a body and then someone plays it, I’m living in this body.  You cannot then just hit the off button.  I just feel that the singer’s instrument is his or her body, and you keep it in a certain kind of condition so that it will respond to you when you need it to in a particular way.  Instrumentalists probably think about their instruments in a similar kind of way.  They’re protecting them and they keep them in as fixed humidity level as possible, and they keep it out of heat and don’t throw it around.

BD:    Unless they’re angry with it...

JLB:    Unless they’re angry with it and want to pay a lot of money to get it repaired.

BD:    So then it seems like with the instrument inside you, or you inside the instrument, you have it both better and worse.  You can do much more with it, and yet if you stub your toe it’s going to affect the instrument, whereas it might not affect the violin, at least as much.

JLB:    A singer’s situation is very complicated.  We’re plagued with colds and sore throats and that sort of thing, so you have to be very, very careful.  Things like air conditioning and smoky rooms are really dreadful for singers because it tends to dry out the throat.

BD:    Now you can demand a non-smoking room in the hotel on a non-smoking floor.

JLB:    Yes, and the airplanes now are totally non-smoking.  It used to be really treacherous if you would have to go to a concert the same day after having flown several hours in a smoke-filled room, basically.  You get there and people don’t really understand that.  They think that we’re being really annoying by asking them not to smoke, but they don’t understand that it really does affect the instrument.  It dries out the throat.  If they want to hear a decent concert, they have to understand that affects the instrument.

BD:    They don’t mind building a special hermetically sealed room for a computer, but they don’t want to do anything extra for the singer.

JLB:    For the humans, right.

BD:    A violin sound is to some extent mechanical, even though it is emotionally brought forth.  But the singer’s sound is completely a physical thing.  It’s a human thing.  How does that make it different, and then how do you, particularly, like to interact with a purely mechanical sound, meaning the electronics?

JLB:    First of all, I don’t think that a violinist would let you get away with the statement saying that a violin is mechanical!  It’s a constructed instrument, but a great deal of thought and care went into the construction of that instrument.

BD:    I’m thinking more of it just being simply separate, rather than completely inside the body.

labarbara JLB:    Right.  What’s interesting about a singer is that you’re constantly thinking about the sound as it’s coming back to you from the resonance of the room.  I suppose that’s the same for any other instrument, but also because I work so much with amplified voice, a lot of times I’m not only listening to the sound that is coming back from the room, I’m listening to the sound as it comes into the room from speakers while also trying to listen to the production that I’m making.  So I’m constantly shifting around between the sound that I’m producing, the sound that is resulting from the speakers, and then the sound that is coming back within the acoustical situation of the room.  So there’s a lot of analysis that’s going on constantly within the performance situation, in addition to trying to handle that emotional expression of what I want to put into music as well.

BD:    Any kid who plays with a tape recorder realizes the first time they hear their voice, they say, “Oh, I don’t sound like that!”  But everybody else says, “Yes, that’s exactly how you sound.”  So you don’t hear your sound that you are producing anything like what other people hear away from you.

JLB:    Yes, I’m sure that’s true.  It’s a little bit different in that the sound that is coming out of the loud speakers is the same for you as it is for me, whereas the sound of my own voice within my head is different for me than it is for you.  So in a way, by using amplification, I come a little bit closer to hearing my voice as other people hear it. 

BD:    Do you make any adjustment when there is no amplification, as opposed to the violin that presumably the violinist will hear next to his ear almost exactly the same as someone a few feet away?

JLB:    Yes, I think so.  The violinist is hearing more of the immediacy of the bow on the strings.

BD:    I guess he feels a little bit of vibration in his throat which is against the body of the instrument.

JLB:    That little vibration, yes.  I picked up a bass one time and played it, and I was just astonished with the amount of physical resonance that you get from that instrument.  It was quite amazing!

BD:    Our principal bassist here in the Chicago Symphony actually puts the finger board into his ear.  You can see him.  He slams it against his head so that he can hear the resonance.

JLB:    The bones are actually resonating and vibrating.

BD:    Exactly.  But I’m trying to figure out if you have many more things to think about than just a mere instrumentalist?

JLB:    Yes.  In the case of a song without words, I think I’m more like an instrumentalist.  It’s up to the instrument to carry a great deal of the message without the assistance of a kind of poetic resonance. 
When you’re dealing with words, you have something very specific that you can lean on emotionally. 

BD:    What are the joys and sorrow, then, of working with a specific text?

JLB:    It’s fascinating, actually, because you can deal with the meaning of the text or you can deal with the meaning of a word, or you can deal with the sound of the word as pure sound, which is another way of simply dealing with the instrument itself.  That brings me to the Cage works, because in some cases they are texts, for instance from James Joyce or from e.e. cummings, and they’re set almost verbatim.  [See my Interview with John Cage.]  In other cases, he’s taken texts from Marcel Duchamps’ notebooks, from the Bible and other places.

BD:    These are fragments?

JLB:    Fragments, yes.  He has extracted those fragments, so you’re dealing with sentences or phrases that actually have no meaning.  They are intended to have no meaning, but it’s hard not to give them meaning.

BD:    Even no contextual meaning?

JLB:    Yes, no intended meaning or no contextual meaning.  But as a singer, it’s almost impossible, once you’re given a word, not to imbue it with meaning.  Somehow just the shape of the word, and the way you deal with one letter following another, gives it more of a musical sense than a simple statement of it.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You work so much with experimental music and music on the fringes of what we normally think of as standard concert music.  Do you do any straight concert music, such as songs with piano that would appear on an ordinary program?

