Joan La Barbara
Voice is the Original Instrument
Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar, Show #448, 3 January 2004. Kalvos & Damian on the road in New York City at the American Music Center. Interview took place in June 2003. Listen to the interview (RealAudio) from the original broadcast [0:07:56–1:59:42].
Composer, performer and sound-artist Joan La Barbara creates sound-scores for film, video and dance. Her multi-layered textural compositions appear at international festivals including Brisbane Biennial, Festival d’Automne à Paris, Warsaw Autumn, Frankfurt Feste, Metamusik-Berlin, Olympics Arts and Lincoln Center. Awards include 2008 American Music Center Letter of Distinction for her significant contributions to American Music, Guggenheim Fellowship, DAAD-Berlin Artist-in-Residency, seven NEA grants, NYSCA, numerous commissions for concert, theatre and radio, including Saint Louis Symphony, Meet The Composer, Live Music for Dance, WDR-Cologne, RIAS, VPRO, Radio Bremen. Recordings include ShamanSong (New World), Sound Paintings, Voice is the Original Instrument (Lovely Music). 73 Poems appeared in Whitney Museum’s “American Century Part II: SoundWorks.” Messa di Voce, her award-winning interactive media performance work, premiered at ars electronica Linz. Her voice with electronics score for Children’s Television Workshop / Sesame Street has broadcast worldwide since 1977. La Barbara is composing a new opera exploring the interior dialogue and sounds within the mind.
We listen to Three Voices: Slow Waltz and Ending by Morton Feldman, performed by Joan La Barbara [approx. 0:07:56–0:13:06] under the show intro. Published on Three Voices [for Joan La Barbara], New Albion [CD NA018].
[Kalvos] Joan La Barbara, welcome to Kalvos & Damian…
[K & Damian] … on the road!
[Joan La Barbara] Thank you for having me here.
[K] This is really great, we have been influenced by your work for years. Sometimes it’s just serendipity, I picked your LPs out of a bin once, enthusiastic record buyers bought them and… I was astounded, I think it was some of the first really unusual voice work I had heard that was contoured rather than expressive of somebody else’s ideas. It was just amazing.
Take us through a summary of your history as both a performer and a composer.
[JLB] Let’s see, that could take quite some time. I was trained as a classical singer in the bel canto tradition and at a certain point in my education I started to get curious about what the voice could do in addition to what I had been taught. I started looking around and listening to things and I saw and heard instrumentalists who were experimenting with their instruments, but really no vocalists who were doing it, with the exception of if you looked at Jazz. Obviously there were a lot of singers in Jazz — Ella Fitzgerald and many, many people — who had really been using the voice as an instrument, but nobody in the area that I was interested. So I started to work with other instrumentalists, having them play long tones and I would imitate the sounds of instruments and gradually began improvising.
I was in New York in the early 70s, and another radio station, WBAI, had a place called the Free Music Store and it was operating in some empty church. On Thursday nights people could just show up, get together and make music. So I went there and met people like Steve Lacy, Anthony Braxton, Fred Rzewski and started to work on improvisation and stretching my ideas. I learned a great deal at that point. Also I had started doing commercial work, because I was in New York, had to make a living…
[K] Commercial work meaning literally…?
[JLB] Radio commercials, literally singing for radio commercials. This will sort of date when it was, I guess my first one was for a Japanese perfume…
[D] A love which extends to this day, working in that medium? Doing Japanese commercials for Japanese-manufactured products?
[JLB] Do I still do that? No, no!
[K] Would we know here in the States any of your commercials? That’s a terrible question I suppose!
[JLB] Well it depends, the ones that I was doing at that time were for a composer, Michael Saul, he was also Judy Collins’ pianist at that time. So [for] this Japanese commercial that I had been hired to do, they had a Japanese singer but the advertising executive decided she was too Japanese-sounding for American audiences. So they brought me in to imitate what they thought it should sound like. They started out with my imitating the sound of a koto, which of course was not a koto, because they thought a koto was too exotic-sounding, so they were using a harp imitating a koto. So I was imitating a harp imitating a koto. We ran the gamut of all these different ideas because they really didn’t have any idea of what they wanted. Finally I ended up sounding sort of like a Japanese Astrud Gilberto. Anyway, that was a long, long time ago. I did commercials for Eastern Airlines, that tells you how long ago it was, that’s been out of business for many, many years. North American Vanlines, all these different things.
Because of the commercials, Michael knew that I could do all of these different things with my voice and he recommended me to Steve Reich who was looking for a singer who could imitate the sounds of an instrument. So I went and I sang for Steve. This was during the time that he was developing his work Drumming. Originally he thought that the voice should imitate the sound of bongo drums. Then he decided that a male voice was better imitating the sound of bongo drums, so he did that. I was hired on to imitate the sound of marimbas, and that was the development of Drumming.
[K] How long did you work with him?
