If you ignore the invisible “mere” between the lines of Berberian’s comment, her description of extended vocal techniques as “research” fits 1976’s Voice is the Original Instrument rather accurately. Take “Voice Piece: One-Note Internal Resonance Investigation”: as the title suggests, this is a testing of the sounding capacities of cavities within the human torso, neck and head. As La Barbara emits nasal chimes, throaty croaks and feedback-like hisses, it’s like she playing piano exercises or creating the equivalent of a demonstration disc for a new synthesizer. Influenced by the circular breathing techniques of jazz horn players, “Circular Song” is a test in a different sense: a feat of flexed strength. The lung power required for any one of La Barbara’s plunging lunges of inhaled and exhaled breath here would mostly likely cause a civilian such as you or me to faint on the spot. A lattice of ascending and descending moans, the overall effect resembles the criss-crossing contrails of fighter jets at an air show.
Released in 1978, Tapesongs – as its title suggests – builds on the bionic enhancements of “Vocal Extensions”. Primal voice-sounds and late 20th Century technology converge most audibly on “Cathing” and “Thunder,” where the electronically processed zig-zagging whispers and twitters sometimes recall Trevor Wishart’s Red Bird. The roll and tumble of two tympani players forms a rhythm-jungle through which La Barbara darts like a parakeet on fire. “Thunder” takes up the whole of the Tapesongs’s second side and while exciting, there doesn’t appear to be much reason for it being 23 minutes long, as opposed to, say, nine. Composed for La Barbara by John Cage, “Solo For Voice 45 (From Songbooks)” is the closest thing on either of these albums to recital. For the first time, the listener consciously registers that La Barbara is a soprano: her squiggles, telegraphic dots, flourishes and glyphs suggest the dainty but frantic brush strokes of a calligrapher faced with an insurmountable deadline.
La Barbara builds sophisticated conceptual structures out of the raw sounds of embodied existence at its most rudely insistent and intense: the labour of birth, a newborn’s cries, the wordless lulling of a mother, death-rattle croaks, the ululations of mourning widows. Sounds that are less expressive than simply expulsive: the pulmonary pushing of air from the body to relieve incommunicable sensations. Patriarchy associates these sort of threshold regions of life with a fearsome female power. This may be why extended-vocal-technique is something of a queendom, from the precursor Berberian, through the friend Meredith Monk, to contemporaries like Diamanda Galas and Yoko Ono, to more recent figures like Maja Ratkje.
At other times, there’s what Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari would term a “becoming-machine” effect, her vocal productions suggestive of industrial processes of smelting, sanding, glazing, the hiss of steam from a cracked boiler. At the largest and most disorienting scale, there is a becoming-geologic or a becoming-cosmic: subterranean rivers (La Barbara spelunking through the deep inner caverns of her body), the friction of continental plates, bubbling magma, solar winds, sunspots.