JLB:    Yes.  For instance, in the Cage concert I’m actually singing some cabaret songs by Eric Satie, and they’re very straight forward.  They were written in the very early 1900s.

BD:    Do those frustrate you because there’s not enough to do?

JLB:    At first I was terrified of them because they are so transparent in a way.  They are there and that’s all they are, and there’s not much more that you can do with them.  Leonard Stein has really helped me a lot in setting them in time so I have a sense of when they were written.  They are sort of turn of the century, especially the one from 1902.  It’s really just post-Victorian era, so you really have to set them in that time.  When I first looked at them, I thought, oh, cabaret songs.  That’s sort of like Marlene Dietrich in Blue Angel.  But it’s not.  It’s much earlier than that, so if you think Marlene Dietrich and you’re thinking this sultry, sexy kind of delivery, that’s really much later than when these songs were originally written.  I’m really trying to do them in that period which is much more of almost classical usage of the voice with a little bit of vibrato.  Especially if you think about the French classical singer, there’s a particular kind of vibrato that you associate, a rather rapid vibrato.  So I’m trying to think of that sound a lot.

BD:    Yet you’re performing them for an audience that has gone through two world wars and depressions and upheavals and revolutions.  How does that affect your statement of the songs, if at all?

labarbara JLB:    I think that because of where Cage has requested them
in that they’re to be interspersed with his Sonnekus², which are based on the Book of Moses and are intended to be in a kind of church-like settingI really see the Satie songs as a kind of vignette, almost as if you could see a sepia photograph in the concert hall.  It’s more like a dream or a reverie, so to do them as if they had been written now would be not only disservice to those songs, but also would confuse what it is that I think Cage is trying to do, which is to juxtapose these two very, very different kinds of atmospheres.  Yet even with his songs, they’re so simple and they’re almost Gregorian chant-like.  I think of them almost like a monk walking through the cloisters.

BD:    They’re not modal at all, are they?

JLB:    No, but the pitch material is extremely simple.

BD:    Is it really simple, or just simple in comparison to what is surrounding it?

JLB:    They’re really extremely simple.  The numbers of pitches used are very, very contained, register-wise and range-wise, and also just specifically the number of pitches used.  So it’s very, very contained material.  Within the Sonnekus², Cage suggests that you alternate, but he doesn’t tell you when to alternate with these Satie songs.  Where the songs are placed is my choice.

BD:    He’s always asking performers to be much more participatory than most.

JLB:    Absolutely.  He demands a great deal from the performers, and you get much more out of it if you do a lot of work.

BD:    I wonder if you, as a composer anyway, would almost instinctively do that, whether or not he had suggested it.  Maybe he just put that in for those who are not as creative as you are.

JLB:    That’s possible.  I did try to get him to be specific about where he wanted them, and he said, “Oh, you’ll put them in exactly where they should be.”

BD:    Once you decide where they should go, might that change if you do the piece a week or a year or a decade later?

JLB:    It certainly could change.  At this point I’m doing them approximately where I chose to put them on the CD.  I do three of the Cage songs, then I do one of the Satie and then two more Cage, then one Satie, one Cage, one Satie then back to Cage.  The flow of the material seems to work for me in that way, but it isn’t to say that I wouldn’t change my mind and do it another way at some point in the future.

BD:    You’re giving the concert and it’s similar to what’s on the CD.  If people listen to the CD, are they going to be surprised or upset by hearing the concert?

JLB:    No.  Pretty much the material that we’re doing is exactly what’s on the CD.  The order is a little bit different because I felt that in concert certain things flow into other things better.  The one thing that is a major change is Music for _____, which has various combinations of instruments.  When I did it on the CD I did Music for Two by One, so I did two layers of voice alone.  In the concert what we’re doing is Music for One, for percussion alone.  Then we’re doing Music for Two, for percussion and piano, and then Music for Three, for voice, percussion and piano.  It can be done for many different multiples of instruments.

BD:    I think that’d be wonderful to see a layer and then see the two layers and then see the three layers, and really be able to experience that one after the other.

JLB:    Uh-huh.  We’re interspacing them with other pieces, but I think that it gives much more of a sense of being.  It’s a very abstract piece, Music for _____, and hearing it in these three different versions people will begin to hear the shape of the piece and the different possibilities of the ways of putting it together.

BD:    In this piece, is everything notated or are there some improvisatory sections?

JLB:    It’s all notated, but it’s notated in certain time brackets.  You’re given a period of time in which you may choose to start a certain phrase, and then another bracket of time during which time you have to end that phrase.

BD:    So it’ll be a little different each time?

JLB:    Yes.

BD:    Then when you lay it down on the CD, I would think that would almost be anathema to someone who is so very into improvisatory music because it’s going to come back exactly the same every time.

labarbara JLB:    Yes, that’s true.  But if you don’t do it, then you can’t make a CD.  It’s simply a record of that particular performance.  Any jazz music disc is simply a document which is an example of a particular reading of that idea on a particular day.

BD:    With programmability in the home, are you perhaps going to take advantage of that and allow
— or even encourage — the listeners to create their own sequence(s)?

JLB:    That would certainly be something that we’ll be able to do very soon.  With CD-ROM you’ll be able to layer up that material. Anybody with a computer should be able to do that.

BD:    Or even do straight tracks of pieces here and there.