[JLB] I worked with Steve from about 1970 to about ’74. During that time there were three different works, I believe: Drumming, and Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ… maybe it was just those two. I did all the performances from ’71–74 of those works and also the Deutsche Grammophon recordings of those. Also I was working with an improvisation ensemble that I put together with a number of other musicians and composers, or composing performers, or performer-composers, or whatever you call us.
[K] It was an active time, when everyone was doing a bit of everything.
[JLB] Very much so. I also started working with Philip Glass in ’73. At the time, he actually showed up at a concert that Steve was doing at an art gallery down in SoHo. I introduced myself and he said “Do you know my music?” and I said no. He said “We’re doing a concert over in the Bowery next week, why don’t you come and listen to it?” I said “Have you ever thought of using voice?” He said “No, not really,” — it’s so funny at this point in time, we think of Philip Glass’ operas and all of this stuff — “Yvon Rainer, the filmmaker, comes by every once in awhile and screams and yells, but other than that, I hadn’t really thought about voice.” So I went to the concert and it was at this grungy loft ten flights up someplace on the Bowery and you had to climb up past these screeching guard dogs. I got up there, the ensemble was sitting around in a circle, there were I guess about five or six guys and maybe ten or fifteen people sitting around them, that was the audience. I listened to it, I really enjoyed it, and we talked afterwards and I said, “Yeah I like it.” He said “Ok, well, our trumpet player just left the group, how about if you come in and sing the trumpet part?” So I said “Sure, why not?” I came in and sang music that was already written for trumpet. He was beginning work on his Music in Twelve Parts at that point. We did a lot of talking about what the voice could do, how long you could stay in any particular area without fatiguing the instrument — as you know, Music in Twelve Parts is a very, very long piece. I just basically explained to him physical things about the voice: what it could do, what it couldn’t do. I was very interested still in using my voice to imitate or blend with the instruments, so if he had orchestrated a piece for the Farfisa organ (which is what he played at the time) and saxophones, I would blend more with the saxophone, whereas if one of the pieces was more for flutes, then I would alter the timbre. You still recognized it as a voice, but it was just blending the timbre so that it matched more. The voice was part of the texture instead of being a solo instrument.
Working with Steve and working with Phil doing this improvisation work, I realized I had a lot of ideas that composers were not necessarily going to write for because they didn’t know what could be done. So I began to compose. My first works were more or less Études, they were studies on particular things that I was working on. For instance, the Voice Piece: One-Note Internal Resonance Investigation, which was exploring all the timbral and colouristic possibilities that one could make or produce using a single pitch but just altering it with resonances and various things, harmonics, overtone isolation… getting into something that later became called multiphonics, which is the double-stop for the voice. Kind of a very unusual sound for the voice to make. When I first started making that sound and doing it in concert, people said “Oh, that sounds like the Tibetan monks.” But it really is a very different technique, because I don’t actually sing those very, very low tones, which is what the monks do. I’m creating a false secondary subtone, which, in a strange way, follows the harmonic series, only turned upside-down. So instead of an octave above, you first get an octave below. If I can really relax my vocal cords I can get an octave and a fifth, a triple-stop.
[K] Now, there’s a CD re-release of your early work, can we hear some of that?
We listen to Voice Piece: One-Note Internal Resonance Investigation by Joan La Barbara [0:25:22–0:40:45]. Published on Voice is the Original Instrument, Lovely Music [double-CD LCD3003].
[K] Let’s pick your career up from there. It’s amazing, because at that time, things really started to change, people started to go other places, and there was a cross-influence of your work and other work.
[JLB] Yes, indeed. When I was out touring with Philip Glass, if there were nights when the ensemble wasn’t performing, Philip was very happy for any of the members of the ensemble to do solo concerts. So, I started doing my solo concerts, and the strange thing for people was that I didn’t need an accompanist, that I was singing voice alone, a very, very strange concept at that point in time. It became for me almost like a manifesto, the idea that the voice was a complete instrument. I mean, everybody knows you can do violin recitals, you can do cello recitals, piano recitals, but who had heard of a voice recital without someone else? That was very revolutionary. I also started working with electronics and I picked up some stuff that had been developed basically for electric guitar players, but by feeding the voice into them I could do just as many things with that. I started to then think of the electronics as I would think of other instrumentalists.
[K] What kind of things could you do with that?
[JLB] I picked up something called a Space Echo, which was like a tape looping device, but you could change the speed or the length of repetitions. Very early, very rudimentary, this was like ’75, I think. Also a phase-shifter which put a kind of sinewave white noise and would alter your voice that way.
[K] They got very popular with DJs in the radio stations at the time, take two identical recordings and phase-shift them. It was their way of making a pop recording sound really edgy!
