Thursday, March 08, 2012

Joan La Barbara 1: On Singing

The legendary New Music soprano Joan La Barbara above (click here for her wonderful website), is in town for the American Mavericks Festival at the San Francisco Symphony, and she was kind enough to sit down for an interview, with myself taking photos and Dr. Wood Massi below right asking the intelligent questions. Ms. La Barbara's extremely adventurous career extends from the late 1960s to the present, with innumerable compositions written for her by composers ranging from Morton Feldman, John Cage, and Robert Ashley, along with music she has composed herself.

During the 40-minute interview, she was extraordinarily gracious, intelligent and articulate, and I came away a confirmed Joan La Barbara diva worshiper. I can't wait to see and hear her this Saturday and Wednesday when she joins Meredith Monk and Jessye Norman for a selection of John Cage's SongBooks, and Sunday afternoon for a world premiere performance of her husband Morton Subotnick's newly reconfigured Jacob's Room opera.

Massi: You have worked in contemporary classical music as a performer, composer, producer, director, conductor, and educator. You have collaborated with choreographers, film-makers, video artists, calligraphers, poets, sound engineers, radio programmers, computer scientists, world-class orchestras and small ensembles. Which currently are your favorite activities?

Right now I’m working with an ensemble that I have worked with for a number of years called Ne(x)tworks in New York. The ensemble got formed because I was the artistic director of a series at Carnegie Hall called When Morty Met John, basically focused on the music of the New York School – Cage, Feldman, Brown. We got together doing realizations of graphic scores and realized that there was a lot of this material, and these young people, most of them are about at least twenty years younger than I am, were absolutely expert at taking on the challenge of different kinds of notation, whether it be graphic notation or text based or anything like that.

So I’ve been with them since about 2003 working on different manifestations of an opera that I’ve been developing. It started out in life with the work of Virginia Woolf and has morphed into also including the work of Joseph Cornell. They are very willing and able to adapt and become actors, which they were not trained to do, but I’m beginning to sort of move concert music into quasi-theatrical performance in a way that we’re doing with the Cage. In this case, really moving musicians out into the audience, and relocating the audience on the stage sometimes. That particular aspect of my work is what I’m really interested in right now, pushing these boundaries a little bit, and just trying to incorporate concert and theater work and use my expertise in both, and also draw on the visual art aspect as well.

You are famous for your experimental and extended vocal techniques. Would you describe what that is for our readers who may not know, and can you point us to some examples we might listen for in your American Mavericks performances?

Extended vocal techniques or experimental vocal techniques really come out of using the voice as an instrument. We all know that we can use the voice to speak, and we can use the voice to sing, but it also makes these wonderful sounds that are used in different cultures. Think about the clicking sound languages, or think about Peking Opera which just uses very different kind of timbral qualities, so it’s stretching what we think about when we think about the voice.

I was trained as a classical singer so I use that technique to make sure that I don’t do any damage when I’m doing my experimental work. I sing on the inhale as well on the exhale. I make the sound phonetics people call “vocal fry” because it sort of sounds like a frying pan, a crackling sound. Inhaled glottal clicks, it’s just slightly inhaled, and when you use a microphone, it makes a quite wonderful sound. Multi-phonics, which is basically double stops for the voice where you’re singing two pitches at the same time. Ululation is something that we hear in many cultures for different reasons. We hear women use it in Middle Eastern countries doing this kind of ululating thing, where it is generally associated with wailing. I do my own version of it, and incorporate a kind of yodel flutter so it’s cross-register. So you’ll hear all of those, in the Cage and also the Subotnick.

More to come, on Jacob's Room, John Cage, and her own compositions.

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