Music and poetry
have always been closely linked; but it hasn't always
been a happy coupling. In the Western music of the past several
centuries, composers have often found inspiration in the work of poets
who were, to put it mildly, uncertain of the benefits of setting their
verse to music. Goethe, for example, refused young Franz Schubert's
request for permission to set his poetry. (Schubert, fortunately, did
it anyway.) A.E. Houseman was greatly displeased by English composer
Ralph Vaughan Williams' treatment of texts from "A Shropshire Lad."
That is certainly not the case with "73 Poems," where the collaboration
between poet and composer began even before the texts were complete.
Kenneth Goldsmith's choice of Joan La Barbara as composer / interpreter
of these texts seems, in retrospect at least, an inevitable one. La
Barbara, after all, has interpreted and performed many of the works of
the late John Cage, whose scores often consisted of verses, words, and
even single letters derived by chance operations from various
texts--and to whom, appropriately, she has dedicated this piece.
Joan La Barbara is one of the most truly experimental vocalists
performing today: over the past two decades, she has developed an
extended vocabulary of vocal sounds that range from traditional song to
a wild assortment of glottal clicks and stops, inhaled notes, overtone
chant, etc. As a composer, her works often involve multiple layers of
her own voice, creating a kind of sonic canvas on which she throws
splashes of vocal colors. La Barbara's potent combination of vocal and
studio expertise makes it possible for her to represent in music some
of the most distinctive features of Goldsmith's texts.
"The first thing I had to do," La Barbara says, "was to differentiate
between the dark and light texts. The idea of depth of field--the grey
text in the background and the black text up front--required using the
full stereo field, almost like an architectural space." Musical
gestures that are only half-heard, perhaps buried under other layers of
sound, may float up to the surface, only to parade off the stereo field
entirely. In this respect, the music closely parallels the form of the
poems--which La Barbara surprisingly likens to Alice In
Wonderland. "The sectional development goes from almost frivolous
to very abstract, then to something far heavier, and then comes back
again. For me, the turning point is the text 'EAT ME.' Suddenly, it's
like Alice finding herself on the other side of the looking glass. The
text is tough, almost evil, as opposed to the sweet, innocent beginning
that it then returns to."
The actual vocal techniques vary according to the mood of the
individual pieces. Words, of course, can be sung in a straightforward
way, but what is one to make of the more abstract poems? La Barbara
represents Goldsmith's insistent use of certain vowels with a specific
group of vocal sounds that repeat in an almost mantra-like fashion. "I
hear the monolithic walls of numbers as being very heavy and solid,"
she adds; "those I gave a very thick, almost oppressive treatment of
layered multiphonics." Multiphonic or overtone singing allows a single
vocalist to produce two or three notes at once. The overtones are
mathematically related to each other so the dense layering of these
vocal tracks creates, almost literally, musical wall of numbers. And
the zeroes which occupy the central portion of "73 Poems" are
represented by layers of microtonal singing, in which the usual gap
from, say, C to C-sharp is subdivided into any microtones. These notes,
which are ignored by most Western music, are so close together that
they give the aural illusion of one set of notes growing from
another--an illusion matched by the movement of "0"s and "O"s in the
Clearly, this is more complicated than setting a conventional poem.
"It's massive," La Barbara says, "and it changes so much." And despite
her focus on vocal music, La Barbara has not dealt much with words.
"This," she points out, "has a helluva lot of words. It's a real
John Schaefer is the host and producer of "New Sounds" a syndicated
new music program, and author of the book New Sounds: A Listener's
Guide to New Music Harper & Row, 1987.) He is currently the Music
Director of WNYC in New York.
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