[JLB] I also used something called a frequency analyser, which is like a ring modulator, adding tones above and below. By mixing and matching and adding all this stuff together, I could improvise with it. And I liked the idea of surprising myself, so I would be using all of my own extended vocal techniques and then punch in one of these devices and be surprised and then work with that as though it were another musician who was surprising me with a new sound. On that same CD, the work Vocal Extensions uses that set of live electronic devices.
We listen to and excerpt of Vocal Extensions by Joan La Barbara [0:44:07–0:49:50]. Published on Voice is the Original Instrument, Lovely Music [double-CD LCD3003].
[D] By this time were you encountering other musicians, other vocalists, who were interested in what you were doing and wanted to follow what you were doing?
[JLB] Yeah, well of course there was Cathy Berberian, who had worked with her — at that time — husband, Luciano Berio, and I was fascinated with the recordings I had heard of Cathy. She began to include what we would consider “non-musical sounds” — coughing, laughing, gasping, a little bit of inhaled singing. She worked with Berio and also with John Cage. There was a wonderful, huge collection of works that Cage wrote for her, called The Songbooks, many of which she performed, many of which she never performed. Later on when I met Cage I got to do first performances of some of those works. In 1974, Cathy had been doing workshops in Europe, she decided she just had so much work, she just wanted to turn it over to another person, so she turned over some of her workshops to me to carry on. There was a nice kind of handing over of the mantel. There were also of course other singers, Meredith Monk, for example, composer doing her own very different and unique style of using the voice in theatrical pieces. A little bit later on, there was a group called the Extended Vocal Techniques Ensemble that was developed in California at the University of California San Diego.
[D] Was that the harmonic singer?
[JLB] No, these were four singers, Debbie Kavasch, Linda Vickerman, Philip Larson and Ed Harkins, and they were part of a group called the Extended Vocal Techniques Ensemble, a quartet. They did works of Roger Reynolds, they also were experimenting a lot and they were working with doctors at a local hospital who were photographing their vocal chords as they made some of these unusual sounds to see how in the world they were doing them, if there was anything unusual about their vocal chords. They also developed something called the Lexicon for Extended Vocal Techniques, where they would demonstrate the sound and then wrote out a description of how the sound was produced. Somewhat later, there were other singers, Diamanda Galás, for example, but I would say she came along maybe in the late 70s, possibly?
[K] The first recording we have of hers is the late 70s, ’78 I believe, Panoptikon was released [Ed.: commericially released in 1984].
[JLB] She was doing some more traditional work. Actually, she studied at UC San Diego with Carol Plantamura and probably came in contact with that group that I just mentioned. She was also working with Vinko Globokar on some pieces and then began doing her own work also. So, with a lot of us, we started in one realm and that led us to doing compositions. I had mentioned John Cage and maybe you’re interested…
[K] Let’s take a side-trip down a question lane that was brought up first just a few weeks ago on our show by Hannah Bosma. Hannah Bosma is a composer and musicologist in the Netherlands who was working on the concept of authorship and was very concerned that authorship has been almost exploited by composers so they can use their name on a composition when in fact not only the “lexicon of materials”, the library of materials, the concepts, were intimitely involved with the performers they were working with. And in fact the majority of the material was developed from ideas that the performers had themselves made possible. So the composers were just assemblers at that part, really, just sort of composers of the material rather than originators and the real creative authorship belongs with the performers. Her division point was Cathy Berberian and forward. Do you have a strong feeling about the authorship [needing] to be shifted? Was that a reason you went into composing and some of your other associates did the same thing?
[JLB] It’s actually a fascinating point and was probably a great part of the impetus for my getting into composing. When I was very young I was very interested in working with other people and I benefitted greatly by the sharing of ideas. I did not have formal composition training, and so I felt as if I was getting a great deal from the composers that I worked with, just in ways of organizing the thoughts, organizing the ideas. I had a lot of ideas, but how to actually put them together was something that I hadn’t studied, so I felt a little bit intimidated. The more I worked with composers, the stronger I began to feel about my own ideas, their validity, their value and that I actually was a composer. I didn't actually feel what I hear in you describing Hannah’s dissertations as a kind of anger, or as if I was being ripped off. I felt as if it was a kind of contribution that many many singers and instrumentalists have contributed to composers over the years.
I know there are a lot of questions, for example, if you take the late works of John Cage, the “number pieces” where you have blocks of time and the performers are simply asked to choose one to ten or one to twelve sounds and you insert them in those blocks of time. What the composer has done is to set up the form, and what the interpreter does is to provide the content of the form. But that’s an agreement between the performer and the composer and you can choose not to participate in that kind of music if you feel as if you are going to be ripped off. When I’m realizing a work by John Cage I feel as if I’m trying to investigate the form, and I’m trying to investigate my ideas and how they can contribute to that form. When I then go out and do my own composition, I’m free to use, I could use, very similar material, but the way I order it is what makes me the composer. I think there’s a fine line of distinction about who is the composer and when. And if you’re going to get angry about a composer ripping you off then you should probably just compose and not work for another composer.
