Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Joan La Barbara in Berkeley

The Berkeley Art Museum has an eclectic weekly Friday evening concert series called L@TE, which is actually held early at 7:30 PM and is free with museum membership or $7 a la carte.

Last Friday, the legendary New York experimental music diva and composer Joan La Barbara performed a solo show of her own music at the museum after an earlier collaboration with the sfSoundGroup on Tuesday (click here) and a duet performance with Pamela Z on Thursday. In her program notes, she writes that she performed a solo concert in the building in 1976 when it was called the University Art Museum and released her first vinyl LP of the live recording, Voice is the Original Instrument, which became a classic of extended vocal techniques. "When I learned that the museum was going to move because of seismic issues in the existing structure, I asked if I could do a concert here before the building closed."

The concert started with Space Testing Re: Berkeley Art Museum (1976/2014), where Joan wandered down ramps, stopped at walls and corners at various sections of the large, open room, all the while singing/testing the acoustics while a recording she had made in the same space a couple of days earlier provided an echoing counterpart over large speakers. The piece was a marvelous starter, opening the audience's ears to the performance space itself.

She continued with Circular Song (1974-75), where she sang while both inhaling and exhaling, which seemed impossible but was completely hypnotic. She cut the piece short when a cough started to develop, and explained with a laugh to the audience, "This piece tends to determine its own length in each performance."

The 2011 Solitary Journeys of the Mind was a short, virtuosic semi-improvisation that displayed at least a dozen of her extended vocal techniques which sounded variously like crackling, death rattles, ululation, breathing, whispering, and a pure, glorious soprano. The final piece, Windows... (2013) is a new opera for amplified voice and "sonic atmosphere" that reminded me of her Angels, Demons, and Other Muses from the Tuesday concert.

It is difficult to explain why these pieces were so compelling and moving, with La Barbara's music hitting somewhere deep in the solar plexus with the simplest of means. Let's just call her a Deity and a Teacher, and if there is a bit of Demon in there, all the better.

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