Joan La Barbara, the legendary New York diva of experimental music, is in the Bay Area this week performing in a trio of solo and collaborative concerts. Last night she appeared with a dozen musicians from the sfSoundGroup at the intimate Center for New Music in the Tenderloin, and the concert was astonishing and moving. The first half consisted of La Barbara vocalizing in a pair of improvisations with two separate quintets of instrumentalists/composers. The first group featured Brendan Lai-Tong on trombone, Mark Clifford on vibraphone, Benjamin Kreith on violin, John Ingle on saxophone, and Tom Dambly on trumpet. The second group consisted of Evelyn Davis on piano, Kyle Bruckmann on oboe/english horn, Erik Ulman on violin, Monica Scott on cello and Matt Ingalls on clarinet. Half the pleasure of the performances was watching the reactions on the face of Joan La Barbara, as she stood with her eyes closed, listening intently to the music and then blending in with her own contributions.
In between, Joan sang a short solo that displayed a sampling of her breathtaking range of extended vocal techniques. In collaboration with Wood Massi, I interviewed Joan La Barbara two years ago when she was appearing with the San Francisco Symphony during their American Mavericks Festival, and she explained a bit about her singing style:
"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."
After the second improvisation, Joan asked all of us to help her rearrange the seating area because the musicians were going to be embedded within the audience for a performance of her opera, Angels, Demons, and Other Muses (click here for a video excerpt). "We're going to need some elbow room and be able to wander a bit," she instructed. In that earlier interview, she explained her current fascination with combining concert music and theater:
"Since about 2003, I’ve been working with a group of young musicians called Nex(t) in New York 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 John Cage work at the Symphony. 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."The performance last night at the New Music Center was magical, a 30-40 minute melding of tape, notated and improvised sounds played by expert musicians literally next to your ear, with La Barbara standing in the middle of the audience/performer circle like a shaman. At one point in the piece, the performers stood, took off their hats and wandered over to individual audience members where they whispered private breathing sounds into their ears. This could have been silly but instead crossed the line into transcendent.
You have two more choices to hear Joan La Barbara in the Bay Area this week. Thursday evening at 8PM she is collaborating with Pamela Z (not pictured, that's Jessye Norman above on the right) at the small Royce Gallery in the Mission/Potrero Hill neighborhood and on Friday evening at 7:30PM will be performing solo at the Berkeley Art Museum. The concerts cost $10 and $7, respectively, so even if you're poor there is no excuse not to hear the Maria Callas of experimental music.