JLB:    You could certainly do that now on your CD player if you just want to rearrange things.  I thought you were thinking more of a re-arrangement of a single work, as opposed to hearing piece one after piece two.

BD:    Right, that’s the next thing.

JLB:    Yes, and that’s not very far off.  That, in a way, will bring people closer to an understanding of this kind of music.  Without having to perform it, they can actually get to play with the materials and hear the way the materials can line up differently and have different coexistences or co-relationships.

BD:    Are they then going to be disappointed at an improvisatory concert where they have no control?

JLB:    [Laughs]  Are they going to want to have little mixers and computers?  I don’t know.

BD:    We almost have that now.  When I go to a symphony concert, I hear people in the lobby at intermission saying, “It needs more bass,” or “I wish it had this,” or “it was too fast.”

JLB:    Yes.  Or, “I didn’t like their interpretation.  It wasn’t like this one that I heard or that one that I heard.”  That’s a way for human interaction.  They can at least talk to each other about what they wish they had heard or what they might have preferred.

BD:    Rather than, “I’m so glad I heard this.”  [Laughs]

JLB:    Yes.  Well, that also is a possibility.

BD:    We’re kind of dancing around this, so let me ask the question straight out.  What’s the purpose of music?

JLB:    Hmmm.  I think there are many purposes of music.  One purpose, certainly, is a kind of relaxation, entertainment.  If you think of traditional ways of performing music, it was a social event where people would get together
— whether it was to play chamber music or in a group society where they would get together and sing or at some sort of participatory event.  That’s certainly one purpose of music.  There are other purposes.  For example, the music used to be a kind of newspaper.  Think of the minnesingers traveling around from town to town, delivering the news with music.

BD:    I can
’t really see a network newscast being sung today!  [Both laugh]

JLB:    On other levels it’s a way of communicating.  It certainly is another language.  I’m working right now on a film score that has no dialogue in it.  There are many things that are fascinating about this, and one is how filmmakers think differently than sonic artists.  There are certain visual events that the film maker wants to correspond to a sonic event, but what’s really interesting to me is the emotional impact of a particular sound.  You can play different sounds with the same visual and get a very different feeling about what’s going on, on the screen.  So clearly, music is carrying a great deal of emotional weight, and there’s a tremendous responsibility on the part of musicians, in that they are able to transport the emotions or transform the emotions of someone listening.  You’re controlling those emotions in a certain way if the audience is willing to go along with you.

BD:    This, of course, brings me to my next question.  What do you expect of the audience that has come to a performance?

JLB:    Ah!  I expect them to pay attention.  [Laughs]  But more than that, I just expect them to come with a kind of openness, and a willingness to take a journey.

BD:    Do you expect them to get it?

JLB:    Not necessarily.  I don’t expect a particular kind of reaction.  All I really want is that when they come they be open enough to at least experience what is put there in front of them.  It seems hard to believe that someone would come to a contemporary music concert and be closed to the experience.  That doesn’t make a great deal of sense, unless they’ve been misled somehow with the publicity and think they’re coming to something other than what they’ve come to.  But basically I think that an audience that would come to a contemporary music concert is coming there to experience something new.

BD:    Do you like always preaching to the converted?

JLB:    No.  I’m delighted when someone comes in and is really surprised by what they’re hearing.

BD:    Would some of the pieces you either perform or compose be better off on a mixed program, rather than a strictly new music program?

JLB:    I think it’s nice to mix programs.  It’s a very good idea, and the way one listens to a Bach cantata is exactly the same as the way one should be listening to a piece of contemporary music, with that same kind of attention to the beauty of the sound.  I think Bach was very focused on the shape of a piece of music, and kinds of repetition and relationships between instruments.  So all the things you think about when you listen to Bach are very, very similar to the things that you should be thinking about when you’re listening to contemporary music.  It’s really not that much different.

BD:    Then where did we get off the track?  Why have people become closed off to contemporary music?

JLB:    That’s a complicated question.  I think there was a period of time when there was a certain disdain for the audience.  I would say maybe in the forties and fifties, something like that, there was this kind of attitude.  There was a divergence, and the composers went in one direction and the audience wasn’t quite willing to go along with them.   There was a kind of attitude that I’ve heard expressed by some composers that, “Well, we don’t need you.”  That’s simply incorrect, and I think that if the music is presented by the composer and by the musicians with an openness to the audience, and if there is a willingness to present it to the audience in such a way that it is made acceptable, even the music that was written with this kind of disdain can be played in a way that the audience is not turned away and not turned off.

BD:    I assume that when you write or perform, you don’t show any kind of disdain for the audience.

JLB:    I hope not.  I don’t intend to.

BD:    When you’re specifically composing rather than just performing, do you have an audience in mind?

JLB:    Not really, no.  When I’m composing, I’m really thinking about the piece that I have set out to create.

BD:    The piece as an entity just...

labarbara JLB:    [Interrupting] an entity itself.  For instance, I rarely compose totally abstractly.  I don’t compose with systems.  I don’t compose with numbers.  I generally will compose from an idea.  For example, the piece that I wrote for Iowa is based on Awakenings, the book that was turned into a movie a year or so ago.  When I thought about it, it presented a shape to me, and it was a shape that I felt that I could deal with in a musical way.  These people were in a catatonic sleep state were awakened in some way, and when they awoke they began to have various kinds of energy spurts.  There were sudden very, very rapid movements, or certain looping of language that’s more dealt with in the book than the movie. The movie dealt with it very much in passing.

