Alibi V.16 No.9 • March 1-7, 2007 

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Finding Her Voices

Composer uses extended technique and layering to fashion an orchestra

Joan La Barbara
Joan La Barbara

Joan La Barbara hasn't been nervous about getting up in front of an audience and doing unusual things for many years. In the old days, the early ’70s, sometimes people would giggle. "I haven't gotten that reaction in a very long time," she says.

La Barbara didn't change. She still takes the stage using extended vocal techniques, layers of voice and, often, pre-recorded sounds. She still explores circular singing, inhaling the sound as well as exhaling; ululation, a fluttery sound; and multiphonics, more than one note at a time. So it wasn't her that got more comfortable with the exploration of the human voice. In her estimation, it was the audience. "People now are well-informed. There's been so much information about other cultures. An audience going to an electro-acoustic conference would come with excitement and a sense of adventure."

She'll be performing Friday, March 2, as part of the Santa Fe International Festival of Electroacoustic Music, the 11th of its kind at the College of Santa Fe. Until about five years ago, La Barbara taught at the College of Santa Fe for nearly two decades. Her compositions number more than 50. She doesn't just investigate the voice, she probes the vocal "instruments," as a plural, shaping an orchestra of voice.

But it wasn't always this way. La Barbara trained in her early 20s as a classical singer. "I just got rambunctious and ran away from classical music." She fled to jazz, to rock, to experiments. She wanted to see what the voice could do and began imitating instruments and sounds in nature. Later on, she began hearing the music of other cultures, which reinforced the concepts she was already onto.

Working with living composers gave her a way to participate in classical music beyond reading a piece of music and interpreting it. "I would meet with a composer, who would have an idea, but they wouldn't know where to take it," she says. That gave La Barbara an in, a shot at offering up her knowledge of extended vocal technique. Over the course of her more than 30-year career, she's collaborated with pretty big names, among them: Judy Chicago, Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Eventually, she decided there were "lots of things that I was doing that wouldn't get heard unless I became a composer myself."

Hear Joan La Barbara on Friday, March 2, at 7:30 p.m. The Santa Fe International Festival of Electroacoustic Music begins Thursday. Tickets are $8 per concert or $20 for a festival pass. Call (505) 473-6196, or go to