Album Notes


Voice is the Original Instrument

Joan La Barbara: The Reluctant Gypsy's Balancing Act

There's a funny wave of nostalgia sweeping New York these days: it's a nostalgia for the New York avant-garde. While it's not clear exactly which avant-garde everyone is nostalgic for (it seems to vary depending on age group and agenda), it's safe to say that there is a hunger and interest for what happened here in the arts from, say, the mid-50s through the early 80s. Everybody wants to claim a piece of classic downtown culture for themselves: witness Carnegie Hall's multi-year Cage / Feldman festival; or Lollapalooza headliners Thurston Moore and Jim O'Rourke's appearances with Merce Cunningham; even Phil Niblock's long-running Experimental Intermedia has been co-opted by a new generation of kids as one of NYC's premiere laptop glitchwerks venues.

Early on, John Cage was asked by a European composer how, living in New York, he was able to compose so far from the centers of culture, to which Cage responded "how are you able to compose so close to the centers of culture?" Fifty years later, New York has become firmly established as its own center of culture, replete with its own set of legends and histories. Joan La Barbara figures prominently -- as a performer and a composer -- into these narratives.

New York in 2003 couldn't be more different than the New York where many of the recordings on these discs were made. I think that the current nostalgia has to do with a complex group of factors -- social, economic, and political -- that add up to the fact the New York of the early 70s is gone forever, never to return again. These CDs might be time capsules of a bygone era. Listening to them transports you back to a time when time was more available, when space was more available, when community was more available, when money was more available, and when there seemed to be endless amounts of energy harnessed toward the realization of new forms.

Writing in 1975 about a concert La Barbara gave in Washington Square Church, Village Voice critic Tom Johnson referred to Joan La Barbara "… as a musician who is, at the moment anyway, fully devoted to basic research." He likens her endeavors to the efforts of Einstein in science or Webern's in tonality. What strikes me about this comment is the idea that there was, not long ago, formal musical innovations left to be unearthed. Let me clarify my hyperbole: having grown up in an environment of quotation, appropriation, looping, and sampling, it's eye-opening that as recently as twenty-five years ago, artists could still be hammering out original vocabularies.

The first CD, Explorations, is astonishing in the amount of new vocabulary that La Barbara adds to the field of vocalization. This disc makes one realize that by 1974, innovative vocal work was still an emerging field, with La Barbara as its lead practitioner. What distinguishes her from her precedents -- Cathy Berberian comes to mind -- is La Barbara's hands-on exploration of sound.

These recordings are so emotional and vivid that it's like you are in the room with La Barbara: you almost feel her breath on the back of your neck. As a listener you become an active participant in her explorations. When she titles a work Hear What I Feel, there's a clear line of transference from object to performer to audience. Sharing the experience is one of the basic tenets of La Barbara's generation. Demystifying and revealing the process by which an artwork is made is another; the artist is no longer an isolated, modernist presence (as Berberian tended to be). Instead, artist and audience are fused.

I think it's another reason for nostalgia. Today community and process are so different. Audiences are less often face-to-face; instead they're spread across computer networks, tending toward non-geographically specificity. Technology has changed the nature of recordings as well. Today, no one knows what elements are found, stitched together, manipulated or swiped. Nor does it matter. But back in the mid-70s, it did.

At the end of Johnson's article, he states, "[La Barbara] nor anyone else has thus far taken the new material into a product development stage. But I, for one, am just as glad. The phenomena she is working with are in many ways more interesting in this raw experimental form than they would be if they were shaped into some more impressive musical product…" The second CD, The Music, takes that step; it is indeed "impressive musical product." No longer live, now taken into the studio and manipulated, an entirely different relationship is established between artist and audience. New types of voices also emerge. They're all La Barbara's but now the variety and complexity is staggering. Things get very dense, so thick that La Barbara creates a name for them: Sound Paintings. No longer vocal explorations, they are now formal compositions. The earnestness, the vulnerability, and the process that was so foregrounded on the first CD is now completely obscured. It's hard to know -- to quote a popular phrase from the period -- "Is it live or is it Memorex"?

The Music is full of enigmas and stunning technical achievements. Twelvesong, is an athletic feat consisting of twelve individual vocal tracks. Each was recorded in real time: that's twelve tracks -- each sung for twelve a minute duration -- all recorded and mixed in one day! On Vocal Extensions, the human voice is extended with the help of technology as opposed to the sheer wind-power found on the first CD. On 1977's Cathing, La Barbara samples Berberian's voice, and wraps her own around it, creating a critical self-reflexive hall of vocal mirrors.

CD 2 is what pulls La Barbara out of the nostalgia camp and plunks her into the category of relevance. It's here that she really breaks the field wide open into the future. How many artists working in the classical or new music fields were incorporating sampling into their practice at the time? Her many technical achievements found on this disc are nothing if not prescient for today's practices.