BD:    Should there be a doctoral dissertation to study the book and the film and your piece?

JLB:    [Laughs]  It would be an interesting exercise.  I don’t think you really need to know that.  I’m just explaining to you that many, many times I’ll deal with something that is relatively concrete and then is translated in a way.  Whether it’s a painting that I’m dealing with or a concept or an idea, it’s then translated into music.  Then it becomes something else.  When you experience it, if I just called it Piece #2 and someone went to the concert, I don’t expect them to say, “Oh, that’s like Awakenings.”  All I’m asking them then to do is to experience the flow and the shape of this particular piece of music.  I’m just saying this is where I got the inspiration for that particular piece.

BD:    The author of the book obviously knew that it was being turned into a film, but has no idea that you are working with it for an aural piece?

JLB:    No, no, of course not.

BD:    Have you made it known?

JLB:    No.  It hasn’t been performed yet, so perhaps I’ll send it to him once it’s finished, just out of curiosity.  But back to your question... I don’t think that I’m necessarily picturing three hundred people that I’m writing for.  I’m writing for myself when I write the piece, and I’m trying to satisfy my own set of criteria.  If I satisfy myself, then I think that the piece has a certain truth.  It answers its own questions for me.  Then when it’s put in front of the audience, the responsibility of the musicians is to realize that truth to the best of their ability, and the hope, then, is that the audience will appreciate it.  Whether they enjoy it is another question, but I hope at least they appreciate the honesty of it.  One question that I’ve heard from audience members is a kind of distrust or mistrust of the composer or the contemporary artist.  They’re afraid that they’re being fooled in some way, that there’s some joke, that the artist is laughing at them.  I personally don’t know any artists that do that.  There may be some, but I certainly don’t know them.  I don’t know of an artist that would purposely perpetrate a kind of joke on the audience.

BD:    That gets a lot of credence, especially with Cage’s silent piece and things like that.

JLB:    What Cage was trying to do with Four Minutes and Thirty-three Seconds was to put a frame on the silence, and to acknowledge that people have come to the concert hall with a set of expectations, and that when the pianist comes out on stage, part of those expectations has already been fulfilled.  The musician has appeared.  The instrument is there.  How the performer chooses to play that piece is important.  You’re supposed to lift up the cover and prepare yourself.  There are three movements to the piece which are very carefully delineated, and you are supposed to give those their own precise timings.  But I think the idea is based on his Zen studies in that it’s a way of perceiving, and this is a silence that is constructed for you.  It’s like an empty picture frame.  It causes you to look at that area or to listen in a very particular way.  It is not emptiness.  It’s a focused period of time, and during that period of time you may hear someone cough.  You may hear someone breathe. You may hear a motorcycle driving past the concert hall.  You might hear a baby cry.  Who knows what you would hear?  You might hear the creaking of the building.  These are all sonic events, and it’s just that it’s focusing your attention at that point in time on those sonic events.

BD:    Which are usually ignored or drowned out.

JLB:    Exactly, yes.  Now whether you choose to experience that as music is another part of the question, but to think that it was a joke or a way of fooling the audience, is simply to misunderstand the purpose of that piece.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    In your performing and in your composing you’re very forward-looking.  You’re on the leading edge of music.  Where is music going these days?

JLB:    It’s very complex.  Now there’s more of a crossover between music of popular culture and world music and classical music and jazz and improvised music.

BD:    Is this good?

JLB:    I think the cross fertilization is good.  I like that.  There was a period of time when there was a little confusion.  Classically trained western artists were traveling to other countries, going there and studying for six weeks and coming back and writing a piece that took a teeny-weeny slice off the top of some particular culture.  That’s changed now, and not only is the study more intensive, but also the mixing and blending of cultures is much more complete at this point.  In other words it’s not a composer going somewhere else and picking up a little bit of information and bringing it back.  Now the musicians are coming, and there is this real cross fertilization and playing of different kinds of musics within the same context.

BD:    This, of course, is taking place at the same time that the electronics make the flow of all information instantaneous around the globe.

JLB:    Yes.  So it makes a great deal of sense that this is all happening at this time.

BD:    Do you foresee a time when there will be just one world music?

JLB:    I hope not.  [Both laugh]  Because the beauty of it is that there are so many fascinating and individual voices.  One of the dangers of this kind of global interaction is that some of the uniqueness of certain cultures is beginning to be lost.  There was a period of time when the indigenous music or folk music of certain European cultures was so suppressed that it was almost lost.  People are aware of that now, and there’s not this sense of this is good music and that is bad music or this is right music and that is wrong music.  There’s a sense that each culture has its own very special music.

BD:    This is music and that is music and something else is music?

JLB:    Yes, and very different, very beautiful in and of itself.

BD:    So, you’d rather have a salad than a stew?

JLB:    Yes, with some sort of dressing that smoothes it all together and allows you to taste the individual tastes, but doesn’t obliterate those individual colors and tastes.

BD:    Have you yourself explored a lot of other kinds of music, aside from your own music and avant garde western music?

JLB:    I’ve listened a great deal to other music.  I did a very little study when I was at Cal Arts.  I did some north Indian vocal singing, and I also participated in some Balinese monkey chant just to feel what it would feel like.  But I’m not trying to learn to sing the music of other cultures; I’m just trying to be influenced by it in a certain way.  There are certain techniques that I’ve picked up and re-interpreted.  For example, the Inuit Eskimo throat singing.  There’s a certain fascinating energy about that, and what I’ve translated it into for my own music is in breath rhythms, and in a kind of singing that is impolite in a way, and very, very visceral because certainly those women are not concerned about vocal production.

