The Unexpected Importance of Yes: Joan La Barbara

The Unexpected Importance of Yes: Joan La Barbara

Joan La Barbara performing Robert Ashley's Celestial Excursions
Joan La Barbara performing Robert Ashley’s Celestial Excursions
Courtesy of Lovely Music Ltd.

Molly Sheridan: I know that you were just in Austria working on your opera in-progress, WoolfSong, so why don’t we start there?

Joan La Barbara: WoolfSong is an opera I’ve been working on now for about two years, inspired by the life and work of Virginia Woolf. I was very fortunate to get a Guggenheim music composition fellowship last year, and I spent a lot of time doing research. I was in London and saw some of her manuscripts and her letters in the British Library. It’s been a process of immersion, I guess I would say—reading the novels, reading the short stories, reading her memoirs, and trying to find the music in the work. One of the things I discovered was that she said at one point that when she wrote her novels she heard them first in music and then translated them into words. So it’s been my process to try to see if I can find the music in her words and transfer it again, back into music in a way. Her language is so fluid and oftentimes she’ll work a sentence many different ways, or certain words or phrases will appear and then come back again several pages later, so this whole idea of repetition and reconsideration is part of what her language process is all about.

In dealing with this in the opera, what I have in mind is to have a single character played by different people—let’s say by a musician, by a singer, and a dancer, for example—so that you would get one view of a character in purely musical terms, and then you might get another interpretation of that character through movement, just as an example.

MS: It reminds me of how the Michael Cunningham novel The Hours uses Woolf’s life and intertwines it with two other women. What made you interested in her work in particular?

JLB: I started studying Woolf when I was in high school, and when I was in college I did some papers on her work. I went away from her material for quite a while and then several years ago picked up a book of the short stories and just found them fascinating. I learned that she would write these stories and then put them away in a drawer. When she would get a commission for a whole piece, either from a magazine or an opportunity to do a whole novel, she would pull out a story and then flesh it out. So the stories really have all the essence of the material for a full novel but in just a few pages. Also, what fascinates me is this kind of stream of consciousness way of working where you actually experience her mind.

MS: Keeping that in mind, how faithfully will you be using her texts, or will you? You have an interesting relationship with setting words as opposed to working with more abstract sounds.

JLB: I’m still in the process of deciding which words will actually appear in the opera, and I do have to deal obviously with the issue of rights. At this point in time I haven’t used any of her words.

I guess I should explain a little bit about my working process. When I write a piece of music, depending on what the inspiration is, I’ll do a stream of consciousness writing just of words about the subject that I’ve decided to work on. Then I’ll go back and re-read what I’ve written, and I’ll find the music in that. So I’m using that process [with WoolfSong], but in this case I’m using her words instead of mine. I’m using her words as the inspiration for musical ideas, but I’m also finding that there are certain aspects of the language that I would like to use. She’s not an easy author to translate or to take a libretto from because, as I said, she writes in stream of consciousness—she considers and reconsiders an idea, she’ll treat a character in many different ways. You meet a character and think you understand what that character is about, and then later on you’ll meet that character again and you’ll see a very different aspect. She’s constantly reworking and rewriting the ideas. But there are sections of words that I think would be very effective, so when I get that figured out then I’ll have to deal with the rights issue.

MS: When will there likely be a full performance of this?

JLB: I’ve been doing a series of work-in-progress performances. I did the first one at the Chelsea Art Museum a couple of years ago using members of my ensemble Ne(x)tworks. Then we did another work-in-progress performance again with Ne(x)tworks at New York University in October of 2004.

I was working at that point with a video artist, Kurt Ralske, and we had a number of sessions talking about the imagery and certain ideas that I had about specific visuals that I thought should be included—a tree with no leaves and certain colors—and then I just gave him free reign. He came up with both some historical footage that he used, and he was also taking live images from the performers, altering and modifying them, and then rebroadcasting them in real time. In that performance I was using the musicians on stage. I was the sole singer, and they were acting as actors in addition to performing the music. That was a very challenging situation, to get them on stage and get them moving and playing instruments and thinking about personifying a character. There are also upcoming performances this spring. I have one performance in May, again with Ne(x)tworks, and then I have a series of three performances in April with the Juilliard Electric Ensemble, and they’ll be performing one scene.

MS: Are these performances start-to-finish as you have it set at the time or if they are just the pieces you’re working on.

JLB: They’re bits and pieces and each time I do a performance either I’ll do a section of the opera or I’ll layer up different scenes to see how they work superimposed over each other. One of the ideas that Grethe Holby, who is an opera director, and I have been discussing is the idea of doing the opera in layers so that we would have one layer that is basically Woolf’s mind, another layer that would consist of characters from several of the novels, and a third layer that would be a kind of emotional context.

MS: Now, you’re calling this an opera, but the work you’re doing is very different from the newly commissioned operas they’re putting up at the Metropolitan Opera House. It’s just a word, but when you’re thinking about it, you’re using the word opera. Is it really an opera to you?

JLB: Yes, I am, and I think that the whole concept of opera is experiencing a revolution. There certainly are people who are still writing more in the realm of traditional opera, but there are also a number of composers who are thinking about opera and rethinking the concept. What is opera? It has stories, it has characters, vocal music, sometimes it has instrumental music. And my opera contains all of those things, so I definitely think of it as an opera.

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