The Unexpected Importance of Yes: Joan La Barbara

Joan La Barbara in Santa Fe
Joan La Barbara at Woody Vasulka’s studio in Santa Fe
Photo by Woody Vasulka

Molly Sheridan: You rarely work with words and you’ve spoken about communicating on a pre-verbal level and the importance of that. What about Kenneth Goldsmith’s 73 Poems inspired you?

Joan La Barbara: That was a very, very specific work. Ellen Salpeter, who was the original producer of the piece, was involved in a gallery and had something called Permanent Press, which was the press that published the original book. Ellen introduced me to Kenneth and said I think that you guys would work beautifully together. Kenny was working on this series of multiple texts, and she described them—this dark text superimposed over a light text, and so I said, well, I’ll have to take a look at the work. So I went to Kenny’s studio and I looked at it, and I really was intrigued by what he was doing, how he was working with the words. It’s a wonderful offshoot from concrete poetry, where the words are treated as objects as well as words themselves. Also, I liked the way they looked on the page, the physical aspect of them. So I said I was very interested in the collaboration and Kenny had done, oh, I don’t know, maybe about 20 of these drawing at that point in time. So I said, what do you know of my music? And he said, well, I know Three Voices and I know Singing Through. I said fine, you know me singing Feldman and you know me singing Cage. What do you know about my work? And he said well, I guess I really don’t know it. So I gave him a list—I didn’t give him the music—and I said part of this exercise is for you to actually have to find this material. He took it on as a challenge and went and found everything in used record stores and CDs and came back several months later and said, “It’s amazing—it’s just this whole world of sounds that I didn’t know existed.” Then he went back to work on his poetry, and I could see the change in what happened to his material after he heard my compositions. The letters started floating in a way, and the texts just changed. So he finished them. It’s called 73 Poems but there are actually 79 of them. He couldn’t stop.

73 Poems
73 Poems: The Complete Version
View the poems and listen to La Barbara’s sonic interpretations.

He gave me the whole stack of them—huge Xerox copies of the actual drawing—and I put them up in my studio. At that time I was living in Santa Fe, and I had a former two-car garage as my studio, so I put them up all over the walls and just sat with them for days waiting for the sound to come. I didn’t start at the first one. I started somewhere in the middle. It was one of the very densely layered works, and it had words like “wow” and “meow” and all of that in it, and that really spoke to me. So I started there and then worked in different directions until I had all of the material.

Then the problem was how to translate that so it would be a reflection of what the poetry was visually. And of course the difference between a piece of visual material and sound is time. That’s the essential difference. So I went and recorded all of the vocal material, and then Michael Hoenig, with whom I’ve worked very closely, acted as the engineer and also co-produced it with me, and we then went in and layered the recordings so that they would reflect aurally what you see on the page. We began working with what I call depth-of-field so that you get an impression of the sonic architecture that reflects the visual architecture in each one of the poems. When the dark texts becomes the light text of the subsequent poem, I wanted it to be the same musical material but to be experienced differently, so either we did a different electronic treatment of it or we placed it differently in the stereo horizon. So it was a very long process.

MS: Looking back through your catalogue, what do you hope your audiences take away from having experienced your work, especially when you’re pushing at new forms and new boundaries?

JLB: I hope that it inspires their curiosity to find out more about it, particularly about the vocal instrument. There’s such a wealth of wonderful vocal sounds in the world, and if I inspire someone to go and do a little bit more investigating, that would be wonderful. A lot of times people come away from my work with visual experiences, at least that’s what they’ve told me. They get a whole sort of storyline or just visual experience, and I find that fascinating. So I’m intrigued by that. I guess I want them to be intrigued by the work and to want to hear more.

MS: Do you think that that whole connection to visual experiences and a storyline is because it’s a human voice and we’re used to people telling us stories?

JLB: I guess when a musician listens to a piece of music you can’t help but begin to analyze what’s going on structurally. You think that way and you also think about the performance aspects, how well the performers are playing. When a person who is not trained as a musician listens to a piece of music, I think they hear it differently. They may experience the structure but maybe not to that deep extent, so I think that people go to a musical experience and come away having been enriched in whatever way they can be. A lot of people experience films, and so they go to a concert and they’ll have a film playing in their heads. That’s just another way of experiencing things.

MS: I was paging through the list of your compositions and noticing the dates on them. You’ve produced steadily since the ’70s and you perform and you raised a child and you’re your own publisher. How do you do all these things?

Joan La Barbara and John Cage in pre-rehearsal chess game, 1976
Joan La Barbara and John Cage in pre-rehearsal chess game, 1976
Photo by Michael McKenzie

JLB: It’s a lot of work. I could probably get a lot more music written if I weren’t also my own manager and my own publisher and all of this. One of the problems with publishers is that they’re looking at the bottom line. I have talked to publishers, and I’ve said, you know, I do have music that I think other people would be interested in playing. And they just have to be convinced that there would be a large enough market for that. So, sometimes I get frustrated, but I’ve always been so independent and just take things on.

MS: You’re closer to your specialties of extended vocal technique and composers working in these areas. Who are you watching because their work is exciting to you?

JLB: Well, I’m very interested in the work of Kenji Bunch. Kenji is in the ensemble that I work with a lot, Ne(x)tworks, and I really like the work that he does for this ensemble. I don’t know all of his music so I don’t know his more traditional things. I know that he’s written for orchestra and writes for ensembles, but what he writes for our group and for my voice is exploring sound in a very unique way and I find that really fascinating. I guess what I’m interested in, and it’s what I’ve always been interested in with different composers, is a particular point of view. It doesn’t necessarily need to be exploring new territory or new sounds, but it has a unique voice and just a way of thinking about sound or thinking about structure or thinking about music in a way that’s sort of off the beaten path; that’s what intrigues me.

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