BD:    Does it hurt the throat to do that kind of thing?

JLB:    It might.  I don’t know if it hurts their throats.  What I’ve done with all of the different techniques that I’ve developed is to improvise a lot to find the kinds of sounds that I want to use, and then to use the classical technique that I was trained to do and create those sounds using a technique that allows me to do it without hurting the instrument.  So it’s in a way contrived.  It isn’t as immediate as the folk singing, but I’m trying to come close to a natural production of the voice, and allow my instrument to be used for a long period of time.  That’s what I’m hoping, anyway.  [Both laugh]

BD:    It’s held up so far!

JLB:    So far it’s held up for about twenty years’ worth of all of this.

BD:    What advice do you have for a young singer who wants to get into the business of singing new music?

JLB:    A good solid technique is very necessary.  While I appreciate that a lot of people feel that they would like to discover the naturalness of their own personal sound — and I certainly think that’s a valid idea — at the same time, the more you understand about the mechanism and the working of the instrument, the better you will be able to keep it in good health and keep it operating properly.  So I recommend getting good, solid training, but I also recommend asking questions of the teacher, and “because” is not a sufficient answer.  The best student is one who asks a great deal of questions and the best teacher is the one who endeavors to answer those questions.  If that teacher cannot answer the questions, they should direct the student to a source of information where the student may be able to get more assistance.

BD:    Is that not generally the composer?

JLB:    If the composer’s around it’s certainly a good source as far as understanding the music is concerned.  But often we’re dealing purely with technique.  I can remember years ago when I was studying, training as a lyric soprano, I was told by a teacher I should never sing below middle C because it would destroy my instrument.  We still hear the stories of teachers who tell their students they should not play contemporary music because it will destroy the instrument, and we all know that’s simply silly.  You simply have to work at any piece of music that you’re learning, whether it be contemporary or classical or Baroque or Renaissance or whatever, and you learn it bit by bit.  You don’t just sing through it.  One of the most dangerous things is trying to sing through something if you don’t know where you’re going with it because you’re leaping around.  The vocal cords are muscles, and if you were an athlete and you leapt about without preparing yourself for those leaps, you’d very soon get some ligament or muscle problems.  Singers really have to think of themselves as athletes in a way, and you have to prepare yourself.

labarbara BD:    Can you take any refuge in the fact that a hundred and fifty years ago they were saying that Verdi was a voice wrecker?

JLB:    [Laughs]  Yes.  That’s certainly a good lesson to be learned.  Thinking about the composer-end of things, I’m reminded of Nicholas Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective.  [Photo of La Barbara and Slonimsky at left.  See my Interview with Nicolas Slonimsky.]

BD:    That is a wonderful book!

JLB:    It is a fabulous book which lists many of the critics’ reports on first performances of things.

BD:    That’s right.  Whenever I give a lecture, I always have the specific or the general reviews that I can use and say, “This piece that we’re going to hear tonight is terrible.  It’s lousy and it was reviewed such and such and so and so...” and it’s Rigoletto or Traviata!

JLB:    Yes, or Beethoven’s Fifth or the Ninth Symphony or something which was just torn to ribbons when it was first performed.

BD:    I find myself in the other position sometimes.  When Lyric Opera did Lulu a couple years ago, and I was giving lectures on it and I kept saying, “Now remember, this work is a masterpiece.”  I kept reminding them of that so hopefully they would go at it with the idea that, yes, this is something that does work, and does speak, and if they don’t get it they just haven’t looked in the right place.

JLB:    Mm-hm.  Yes.  It’s certainly true that some music is more difficult than other music.

BD:    Is it not just more difficult, though, simply because we’re not used to it?

JLB:    That’s certainly possible, yes.

BD:    It seems now that we’re getting it somewhat through the back door because you hear electronics on commercial jingles and in cartoons and as background for films.

JLB:    Mm-hm.  One of the problems, though, speaking specifically about electronics, is that they’ve been used a lot for sound effects for video games and for horror films.  So there’s this unfortunate association that people have with certain kinds of electronic sounds.

BD:    Here comes the monster but there’s no monster; it must be the music that’s the monster.

JLB:    Yes!  [Both laugh]  Unfortunately they were used a great deal during a period of time when a lot of science fiction and horror movies were being made, so those associations are fairly strong.

BD:    How can we overcome this?

JLB:    The introduction of electronics into the concert hall is certainly a way, and part of the problem is there are musicians who are still being trained to be afraid of electricity, to be afraid of a microphone.  It should be part of the training that any musician, no matter what they’re going to do, at some point to learn about microphone technique.  Hopefully, at some point during their career, they’re going to get into a recording studio, and they should know about distancing from the microphone, and what things sound like, and why it sounds different when it’s recorded as opposed to what’s happening in the concert hall.  For instance, when I sing for a recording it’s very different from when I sing in a concert hall.

BD:    How so?

JLB:    I sing with headphones on, because I am trying to hear the sound that the listener will hear.  I know that the sound is going to come out in speakers, and it’s not going to come out the same way.  It’s going to come out in a multitude of different chambers.  One person will be listening in the living room, one person will be listening in the kitchen, one person will be listening in the car...

BD:    ...and somebody else will be listening with a headset.