So there you have it: a split set. CD 1 is the past; CD 2 is the future. CD 1 is never going to happen again; CD 2 is happening now. CD 1 is the New York that was, gloriously frozen in a specific time and place; CD 2 is what McLuhan-predicted: the non-centric, electronic, multi-linguistic space that we live in today.

It strikes me as a space that La Barbara is comfortable in. Something tells me that these discs, too, will be released into the vast peer-to-peer file sharing networks, spreading themselves around the world, finding their way into remixes, made into alternate versions, reprocessed by common computer software to become new compositions unto themselves. (Perhaps they'll even be woven with Britney Spears hits into the next "smush" or "bootleg" hit. Don't be surprised...) The point is, I think, that La Barbara anticipated unstable media over 25 years ago. At once fluid and grounded, scored and improvised, spontaneous and studied, Joan La Barbara remains our reluctant gypsy.

Kenneth Goldsmith is a poet living in New York City. He's a DJ on WFMU, the editor of UbuWeb (, and a music critic for New York Press.

Notes by Joan La Barbara

In the early Seventies, I performed extensively in European and American galleries and museums with Philip Glass, Steve Reich and the Sonic Arts Union, and was exposed to a great deal of conceptual art.  This exposure, along with the approaches and compositional styles of the composers with whom I was working, greatly affected my thinking about the relationship between music, art and sound, and how I could express my ideas in this realm.  My work with John Cage further freed me from pre-conceived notions about what music was supposed to be and which sounds could be considered musical.  

In selecting from my early work to include in this collection, I decided to include only those which exclusively explored my primary instrument, dividing the material into two groups, and placing the Explorations and études on the first cd. 

One of my earliest pieces, Hear What I Feel, was a self-exploratory, sensory-deprivation experimental work, designed to help me discover new sounds, delve into psychological aspects, as well as communicate with the audience on a pre-verbal level of awareness.   After spending an hour in isolation with my eyes taped shut and not touching anything with my hands, I was led out into the performance space where my assistant had placed a variety of substances in six small glass dishes.  As I touched the material, I tried to give an immediate vocal response to what I felt both emotionally and physically, without the benefit of visual information.  I expected the shock of bringing a solitary state of mind into the heightened awareness of a performance situation to intensify my experience, and the poignancy of my “prepared” state to affect the audience.  The sounds are presented here in their raw state; it is truly an experimental work with no intentional musical implications or designs.

Voice Piece: One-Note Internal Resonance Investigation explores the color spectrum of a single pitch.  By focusing the tone, placing it in as many different resonance areas as possible, I produced myriad timbres, along with isolated overtones and “undertones” (the overtone series turned upside down) which eventually came to be called “multiphonics” (the simultaneous singing of several pitches or tones). 

Circular Song was inspired by the circular breathing technique of horn players.  In adapting it for singing, I chose to vocalize both the inhale and the exhale, and designed a circular mirror-image graphic score that displayed the directionality and breath changes on a series of broken glissando patterns and multiphonics.

Des Accords pour Teeny, an exploration of multiphonic technique or chordal singing, was dedicated to Teeny Duchamp, who encouraged my early compositional activities.

Les Oiseaux qui chantent dans ma tête (the birds who sing in my head), is a series of ululations, birdlike calls and sonic gestures.  Both works were recorded for broadcast on Radio France on a program produced by Joséphine Markovits.

For the second cd, I chose works I consider to be more complete musical compositions, extending the vocal experiments through electronics and layering them into “sound paintings” and “soundances”.

Vocal Extensions was my first exploration into the realm of live electronics, utilizing commercially available devices designed for electric guitar players (phase shifter, frequency analyzer similar to a ring modulator and echo/reverb unit) to further expand and extend my vocalizations.  Abruptly changing settings, I used the equipment as a source of surprise, working with the resulting sounds as an improviser reacts to other musicians.

Twelvesong was commissioned by and recorded at Radio Bremen, produced by Hans Otte. It was the first of my “sound paintings”, a sonic fabric which reveals itself over its twelve minute duration much as a painting is experienced: one takes in the whole and gradually, over time, notices more intricate detail.  I placed the sounds onto tape much as a painter adds certain colors, gestures and strokes.  I experience much of my vocal material visually before and as I produce the sounds, and many of my scores consist of or contain graphic elements.

q-/-uatre petites bêtes was inspired by the word separation and spatialization of Marcel Duchamp’s 4-postcard piece and my image of the four little beasts.  I created four unique characters with distinctive sonic languages and energies and set up an encounter in an imaginary clearing as a quadraphonic soundance.

In Cathing, I took “found language”, a radio interview given by Cathy Berberian during the intermission of my Holland Festival concert (June 19, 1977), and broke it apart, treating her words electronically while using my extended vocal techniques to weave a sonic texture around the deconstructed material.

