Joan La Barbara (In the Presence of Greatness? part 4)

Wednesday 10 June 2009

Like most things in life, it seems, I first came across Joan La Barbara‘s music unwittingly when watching Sesame Street as a kid. Apart from that, although I knew she was a composer I’d never (consciously) heard any of her own music. I suspect I wasn’t the only one in that situation who went to hear her free recital at the ICA the other weekend.

In the introduction to one of her pieces, La Barbara herself made a passing reference to her fame lying elsewhere, as a singer and interpreter of other people’s music (cue the rollcall: John Cage Morton Feldman Morton Subotnick Philip Glass…). Presumably it was a mixture of admiration for her vocal talent and curiosity about her compositional talent that resulted in the little room being filled to capacity on a rare sunny Sunday afternoon, with a bunch of us having to stand. (Including myself: the last available seat was nabbed by my ex-girlfriend.)

Afterwards, I asked the ex what she thought of her comfy concert experience. At first she said it was “a bit hippyish” but then revised her opinion: it’s not La Barbara’s fault that her pioneering work in experimental vocal music has helped spawn a couple of generations of inferior imitators.

There’s also the methodical approach to much of La Barbara’s music that saves it from self-indulgence. She performed two of her earliest works, from the early 1970s, beginning with Circular Song. This piece requires her to sing sliding scales using circular breathing – a technique never really intended for singing – embodies two distinct approaches in her music, exploring new techniques while following a clearly defined process.

Performance Piece played most dramatically with these two tendencies. Essentially it’s a improvisation, with one caveat: whenever La Barbara realised she was thinking consciously of the sounds she was making, she had to verbalise those thoughts. The performance then became a balancing act between sound and speech, one half of the brain holding the other at bay.

Only one piece required anything more than La Barbara’s voice and a microphone. The more recent 73 Poems was a multitracked vocalisation of Kenneth Goldsmith’s poetry, mimicking the overlaying of Goldsmith’s texts. You can see and supposedly hear the collaboration here, but the sound doesn’t seem to be working. Some functional sound examples are here.