JLB:    With a headset or without a headset, there’s a kind of intimacy of the recording medium.  You don’t want to be bellowing to a concert hall; you’re dealing one-on-one.  It’s a very, very personal medium to me, and when I’m recording I am really singing to a single person, as opposed to the concert hall where I am singing to a group of people.  There I’m filling the area as opposed to having a conversation.  So it’s a very different kind of a thing.

BD:    Is there any danger that we are losing a communal effect?  Are people are going to listen more and more to recordings and not come to concerts?

JLB:    Not as long as people realize that any recording is only a snapshot.  The snapshots are getting better and better and better.  They’re magnificent!  The difference between a CD recording now and an LP recording five years ago is just light years as far as clarity and repetition of that.

BD:    I guess I’m looking for red flags.  I’m seeing danger that some people are starting to live their lives vicariously through videotape.  They’re videotaping everything, and that becomes the reality rather than the reality as it exists.

JLB:    The magic that happens in a concert hall is something that is almost impossible to capture on a recording.  You can capture and you can freeze in time that particular moment, but there are things that musicians do.  There’s an excitement that is generated in the live performance that is something that you can only experience when you are actually there.  It’s a fleeting experience, so that only you and the number of people in that room have that experience.

BD:    Even if it’s being captured on tape or broadcast elsewhere?

JLB:    Even if it’s being captured on tape or played on radio simultaneously.  That’s a different experience than the one that you are personally experiencing in that hall because that hall is not the same.  You can’t absolutely capture that feeling.  You don’t have the sense of the performer and that immediacy of what’s going on with the performer on stage.  A live concert experience is very, very different from a recorded experience, and each of them is valid but for very different reasons.

BD:    So you try to make each one the best in its own way?

JLB:    Mm-hm.  Definitely.

*    *     *     *     *

BD:    Are you pleased with the recordings that have been issued of your music and your performance?

labarbara JLB:    Yes, I am.  I like the Cage recording very much. 
I’m also very pleased with the Morton Feldman recording, Three Voices.  That’s on New Albion and was released a couple of years ago.  Sound Paintings, that I’ve just released on Lovely Music is a wonderful document of ten years of radio pieces.  Basically those are pieces that were really designed for that medium.  Although I’ve done them in concert a lot, they were different in concert because I add on a live vocal part to the material that’s on tape.  But I’m pleased with that.

BD:    So the record, then, is just the tape part without the live vocal part?

JLB:    Right.

BD:    Music minus one?

JLB:    No, no.  Actually the way that you hear it on the CD is the way that they were originally written.  They were originally composed for the recording medium, for broadcast on radio.  It is in the notes that in live performance I add on an additional vocal part.  I’ve also now started to release some of those pieces for performance by other singers.  They can then take my tape and the score that I’ve created, and then they can sing with my tape, which is like singing with an electronic tape part except that it’s voice instead of electronics.

BD:    Have you heard some performances of your music by other people?

JLB:    Not yet.  I know they’ve happened, but I haven’t heard any yet.  Actually, that’s not exactly true.  I haven’t heard solo voice with tape pieces, but I have reconstructed a number of pieces that were originally done for multi-layers of tape, and they’re now being done by choral groups.  So I’ve heard multiple voices doing those pieces.

BD:    Have they done it well or have they screwed them up?

JLB:    No, they have not screwed them up.  They have done them well.  It’s just the energy is different and it just takes me a little getting used to, to accept different interpretation.  Even when I’ve had the opportunity to work with the singers, I try to explain certain vocal gestures.  One of the problems of notation is to notate a vocal gesture, the energy of that gesture and exactly how that gesture is performed by the singer.

BD:    You know how much you will interpret each written notation, but now others will interpret your music.

JLB:    Mm-hm, and I have to let it go.  That’s very hard. 

BD:    Is performing fun?

JLB:    Yes.  Performing is wonderful.  For me, and I assume for many other musicians, it’s very different from any other activity of life.  It can’t be substituted for anything else.  It’s a very singular kind of activity, and the energy that goes into it and what happens when you’re performing is just a very different experience.  I don’t know if it’s the same kind of experience that an athlete gets, that sort of adrenalin and energy and then what you’re left with afterwards.

BD:    Like hitting the wall?

JLB:    I don’t know if it’s like hitting the wall.  I just know that there’s a certain building of energy in anticipation of the concert.  Then there’s the actual performing of the concert and what happens with your energy level within the concert.  Then you’re left with an almost euphoria for a period of time afterwards.  Then I guess there’s the hitting the wall when you sort of come down at the end of that.

BD:    Now that’s performing.  Is composing fun?

JLB:    Yes.  It’s very different.  I experience a kind of satisfaction when I feel that I have gotten the idea that I wanted and I’ve been able to either produce it on tape or produce it as clearly as I possibly can on paper.  There is a certain kind of exhilaration in the accomplishment of that.  I find it terrifying to sit in the audience when a piece is being performed, just almost breathlessly anticipating what I know is supposed to come and hoping that it’s going to be there.

BD:    You have no control at that point.

JLB:    You have no control, whereas when I’m on stage I’m in total control.

BD:    Even with other players?

JLB:    Well, I’m in control of what I’m in control of.  You can’t pull the strings and operate all of the other participants in a performance, but hopefully, if you’ve rehearsed, you have a sense, a very strong sense of communication with those other performers.  You learn to communicate wordlessly and you know when someone is in trouble.  You know when the energy is flowing in a particular direction and you can go along with that energy and contribute to it or detract from it.  I don’t know why anyone would choose to detract from it, but I suppose it’s possible to do that.

