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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 July 2022

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This article examines Joan La Barbara's role in New York's Downtown scene, where her career was nurtured. By ‘La Barbara's Downtown’ I mean her perspective on Downtown as reflected in where she performed, who she collaborated with and what she wrote. Beginning with her involvement in the Steve Reich and Philip Glass ensembles in the early 1970s, I follow her through explorations in improvisation with Frederick Rzewski, Garrett List and Charlie Morrow. At the centre is La Barbara's development as an experimentalist composer in various Downtown venues, reinforced by her important collaborations with Alvin Lucier and John Cage. She wrote about the Downtown scene in the SoHo Weekly News in the mid-1970s and after leaving New York continued to write about it in Musical America until the mid-1980s. In all these contexts, I explore the different elements of her experimentalism, which is the overriding thematic of her aesthetic.

Copyright © The Author(s), 2022. Published by Cambridge University Press

Joan La Barbara's formation as an experimental composer-performer in the 1970s was nurtured in the Downtown scene.Footnote 1 She performed her work mostly in Downtown venues while in New York, worked with other Downtown composers extensively and supported them in her writing as critic. Her commissions and residencies in Europe in the late 1970s took place in sites that had been especially welcoming to Downtown composers. La Barbara maintained a Downtown connection even after accepting professorial positions at the California Institute of the Arts and other universities in the 1980s and 1990s. She frequently visited New York and continued to write assessments of the scene. She returned in 2002, when Downtown was undergoing a revitalisation, and contributed as composer, performer and university professor to its continuance as a lively scene.

By ‘La Barbara's Downtown’ I mean her perspective on Downtown as reflected in where she performed, who she collaborated with and what she wrote. When thinking about the Downtown scene, I am inspired by Gottfried Leibniz's Monadology, according to which the universe is made up not of individualistic atoms but of monads, each of which reflects the whole universe from its own vantage point.Footnote 2 Similarly, I take each major Downtown composer to be a monad reflecting the whole of the Downtown experimental scene from a particular perspective that is not identical to those of others but more or less overlaps with them. By focusing on La Barbara's monadic relation to the Downtown scene I hope to delineate her aesthetic, writ large as it was taking shape in her formative years as a composer and performer, showing the intersection of her producer aesthetic, based in her intentions as composer-performer, and her reception aesthetic, as reflected in her Downtown networks and writings. These two aesthetic perspectives may have overlapped considerably since, as La Barbara puts it, ‘I always learned things from the composers I worked with’; not having studied composition in conservatory, she was effectively apprenticing with them in her earlier years.Footnote 3

Joan La Barbara entered the Downtown experimental music scene in the early 1970s, virtually at the moment of its take-off, with the emergence of a critical mass of composer-performers accompanied by a significant rise in Downtown venues to showcase their work and the arrival of sympathetic local critics to propagate it to a national audience. Writers were noticing a bifurcation between the classical music avant-garde emanating Uptown from the mainly Post-Webernian Columbia–Princeton axis and that surging in New York's bohemian Downtown, largely post-Cagean. This Uptown–Downtown binary was to dominate the discourses on the New York musical avant-garde in the latter part of the twentieth century.

Imitating instruments: working with Reich, Glass, Sahl and jazz musicians (1971–76)

In her first collaboration with a Downtown composer, sometime in winter 1970–71, La Barbara worked on the production of radio commercials with Michael Sahl, music director at the alternative radio station WBAI. Only six months before, she had abruptly abandoned a career in opera with nothing to fill the vacuum.Footnote 4 In the meantime, she was associating with a group of jazz musicians doing noon concerts in Wall Street at the Trinity Church Coffee House. In one commercial, she succeeded in imitating an instrument (the Japanese koto) to such effect that Sahl recommended her to Steve Reich, who was looking to add vocalists imitating percussion instruments to his new composition Drumming. By accepting Reich's invitation to join, La Barbara became fully immersed in the Downtown scene of experimental musicians and initiated a major transformation in her artistic vocation, from art and jazz song to exploring her voice as instrument. She continued to work with jazz musicians for a while, sometimes asking them during rehearsals to play long tones at a single pitch that she would try vocally to imitate, evincing her declining interest in singing the standards: ‘I wasn't terribly concerned about words.’Footnote 5

La Barbara first appeared with Steve Reich & Musicians in the North American premiere of Drumming, in December 1971 at MoMA. Tom Johnson, newly arrived at The Village Voice, gave it a rave review, helping to establish it as the first ‘hit’ within the Downtown scene.Footnote 6 It had drawn large enthusiastic crowds when it was premiered in Europe the previous year (then without vocalists). La Barbara left Reich's ensemble in February 1974 and joined the Philip Glass Ensemble a month later, also imitating instruments. She stayed with Glass until the international premiere of Einstein on the Beach, at the Festival d'Avignon in July 1976, at which time her career as composer-performer was in full bloom.

