Joan La Barbara – Voice Is The Original Instrument (1976 / 2016)
My deep affection for Joan La Barbara should be crystal clear. In the short life of this site she has been featured a number of times – first in my piece The Beauty of Joan La Barbara (Scores and Photographs) then in my posts of the films of her At Home With Morton Subotnick, and Vocalizing the Alphabet on Sesame Street in 1977, and most recently I featured Voice Is The Original Instrument in Against the Patriarchy : The Feminist Spirit and the Avant-garde (In 9 albums). In many ways this article / announcement is redundant, but after nearly twenty years out of print on vinyl, the reissue of Voice.. is something that can’t be ignored. As I’ve discussed in the past, Joan La Barbara is one of the most important figures in the history of the American avant-garde – holding equal standing as an innovator, composer, and performer. She has defined the field of extended vocal technique for the better part of half a century, pushing our understanding of the sonic possibility of the human voice – drawing on its primal root, and thrusting it into the unknown. For many years she was the “go-to” vocalist for many of America’s most highly regarded avant-garde composers. She worked with John Cage, Morton Feldman, Robert Ashley, Steve Reich, countless other luminaries from the art and music worlds, and with her husband Morton Subotnick. For inexplicable reasons, these activities seem to overshadow her own work. In my view everything she has done should be held on equal standing with her more prominent contemporaries and collaborators. Hers is a striking and singular body of work.
Though I’ve owned the original for a number of years, I was thrilled to see that Arc Light Editions was bring the album back – introducing it, and making it available to a new generations of listeners. I couldn’t think of a better place for it to make a new home. I’ve been a fan of the label since their first release (Arthur Russell’s Another Thought). Though their catalog is small and has been slow to emerge, it is one of most well considered and cared for within today’s broad reissue market.
When I first discovered it, Voice Is The Original Instrument was a revelation – not only for its striking sounds and dynamics, but for its risk and raw honesty. Where many of her contemporaries built enveloping worlds of sound in which the creator’s presence was often relinquished to conceptual conceit, La Barbara is completely exposed. There is nothing to hide behind – with slight exceptions on the second side, it is her voice alone. The humanity is overwhelming. The first side finds her voice bubbling, squealing, and scraping across two extended works – at times mirroring the sounds of the most raw electroacoustic pieces of its era, but without displacement or diffusion. There is nothing between the creator and the listeners’ ear. The second side contains a single, long work which finds her voice run through processing and delay. It’s incredible. Again mirroring the sounds of electroacoustic research, but organic and delicate in a way that I’ve heard few people achieve. The album is absolutely essential. You can pick it up from Arc Light Editions directly here, and have a sampling below.