BD:    You bring up about rehearsing.  Is all your work done in rehearsal, or do you purposely leave something for the inspiration of that moment
besides just what will be in the improvisatory piece?

JLB:    A lot of things have to be worked out in rehearsal.  For example, in Music for _____, it’s indicated that each performer is to work out his own part and it does not have to be put together in rehearsal.  It doesn’t have to be put together until the actual performance, as long as the individual is solid with the material they have prepared, or that individual has prepared.  Then, putting it together, you just start your stop watches and all start your own piece at the same time.  That achieves the desired result.

BD:    Is it a complete isolation from everyone else, or is there any interaction?

JLB:    There is simultaneity.  There are things that happen coincidentally.

BD:    But if you’re so solid in your piece, then you’re not going to be able to change it if you hear something else going on that you want to then include or alter.

JLB:    No.  Actually, in Cage you may not.  You’re not permitted to do that.  If you’ve been given the right to extend a note, then certainly if something beautiful happens while you’re holding a long note you can go with extending that note without misreading the directions or misinterpreting the music.  But unless he indicates that you may repeat something, you can’t repeat it just because it was beautiful.

BD:    Sounds like a terrible straightjacket.

labarbara JLB:    No, it isn’t.  It isn’t any more of a straightjacket than any other music is a straightjacket.  If you’re playing Chopin and something beautiful happens, you can’t just go back and do it again because it sounded beautiful.  So if a performer who’s playing Cage hears something beautiful, you simply don’t have the right to go back and repeat that again unless he has said you may repeat it.  That really separates the playing of John Cage’s music as he intended it from improvisation based on John Cage.  Unfortunately there are a lot of people who do a kind of improvisation on Cage and present it as Cage, and they’re not really presenting Cage’s material.  They’re presenting their own ideas.

BD:    [With a grin]  They’re presenting what they think Cage kind of might want if he had kind of done this maybe?

JLB:    Yes, in a word.  [Laughs]  But I think that’s really part of the cause of the misunderstanding of Cage.  There have been so many dreadful mis-readings of his music, and there’s been this idea kicked around that anything goes, and it’s simply not true.  Even in the theater pieces there are very specific directions that are given and very specific activities.  For example, if you amplify a chess game and then you play the chess game and you get the sound of the pieces moving on the table, I suppose one could choose to lift a piece and klunk it down without going too far afield.  But once it breaks into comedy, then you’ve overstepped that line.

BD:    You don’t add a sound effect of a horse neighing when you move the knight?

JLB:    Not unless it’s a piece for radio.  [Both laugh]  That is one of the places you get to when you flick through the dials.  There are lots of possibilities and, certainly, funny things can happen in situations like that where the source material is unpredictable.  But as long as you’re following the directions, then the results are the piece.

BD:    So really what you’re saying is to trust the composer.

JLB:    Trust the composer, yes.  You can add a great deal in the making of the sound, the shaping of the sound, if it’s permitted.  If there are dynamics, for example; if there are envelopes indicated.  I’m thinking in some of my scores, particularly for choral pieces, to actually indicate graphic envelopes, to try to indicate the amount of air and energy I want put into a sound so that I can get that shape that I want.

BD:    You’re assuming that each performer can do exactly what you can do.

JLB:    I think that they can come pretty close.

BD:    But you don’t want it to be an exact carbon copy?

JLB:    No.  I think that that eliminates the joy of the performer bringing his or her own personality to the piece in my music.  I allow for personality.  I like personality!  Some people don’t like that.  Some people prefer to have a more distant approach, and in a case like that the best thing that you can do, whenever possible, is to talk to the composer and get as close an understanding of what that person intended as possible.  Not all pieces from the same composer have the same intention.  Many of them have very, very different results that are desired on the part of the composer.  Some composers choose to give very little information.  Others choose to give a great deal of information.  Still others appreciate it when the performer does a great deal of work and may, in a way, uncover things that they hadn’t seen in the piece.  That’s definitely part of the joy of being a composer
not only to know what you had intended originally in your own mind, but also to have the joy of hearing it come back from another point of view.

BD:    Someone else has discovered it and realized it.

JLB:    Mm-hm, and discovered something quite wonderful that you might not have suspected.

BD:    Thank you for being a musician.

JLB:    Thank you for appreciating it.

[Note: At this point I began putting away the tape recorder and gathering up the recordings and papers she had brought for me.  Normally I do not include these bits of chit-chat in the website presentation, but the following few lines illustrate her positive reaction to my presentation of music and interview with Annea Lockwood.]

BD:    Thank you so much for these.  The only Lovely CD I have is the one with Annea Lockwood’s piece.

JLB:    Oh, the Water?

BD:    The map one.  [A Sound Map of the Hudson River.]  At first I couldn’t figure out just how to present it, and what I wound up doing was different from anything else I had done.  I explained what the piece was and started it rolling.  Then I potted it down just a little bit and put the interview on top of it.  In a couple of places I stopped the interview and brought up the CD.  It was almost like watching us talk as we took the trip on the river.

JLB:    That’s nice.  It was like you were taking the journey.  That’s very nice.

BD:    I didn’t know if it’d work, but it did very well. 

JLB:    I think that she would probably be very happy with that because I don’t think she ever really meant it to be purely listened to.

BD:    Somebody called me and asked if I would ever play it without the interview!