La Barbara's association with Reich and Glass provided her with the opportunity to acquaint herself with European avant-garde culture and its institutions. Considerably more recognised and remunerated in Europe, Reich and Glass gave two thirds of their concerts there while she was with them, largely in visual art institutions. In New York City, unwelcome at the time in concert halls, Reich and Glass enjoyed hospitality from the other arts, as they had in Europe, in museums, the burgeoning SoHo art gallery scene and such off-the-path art venues as Jonas Mekas’ Filmmakers Cinematheque. All these contacts nurtured La Barbara's growing interest in conceptual and performance arts as well as the interarts.Footnote 7

Improvising: with Rzewski, List, Clayton and Morrow (1972–74)

Michael Sahl may have also been instrumental in La Barbara's joining the weekly informal free-improvisation sessions led by Frederic Rzewski at the Space for Innovative Development in Chelsea.Footnote 8 Rzewski at the time was in the process of reorganising the freely improvising Musica Elettronica Viva (MEV), which had disbanded in Rome a few years before. Other participants remembered by La Barbara included Garrett List, Anthony Braxton, Steve Lacy and jazz singer Jay Clayton, her colleague in Steve Reich & Musicians. Though these get-togethers were relatively short-lived (lasting less than a year) and not well documented (because informal and unprogrammed), La Barbara would continue to collaborate with new and older members of MEV – Garret List in particular – in compositional as well as improvisatory contexts over the next few years.Footnote 9

Perhaps of more consequence was La Barbara's involvement with The New Wilderness Preservation Band, a cooperative ensemble committed to collective improvisation. As she explained at the time, ‘Charlie Morrow, Carole Weber and I first got together and started improvising last June [1973], Charlie and I chanting and doing vocal experiments and Carole playing flutes’, and they were joined later by Bruce Ditmas on percussion, Harvie Swartz on bass and Richard Cook on electronics. ‘Sometimes we improvise on a concept and sometimes we'll designate certain sounds, like a piece based on bells and humming, or bells and barking.’Footnote 10 The New Wilderness Preservation Band performed twice monthly at the Washington Square Methodist Church, known also as the Peace Church, from late November 1973 to the end of June 1974, usually providing soundscapes for the declamations of guest poets, such as Jerome Rothenberg and Jackson Mac Low.Footnote 11

Writing Downtown I: SoHo Weekly News (1974–75)

La Barbara joined the SoHo Weekly News as music critic in March 1974, in the period between her leaving Reich and joining Glass. Charlie Morrow had preceded her on the paper by a few months and left a few months after her arrival. Like Morrow's, her goal was more one of advocacy than detached critical judgment, bringing to light composers not otherwise well publicised.Footnote 12 She wished her readers to be ‘intrigued enough by my notes to get out of the house and into the clubs and concert halls to experience live art in your own time’.Footnote 13

Initially La Barbara covered a mix of jazz and Downtown experimentalist concerts that reflected her alliances as well as her aesthetic tastes. She reviewed Philip Glass at the Kitchen before joining him, concerts by Gil Evans at the Village Vanguard and Paul Bley at Cafe Wha?, where her colleague Bruce Ditmas performed as percussionist, and a group called the Ensemble, appearing at the Kitchen but usually operating out of Alice Tully, which included Garrett List and played one of his compositions. Her review of La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela's Dream House at the Kitchen was motivated by her interest in the recent trend towards ‘chanting’ among experimental vocalists. ‘And as a singer concentrating on vocal exploration, I am always curious to hear what others have discovered about this only slightly explored instrument.’Footnote 14 La Barbara's reviews were highly informative, fulfilling her intention to convey to the uninformed reader a full feeling of being there. Noting that ‘the problem with most reviewing is that it happens after the fact’, La Barbara initiated a procedure that she would resort to recurrently, preparing the readers for future concerts as well.Footnote 15

The writer absented herself from the SoHo Weekly News from the end of June 1974 to the end of November, when on tour with the Glass ensemble. Upon her return she wrote weekly, with time off as her schedule allowed, until the end of May, when she left on tour with Glass. There was a mix again of previews and reviews, with substantive previews for the writer's new collaborators from the Sonic Arts Union – Robert Ashley, Alvin Lucier and David Behrman (see the next section) – and after-the-fact reviews of decidedly experimentalist composers Phill Niblock, Liz Philips, David Tudor, Meredith Monk, Charlemagne Palestine and Pandit Pran Nath, most of them performing at the Kitchen, now the lead venue of the Downtown scene. Given her increasingly demanding travel obligations, La Barbara left the SoHo Weekly News in the autumn of 1975.

