The Unexpected Importance of Yes: Joan La Barbara
January 30, 2006—11:00 a.m.
At the composer’s home
Joan La Barbara in conversation with Molly Sheridan
Video Presentations by Randy Nordschow
Edited and Transcribed by Molly Sheridan and Lyn Liston
When we arrive at Joan La Barbara’s apartment on a particularly sunny January morning, it sounds like she’s already got company. I’m getting rather curious as to just who will pop out of the kitchen to join us when Joan returns with her son’s talking parrot on her shoulder and introduces us. Though she was invited to join us on the couch and chime in, Plato—usually something of a chatterbox (as seen here with choreographer Jane Comfort)—kept her comments to a minimum.
La Barbara is a singer whose name is rather synonymous in the new music world with extended vocal techniques. She has shared those skills as a colleague and muse to composers who defined a significant swath of 20th-century repertoire—men like Robert Ashley, Morton Feldman, and John Cage—but came to realize that she had ideas of her own that would not be heard unless she became a composer herself. With that in mind, you can listen and simply be amazed by the unique sonic world she conjures in pieces like 73 Poems and Shaman Songs—but for those who simply must know how the magician does her tricks, we also have a behind-the-scenes master class for you to view.
It’s a tightrope act to keep such a multi-pronged career balanced, but La Barbara keeps a bit of advice from John Cage close at hand. She recalls, “He said to me one time, ‘I always try to say yes when people ask me to do things because I never know when I might be surprised by the outcome.’ And I think that’s perhaps one of the most important lessons that I ever learned from anyone. When people ask me to do things, oftentimes my inclination will be to say that I don’t have time. And then I’ll catch myself, and I’ll say yes. So many times wonderful things have happened that I would not have expected.”