Photo: Bryony McIntyre

Joan La Barbara


21 Mar 2009  •  The Arches, Glasgow


Joan La Barbara has created an entirely new means of vocal expression. At Instal she presents old and new works exploring the colour spectrum of a single pitch resonating in her skull, an evocation of bird song and circular singing. She's worked with new music giants John Cage, Morton Feldman, Philip Glass, Robert Ashley, composed incredible works, is a startlingly inventive improviser and contributed vocal performances to the Sesame Street film "Signing Alphabet".

Joan is one of the great vocalists of the last 50 years, pioneering in her opening up of new possibilities for the voice as a musical instrument.  Indeed, the collection of her earliest experiments is titled Voice is the Original Instrument.  Which, as Joan has said, is of course a fact, but also a statement of purpose.  A good way to think about her ongoing enquiry into the voice is to relate it to the many other analogous/ complimentary enquiries of the 20th century avant-garde (So for starters how about maybe: François Dufrêne and his poetry of crirythme; exploring the voice as revealing the non-abstracted essence of things, and the breath as the basic unit of vocal meaning; or maybe the extended techniques of any number of horn players – circular breathing, over-blowing, split tones, multi-phonics, feedback and breathless sax playing; or even media reflexive art in general – the turning of equipment into instruments – for e.g. filmmakers like Anthony McCall or Paul Sharits, who turned projection and the frame respectively into artistic mediums in and of themselves; or Tetsuo Kogawa and radio, and on and on…).   The list of composers (John Cage, Morton Feldman, Robert Ashley, Alvin Lucier, Morton Subotnic: all of them!) who have sought out her incredible techniques reads like a who’s who of the US avant-garde but she has also developed a unique compositional approach of her own. What is she doing? Joan is going to perform a series of her pieces, spanning the last 30 years.


Why is it interesting?


OK so all of the above talks about the techniques involved.  They are important.  Often startling and have taken years to conceive, develop, and master.   But how are they used?  Virtuosity doesn’t ensure musical effectiveness.  How are Joan’s techniques applied to her performance?  When I listen to her on CD, I find that the techniques are startling, but they also act as a way of drawing you into a consideration of their use, the structure around them, the qualities of the sounds produced (their richness, depth, interaction: their fine detail).  I often find myself leaning in, closer to the speakers.  Paying attention  (Joan’s friend John Cage even suggested paying attention as a definition of art.).  That’s very interesting.


Works performed:


Voice Piece: One-note Internal Resonance Investigation


A ground breaking work from the early ‘70’s which focuses on the singing of one pitch, but the huge variety of tones, colours, and over/undertones possible around it by resonating it in different places in the mouth/ head.  The same pitch is sung and resonated to create multiple tones.  This eventually came to be known as multiphonic singing.


Circular Song


Think about the circular breathing techniques of saxophonists; playing continuously, with no pause for breath, while still breathing in and out, for ages (The horn players’ trick is to store air in the cheeks, to be expelled while breathing in through the nose.  But there are no cheeks behind the larynx, so how does Joan do it?).  Joan’s score creates a dynamic system of sounding on both the in and out breath, a focus on the directionality of sound (in/out) and it’s possibilities for multiphonics.


Les Oiseaux qui Chantent dans ma Tête (The birds who sing in my head.)


So birdsong has fascinated musicians and composers for centuries.  Humanized and vocalized, Les Oiseaux’s…  complexities, rhythms and sounds approach and compose with birdsong physically and directly rather than just alluded to it.  The diamond-cut, precision vocal sounds and techniques and the control of pitch and ululation is really incredible. Conversations Unaccompanied Voice uses imaginary language and dialogue, and a broader range of material to Les Oiseaux…




Inspired by the Rothko Chapel.  For pre-recorded bowed piano and vocal multiphonics, over which Joan sings and interacts with.  Like the dense layering used by Rothko in his paintings, the piece layers vocal and piano sounds over each other, like think washes of paint that allow different details from different layers to be glimpsed over time.

  • Audio

    Credits / license
    • Copyright © 2009

      Compositions perfoprmed: 1 VOICE PIECE: One-Note Internal Resonance Investigation, 2 Circular Song, 3 Les Oiseaux qui chantent dans ma tete, Conversations, 4 ROTHKO