Recordings > Recital

Joan La Barbara: "Early Immersive Music"

CD Button Ditmas. Mode 298 (CD)/Mode MOD-BD-298 (Blu-ray audio)

Recordings La Barbara Cover 518
Critics Choice Button 1015 

AMERICAN VOCAL ARTIST Joan La Barbara came to prominence in performances of music by Cage, Feldman, Earle Brown and Morton Subotnick. But she’s also a composer in her own right, and Mode records, which brought us so much Cage on CD, has done a service with this release, collecting three of La Barbara’s pieces. The sound quality (of works that mostly originated on analogue tape) and the remastering are impeccable. Moreover, the three pieces are differentiated from each other in provocative ways.

La Barbara creates most of the sounds herself, and As Lightning Comes, in Flashes is made entirely from her voice. The soundscape here resembles a tropical rainforest, pleasing for a while but interrupted—by a panting fit and, later, a distressed infant. Few would guess that the piece is made entirely of vocal sounds. Five minutes before the end of the twenty-two-minute piece, the density of overlapping lines becomes disturbing. There are hints of didgeridoo and airplanes, and the motifs become longer.

The biggest work, Cyclone, adds a second performer (Bruce Ditmas) on steel guitar, percussion and synthesizer. The presence of the latter perhaps accounts for the more literal impression made by the breeze, wind and thunder sounds. Some of La Barbara’s vocalizations here are more like sea birds than their tropical cousins. About two-thirds of the way through Cyclone’s half-hour, La Barbara shifts to a more human sound. 

Cyclone is more about the anticipation than the thing itself, and the third piece, Autumn Signal, is something else again. Here La Barbara works with comprehensible text in the opening section, and she anchors the form of the piece with early and late sections that use a rhythmic pulse (the first of these a pattern of thirteen beats) before a coda of frenzied breathing caps the experience. She also employs a synthesizer for some heavy processing of her vocal lines.

Mode has released the album as a standard CD or an audio-only Blu-ray. The latter is a particularly fine showcase for the excellent engineering. It’s hard to believe that the humble 8-track tape could have such a resplendent afterlife. —William R. Braun 



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