In the case of Cathy, I think it is rather clear that she had a number of unique things that she did with her instrument and unique ideas that she was developing that Luciano greatly took advantage of. Cage to a lesser degree, because I think actually that the music that he wrote for Cathy was fairly well written out and spelled out. So I think actually Luciano took more advantage of her. The only work that I know that Cathy composedwas her work Stripsody, which was a kind of comic strip realization. I think she could have done much more but she probably didn’t feel strong enough at that point in time.
[K] She was pioneering in a lot of ways.
[JLB] She was pioneering in a great many ways and unfortunately toward the end of her life she became very bitter and I think did feel used. She felt as if she had been treated like a sort of freak, and she was constantly trying to remind people that she could sing Classical music. Her great Monteverdi to the Beatles concert that she did all over the world was this “see what I can do” kind of thing. She did a very strange thing during the intermission of a concert I was doing at the Holland Festival in ’76. I was invited to do a radio interview and I was too involved with putting stuff together — it was the intermission of the concert and I said “No, no I can’t do it, I’ll do it later.” So Cathy did the interview and got on and said dreadful things about people who did extended vocal techniques. It was such a shock, somebody provided me with a cassette of the interview later on and I listened to it, I was totally dumbfounded, because here was this person that I felt was a pioneer who was just absolutely trashing those of us who were out there doing what we thought was carrying on her tradition. I actually took the interview and put it into a piece called Cathing, where I cut up her words… I played a one-minute segment from the interview — which is the most inflammatory part — then I cut it up — this would be called sampling techniques now, but at the time we were physically cutting pieces of tape — and modified it electronically and then put it in a multi-layered composition using my extended vocal techniques. So we have her trashing extended vocal techniques, altered electronically, and we have my voice doing the extended vocal techniques. That was a great, fun piece.
We listen to Cathing by Joan La Barbara [1:01:05–1:09:08]. Published on Voice is the Original Instrument, Lovely Music [double-CD LCD3003].
[K] Let’s pick back up your story. I guess we must have come in fairly late because we actually have your recording As Lightning Comes, in Flashes and Reluctant Gypsy, those were the first pieces of yours that we heard that were yours alone.
[JLB] Ah, so you didn’t have the LP Voice is the Original Instrument? That was the first one that I did.
[K] No, we heard that but we never had it ourselves, so the influence from that was minor compared to the later ones. Shadow Song has been one of my favourites over the years, it’s just a glorious piece.
[JLB] Yeah it’s a wonderful piece. Those works, the multi-layered compositions, I started doing around 1977. I got a commission from Radio Bremen. Hans Otte, composer, was at that time the head of the music department and he had heard my work and brought me over to Bremen to do a piece. I had in mind this layered work, I just had little sketches in a notebook of what I was going to do. And of course in Germany, when you do a recording, especially in a radio station, they give you the Tonmeister and the engineer and the person who handles the tape, a five-person team, many of them wearing white gloves. They wanted to see the music, and I said “Well, the music is basically my own notation and so you’ll just have to trust me that I’m doing what I say I’m doing.” I got in there and started to work and it was clear that they had never heard anything like this before, but within minutes they understood they were experiencing something new and were absolutely wonderful. The piece is called Twelvesong and it is twelve tracks of voice. What I did was to record what I call the foundation or ground tracks first, which were circularly sung — which means inhaled and exhaled — on a single tone for the entire twelve minutes. So you get a single pitch, it fluctuates slightly and I was interested in that, because I then put multiple layers on top of that of the same tone and when they fluctuate microtonally, what you get is this kind of beating, this interference between the sound waves, which gives it a very rich topography underneath. On top of that I layered in a number of these different techniques. I was thinking of this as a sound painting, that I was actually putting sound with my voice onto the tape the way a painter puts layers of paint onto a canvas, adding more and adding more and perhaps taking away. The taking away had to do with when you get to the final mix. I recorded more than I needed and in the final mix we would pare it down to just the material that was needed. Also I learned a great deal from the engineers once I had done my work, which was to put all the material on the canvas, or on the tape. We then went to the next stage, which was the mix. I was fascinated that they were thinking of the stereo horizon and where they were going to place these sounds in the horizon. So it was really a kind of collaboration.
[K] And that was your first experience working in that way?
[JLB] Yes, and it was fascinating to me because up to that time I had done a lot of solo work — I had worked with other musicians, I had recorded (but basically recorded live concert stuff) — but not a lot of work where I had access to multitracking. Also the whole idea of thinking about how you mix and depth of field and all of these things that have become so much a part of my work at this point in time. At that point it was all very, very new to me and I was just fascinated by the richness that they created in giving space to the sounds, so that each of the sounds had its own personal environment, if you will, where it lived. When you listen to that work and some of the other works that I was fortunate enough to do in European radio stations, you’ll get the expertise of that information that that team of fantastic recording engineers gave to my work. Back to your other idea of the interpreter and the composer, here we have now the composer who is also the interpreter who then goes someplace else and collaborates with the technicians. A lot of work in Europe that is done by composers who deal with electronics is done leaning very heavily on the expertise of the technicians and there’s really never a question about whose authorship it is.
