Research and Development: Joan La Barbara January 27, 1975

Artists, like scientists, fall into two categories. Some do basic research and attempt to answer fundamental questions. Others attempt to find fresh applications for basic principles which are already known.

Specific examples are debatable, but for the sake of clarifying the analogy, let me say that Varese was doing basic sonic research when he wrote pieces like ‘Octandre’ and ‘Integrales.’ Later, the many composers who turned his harsh repetitive sonorities into tension music for TV dramas were analogous to the engineers and product developers who convert scientific discoveries into something everybody can use.

Sometimes brilliant researchers, like Webern or Einstein, become famous and highly revered, even though their work is never really understood except by specialists. Sometimes important creative contributions are made by men like, say, Copland or the Wright brothers, who hardly did any basic research at all. Sometimes people like Stravinsky or Salk make some achievements on a level of basic research and also have a direct impact on society as a whole.

Of course, by current values, it is absurd to consider artistic advances on the same level as scientific advances, but the basic contrast between researchers and developers seems to me to be similar in both areas. In both the sciences and the arts, the two groups have different motivations, different goals, different personalities and different socio-economic functions, and often, little respect for one another. Yet they are interdependent.

All this could easily lead to other observations, but I want to leave that to the reader, if he or she is interested, and turn to Joan La Barbara. For it was this singer’s January 15 concert at Washington Square Methodist Church which prompted my recent thoughts on this subject.

La Barbara strikes me as a musician who is, at the moment anyway, fully devoted to basic research. In fact, much of her recent work is not even limited to musical matters, but has broader implications. I suspect that psychologists, acousticians, and phoneticists, for example, would all have been quite interested in some of the remarkable phenomena she demonstrated. Not that the rest of us could not enjoy them too.

The first part of the program, ‘Hear What I Feel,’ involved sensory deprivation. La Barbara did not see or touch anything for an hour before the concert began. Then she appeared, still blindfolded, took a seat in front of a microphone, and began touching things like tinsel and jello, responding to each touch sensation with a vocal gesture of some sort.

The sounds were mostly unpitched and strongly emotional. There was never anything histrionic, however. Everything was subtle and musical, yet quite varied and highly suggestive. There were whimpers, gurgles, sexual sounds, baby sounds, demented sounds, frightening sounds. But they were presented more in the spirit of an investigation than as a work of art. How does synesthesia function? How does the mind transform touch sensations to emotions and sounds? What is the musical value of this progress?

In her ‘Voice Piece: One-Note Internal Resonance Investigation,’ La Barbara intones one pitch for about 20 minutes. But with every breath the tone becomes a different color. Sometimes she shapes her mouth so as to make certain overtones ring out clearly over the others, and she can place the resonance in many ways. Aside from the usual ‘head tones’ and ‘chest tones,’ she seems to have neck tones, nose tones, eye tones, and who knows how many other kinds of tones.

Her most remarkable ‘internal resonances,’ however, are the chords she sings. In some unexplainable way she is able to produce very low, rough-sounding pitches, a fifth or an octave below the basic one, and sustain them simultaneously with the basic tone. That’s one phenomenon that would certainly have interested the science people.

‘Vocal Extensions’ is another highly disciplined process, which focuses on another specific problem. For this she uses some electronic equipment to create special effects with her voice and add reverberation. Here she performed with Bruce Ditmas, who stood at a table scraping, rubbing, and striking bells and other small percussion instruments. The goal was to match and blend with the percussion sounds, and La Barbara often achieved this. The vocal discoveries were not as striking as in the other pieces, however, and most of the time my attention was focused on Ditmas’s highly sensitive percussion music.

La Barbara is not just making music. She is questioning the essence of human expression by exploring our oldest instrument of expression. That is genuine research at its most basic level, and it seems to me that La Barbara has already made quite a bit of headway in this exploration.

Neither she nor anyone else has thus far taken the new material into a product development stage. But I, for one, am just as glad. The phenomena she is working with are in many ways more interesting in this raw experimental form than they would be if they were shaped into some more impressive musical product, like an opera or something. Which raises another interesting question: Why is ‘experimental’ generally considered a negative term when applied to music? I’ll leave readers to figure that one out for themselves too.