The Unexpected Importance of Yes: Joan La Barbara

Joan La Barbara in Messa di Voce
Joan La Barbara in Messa di Voce, a collaboration with Jaap Blonk and Tmema

Molly Sheridan: You’ve also interacted with technology throughout the evolution of your career—I’m thinking of that iconic image of you on the album cover where you’re buried in tape. You’ve been actively working with a lot of this equipment as it developed. What did these different aspects of technology bring to what you could do?

Joan La Barbara: Well, it’s changed immensely. When I started out working on multi-track tape that was wonderful because I could layer and create a whole choir out of my own voice. When digital technology came along, what it has allowed me to do is to get more involved with the computer and how I can move the sounds around. With analogue tape, moving sounds around was extraordinarily difficult. The idea of having to literally cut the tape to make edits and splice the tape together made it very fragile. Now with the computer, you can record into it, you can take little edits and move things around, but you never lose anything. Well, hopefully! But presumably you don’t lose anything. Now, when I’m working with dance companies, it’s allowed me to go and record a rehearsal, to bring my musical rehearsal tapes back, to work with them and then be able to send things to the choreographer within a day that will allow the choreographer to work with that material. Then we can have a dialogue about what works and what doesn’t work. So I’ve just become much more involved in technology as a tool to help my composition.

MS: Is there anything that you don’t like about the way the technology has evolved that you’d like to go back to?

JLB: Well, yes. The scoring notation programs I find are not as flexible. I like to use a lot of graphics in my notation and the technology is really not up to speed. I mean I still will draw certain things on blank paper just because I need to get that flow of ideas. I’m also one of those people who sees sound in way so that when I’m writing a musical gesture, it has a physicality to it, it has a shape. And I find that using graphics allows me to get that shape into the score.

MS: Which leads really nicely to my next question, which is: how do you translate these extended techniques into the score? When you say graphically, what does that really mean?

JLB: I tend to do two kinds of scoring. One is traditional notation. And then in certain cases I’ll do traditional notation with a graphic sort of superimposed on top that gives an indication of how I want the flow of the musical material to proceed; how much energy I want poured into the sound. When I’m working with my ensemble I can just demonstrate; I can say, well, I want the sound to be like this. If you’re going to send music out to someone else who’s not going to be able to work with you on it you have to be able to be as specific as possible. So I’ll write instructions—I use a lot of verbal instructions to explain notation. Sometimes I’ll send a recording of my sound doing certain things.

MS: Especially when you’re trying to pass on some of this repertoire that was written specifically for you, is it even possible to do that without sharing a recording or coaching them in-person?

JLB: Almost impossible because the scoring is still just an approximation. You know, how do you score an inhaled glottal click? I mean, I put a little series of X’s with dots going after it, and I then write inhaled glottal click.

MS: But even among singers this is not something they’re going to know right on the uptake, right?

JLB: No, so you’d have to demonstrate, and in each voice it’s a little bit different, that specific sound. If I do it, it sounds one way because of my bone structure, my body, where it resonates. If you had a six-foot baritone doing that sound it sounds very different.

MS: Is it possible then that some of the pieces just will, in a way, have been for you, and we will just have the recordings when you no longer sing them?

JLB: Maybe, but I think it’s much more interesting to think about somebody else picking up the material and doing an interpretation of it. I have had a couple of instances where I’ve worked with a singer and I’ve allowed them to do some of my multi-track pieces. When I do them I go out and I improvise the live part over the multi-layered composition, and so I’ll have a score that I give to the singer and I’ll say, well, this is a suggestion of the kinds of material that I do. Listen to it and see what you can do with it. You know you may not necessarily want to do it in the same order that I did it, and so let’s see what happens with that.

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