[K] In Pop music that team approach is very strong, and you have the long list of credits on the reocrding but it’s still attributed, in Pop music, largely to the performer rather than the composer…
[JLB] That’s true… well and also possibly the producer.
[K] And possibly the producer, sure. But there’s been this long tradition of assigning authorship to one composer in the non-pop world and so this team approach is still in some ways a rarity because when you are working in an live acoustic concert…
[JLB] You are very much dependent on your sound reinforcement engineer and staff. They can make or break a concert, whether it’s Pop music or whether it’s Classical music. It’s very, very dependent on the people running those controls once you get beyond a house that you can work in acoustically.
[K] So you took all that away as another part of your repertoire.
[JLB] I took that all away, I took that information and I became fascinated by this whole idea of layering sounds and creating an orchestra of voices in a way. After that I did a number of works, multitrack compositions, and also used electronics. I went out to CalArts in Valencia and got to work on the equipment out there using the Buchla Synthesizer. I used the Buchla not just to process the voice but also to locate sounds in space and did several quadrophonic pieces where I was using the Buchla to create these not only sound paintings but sound dances, where I was thinking of the sounds as almost solid objects that were moving around the space. There’s a work of mine called Autumn Signal that was inspired by the work of Merce Cunningham. Merce always thinks of wherever the dancer is facing [as] forward, so it doesn’t matter if the dancer is facing upstage; if that’s where the dancer is facing, then that’s forward. And so this whole idea of working in three-dimensional space, instead of two-dimensional space, was something that I took from Cunningham. Also in that piece I was influenced by the work of the writer Emmett Williams and a work of his called Sweethearts, where he takes the word “sweethearts” and just transmutates it in various different combinations and variations on that word.
[K] I may have even seen that written out, was it not published in the Cage Notations book?
[JLB] It may have been, I don’t actually remember where I saw it, it was many years ago. I created my own text but I was a little bit hesitant to let the text be absolutely understandable, comprehensible, so I used the Buchla to modify it so that it drops parts of words out and modifies them, and also to move them around in space.
[K] Have you re-released that in DVD in surround versions?
[JLB] Not in surround, not yet, it’s available just in stereo, but at some point… Because there are a number of works that I did originally thinking about quad and going to surround sound is a very logical next step.
[D] Can other performers perform your music or does it seem to be unique to… or have you written music that is more accessible to other performers?
[JLB] I have, I’ve written works that I felt specifically could be done by other singers. I wrote a number of works for voice and chamber enermble, one of them was called The Solar Wind, which uses voice and ten instruments. I did several versions of that, I then did a version for a choral ensemble, for four instruments and then for orchestra. But I always thought of that work as one that someone else could do. There was also a work called Vlissingen Harbor, again for voice and chamber ensemble, that I thought another singer could do. To the best of my knowledge noone ever has. [Laughter] I wish they would, because I think it would be very interesting. I then was approached by a group I Cantori, it’s a group in Los Angeles. They had heard my work Time(d) Trials and Unscheduled Events, which was a work that was commissioned for radio broadcast during the Los Angeles Olympics arts festival. It was, in my mind, a sonic animation, where I was singing the sounds that I thought athletes would make when they were doing their thing. Or I was singing the shapes of…
[K] Did you train in order to discover those sounds?
[JLB] No, no, [general laughter] I just imagined… I thought about the long-distance runners, the breathing of the pacer runner and different runners who would come along and have their different rates of breathing. So I then created all of these and layered them up. Also, going back to the sound painting idea, I sang the shape of divers as they would leave the diving board and do these beautiful things and then enter the water and the sound of the water, the sound of the crowd, all this stuff. I did this all with my own voice, did a tape piece and it was broadcast. I Cantori contacted me and said “Can we see the score? We’d love to do this piece.” I said “There is no score, I just wrote it out for myself,” and they said “well, could you make a score?” [Laughter] So I did, I made a score, I sort of reconstructed it then from the tape and created a kind of map. It’s not a score in a traditional way, but it gives all of the information and suggestion as to how and when the various layers should be added on. It’s very interesting to compare their interpretation of it to my original. Since that time I’ve now let solo singers work with my tape that I know the whole piece is there. So again, they’re adding on another layer, it’s as if…
[K] So they have all the parts and they add one more to it, it isn’t minus one Joan? [Laughter]
[JLB] They have all the parts, no. What I did, after I had created a lot of these tape works for radio, I thought well, they’ve got to have a life after radio, and so I added on another layer live on top of these multitrack pieces. When I thought about a solo singer, I thought well, if I let somebody try one of these solo works at least I know the whole piece is there and what they’re going to add — as long as they stay within my instructions — is not going to destroy anything, it’s just going to add their own personal take on it. So I would give them the same score that I sent to I Cantori, which is for multiple voices, basically lining up all the material and laying it out for them and then I let them go at their rate of speed, making choices as they go through the work. A long explanation, but yes, I do write for other people. I also wrote a piece in 1990 or ’91 that I did in three versions: one was for voice and multitrack tape, and another was for multiple voices and then for full chorus. That was called To Hear the Wind Roar, and I did the solo version of it, I Cantori did the multi-voice version and Gregg Smith Singers did the large-scale version.
