The Unexpected Importance of Yes: Joan La Barbara

Joan La Barbara
Joan La Barbara performing at The Kitchen
Photo by Mary Lucier

Molly Sheridan: I want to talk about vocal techniques, because when people see the name Joan La Barbara, it’s probably the first thing that comes to mind. I was listening to some of your recordings yesterday and wondering what sort of child you were. Is this something that when you were a kid you were constantly running around seeing what sorts of sounds you could make or was this something that came later in your training?

Joan La Barbara: My mother remembers me always singing. I was singing in church and in school, but I didn’t think of myself seriously as a singer until I guess I was in high school. But as far as beginning to think about stretching the voice and using it in other ways, that didn’t come until I got to college. I started to see instrumentalists who were exploring different ideas and different techniques. I didn’t see or hear singers doing that, and I was very curious about it. There were, of course, recordings of Cathy Berberian. Some of the work that she did with Luciano Berio is considered by some people the beginnings of extended vocal techniques, although what she did was not all that extended. She did some gasping and gurgling, humming, laughing, sounds like that, but not really extending the sound of the voice. It was more including what we would consider everyday sounds in the vocabulary of vocal music. Towards the end of her life she really disavowed any interest in extended techniques. She was interested in making sure people knew that she could sing, and she felt that by doing all of that contemporary music somehow people had gotten confused and thought that she really wasn’t a singer, that she was more of an actress.

When I went about beginning to explore these techniques, I started to work first with instrumentalists asking them just to play long tones. I would try to imitate the sounds of different instruments and gradually began to improvise. And then for a time I was working with poets and writers, and I would react to the texts they were reading and see if I could get some interesting new sounds. Early on I also did a sensory deprivation experiment piece called Hear What I Feel. I had taped my eyes shut for a period of an hour prior to the performance and sat in an isolated room and then was led out to the performance space with my eyes still taped shut. My assistant had put items in these six glass dishes, and I only stipulated that they shouldn’t crawl and shouldn’t injure me. I didn’t want to identify what was in the dishes, I just wanted to give an immediate vocal reaction, the idea being that having spent that hour in isolation and the heightened state of awareness of being in a performance, then coming and touching these substances—I just wanted to react to them hoping that maybe a new sound would come out. Also, I wanted to communicate with the audience on that pre-verbal level. The vocal instrument communicates on an emotional level in a very, very deep way even without words.

MS: You mentioned using these techniques and people wondering if you really can sing. This is something that critics who write about your own performances feel the need to talk about—that you really can sing and it’s beautiful, as if you’re doing these other things so we don’t catch on that you have no vocal talent. Is this something that you struggle with?

Joan La Barbara and Conlon Nancarrow
Joan La Barbara and Conlon Nancarrow at the New Music America festival 1985
Photo by Betty Freeman

JLB: You know, no, because my career developed in a parallel way. I was singing the music of other composers and for the most part what other composers would ask me to do was basically pretty traditional singing. There were some composers who asked for unusual techniques, but most of them didn’t. I was exploring so much in my own music with these extended techniques I think they felt that if they wrote a piece for extended techniques it would sound more like my music than their music. So the only time it’s actually been a problem is when I go out and do workshops. Sometimes I’ll work with singers and they’ll be a little hesitant. Somebody will say, well, is that going to damage my instrument? I say, no, I’ve been doing this for over 30 years and it hasn’t damaged by instrument and I certainly wouldn’t do anything that would damage it because I’m a singer.

In one workshop that I was doing—I think it was out in Minneapolis—there was a woman who was a vocal therapist. She said some of the sounds that I make are actually sounds that she uses in therapy because they’re like a deep massage for the throat. For example, the vocal fry and the multiphonics are just very, very relaxed physically for the voice and so these are some of the sounds that are used in speech therapy.

MS: You did mention that you were singing the work of other composers, people like Ashley, Feldman, and Cage. I read a comment that characterized you as a muse to these composers, and I thought that sounded like a lot of fun and a lot of pressure.

JLB: One of the reasons that I went into the contemporary music field was that I was being trained to do traditional opera, Mozart and everything, and I began to be frustrated—learning the established way of singing “Vissi d’arte” lying on the floor because that’s the way it had been done for a number of years. So I was really intrigued by the idea of working with living composers, with people that I could have a conversation with, discuss ideas, use my brain in a very different way. Contemporary music fulfilled that for me. I could discuss [a piece] with a composer while the music was still being written and have an influence on what the piece was going to be. Actually my last vocal teacher, Marian Szekely-Freschl, said to me, “You must work with composers. You must help them because they don’t know how to write for the voice.” And so I really felt as if this was one of my responsibilities. And then as I was working more with composers I realized that I had ideas of my own that were not going to get heard unless I became a composer, so these things developed sort of simultaneously.

