JOAN LA BARBARA
In setting Kenneth Goldsmith’s multiple textwork 73 Poems, I worked with both the overall form of the work and with the details of each piece, paying careful attention to how one poem flowed into the next and what dramatic shifts were taking place in the course of this mysterious journey. At times, I was quite strict with my treatment, reflecting a direct one-to-one relationship between the visual and the sonic; at other times I allowed myself greater freedom, becoming more impressionistic, treating both the “spirit” as well as the “letter.” In each case when Goldsmith makes reference to elements of contemporary culture, I chose to work either directly or indirectly with those references, acknowledging without exactly quoting. My setting of the grey texts always presents this material in a new, altered, modified or architecturally different space from that of the black text in the previous poem. There are obvious shapes and structures which I saw in the poems: monolithic walls, rising and shrinking obelisks, reclining pyramids, interlocking chains; these shapes are reflected in the thickness, depth and texture of the musical settings. And in the balance between silence and sound, the ration of empty to filled space, I feel John Cage’s lasting influence on my work.
When working on a new piece I do a stream-of-consciousness verbal notation of impressions, feelings, responses to the material, along with musical sketches and diagrammatic outlines leading to the form of the finished work. Much of the development of this material is done in the studio during recording and layering, along with using various processing units, to realize the depth and shading I wish to achieve.
— Joan La Barbara
73 Poems: Preface to the Music
Music and Poetry have always been closely linked; but it hasn’t always been a happy coupling. In the Western music of the past several centuries, composers have often found inspiration in the work of poets who were, to put it mildly, uncertain of the benefits of setting their verse to music. Goethe, for example, refused young Franz Schubert’s request for permission to set his poetry. (Schubert, fortunately, did it anyway.) A.E. Housman was greatly displeased by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams’ treatment of texts from A Shropshire Lad.
That is certainly not the case with 73 Poems where the collaboration between poet/visual artist and composer began even before the texts were complete. Kenneth Goldsmith’s choice of Joan La Barbara as composer/interpreter of these texts seems, in retrospect at least, an inevitable one. La Barbara, after all, has interpreted and performed many of the works of the late John Cage, whose scores often consisted of verses, words, and even single letters derived by chance operations from various texts – and to whom, appropriately, she has dedicated this piece.
Joan La Barbara is one of the truly experimental vocalists performing today: over the past two decades, she has developed an extended vocabulary of vocal sounds that range from traditional song to a wild assortment of glottal clicks and stops, inhaled notes, overtone chant, etc. As a composer, her works often involve multiple layers of her own voice, creating a kind of sonic canvas on which she throws splashes of vocal colors. La Barbara’s potent combination of vocal and studio expertise makes it possible for her to represent in music some of the most distinctive features of Goldsmith’s texts.
“The first thing I had to do,” La Barbara says, “was to differentiate between the dark and the light texts. The idea of depth of field – the grey text in the background and the black text up front – required using the full stereo field, almost like an architectural space.” Musical gestures that are only half-heard, perhaps buried under other layers of sound, may float up to the surface, only to parade off the stereo field entirely. In this respect, the music closely parallels the form of the poems – which La Barbara surprisingly likens to Alice In Wonderland. “The sectional development goes from almost frivolous to very abstract, then to something far heavier, and then comes back again. For me, the turning point is the text ‘EAT ME.’ Suddenly it’s like Alice finding herself on the other side of the looking glass. The text is tough, almost evil, as opposed to the sweet, innocent beginning that it then returns to.”
The actual techniques vary according to the mood of the individual pieces. Words, of course, can be sung in a straightforward way, but what is one to make of the more abstract poems? La Barbara represents Goldsmith’s insistent use of certain vowels with a specific group of vocal sounds that repeat in an almost mantra-like fashion. “I hear the monolithic walls of numbers as being very heavy and solid,” she adds: “these I gave a very thick, almost oppressive treatment of layered multiphonics.” Multiphonic or overtone singing allows a single vocalist to produce two or three notes at once. The overtones are mathematically related to each other, so the dense layering of these vocal tracks creates, almost literally, a musical wall of numbers. And the zeroes and “O”s which occupy the central portion of 73 Poems are represented by layers of microtonal singing, in which the usual gap from, say, C to C-sharp is subdivided into many microtones. These notes, which are ignored by most Western music, are so close together that they give the aural illusion of one set of notes growing from another an illusion matched by the movement of zeroes and “O”s in the text.
Clearly, this is more complicated than setting a conventional poem. “It’s massive,” La Barbara says, “and it changes so much.” And despite her focus on vocal music, La Barbara has not dealt much with words. “This,” she points out, “has a helluva lot of words. It’s a real challenge.”
— John Schaefer, “New Sounds” WNYC Radio, New York City
It took me an entire year to create 73 Poems (March 1991 – April 1992). The series was inspired by e. e. cummings’ book by the same name that happened to be sitting on my desk the day I began my work. The original poems were drawn on 22”x30” rag paper using graphite. A set of words would be drawn, then erased – laid on top of them would come a new set of words in dark graphite, thus creating the visual effect of text and its shadow. For the following poem, the previously dark text would appear as the erasure and a new set of words would be laid over that. This was repeated throughout the series. 73 Poems reflected the many changes one’s life goes through in a year – changes of seasons, changes of moods, changes of address ... After poem #39, approximately halfway through, Joan La Barbara agreed to create her version of the work. Her response and input influenced the direction the rest of the work would take. After working deeply for a year, I looked up and realized that I had gone over the 73 poem pre-determined limit and had ended up with 79 instead. The last poem’s dark text produces the first poem’s shadow text, hence, and “endless” closed cycle – and a nod to Finnegans Wake.
— Kenneth Goldsmith
73 Poems is dedicated to John Cage.
Composed and Performed by Joan La Barbara
Poems and artwork by Kenneth Goldsmith
Produced by Michael Hoenig and Joan La Barbara
Sound Design by Joan La Barbara, Michael Hoenig, and Bradford Ellis
Recorded and Mixed by Michael Hoenig and Joan La Barbara at Stepbridge Studios, Santa Fe
Mixed at Metamusic Productions, Los Angeles
Joan La Barbara’s composition, 73 Poems, was commissioned, produced by Permanent Press (Brooklyn, NY) to accompany the publication of Goldsmith’s 73 Poems as a book and as a suite of lithographs.
Art Direction and Design: By Design
© 1994 by Joan La Barbara (ASCAP)
p 1994 Lovely Music, Ltd.