[K] That’s not available?
[JLB] Unfortunately it’s not. I have a recording of the solo version, I do have some live recordings of both Gregg Smith and I Cantori doing it, there’s a document of it, and maybe at some point we’ll get to the point where we can dress up those live recordings and see if we can release them.
“You can put 150 marks on a note but it still doesn’t give all the information.”
[K] A side track on that, do you think that there’s a fragility in the life of some of your work because it’s not always represented in a reproducible format, like a score?
[JLB] That’s why I do so much recording, and I am doing more score making as the years go on. I don’t know that anyone would really be interested in reproducing those multitrack pieces. If they were, somebody would be able to go to the recordings and work it out. If somebody were really interested while I’m still around, I could probably do it.
[K] But still, sometimes the notion that there’s a gilt edge to the score that’s not the same as handing a recording to someone, or doing live improvisation, there is a sort of a psychology about that…
[JLB] That’s always the difficulty in making a score. Morty Feldman used to say that music was most perfect when it was in his head. Then he had to put it on paper and then the musicians came along and they were never as good as what he had in his head. [General laughter] He imagined sounds just melting into audibility, that they would become present almost like breathing, you didn’t actually know where they began and then they were there and then they would go away. This very malleable thinking of sound as air almost, a gorgeous way of thinking.
[K] Do you the composer and you the performer ever have arguments about doing your work?
[JLB] The only difficulty I have is when I actually write down something on paper and then I give it to somebody else and, again, it’s never quite what one had in mind, so you go back and you say…
[K] But you can express what you have in mind when you’re doing your own…
[JLB] When I’m doing my own, yes. One of the things that composers struggle with is this whole idea of the shape, the envelope, if you will, of the sound. The attack and what happens to it when you breathe life into it, how it decays. All of that is what makes a great interpreter.
[K] “Dot Music” (as you can call it) does not have enough ways of indicating that.
[JLB] No, it doesn’t. Crescendo and diminuendo and all the various pianos, pianissimos and everything never really come… You can put 150 marks on a note but it still doesn’t give all the information. The only person who can give all the information is if the composer is the performer. Otherwise you’re always doing a translation. If the composer’s alive you have the opprtunity of discussing how well you’ve achieved that translation, and maybe you can go back and modify it… granted you get a second performance of a work. If you’re dealing with music by someone who’s not around, it’s all interpretation and then you get the musicologists telling you whether it’s right or wrong. [Laughter]
[K] We won’t talk about the musicologists, we don’t have academic qualifications here at Kalvos & Damian. [General laughter] What have you been doing recently? Oh, one other thing before we get to that, how did your work with Larry Austin come about?
[JLB] Larry contacted me and he said he was doing portraits of various people and he wanted to come and interview me and do a portrait. So he came to Santa Fe and we did a very long interview and then he extracted portions of it and then used various portions of that. Also we did some recordings of my vocal material and he then layered that up and created a piece and then afterwards came back with a score that illustrated — very much like the kind of scoring I do — what’s on the tape and gives a suggestion of what kind of material you can add on top of that as a layer.
[K] Was the creative process in creating that interactive with Larry or did he just take away each of these things to work with?
[JLB] A lot of the things we worked on were in a way of vocal description. We would talk about certain concepts and ideas that I had and then I would give an example, sing some material. He would then extrapolate from that material and go on with it; the idea of “mix the paint” is something that comes up — we were talking about sound painting — and various concepts. He would take the words and sort of put them into this blender and mix them up and use some of the vocal material and start decorating around it. That’s how that piece came to be.
[K] It’s a fun piece, I enjoyed it very much.
We listen to an except of the second part of The Name, The Sounds, The Music by Larry Austin, performed by Joan La Barbara [1:31:20–1:32:00]. Published on The Virtuoso in the Computer Age III, Centaur [CD CRC2166].
[K] What are you doing recently and maybe if we can blend that in with the question of has moving from the wide horizons of the south-west back to New York changed the way you work?
