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Published online by Cambridge University Press: 04 July 2022
This article explores Joan La Barbara's appearance on Sesame Street with ‘The Signing Alphabet’ (1977) to engage her artistic commitments to accessibility and collaboration. The piece is an alphabet song rendered through vocal improvisation against an animation of the American Manual Alphabet by Steve Finkin. It plays with the relationships between sound, alphabets, learning and literacy, reaching new listening publics: children and their caregivers. Through the visibility it offers Deaf culture, the work generates frames through which to hear La Barbara's voice and see the limitations of her vocal extensions. The piece reveals other paths for new music in the 1970s, placing La Barbara's creativity in the context of educational programing aimed at normalising difference, especially in the context of disability, race and class. Sesame Street and Joan La Barbara, I suggest, imbue vocal extension and exploration with an ethos of care.
1 Bickford, Tyler, Tween Pop: Children's Music and Public Culture (Durham: Duke University Press, 2020), pp. 7–8Google Scholar.
2 Kathryn A. Ostrofsky, ‘An Aural History of the 1970s through the Sounds of Sesame Street’ (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 2015), p. 20.
3 ‘Sesame Street Script Highlights: Nov. 28th Show #1056’, Box 52, Folder 15, Children's Television Workshop Archives, University of Maryland Special Collections.
6 ‘Statement of Instructional Goals for the Eighth Experimental Season of Sesame Street (1976–77)’, pp. 6–11, Box 34, Folder 39, Children's Television Workshop Archives, University of Maryland Special Collections.
7 The segment is frequently on YouTube, but with unstable links. As of January 2022 the whole episode is available, with ‘The Signing Alphabet’ beginning at 38′57″, www.youtube.com/watch?v=dUz4hVC2uYo&t=2573s&ab_channel=SesameStreetKai (accessed 15 January 2022).
8 American Sesame Street teaches phonetic writing systems, like English and Spanish, in attempts to present linguistic diversity in the US. A 2013 series nurturing Mandarin learning, ‘Fun Fun Elmo’, teaches characters and tones to encourage literacy in the logographic writing system. These segments are modelled after the English alphabet lessons.
9 ‘Joan La Barbara on Mastering the Voice’, 2016 Lecture at the Red Bull Music Academy, www.youtube.com/watch?v=NPt5A3mDUGs&ab_channel=RedBullMusicAcademy (accessed 20 January 2022).
10 William Weber, ‘Joan la Barbara Presents Works in CalArts Program at Vanguard’, Los Angeles Times, 15 March 1978, F13.
11 In 2020 Boot Boyz Biz designed a Joan La Barbara-themed embroidered baseball hat with the animated letter A and an image from the instructions for Cyclone (1977), https://boot-boyz.biz/collections/archive/products/joan-la-barbara (accessed 16 January 2022).
12 In a similar manner, La Barbara keeps her left hand moving as she performs. As she told Ryan Dohoney in an un-published interview, ‘The left-hand when I'm singing: I just let it be. I let it do whatever it's going to do. Like, it has a mind of its own’ (email exchange with Ryan Dohoney, 26 January 2022). See also Dohoney's piece in this issue.
13 Conversation with Joan La Barbara, Zoom, 23 December 2021.
14 Padden, Carol, ‘Communication’, in Keywords for Disability Studies, eds Adams, Rachel, Reiss, Benjamin and Serlin, David (New York: NYU Press, 2015), p. 34Google Scholar.
17 Conversation with La Barbara, 23 December 2021.
18 Composition journal, 31 August 1977., Personal archive of Joan La Barbara.
19 Composition journal, 31 August 1977. Personal archive of Joan La Barbara.
20 ‘Joan La Barbara on Mastering the Voice’.
21 Rizzardi, Veniero, ‘“Hear What I Feel”: Joan La Barbara, the 1970s, and the “Extended Voice”’, in The Female Voice in the Twentieth Century: Material, Symbolic and Aesthetic Dimensions, eds Facci, Serena and Garda, Michela (London: Routledge, 2021), p. 159Google Scholar.
22 Maria Murphy, ‘Interview: Joan La Barbara’, Title Magazine, 26 September 2017, www.title-magazine.com/2017/09/interview-joan-la-barbara/ (accessed 20 January 2022). In conversation with me, La Barbara recalled that the studio was quite elementary, more like the facilities where she recorded commercials. Conversation with La Barbara, 23 December 2021.
23 Composition journal, 31 August 1977. Personal archive of Joan La Barbara.
24 Joan La Barbara, liner notes to Voice Is the Original Instrument. 2003, Lovely Music, LCD3003.
25 Murphy, ‘Interview: Joan La Barbara’.
26 Libby Van Cleve, ‘Major Figures in American Music: Joan La Barbara’, transcript of an oral history conducted 1998, Oral History of American Music, Yale University, 1998, p. 49.
27 Louise Catherine Antonia Marshall, ‘Deep Listening: The Strategic Practice of Female Experimental Composers, Volume II: Interview Transcripts’ (Ph.D. dissertation, University of the Arts London, 2018), p. 267.
28 Marshall, ‘Deep Listening’, p. 268.
29 Conversation with La Barbara, 23 December 2021.
30 Lucie Vágnerová, ‘Sirens/Cyborgs: Sound Technologies and the Musical Body’ (Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University, 2016), p. 56.
31 Sesame Street's approach to gender, at the recommendation of Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan, was to ‘defeminize the early learning atmosphere’. Quoted in Jennifer Mandel, ‘The Production of a Beloved Community: Sesame Street's Answer to America's Inequalities’, Journal of American Culture, 29, no. 1 (2006), p. 3.
32 Sarah Tomlinson, ‘Representing Classical Music to Children and Young People in the United States: Critical Histories and New Approaches’ (Ph.D. dissertation, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 2020).
33 Van Cleve, ‘Major Figures in American Music: Joan La Barbara’, p. 3.
35 Virdi, Hearing Happiness, p. 7.
36 Conversation with La Barbara, 23 December 2021.
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