The American avant-garde composer revisits her storied career: working with John Cage and expanding people’s notions of vocal sounds.
A vocal virtuoso and sound artist whose presence looms large in the world of experimental music, Joan La Barbara began exploring—and expanding—the possibilities of the human voice in the 1970s. Though she was classically trained at Syracuse University and Juilliard, it was her experiments with vocals as raw sound that made La Barbara a visionary: from multiphonic singing and varied timbres on a single pitch to circular breathing techniques inspired by horn players, her work eventually gave rise to a whole new vocabulary—trills, whispers, cries, sighs, inhaled tones, ululation and glottal clicks are just a few of her signature sounds. In the mid ’70s, La Barbara began creating more structured compositional works, often using both vocal and electronic elements, and she’s also collaborated with a stunning array of composers and artists over the years, including Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Morton Feldman, Matthew Barney, Christian Marclay, her husband Morton Subotnick, and others too numerous to list, not to mention a variety of orchestras around the globe. La Barbara has also dabbled in television and film, both as a composer and an actress, and has devoted much of her time to educating other vocalists as well, both in an official and unofficial capacity. Over the years, she been part of the faculty at the California Institute of the Arts, Hochschule der Künste in Berlin, The College of Santa Fe, The University of New Mexico and Princeton University (as a visiting lecturer); she’s currently on the Composition Faculty of New York University.