Sunday, September 18, 2016

Joan La Barbara

Joan La Barbara

Voice Is The Original Instrument

Arc Light Editions LP


Arc Light Editions LP

The Wire, July 2016

by Simon Reynolds

The opening track of Tapesongs – the second of this pair of reissues of late 70s LPs by extended vocal techniques pioneer Joan La Barbara – has a funny-peculiar title and a funny ha-ha back story.  “Cathing” is the avant-garde equivalent of a diss track in a rap feud or a grime MC’s send to a rival from another end in East London.  In 1977, La Barbara gave a concert at a Dutch music festival. During the intermission, for reasons lost to history, the audience heard a live radio interview with Cathy Berberian: in many ways, La Barbara’s immediate precursor, an opera diva who incorporated sub-musical sounds like gasps, coughs and laughs into her performance.  In the interview, however, Berberian distanced herself from the new school of vocal explorers, dismissing their work as at best “research” and at worst the exhibitionism of “freaks.” The project of pushing the voice to new outer limits had reached “an impasse, a kind of stop”, Berberian opined, adding that no sensible composer would write for “one of those singers” because the resulting work would be too tailored to their inimitable quirks.

Incensed, La Barbara channeled her umbrage into a compelling composition. “Cathing” takes “samples” from the offending interview, subjects them to harsh electronic treatment, and weaves around these fragments of butchered Berberian a bravura showcase of exactly the kind of vocal acrobatics demeaned by the older singer.  There’s something like five or six layers of La Barbara vocalizing in play here: palate-clicking tut-tuts that Berberian scholar Kristin Norderval  suggests sound like La Barbara taking Berberian to task; quizzical descents that similarly suggest  bemused disagreement; a free jazz-like squawk;  a deep didgeridoo-like rumble; holy drones like a hovering Estonian choir; a sort of revolving creak. As for the sporadic bursts of distorted Berberian, these sound like they’ve been suspended in solution until spiky crystals have formed around them. A take-down that eclipses a once-admired ancestor on her own terrain, “Cathing” shows how in all the arts competitiveness and generational struggle coexist with the most dispassionately high-minded impulses.  Adding an eerie edge to the kill-the-mother subtext is the fact that “Berberian” and “Barbara” are so close phonetically.

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.

Probably the most compelling of Voice’s three live-recorded pieces, “Vocal Extensions” is the only one subjected to technological tampering: what sounds like reverb and panning were added in real-time. From echo creating a fanning effect akin to a peacock’s feathers to a cracked-glass sound caused by a vibrato gargle at the back of the throat, “Extensions” often makes you forget that a human being is the shaping source of these sounds. But at other moments La Barbara’s voice takes on the insistent quality of emotive language, as though you’re eavesdropping a muffled argument heard through a wall: tones of indignation, accusation,  anxiety, are discernible, if indecipherable in their details. Then the performance devolves back into near-abstract sounds that evoke only the labour of their own creation.

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.

Although composers such as Cage wrote pieces for her or have recruited her gifts for the realization of particular projects, for the most part La Barbara is a composer-performer. More than that – as the debut album’s title proclaims - she is a composer-performer-instrument. In interviews La Barbara has compared herself (and singers generally) to athletes: “vocal cords are muscles” and singers “live” inside their own instrument, so should keep them in good shape.

Her work is founded on the disciplined production of sounds that often connote the body at its most disordered. This is perhaps where Berberian’s disparaging comment about the freakishness of extended vocal performers originates: the sense that this work exists on the outskirts of the respectable and civilized.  La Barbara herself has spoken of “a kind of singing that is impolite in a way, and very, very visceral.” The basic grammar of her compositions – especially on these early works – are sounds associated with loss of composure: the preverbal, sometimes involuntary, noises of exertion, pain, ecstasy, distress. Retching, panting, gasps, sobs, sighs, moans, shivers, dry heaves...
 At times she’ll recall the shamans of the Venezuelan Amazon, tripped out on DMT, strings of snot hanging from their chins. And La Barbara has talked of picking up tricks from recordings of Balinese monkey chant and Inuit Eskimo women, with their “vocal games” and breath-pulse rhythms.

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. 

Yet in a larger sense, an abject underside to vocal production is immanent in all singing, no matter how trained or tidy or tame it seems. Voice is the hinge between the physical and the mental, the concrete and the conceptual. Voice is where the moist interior of the body – air pushed in vibrational friction through flesh-lined passages and chambers – sublimes itself into the abstract mathematical perfection of music.  Indeed it is the most strenuously achieved vocal music – choral singing, opera, Tuvan throat singing, and so forth – that most etherealizes itself, creating a disincarnate grace  traditionally associated with Heaven or the celestial beyond, with angels,  the afterlife, and the supernatural.  