MS: How do you balance that then, after having become identified with the work of these composers because of your role in its creation? How did you get out from under the shadow of what you had done before to compose your own work?

JLB: Since I know the music of these other composers so well, I’m very careful not to write in their style. I was working with a composer several weeks ago, and there was a text that he wanted delivered, and I started doing it not realizing at first that I was doing it in the style of Robert Ashley. I thought, no, this is not going to work. So I’m very aware of it.

As I’m getting older there are certain works that I can’t sing anymore, and I realize that my further responsibility now is to find other singers that I can pass this material on to—not only my own techniques, but some of this wonderful repertoire that’s been generated for my voice. I need to find other people who can take on that repertoire to keep it alive.

MS: Since you were so invested in bringing a lot of these works to life, how much leeway is there? Should a new singer coming to it have the freedom to interpret certain aspects or should it sound as closely as possible to how you performed it?

JLB: I think that I can give singers the information about how I did it. I think it would be more interesting for them to do a new interpretation. Whether I like it or not is really not the issue. A work like Three Voices of Morton Feldman—which is an extraordinarily beautiful work, and I’m very proud to have brought that work into being—I heard one other recording of the work and I didn’t like it. So there is an aspect of being territorial about the material.

I guess in the case of composers who have passed on like Feldman the implication is that because he wrote it for me, because he heard me do it on a number of occasions and approved of it, that’s the way that particular work should be done. But Feldman’s Only was written in 1947 when he was 21. I performed that, but only after his death; he never heard me sing it. Who knows whether my interpretation is the correct one? It’s simply my interpretation.

MS: You mentioned guiding composers who are writing for the voice. Are there some key things that when you’re working with a new composer you would advise them on, especially when writing in ways that stretch the voice?

JLB: Well, for example, when I was working with Philip Glass years ago, I explained to him that yes, I could sing two notes for twenty minutes, but then in the next piece he’d have to move to a different part of the range. The vocal apparatus is musculature, and if you were holding your arm in a particular position for twenty minutes, it’s going to get tired so you have to relax it. You also have to change the positioning of the vocal chords so that they get to relax and rejuvenate themselves. I explain how certain techniques feel. I try to get composers, if they are going to try to write for some of these extended techniques, to try them to see what it feels like to make them. I explain that certain techniques take a little more preparation time so that you need to give space in the music so that the singer can prepare a particular technique. So a lot of it is very logical, but sometimes people are not very practical.

MS: I was reading about some of the film work you’ve done like Alien: Resurrection and how much went into actually thinking about this sci-fi character’s physical structure and how that impacted the sound that you made. Outside of work that you’re doing for specific projects, when you’re thinking about creating new sounds, where does that inspiration come from?

JLB: When I was beginning to explore extended vocal techniques I did a lot of imitating of sounds, not only of instruments but of birds, of animals, of machines, of synthesizer sounds, developing a vocabulary and developing a language. And so when I’m starting a new composition I’m drawing on my palette of vocal sounds the way an orchestra writer thinks about the instruments of the orchestra. Do I want to have a kind of percussive base as the foundation or do I want a kind of fluid ongoing vocal texture? A lot of times I think that way; I’m layering up sounds so I’ll think about the foundation on which I’m going to build, and then once I get that foundation established I’ll decide what kinds of more decorative or explorative work I’m going to layer on top of that. If I’m writing a piece for a dance company, I like to learn the choreographer’s language, and that inspires me to go in a particular direction with the kinds of sounds that I’m going to be making.

MS: What about when you decide to do a piece just for instruments? What makes you decide to go that route and does it change how you approach writing the piece?

JLB: Sometimes when I write for instruments I’m trying to translate from my vocal techniques. For example, the ululation, that sort of fluttery sound—what instruments can pick that up and how does it change as it goes to another instrument? I recently wrote a piece for solo violin and I asked the violinist to gasp. To me that’s a very easy thing to do—it’s a vocalized, inhaled short, rapid sound. We all do it. It’s amazing how difficult it is for an instrumentalist to do that, but I guess when you choose to play an instrument you choose to have your sound coming out of that. You don’t expect the composer to ask to have a sound coming out of your body, but I’m intrigued with the person and the instrument so I want to bring that into a piece. Then, of course, I’m fascinated with the sounds that instruments can make that I can’t make, like the Bartók pizz. on a string instrument, which is just this fabulous little snap. The harp is a great instrument; there are all sorts of things that the harp can do that the voice can’t do—not just what we usually think of as that wonderful glissando but all of these fabulous noises.

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