Joan La Barbara
Joan La Barbara
Joan La Barbara
Joan La Barbara
Joan La Barbara

Joan La Barbara

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Experimental composer and performer Joan La Barbara treats the voice as a musical instrument. Through improvisation, she has developed an array of signature sounds, or extended vocal techniques, that extend the voice beyond traditional conceptions of Western classical singing. At times, her signature sounds are unfamiliar, drawing upon extreme vocal registers and multiple simultaneous pitches.

In an interview, La Barbara explains that singing has been an important part of her life from a very young age. She states: “I always sang; I never remember a time when I wasn’t singing.” Throughout her childhood, La Barbara performed in children’s choirs and church choirs as well as studied piano. She entered Syracuse University in 1965 as a double major, studying creative writing as well as voice with soprano Helen Boatwright. During her early post-secondary education, La Barbara learned and performed standard works from the art song and opera repertoire. In the summers, she attended the Tanglewood Berkshire Music Center and studied with soprano Phyllis Curtin, who introduced La Barbara to contemporary vocal music. At the time, this meant works by Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Benjamin Britten, Gian Carlo Menotti, and Igor Stravinsky, a far cry from the avant-garde sound world La Barbara would soon devote herself to. 

In 1968, La Barbara transferred to NYU to complete her junior and senior years of study. She took lessons with Hungarian contralto Marion Szekely Freschl, who encouraged La Barbara’s increasing desire to sing new music. In particular, Freschl believed it was important for singers to befriend composers and teach them how to write for the voice; Freschl herself had been close friends with Béla Bartók. By the time La Barbara graduated in 1970, she described herself as “disenchanted with the opera world,” disliking the tradition of repeatedly learning and performing the same roles. She writes, “I walked away from the traditional singing world at that moment and never turned back.”

Free of the classical tradition and eager to kick start her career, La Barbara began her lifelong exploration of the potentials of vocal sound. She lived in New York City and immersed herself in the growing new music scene. Improvisation and imitation, both individual and collaborative, were key to her process of sound discovery. While improvising, La Barbara strives to let the voice be completely unmediated by thought and self-direction. As she explains, “I try to learn things from my voice. You know, instead of trying to direct the voice I try to let the voice direct me.” La Barbara discovered how to create a multiphonic split, for example, by freely vocalizing while listening to a poem. She discovered her voice could create this sound through improvisation and then later taught herself how to produce it on demand.


Once a week, La Barbara would meet with a group of jazz musicians, performers, and composers of new music for improvisation sessions. The post-improv analysis of the music created during these sessions became an imperative part of La Barbara’s process of sound exploration. As she explains: "Anthony Braxton, Frederic Rzewski, Garret List, Steve Lacy, I, and various others would play for hours. On the evenings Rzewski was there, he would insist on having a discussion afterwards, analyzing what we had done and why. Although I found it annoying at the time, it became as much a part of improvising as the making of sound."

The addition of analysis to La Barbara’s improvisations extends the process of improvising. The entry on improvisation in Grove Music Online focuses on its extemporaneous nature as well as the challenge of researching improvisatory works. In fact, Bruno Nettl refers to improvisation as “one of the subjects least amenable to historical research.” The evanescent nature of improvisation, in which each performance is different, challenges the notion of the concrete musical work, which can be notated, preserved in a score, and repeated in future performances. Interestingly, by adding an analysis component to her improvisatory exploration of the voice, La Barbara engages in a research-like process. She makes her improvisatory vocalizations more concrete and available for future use.

Much of La Barbara’s improvisation-analysis method focused on imitating instruments. Instrumentalists at this time were expanding the sonic boundaries of their instruments, something La Barbara aimed to do with the voice. She worked to imitate specific timbres of individual instruments and over time, crafted the ability to mimic bongo drums, the marimba, a Japanese koto and arumba, the harp, and the trumpet, to name a few. In addition, La Barbara worked to vocally produce natural and mechanical-sounding noises from real-world contexts. For example, her Les Oiseaux qui chantent dans ma tête is a nineteen-minute long piece for solo voice comprising vocal ululations that sound like bird calls. Similarly, Urban Tropics (1988) a work that La Barbara refers to as a “sound painting,” was inspired by Miami’s landscape and uses voice, percussion, and tape to depict the Latin culture and tropical animals. 

Taking Freschl’s advice, La Barbara began to collaborate with young composers, teaching them about the possibilities, and limitations, of vocal sound. She worked closely with Steve Reich between 1971 and 1974, singing percussion parts for recordings and tours of Drumming. La Barbara also improvised and performed with the Philip Glass Ensemble from 1971 to 1976, performing works such as Music in 12 Parts, Another Look at Harmony, and North Star. She was in the French premiere of Glass’ acclaimed opera Einstein on the Beach in July of 1976, but left the group almost immediately afterwards to pursue solo performance and composition. La Barbara taught Glass about vocal tessitura, range, and how to write in ways that help singers avoid fatigue. Moreover, she introduced both Glass and Reich to the technique of vocal timbral adjustment, in which singers adjust their resonance to match the timbre of any instrument, allowing composers to write for the voice in a new way – as an instrument.

