Joan La Barbara @ Greenwich House Music School

Joan La Barbara, a pioneer of extended vocal technique, remains a force of nature in the world of new music. Her brief recital at Greenwich House Music School under the aegis of North River Music’s outstanding contemporary music series opened with three brief vocal masterpieces by “New York School” composers Morton Feldman and John Cage.


The former was represented by Only; composed in 1947 for soilo voice, it is a brief and moving elegaic song on a Rilke text that is likely his shortest work. Two Cage works, both on texts from Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake (quite appropriate for St. Patrick’s Day), presented quite the contrast.The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs carried enormous mystery as depicted by La Barbara’s deep, evocative voice accompanied by Stephen Gosling using the outside of the piano as a percussion instrument — including use of the sustain pedal that, while not indicated in the score, worked quite effectively. Nowth upon Nacht, written just over four decades later, was written to be sung with “a wild banshee shriek”, yet one could hang on every Joycified syllable as La Barbara evoked almost hallucinatory expressivity.

La Barbara is also an adventurous composer, and she presented two of her own works. Gatekeeper is written for voice accompanied by La Barabara’s own computer-manipulated vocal sounds, and it unfolds in a glossolalia of vocalisms that often seem to evoke ecstasy and fear, with brief respites of sustained sonorities reminiscent at once of Feldman and early John Adams. Solitary Journey , in the words of the composer, “reflect[s] in-the-moment expression of sound and decision making process of the composer/performer”, and conveys humor, joy, and anic energy that crosses the boundaries of improvisatory music-making and tightly unified structure. These are stunning works, not only providing a summation of La Barbara’s technical and expressive gifts, but evoking images and feelings that are potently primal and theatrically stunning.

Greenwich House Music School’s small audiorium can accomodate just over a hundred listeners, and the enthusiastic capacity audience rewarded these outstanding performances with well-deserved ovations.

La Barbara is one of the forces behind New York-based Ne(x)tWorks, which performs frequently at Greenwich House. Miss them at your own peril.

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