JLB:    Really?

BD:    Yes.  They said, “I’d like to hear it some time,” and I said, “Buy the CD.”  [Both laugh]

JLB:    Yes, you can hear it in your home.  Crank it up and listen to it at any level that you want.

BD:    Several other people called and said they like what I had done and thought it worked out very well.  I also played Tiger Balm on the program...

[Note: I used this same technique on a broadcast featuring William Kraft, who had written background music for use in the pedestrian walkway at the then-new United Airlines terminal at O
’Hare Airport in Chicago.  To read that interview, click here.] 

Joan La Barbara's (b. June 8, 1947 in Philadelphia) career as a composer, performer and sound artist has been devoted to exploring the human voice as a multi-faceted instrument, going far beyond its traditional boundaries, creating works for voices, instruments and interactive technology. "One of the great vocal virtuosas of our time" (San Francisco Examiner) and an important pioneer in the field of contemporary classical music and soundart, she developed a unique vocabulary of experimental and extended vocal techniques, including multiphonics (the simultaneous sounding of two or more pitches), circular singing, ululation and glottal clicks that have become her "signature" sounds.

Awards and fellowships include National Endowment for the Arts, Meet The Composer, ASCAP, ISCM International Jury Award, Akustische International Competition Award and Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst Berliner Kunsterprogramm Composer-in-Residency, as well as numerous commissions for concert, theatre and radio works in American and Europe. Concertizing worldwide, she has appeared with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, New York Philharmonic, Houston Symphony, New World Symphony, Women's Philharmonic, Orchestra of The Hague, Festival d'Automne a Paris, Warsaw Autumn Festival, Frankfurt Feste, Metamusik-Berlin, Olympics Arts Festival, Brisbane Biennial, LA Festival and the American Music Theatre Festival.

She has produced seven recordings of her own work, served as producer on recordings of music by John Cage and Morton Feldman and has premiered landmark compositions written for her by noted American composers, including Robert Ashley, Larry Austin, John Cage, Rhys Chatham, Charles Dodge, Morton Feldman, Philip Glass, Daniel Lentz, Mel Powell, Steve Reich, Roger Reynolds, Morton Subotnick and James Tenney.  [Note: Names which are links refer to interviews by Bruce Duffie elsewhere on this website.]

La Barbara has collaborated on interdisciplinary projects with various visual artists, including Lita Albuquerque, Judy Chicago, Kenneth Goldsmith, Steina and Woody Vasulka, and has completed two Meet The Composer/Reader's Digest commissions from The Gregg Smith Singers, I Cantori and The Center for Contemporary Arts in Santa Fe for a large-scale choral work, to hear the wind roar, and a collaborative interdisciplinary music-theatre piece with co-composers Morton Subotnick and Mark Coniglio, The Misfortune of the Immortals, utilizing interactive computer technology with live performers. Other recent commissions include a chamber ensemble piece, Awakenings from the University of Iowa; two radioworks: a sonic self-portrait, In the Dreamtime, and a sound painting of Cologne, Klangbild Koln, from the WestDeutscher Rundfunk-Koln; in the shadow and act of the haunting place for voice and chamber ensemble for San Francisco Contempary Music Players and Calligraphy II/Shadows for voice and Chinese instruments for Nal-Ni Chen Dance Company. Newest release: 73 Poems, a collaboration with visual/text artist Kenneth Goldsmith, an edition of prints, book and CD issued by Permanent Press and Lovely Music.

Her works have been choreographed by John Alleyne for Ballet British Columbia, Martha Curtis, Catherine Kerr and Merce Cunningham ("Events"). In 1991, she composed a filmscore for "Anima", Elizabeth Harris Productions, scored for voices, middle-eastern drums, handheld percussion, cello, gamelan, keyboard synthesizers, computer and electronics. Previous filmwork includes a setting for voice with electronics for Steve Finkin's animation of the signing alphabet for "Children's Television Workshop/Sesame Street" to assist hearing children in learning to communicate with the deaf, broadcast worldwide since 1977; music for films by Richard Blau, Monica Gazzo, Elyse Rosenberg and Steven Subotnick; and composing and performing the Angel Voice for actress Emmannuelle Beart in the feature film "Date with an Angel". Her current recording projects as singer, composer and/or producer include Voice and Instruments by Morton Feldman (for New Albion), John Cage at Summerstage with Joan La Barbara, Leonard Stein and William Winant, which includes Cage's final concert performance on July 23, 1992 in NYC's Central Park, and La Barbara's own works (for Music & Arts).Soprano La Barbara premiered Morton Subotnick's opera Jacob's Room directed by Herbert Blau for the American Music Theatre Festival, New York premiere at The Kitchen and European premiere at MANCA Festival in Nice (1993-94) and premiered Robert Ashley's quartet of operas Now Eleanor's Idea (1994). La Barbara was educated at Syracuse and New York Universities, studying with Helen Boatwright, Phyllis Curtin and Marian Szekeley-Freschi. She gives workshops on extended vocal techniques and composition world wide; taught on the faculty of California Institute of the Arts (1981-86); served as Vice President of the American Music Center until 1993; co-Artistic Director of the New Music American Festival in Los Angeles (1985) and produces and co-hosts a weekly radio program, "Other Voices, Other Sounds."

© 1991 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded at her hotel in Chicago on August 16, 1991.  Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNIB in 1992 and 1997.  The transcription was made and posted on this website in 2013.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.