[JLB] Ah, a complicated question. Let me talk about a couple of things. One thing is the collaboration with Kenneth Goldsmith, which was a really major work for both of us. When I was invited by the person who was putting this piece together to collaborate with Kenneth, I didn’t know his work. I went and saw some of his drawings, they’re multiple text drawings. You have a light and a dark text superimposed, graphite on paper. Kenny had finished about ten of the works by the time I saw them and we talked about my work. What he had heard of my work was my work with Cage and Feldman and I said, “Well, you haven’t really heard my work, you’ve heard me interpreting other people.” I said “I’m not going to give you things, I want you to to find out how difficult it is to obtain this music. I gave him a list of things, he went out and he found things in used record stores, you know, he found all sorts of things and he came back to me a couple of weeks later and he said “It’s wonderful, I love it. We’ve got to work together.”
He went on and completed the work, 73 Poems, which technically is 79 poems… he sort of couldn’t stop. But what I noticed when he finally gave me the work was that after he picked up my work, his work changed. When you see the work you’ll see it’s fairly text-intensive for the first, maybe, third of the piece, and then it starts to be more about shapes and various configurations: reclining pyramids and walls of numbers and letters. And then the letters start flying around on the page and it gets very spacious and airy.
Once he gave me the entire piece — I had a huge studio in Santa Fe, a converted two-car garage — I put the work up all over the walls and just lived with it for a couple of weeks without doing any music, just looking at the different pieces. When I started working, I didn’t start with number 1, I started with one that I could… deal with, and worked in two directions at once. When I’d reach a point when I couldn’t work anymore I would go to another section. When I was through with the composing aspect of it I went into the studio with Michael Hoenig who did the recording and also co-produced with me. We recorded everything individually and then it was all layered up in the computer so that we could re-construct orally what had happened visually. So you get the material overlaid and superimposed. In the poems the dark text of one poem becomes the light text of the subsequent poem, so I didn’t use the same material, but I used very similar material and would either treat it differently electronically or, in a way, architecturally. So that [due to a technical glitch, a small portion of the interviews is missing] much…
[K] So much part of what you’re doing with it and what he’s doing with it… And how about the screens in which you overlay it on the multiple…
[JLB] No, that’s never been published. That’s an interesting idea. I have had the opportunity to perform it in a gallery with all of the original drawings in the gallery, and that’s fabulous! Because the audience, during the 45 minutes of the performance, can look around — if they choose — and relate to either the drawing that I’m working with or just the experience of this enormous work.
We listen to 73 Poems, #1–10 by Joan La Barbara and Kenneth Goldsmith [1:36:33–1:41:30].
[K] Now back to that question of how has coming back here to New York…
[JLB] One of the reasons that I came back to New York was that I wanted to be more accessible to both the audience in New York and to the composers that I enjoy listening to and working with. I was just feeling as if I had had enough of the remoteness and I wanted to come back to the big city! [Laughter]
[K] You weren’t headlining the Santa Fe opera, though? [General laughter]
[JLB] No, every once in awhile I did perform in New Mexico, sometimes in Santa Fe, sometimes in Albuquerque, but there were not a lot of opportunities, so I was always on the road. It was nice to be able to get back there — I have a lot more space, obviously, than what I’ve got here in New York — but just the energy of people is something I really needed, I need this intensity.
[K] And New York is the place rather than one of the other cities in the country or the world?
[JLB] I grew up in Philadelphia, I lived up in New York for about ten or twelve years… I spent a long time in New York during the early “development” part of my career, not only working with “contemporary” music (if we want to call it that), composers, and in that area, but also working a little bit in the Jazz field. I really feel in a way as if the roots of my career, the roots of my development, are here. A lot of the work I do is either here or generated from here. There’s a whole connection between Europe and New York that continues to this day. I mean, the Europeans are actually going out to the west coast now to see what’s going [on] out there, but that’s more or less a recent happening. It used to be that they would basically come to New York for their ideas and New York was — and I think still is — the marketplace where people present their work. I wanted to get back to that energy. I’ve also been working here, I have been directing a series for Carnegie Hall called When Morty met John, which is the work of Cage and Feldman. I’ve been working with several ensembles here in town — Locrian Chamber Players and also a new group we’ve just launched, called Ne(x)tworks. So, I just feel energized back here, that’s why I’m here.
[K] And so, speaking of next works, where are you going from here?
[JLB] I’m working on a couple of things. One is a new opera and a couple of weeks ago we premiered, or we did an in-progress version of, a scene from this potential opera. The opera is about the mind of Virginia Woolf. I’m not going to use any particular text of hers, but I’ve been fascinated for many years about her way of writing. Particularly in the stories, where she’ll give a sort of a kernel of the idea… If you cook, you know that you make a roux, which is the essence of something, and then you put it away in the refrigerator and when you’re ready to actually do the cooking you bring it out and you add stuff to it. Well, she did this with her stories. She would put the essence of the work in a couple of pages and then stick it away in a drawer. Then when somebody wanted a whole story or a novel or whatever, she’d pull out these little ideas and then she’d expand on them and make something into them. What I’m interested in are those ideas because it was to me when she was her freest, she really let her mind wander. There’s a wonderful short piece called The Black Spot on the Wall, where she’s sitting in a chair and ruminating about what this spot on the wall could possibly be. She takes it in fantastic directions and at a certain point says “I could just get up and go over and look at it and see what it is,” but then that would take all the fun out of it, it would actually identify what it was. At that point her husband comes into the room and makes some comment and says he’s going out to do something and he says “Oh, how tiresome to have a snail on the wall.” And she says, “Ah, it was a snail.” All of this sort of squashed into the reality of the situation at that point.
