REVIEW: Joan La Barbara at Cafe Oto

“Deep engagement.” Joan La Barbara at Cafe Oto.
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2016. All Rights Reserved 

Joan La Barbara
(Cafe Oto, 16th April 2016; review and drawing by Geoff Winston)

‘I make sonic atmospheres.’ Joan La Barbara’s succinct description of her extraordinary vocal practice was a clue to how she became established as a key figure in the New York contemporary music scene in the early 70s.

La Barbara’s unconventional, utterly committed approach to pushing the boundaries of vocalising has resulted in landmark compositions written for her by major composers including John Cage, Robert Ashley, Alvin Lucier, her husband, Morton Subotnick (reviewed here), and Morton Feldman – notably his Three Voices for Joan La Barbara (1989). Her performances in premieres of Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach (reviewed) and Steve Reich’s Drumming (reviewed), and of key works by Cage and many others have positioned her as one of the avant-garde’s most sympathetic interpreters. Her own compositions have the invention and authority to place her within the canon of which she is such a passionate advocate.

So, it was both a revelation and an education to witness a solo performance by this exceptional vocalist and composer in the intimate confines of Cafe Oto as part of her visit to London to participate in the Wellcome Collection’s This is a Voice exhibition – quite possibly her first solo outing in the UK.

A revelation, not only because her profile is somewhat under-the-radar in the UK compared to its status in the States, but also because she is the consummate performer, technically and emotionally, of the most demanding of vocal manoeuvres. An education because she was disarmingly articulate and engaging in her explanations of each of the five pieces which she chose to perform.

Her deep engagement with the intensities and mysteries of internal voices and conversations, related to practices of shamanic, religious and tribal ritual, find expression in a gamut of expressive and compositional explorations.

Her early compositions, Solitary Journeys of the Mind and Circular Song, introduced the elasticity of her vocal range, combining ululations, exhalations, and glottal clicks with perfect breathing technique, echoed in fluid hand gestures.

Her fascination with the workings of the artistic mind found expression in an excerpt from her ongoing operatic composition, Woolfsong, inspired by the life, writings and diaries of Virginia Woolf and informed by the surreal, dreamstate experience of artist Joseph Cornell (recently the subject of a major Royal Academy of Arts retrospective). Working with a pre-recorded track weaving together sounds of the wind, jungle life and lapping water, she added sequences of breathy exhalation and whispering throat creaks to create an other-worldly, meditational atmosphere.

Referring to collaborations with the Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company, and with novelist Monique Truong, she then performed from her score for film-maker Elizabeth Harris where she enacts The Voice of the Land in Anima, a film where a woman takes to the desert with the baggage of her life to find a place ‘where magic happens’.

To end her compelling performance, La Barbara recited Only, For Voice, written by Morton Feldman, a mere 21 year old in 1947, based on a text by Rilke. ‘Don’t get scared,’ she reassured the audience, ‘it’s not a long one!’ And, a magical one and half minutes later her solo promptly and perfectly drew to a close.

Rarely has had such a strong case for the voice as an instrument been made.

Earlier, a fresh and highly inventive duet by vocalist Odie Ji Ghast and left-field instrumentalist THF Drenching set the scene in style.

Categories: miscellaneous

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