Autumn Signal was my first “soundance”.  Inspired by the shifting words of Emmett Williams’ textwork “Sweethearts” and the multiple viewpoints of Merce Cunningham’s choreography, I used the Buchla synthesizer to alter my own text and to spatially locate and move sounds in space.  Adding a live vocal part over the tape, I premiered the work in concert, for Walter Bachauer’s multicultural Metamusik Festival in Berlin.

In October Music: Star Showers and Extraterrestrials I vocally painted the sparkling night sky above the California coastline, juxtaposing shooting stars with other-worldly sounds in a galactic storm.  I recorded and engineered the work myself in the seldom-used analog studio at IRCAM in Paris.

In much of my early work I dealt with sound as a physical presence, sculpting it, building up layers in complex constructions, letting the flow of thought and the visualization of sonic gestures direct my studio art.  “Voice is the Original Instrument” was both a statement of purpose and a manifesto as, through various experiments and explorations, I tried to rediscover the basic function of the voice as the first means of expression as well as to release untapped sonic material.  As I gave my classically-trained voice its freedom, letting it direct me toward new places and ideas, I developed what was a unique vocabulary and used those sounds to score an orchestra of layered voices.

cd 1: Explorations

Voice Piece: One-Note Internal Resonance Investigation (©1974)
         for amplified voice alone
         premiere: December 9, 1974 at St. Mark's Church, NYC
         recorded in concert at University Art Museum, Berkeley, California, February 26, 1976
         recording engineer:  Pat Kelley
         originally released on LP "Voice is the Original Instrument", Wizard Records RVW-2266 (1976)

Hear What I Feel (©1974)
         a performance piece involving sensory deprivation for amplified vocalist with assistant
         premiere: January 15, 1975 at Washington Square Church, New York City
         recorded in concert at premiere; recording engineer:  Rich Cook

Circular Song (©1975)
         for amplified voice alone
         premiere: December 19 & 20, 1975 at Environ, New York City
         recorded in concert at University Art Museum, Berkeley, California, February 26, 1976
         recording engineer:  Pat Kelley
         originally released on LP "Voice is the Original Instrument", Wizard Records RVW-2266 (1976)

Des Accords pour Teeny (©1976)
         for voice alone
         recorded and premiered on Radio France, broadcast November 4, 1976

Les Oiseaux qui chantent dans ma tête (©1976)
         for voice alone
         recorded and premiered on Radio France, broadcast November 4, 1976

cd 2:  The Music: Sound Paintings, Soundances and Electronic Extensions

Vocal Extensions (©1975)
         for amplified voice with electronics
         premiere: January 15, 1975 at Washington Square Church, NYC
         recorded in concert at University Art Museum, Berkeley, California, February 26, 1976
         recording engineer:  Pat Kelley
         originally released on LP "Voice is the Original Instrument", Wizard Records RVW-2266 (1976)

Twelvesong (Zwölfgesang)  (©1977)
         for multiple voices on multi-track tape
         commissioned by Radio Bremen
         premiered as a radiowork for RadioBremen, Germany, November 1977
         premiered as work for live voice and tape: May 6, 1978 at Pro Musica Nova Festival, Bremen, Germany
         originally released on LP "as lightning comes, in flashes", Wizard Records RVW2283 (1983)

"q-/-uatre petites bêtes" (©1978-79)
         a quadraphonic soundance
         commissioned by Annette Baack
         premiered as a performance work for voice and tape at Baack'scher Kunstraum, Köln, May 9, 1979
         premiered as installation work at daadgalerie May 1979, Berlin
         originally released on LP "Reluctant Gypsy", Wizard Records RVW2279 (1979)

Cathing (©1977)
         for multiple voices on multi-track tape
         premiered February 17 & 18, 1978, at The Kitchen Center for Video and Music, New York City

Autumn Signal (©1978)
         for voice and Buchla synthesizer
         premiered October 22, 1978, Metamusik Festival, Berlin
         originally released on LP "Reluctant Gypsy", Wizard Records RVW2279, (1979)

October Music: Star Showers and Extraterrestrials (©1980)
         for multiple voices on multi-track tape
         National Endowment for the Arts, Visual Arts Fellowship commission
         premiere: October 1980 at The American Center for Students and Artists, Paris, France

All selections composed and performed by Joan La Barbara (ASCAP), copyrights, as indicated on each selection.  All rights reserved.
Produced by Joan La Barbara and Michael Hoenig

Funding for this recording came from the Aaron Copland Fund for Music, the Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.

I am grateful to those who encouraged my early work and who made this cd possible:  Special thanks to Walter Bachauer, Michael Hoenig, Bradford Ellis, Joséphine Markovits, Hans Otte, Annette Baack, David Wessel, Teeny Duchamp, Hal Dalby. and Mimi Johnson.