Some of La Barbara’s work touches on this reversibility of the physical and the spiritual, the corporeal and the cosmic: from the 1970s piece “October Music: Star Showers and Extraterrestials” to 1990’s solo opera Events in The Elsewhere (inspired by astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, whose life and work capture the tragedy of man’s questing soul caged in a prison of frail flesh).  But then the word “spiritual” itself comes from spiritus, the Latin word for breath.

Listening to La Barbara on these crucial reissues, there’s often a sense of shifting scale – inner and outer, micro and macro, are evoked at different moments, or simultaneously. Sometimes her voice suggests the pre-social – the querulous or agitated sounds of a small child or animal. Sometimes she operates at human scale, her voice taking on an almost theatrical quality, albeit wordless:  you half-hear the sounds of old men jabbering in Yiddish or some East European tongue, the low menacing talk of Mafiosi, gouty and portentous grandees from the House of Lords. 

 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.

At such moment of “intimate immensity”  - a phrase of Gaston Bachelard’s borrowed for the title of a work, in which La Barbara performed as “She”, composed by her partner Morton Subotnik -  her voice is less the original instrument than an originating instrument. At her utmost and outermost. La Barbara sings like a mythological deity breathing the world into existence.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Hypnagogic State - James Ferraro and Southern California

Hynagogic State: James Ferraro and Southern California

director's cut, Frieze, 2011

by Simon Reynolds 

I'm sitting on the Astroturf lawn of the Grove, a "retroscape" mall in Los Angeles, listening to Eighties covers band The Copycats deliver immaculate counterfeits of bygone MTV hits.  A 19th Century trolley car clanks by, passing the Art Deco picture palace frontage that masks the state-of-art multiplex movie theater. It then heads towards to Farmer's Market, a vintage food court with clapboard stalls, hand-painted signs and an original 1941 Clock Tower.  Wandering over to the ornamental pond with its animated fountain swishing and swiveling in balletic formation, I watch the out-sized fish, so shiny they resemble mini-submarines made of porcelain.  As the Copycats launch into a slick version of "Billie Jean", I suddenly think: "this is like living inside a hypnagogic pop song."

Coined by The Wire's David Keenan, "hypnagogic pop" is a term for a new generation of American lo-fi  musicians who  channel  the 1980s sounds of  mainstream radio rock, New Wave MTV pop, the peppy synth-driven O/S/T's of Hollywood blockbusters, and sedative  New Age.   Released as limited-edition cassette and vinyl but reaching a larger audience through YouTube videos and blog- shares, hypnagogic pop shimmers with motifs and textures that flashback to the slick, expensively produced hits of artists like Hall & Oates, Alan Parsons Project, and Mirage-era Fleetwood Mac.  The musical and conceptual pioneers of this movement, Ariel Pink and James Ferraro, are both based in LA, as are other rising figures like Sun Araw, LA Vampires, and Puro Instinct.  Ferraro's frequent collaborator Spencer Clark lives in another sun-baked Southern California sprawl town, San Diego.  Other key hypnagogues like Matrix Metals and Rangers reside elsewhere but seem somehow SoCal in spirit.

Hypnagogic is the term for a state between being awake and falling asleep,  associated for some with hallucinations that are hyper-real rather than surreal (as with the classic dreams of R.E.M.           deep-sleep ). Life in L.A.--the  title of an Ariel Pink song, as it happens--does lend itself to a kind of "wide asleep" trance, as your gaze falls under the sway of the sheer numbing beauty of the landscape and the weather--the way a certain slant of late afternoon light makes  lawns glow with an eerie incandescence.  Even the less attractive aspects of this town--those strip mall vistas of brand-name blandness that seem so desolate in the non-Sun Belt zones of the United States--get softened by the bright lit blue skies (another Pink song) and by the peculiar mingling of  utterly denatured built-up zones with outright wilderness.

LA is a city where the Spectacle (in the Situationist sense) and the Spectacular (in the geological sense:  desert,  canyons) are freakily entwined. The Hollywood Sign is the cliché version of this merger of entertainmentscape and landscape, motion pictures and the motionless picturesque.   But as a recently arrived resident, I've yet to tire of the juxtaposition of, say, an In-and-Out Burger drive-thru against the near-kitsch splendor of the San Gabriel mountains.  "Collage reality" is how Spencer Clark describes the effect, adding that his music is a byproduct of living in "a zone that has beaches and mountains and hills as well as skyscrapers...   The weather is a big part of it too, you can always be outside. A lot of my music I see as landscape music."

Hypnagogic is a 21st Century update of psychedelia.  Like its Sixties antecedent, it comes from, or looks to, the West Coast, but its primary focus is Los Angeles rather than San Francisco. 
Sixties anti-urbanism (the dream of fleeing neon for unspoiled Nature) has been supplanted by an ambiguous exaltation of suburbia.  Hypnagogic retains the original psychedelia's fixation on childhood but in a kind of feedback loop this lost innocence has been contaminated by pop culture:  MTV one-hit-wonders and Eighties kids cartoons replace the Winnie Pooh and Alice In Wonderland references of Jefferson Airplane. 

