Joan La Barbara
Credit: Aleksandar Kostic

Philadelphia-born composer and vocalist Joan La Barbara was formally trained as a classical singer, but by the late 1960s, she’d decided she wanted to push her artistry into unfamiliar territories. She found her inspiration in New York, especially from scat singers, free improvisers, and the jazz avant-garde. In her early experiments, she taught herself to imitate the timbres of different instruments—and during this period she fortuitously landed a gig singing in a radio ad for a Japanese perfume, for which she emulated a koto with her voice. This work proved crucial in the early 1970s, when she worked with minimalist pioneer Steve Reich on his landmark composition Drumming, improvising rhythmic parts that he fed into the piece and using her vocal flutters to approximate percussion patterns. While La Barbara would continue to collaborate with important artists throughout the decade, including composer Philip Glass, she would also begin composing and performing her own works. Her 1976 debut LP, Voice Is the Original Instrument, consists of three striking pieces that showcase the breadth of her extended vocal techniques. “Circular Song” uses circular breathing and vacillating glissandi whose simplicity provides their drama. Even more affecting is “Voice Piece: One-Note Internal Resonance Investigation,” where she employs overtones to showcase the wide expressive spectrum of a single pitch. Because the recording isolates La Barbara’s singing, it forces listeners to recognize the depth and power that a single human voice can wield. La Barbara’s versatility comes through even more strikingly when she’s accompanied by other instruments—on “Thunder,” from 1977’s Tapesongs, she collides with timpani to evoke the titular rumbling. Her foundational early works established a vocabulary of vocal sounds and techniques novel to Western avant-garde music, and her career has remained exciting in the years since. “Twelvesong,” from 1983’s As Lightning Comes, in Flashes, blends throat clicks and layers of circular singing into what sounds like a jungle soundscape; the haunting wall of coos on “Shadowsong,” from 1991’s Sound Paintings, comes across as endearingly campy; and “Calligraphy II/Shadows,” from 1998’s Shamansong, combines La Barbara’s voice with traditional Chinese instruments in a stately and stirring tapestry. After decades of honing her craft, she’s rightfully considered one of the most important experimental vocalists of the past century. Her performance at Constellation should be a master class.

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Joan La Barbara Wed 10/26, 8:30 PM, Constellation, 3111 N. Western, $15, 18+