What I’m fascinated by is this idea of taking beautiful germs of thought and these exquisite essences and trying to explore what her mind might have done with those. … I do say in the score that all of the musicians are Virginia Woolf and they are all figments of her imagination. So they are both, they are her and they are of her. And gender is not an issue, so whether they are male or female, they are all Virginia Woolf, because gender was an issue in a lot of her writings, this whole twisting and turning of “is he she, or what?”
[K] How did the workshopping of this go so far?
[JLB] It went beautifully, we actually did a performance at the Chelsea Art Museum with this new ensemble, Ne(x)tworks. Hopefully I’ll be able to develop it more and maybe get some funding and go someplace with it. That’s the most exciting idea that I’m working with at the moment.
[K] What is it about opera? What’s happening?
[JLB] You know it’s really fascinating there are so many people… I’ve been doing a series at the American Music Center called Insights, where I interview composers. For the first season I chose to focus on opera because it is so hot at this point in time and there’s so many people doing it. I chose four different composers and at each of the sessions we talked to each of the participants to find out who they were. Well, they were all composers or performers or people interested in opera and they had all either just written an opera or were just about to write an opera. Everybody’s doing it. All of a sudden, the whole intimidation of the trappings of opera of the past seem no longer to carry the kind of weight. And everybody says wow, it’s something where you involve theatre and visuals and live performance and really anything you want to put in it, whether you want to add electronics, whether you have one person or 500 people. It’s this kind of open area. It has an element of spectacle but it doesn’t have to be spectacular. It’s going from music and it’s expanding on the idea of music beyond what we had referred to as music theatre and more than theatre with music, opera is really something different.
[D] It’s encouraging to hear you say this because we talked to another composer who was so negative about the prospects of another opera being… he thought that opera was dead, he thought that orchestras were dead, he wants to write a long opera but he says that he will have to fund it himself, he has no hope that it would ever be performed.
[JLB] You know, it depends on whether you hang yourself up [and think] it’s got to be a formal opera with a full orchestra and a hundred people and or if you can be creative and say “Well, I want to do an opera, now how can I manage to get it done? What are the forces that I think I can pull together to make it happen?” And do it that way. Rather than to put up this wall in front of yourself and say “Oh, I’ll never get that done,” say “Well I’ve got this idea, how can I do it so that it will be doable, so people can experience it and enjoy it, hopefully, and we can go on from there.” Maybe if the first realization is for six or seven instruments and two or three voices… if it’s successful and you want it to be bigger than that maybe you can go on from there.
[K] One question we’ve been asking everyone, and you’ve partly answered it just with the things that you’ve just said about opera. The world is really awash in new music of all kinds. Why is more of it being done, why is more it needed, for that matter?
[JLB] Do you mean why does one create music?
[K] Not why does one create music, but why does one take it out of the drawer and try to have other people hear it?
[JLB] Because one learns a great deal when you perform. It’s one thing to have it in your mind, and I guess in a way I would disagree with Morty Feldman, I don’t think it’s perfect in my mind, I think I learn so much when I perform my own work or somebody else’s work because I’m alive. I’m always reacting to the circumstances of the acoustics of the room, to the energy that I get from the audience, to the energy that I get from the musicians that I’m working with or, if I’m working alone, the sound as it comes back to me in that space. I’m fascinated by live performance. John Cage was fascinated by live performance because it’s always new, it’s always changing. Even if you fix every element, or you think you can fix every element, it’s still going to be a unique experience. Every live performance is unlike every other live performance of the same piece.
[K] And the audiences? What about them?
[JLB] Why do they come? I think for the same reason, they want to experience something live. If you do not have the possibility of hearing something live, the recording is the next best thing. But just for the exhiliration, for the high that you get from performing and sometimes from just sitting in the audience. You know somethies when you hear something beautifully played, or sometimes you hear a sound or a combination of sounds that you had just never thought of, it’s just like “wow, what an idea, that’s so great,” and to hear that live is like nothing else in the world.
[K] From one of the great creators of sound we never thought we’d ever imagine, Joan La Barbara, thank you so much for joining us on Kalvos & Damian.
[JLB] Thank you, I had a great time.
We listen to 73 Poems, #57–61 and 68–70 by Joan La Barbara and Kenneth Goldsmith [1:56:43–1:59:42].
Transcription by shirling & neueweise, January 2009.