Don’t Quit Your Day Job. Yet…

Don’t Quit Your Day Job. Yet…

Composer as Performer

Joan La Barbara has a great day job: she performs a huge repertoire of vocal works by 20th century masters, including many pieces that were written especially for her. She spends an insane amount of time every year trotting the globe doing performances of some very difficult and open-ended works. And she loves it. Indeed, when I asked her if she’d ever want to give it up to perform her own compositions exclusively, she adamantly said no; she not only enjoys it too much to quit, but she actually lets these performances influence her own compositions.

Her bio looks like a greatest hits of the last half of the 20th century. She worked early on with Steve Reich’s group from 1971-74 and appears on several of his recordings. From 1972-76, La Barbara also sang with Philip Glass‘s ensemble and was in the premiere of Einstein on the Beach at Avignon, France in 1976. She’s had everyone from Roger Reynolds and Mel Powell to Morton Feldman and John Cage write pieces for her. (Feldman wrote the now classic Three Voices for Joan La Barbara, and Singing Through John Cage, her recording of Cage’s vocal works on New Albion records, remains one of the core works in the Cage discography.) And, later this year, Lovely Music will release a two-CD retrospective of her own seminal, experimental works from the ’70s, some never previously released, some with live electronics, some using Buchla modules for processing and spatial location, and her earliest sound paintings and sound dances.

Joan LaBarbara the Performer
In concert at the Warsaw Autumn Festival, 17 September 17, 1999
Photo by Jan Rolke

As long as she’s been working, she’s been performing other people’s music. Although classically trained, she got into contemporary music because she didn’t feel the straight stuff was stretching her brain enough. She liked the challenge of open-ended scores and graphic notation; indeed, it allows a lot more room for creative interpretation and expression. And, she found that working closely with composers informed her own compositional process; she calls it an “education.” For example, in the 70s she’s worked with the conceptually-based composer Alvin Lucier, known for making music from brainwaves and stretching wires across great spaces, on works such as “Still and Moving Lines of Silence in Families of Hyperbolas.” Lucier would sit with La Barbara discussing what he was thinking about and La Barbara would respond to his ideas through her interpretation. For decades she has worked with Robert Ashley, whose speech-derived operatic scores offer a great deal of interpretative flexibility for the performers and are only fixed during the rehearsal process with the ensemble.

These days, she’s a renowned vocalist in high demand. During the course of a year, she’s on the run fulfilling requests for shows. While she used to be called upon more often as a performer of other people’s works rather than a performer of her own music, the tide is changing. La Barbara estimates that over the course of a year, the concerts will be half her work, half other composers. And it’s through performances of the works of Feldman and Cage that people get exposed to her own work; with such personal and dynamic interpretations, folks are eager to know what La Barbara’s own work sounds like. In fact, it was through her performing career that she garnered interest – and contacts – that would help her out when it came time to perform her own concerts: “When I was out performing for other people I would take my little notebook and I’d write down every person’s address that I met; when I was ready to do my solo concerts those were the people I contacted.”

Performing invigorates her; it never feels like a draggy day job. Unlike most jobs, every day is different and every performance has its own qualities that end up as both a challenge and a learning situation. There are new questions every time: Is this working the way I want to? How am I interacting with the instruments or the tapes? Is this phlegm in my throat botching the whole performance? In her typically insightful way, La Barbara says that, “It’s also re-exploring material each time you perform and that’s what keeps it fresh. I’m always looking for some new twist – it’s like turning a prism: it’s always the same prism but you keep turning it and sometimes you get a different kind of light refraction that sparkles in its unique way.”

She lets these explorations influence her compositions. Early on, the line between her own work and those she was working for was thickly drawn, but later it seemed to loosen up. La Barbara explains: “When I started composing, I was fairly conscious of not wanting to imitate the people I was working for. People would associate my music with that of Steve Reich and Phil Glass; it was a natural association because of working together. People would say I was coming from a minimalist tradition and it took a while before they could actually separate out the music and ideas of performers who worked with composers who’s reputations were further along than ours. Jon Gibson, Dicky Landry and I all did solo concerts when we were working for Phil and there was a certain consciousness, on my part, of not wanting to do pattern music, for example. Over the years, I’ve recognized that there are certain things that are a part of why I was attracted to those composers in the first place. I’ve allowed a certain amount of the influence to come through and then given it my own spin.”

The glare of the spotlight is hard to resist and La Barbara could have easily pictured herself spending the rest of her life performing pieces of other composers and never getting any of her own work done. “The reason that I stopped working with Philip Glass was that he had so much work,” she explains, “and they were about to go out on this major tour of Einstein on the Beach and I just said ‘I’m starting to do my own work and I have to focus on it now.’ I felt it was important to separate from that situation.”

Although somewhat of a legend, La Barbara is no prima donna. While she’s always worked in the musical field, it hasn’t always been this glamorous. Back in the 70s, while living in New York, she did a number of television commercials. “I really enjoy doing commercials because it’s a different way of thinking,” La Barbara says. “It’s not the same sort of exploration and questioning and dealing with issues. It’s more like working in miniature. I did a commercial for Eastern Airlines, I did one for a perfume company and I did the original “train to the plane” ad in New York.” The “train to the plane” ad could’ve been big bucks, but the producers used another vocalist in her place because she was out of town when the session call came and La Barbara ended up losing some pretty lucrative royalties. No matter. Things worked out better in the long run.

She also teaches. A few years ago she gave master classes at Juilliard in contemporary and extended vocal technique. She currently teaches voice and composition at the College of Santa Fe and takes private students in New York. La Barbara feels that it’s more about social and musical responsibility than it is about money. After all, not very many people can understand – never mind perform – the type of the type of work La Barbara does. As such, her legacy is of concern to her. Her scores and interpretations are so personal that the question ultimately arises: what’s going to happen to her work in decades to come? One of La Barbara’s big goals these days is to get most of her work recorded and released on CD and get it all down somehow on paper so that her works can be continued to be performed after she’s gone. Scoring it is not an easy task since so much of the work is based on the energy of performance and improvisation that happens during the staging and recording of her works.

She’s so well known as a performer of other people’s works that I wondered: does she ever get concerned that she’ll be remembered more as a performer than a composer? La Barbara responded, “I know this may be the case, but because the quality of my performative interpretations are so unique, there’s always a curiosity about what kind of works I write. They may not like my music as much as they like other people’s music but whether I’m considered one of the master composers or not, who knows? Who cares? When you look at history there were certain composers who were extremely famous in their own time and we don’t even know their names now – they’re just footnotes. I’m just doing work that I love and enjoy.”

Joan LaBarbara the Composer
from Joan La Barbara: Rothko
Shamansong {New World 80545}
Order from Amazon

Joan LaBarbara the Performer
from Morton Feldman: Three Voices for Joan La Barbara
{New Albion 018}
Order from Amazon

From Don’t Quit Your Day Job. Yet…
by Kenneth Goldsmith
© 2000 NewMusicBox

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.