The scrambling of pop time is a culture-wide phenomenon in the West, but it feels unusually strong in L.A., where pop radio is dominated by old music: classic rock, Eighties New Wave formats, eclectic stations like Jack FM that mimic the iPod shuffle (but one owned by a fortysomething-or-older who gave up on music around the time Kurt Cobain killed himself).  Driving across the city, flicking between stations (and effectively between pop periods), there's a visual analogue to what you hear in the endless interplay of different eras of commercial signage and shop front décor.  In no other city have I had such an overwhelming sense of the erosion of a cultural time-code, that pulse that once synchronised the sectors of the contemporary scene (fashion, design, music, etc) and constructed a sense of epoch.

Last year James Ferraro posted a YouTube video to promote his albums Wild World and Feed Me, but which also served as preview of a full length movie he's making.  "A sneak peak at Hell's hottest cable TV show", the excerpt concatenated low-budget horror sequences (Ferraro as decomposing corpse, TV dinners that come alive) with archival snippets of an animatronic-looking President Reagan and hand-held footage of Hollywood street scenes:  leather-booted vamps from the Valley, businesses like Happy Nails and L.A. Tanning,  gossip mags with "plastic surgery shockers" stories on the cover.  In an email communiqué, Ferraro told me of future projects that would further extend his activities beyond the sonic. The most striking is a "live webcam water birth viewable online with interactive chat functions". Although the planned location is Times Square, New York, the idea was actually inspired by witnessing "a lady give birth in a Starbuck's at the Grove in Hollywood, surrounded by smart phones and digital cameras. So you see this reality will always be a part of my work."

This reality is hyper-reality. In what may be a deliberately Eighties-retro gesture, Ferraro frequently sounds like he's channeling Baudrillard, talking of wanting to be "Simulacra's paintbrush".  Other Eighties totems spring to mind during his patter. Cronenburg, when Ferraro talks of getting burned out on Hollywood, recharging his batteries in more earth-toned, bohemian zones of LA like Eagle Rock, then "jumping back into the movie screen."  Jeff Koons, for the overall aesthetic of kitsch sublime running through Ferraro's work and the inscrutable ingenuousness with which Ferraro delivers his lines.  For instance, he says he moved to LA to become an action movie star, just like his heroes Van Damme and Stallone.  

Less Eighties-bound but still part of this iconic cluster is J.G. Ballard: Ferraro echoes the late novelist when he talks of movie-stars as modern deities embodying qualities that human beings have admired since the dawn of time.  High Rise and Kingdom Come spring to mind when you read the sleeve note description of "Headlines (Access Hollywood)" from 2010's Last American Hero.  The song is about people who get trapped in Costco (a bulk-buy, budget-price hypermarket) and devolve into a mutant tribe whose children, "born within the settlement", grow up with "no conception of a world beyond". 

Not that you can really derive this from the track, a frayed instrumental that resembles the blues if its foundational figure wasn't Robert Johnson but Harold Faltermeyer of "Axel F"/Beverly Hills Cop fame.  Elsewhere in Ferraro's most SoCal-themed releases--Wild World, On Air, and the brand-new Nightdolls with Hairspray--he explores a sound that draws on Eighties rock at its most Cheez Whiz artificial: shrill, garish textures like you might at hear at a Guitar Center where some Eddie Van Halen wannabe is trying out too many pedals at once.

Wild World is punctuated by bursts of TV and radio: Michael Jackson protesting about "ugly, malicious information" smearing his name,  a report on "wide-awake liposuction",   messages left by members of the San Diego-based Heaven's Gate cult shortly before the mass suicide.  Like a modern-day Devo, Ferraro never lets on whether he's reviling or reveling in the decadence and grotesquerie. The cover of Last American Hero is a glossy photograph of a Best Buy store, described in the sleevenotes as "the MODERN Gomorrah temple". But in his communiqué Ferraro enthuses about "the primal fantasies and fetishes, hedonistic urges,  mouth watering narcissism and dreams manifested into plastic surgery in our digital age Whole Foods candy land".

Shopping malls, celebutainment, cosmetic surgery, a consumer culture oriented around bi-polar rhythms of bulimic bingeing and anorexic/aerobic purging: all this really took off in the Eighties. (And was taken to the extreme in California--for Baudrillard, America's vanguard, a sort of hyper-America).  Perhaps the secret idea buried inside hypnagogic pop is that the Eighties never ended. That we're still living there, subject to that decade's endless end of History. Killing time as we wait for something (seismic, subaltern) to rupture the dream.