Joan La Barbara Interview

from Tone Glow:

Joan La Barbara (b. 1947) is an American composer who has spent decades exploring the capabilities of the human voice. In utilizing multiphonics, circular singing, glottal clicks, and various methods of extended vocal technique, she has remained one of the most essential and innovative vocalists of the past century. In addition to composing works for chamber ensembles, musical theater, and orchestra, La Barbara has collaborated with dance companies and worked alongside numerous avant-garde composers such as John Cage, Morton Feldman, Philip Glass, Alvin Lucier, Robert Ashley, and her husband Morton Subotnick.

Her earliest recorded material appears on Voice is the Original Instrument (1976) and Tapesongs (1977). The former features Voice Piece: One-Note Internal Resonance Investigation (1974), which involves exploring the color spectrum of a single pitch by placing it in as many different resonance areas as possible. The latter features Solo For Voice 45, which was composed by John Cage and determined via chance operations and star maps. In the decades since, she’s released other vital records including As Lightning Comes, in Flashes (1983), Sound Paintings (1991), and ShamanSong (1998). Joshua Minsoo Kim spoke with La Barbara on October 28th, 2022 in Evanston, IL in light of her residency at Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music. The two discussed the adjustments needed to adapt to a changing body, lending her voice to Sesame Street and Alien: Resurrection, John Cage’s “lifetime commitment” to her, and more.

Joshua Minsoo Kim: You were born in Philly, what sort of things do you remember about growing up in the city? What stands out?

Joan La Barbara: Well, it’s a totally different city now than it was then. I mean, I was born in ’47 (laughter) in Jefferson Hospital, downtown. My parents moved to Frankford, which is not necessarily an area you would know, and then they moved out to the suburbs. We lived for a long time in Cheltenham, Elkins Park, and then we moved to Abington. Of course, the Philadelphia Orchestra was there and ever-present in the cultural scene. As a kid, I went to see all the concerts of the Philadelphia Orchestra. I can especially remember Robin Hood Dell, which was wonderful—watching concerts outside and everything.

But I was really anxious to get away from Philadelphia. I wanted to get my life started someplace else. I went to Syracuse for three years, and then I was anxious to get to New York, so I transferred to NYU. When I got out of NYU, I started doing everything. I did improv and commercials, I sang jazz, I sang rock. I wasn’t very good at rock (laughter). I found my way into the contemporary music scene. At the time, it was a cross-section of contemporary classical and new music, fusion, and jazz. Everybody was working together, trying things out with a lot of free-form improvisation sessions and stuff like that.

Was your family musical at all?

Not really. My grandfather taught me to play piano when I was about three years old. But no, my parents were not really into music. They got me piano lessons, because I think it was the thing to do, but I don’t think they ever thought I would go into music as a profession. They did everything they could to discourage me (laughter).

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Listen/Learn about La Barbara's Shamansong...


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