Voice is the Original Instrument
In 2003, La Barbara released Voice is the Original Instrument, a two-part album that comprises a selection of her earliest works from 1974 – 1980. The compositions on this album reveal La Barbara’s experimental approach to using the voice. Voice Piece: One-Note Internal Resonance Investigation explores the timbral palette within a single pitch. Circular Song plays with the necessity of a singer’s breath by vocalizing, and therefore removing, all audible inhalations and exhalations. Hear What I Feel brings the sense of touch into an improvisatory composition and performance experience. In October Music: Star Showers and Extraterrestrials, La Barbara moves past experimentation and layers her different sounds into a cohesive piece of music.

La Barbara has dedicated her career to expanding the possibilities of using the voice in musical performance. She was a pioneer in experimental vocal music, cultivating a wealth of new vocal techniques. These innovations have changed the ways in which composers write for the voice as well as the ways in which audiences experience the voice. Voice is the Original Instrument is an album that documents La Barbara’s earliest explorations of experimental vocal sound production. It encompasses a selection of works from the early 1970s through 1980s, at which time La Barbara was developing her array of now signature sounds. Some of these pieces, such as Hear What I Feel and Voice Piece: One Note Internal Resonance Exploration comprise La Barbara’s initial, improvisatory discoveries of a technique or sound. Many, if not all, of these works stray from, or even entirely challenge, conceptions of traditional singing; at times they can be difficult to understand, place, and even listen to. 

In Voice is the Original Instrument's liner notes she writes: “Voice is the Original Instrument was both a statement of purpose and a manifesto as, through various experiments and explorations, I tried to rediscover the basic function of the voice as the first means of expression as well as to release untapped sonic material.”

The title Voice is the Original Instrument touches on the importance of the vocal instrument within the history and origins of music. La Barbara explains that she chose the title in part because she feels singers are often thought of as inferior to instrumentalists: “The title comes, I suppose, from having studied as a classical singer and from being regarded by musicians as not being a musician… You know musicians refer to each other as musicians, and singers are referred to as singers.”

La Barbara challenges this treatment of singers by expanding the possibilities for using the voice, exploring its capacities as an instrument that may have predated other musical instruments. As La Barbara explains: “I believe that the voice is an instrument, and that actually many if not all instruments were created in imitation of the voice.”

Sound Painting
Each of La Barbara’s works begins with a concept, often inspired by improvisation or engagement with texts, images, or movement. For example, the creation of Erin, written for live voice and multi-track tape, was prompted by a newspaper photograph of a man carrying his son who died during a hunger strike in Ireland. This powerful image is sonically depicted through short vocal blips similar to cries and a sustained multiphonic dirge at the close of the piece. She considers this work to be a “sound painting” and describes her compositional process in terms of visually shaping the sound. As La Barbara explains, “I think of myself as a painter. I really feel like I’m painting with the voice – whether I need a thin line, a sharp color, or a denseness in texture.” Engaging both the visual and auditory senses is important to her creative process. 

Circular Song
Circular Song plays with the potential to change sound through breath. It was inspired by the circular breathing technique of horn players, in which inhalation through the nose occurs while playing, creating the effect of a continuous phrase. La Barbara mimics this technique with her voice, by simultaneously lengthening and vocalizing her inhalations and exhalations. She sings a series of ascending and descending glissandos, changing the direction of the vocal slide according to the placement of each inhale and exhale. In doing so, La Barbara creates one of her “impossible effects,” removing the breath which, in traditional singing, typically marks a break between phrases.

Joan La Barbara's Early Explorations of the Voice by Samara Ripley, 2014


“CYCLONE” was an international jury selection as sound sculpture, awarded a multi-media prize and presented live in performance (as “Wind/Tornado Piece/Cyclone”) at the 1977 ISCM Weltmusiktage (World Music Days) in Bonn, Germany. The idea of the work was that the sonic cyclone should occur as erratically and suddenly as in nature and that the sounds would begin to spin around the audience, enveloping them in the sonic storm.


Sesame Street - Signing Alphabet
In 1977 La Barbara offered a setting of voice with electronic sound for the Signing Alphabet sequence on Sesame Street, Children's Television Workshop, to assist hearing children in learning to communicate with the deaf. The sequence has been broadcast worldwide. 

Sounds In Motion: Olympic Arts
A series of programs were produced by the Independent Composers Association of Los Angeles in cooperation with the Olympics Arts Festival in 1984. Six composers were commissioned to create sound works for radio which could be transmitted during the period of the pre-Games Arts Festival in the Los Angeles area and nationally via American Public Radio. 

One of the programs was by La Barbara and Paul Dresher. San Francisco Bay Area composer Paul Dresher is represented with music based on field recordings made in Bali while La Barbara utilizes vocal sounds which are inspired by athletes’ movements and sounds in events as diverse as diving and shot put. 

A second program was a new work by John Cage titled “HMCIEX”. The title is derived from an alternation of the letters H.C.E. (Here Comes Everybody) and mix. The tape was composed by cutting up the names of 151 countries participating in the Olympic games, into syllables and rearranging them, using chance operations. The tape also includes a compilation of national anthems of the countries. The music incorporates selections from all the countries participating (and boycotting) the 1984 Olympics.