The spirit of experimentalism I: with Lucier and the Sonic Arts Union (1974–76)

While travelling in Europe with Glass in the autumn of 1974, La Barbara joined with the Sonic Arts Union in Paris for the Festival d'Automne and collaborated with Lucier, Behrman and Ashley on each of their compositions.Footnote 16 While her engagements with the Ashley and Behrman pieces were occasional events, her involvement with Lucier's Still and Moving Lines of Silence in Families of Hyperbolas would stretch over six months, with later performances in Washington DC and at the Kitchen in February and, in between, rehearsals in the Cunningham space in the West Village. In the week before the Kitchen event La Barbara wrote a preview for the SoHo Weekly News that is perhaps the clearest account given of this complicated composition, not easy for non-specialists to understand,Footnote 17 and was paraphrased by John Rockwell in his New York Times review of the same event.Footnote 18

In essence, the idea of the work is to use oscillators and loudspeakers to create standing sound waves in space to which vocalists, instrumentalists and dancers would respond. As La Barbara explained, the singer's task ‘is to find the sound center (which may not be the physical center) of the space and then to work with the tone, improvising and creating “beats” (pulses which occur when closely related tones are produced in a contained environment) by moving slightly above or below the designated pitch’.Footnote 19 Lucier remembers that she made a substantial creative contribution to the realisation of the piece:

I have all the theoretical ideas, I know all the rules… but when Joan got in the physical situation, the rules broke down. All my theory did not really amount to anything… So I simply explained to her the principles, and she immediately understood and started, well, improvising… Then I would ask her what she was doing and she would explain it; it was very beautiful and very direct and much less ‘composerly’ than if I had designed it on paper first… And it's wonderful because it has explained to me what the piece is.Footnote 20

A few months later, in a conversation with Walter Zimmermann, La Barbara praised Lucier for having ‘let me go, you know, with that. And that's very exciting to me. I like to be able to develop a piece with a composer and myself.’Footnote 21 Still and Moving Lines has a fingerprint in La Barbara's Ides of March compositions of a few years later, which also operate with ‘beats’.

Unlike some other conceptual artists (for example, Cage, Duchamp), Lucier invites beauty and other aesthetic values into the realisation of his abstract concepts. He has been described as ‘the poet of electronic music’ (Pauline Oliveros) and Sitting in a Room as ‘Alvin's Bolero’ (Mimi Johnson).Footnote 22 La Barbara later wrote: ‘Alvin Lucier is weaving a kind of magical music out of elements of science, acoustical properties, electronic technology, and just the right blend of artistic fantasy.’Footnote 23 In my view, in his combination of uncompromising experimentalism, conceptual art and a keen sense of poetic beauty, Lucier comes closest among La Barbara's collaborators to the production aesthetic that governs her work as a composer, one that is particularly well exhibited in her sound paintings.Footnote 24

The spirit of experimentalism II: La Barbara's early Downtown compositions (1974–76)

Soon after her return to New York in November 1974, Joan La Barbara launched her composer-performer career. On 9 December she premiered Voice Piece: One-Note Internal Resonance Investigation at St. Mark's Church in the East Village, home of the Poetry Project that had hosted Frank O'Hara and Patti Smith, among others. On 15 January 1975 she did the same with Hear What I Feel and Vocal Extensions at the Washington Square ‘Peace Church’. In Voice Piece La Barbara takes one pitch and moves it around different resonance areas from head to chest, producing a variety of timbres, overtones and multiphonic effects. Hear What I Feel is a psycho-acoustic conceptual piece involving sensory deprivation. Blindfolded one hour before and during the performance, the composer approaches and touches various objects in glass dishes placed by assistants, giving an immediate vocal and emotive response to the unknown objects, an exercise in expressive non-verbal communication, with surprises for herself and the audience.

La Barbara's public entry into the composer-performer field was the culmination of over a year's creative engagement and exploration. One-Note Internal Resonance resulted from attempts to deal creatively with her role in Glass’ Music in Twelve Parts, as she explained at the time (July 1974): ‘I also manipulate my sound by using different resonance areas according to the instruments I'm working with. For instance, I emphasize the forehead and nose regions when blending with soprano sax to capture the highs and brightness of that sound.’Footnote 25 Many extended vocal techniques used in her composition-performances were developed while working with the New Wilderness Preservation Band. She recalled to Walter Zimmermann: ‘A poet named Armand Schwerner was reading some Tibetan scriptures. And as he read one of the vocal reactions was an octave split.’Footnote 26 Her improvising period played directly into her later compositional period, and improvisation would continue to be an indispensable component of her compositional practice.

Joan La Barbara made it clear from the outset that she was a composer-performer of experimental music and viewed her closest collaborators under that designation. She wrote to John Rockwell, who reviewed her Washington Square concert: ‘If you have any question about what to call what I do, I want you to refer to me as an experimental vocalist.’ Michael Nyman's newly published book, Experimental Music, had revived the concept of ‘experimental music’ within the avant-garde discourse, and Nyman had shared galleys of the book on the bus with La Barbara and othersFootnote 27 as he travelled and performed with Steve Reich & Musicians during their British tour in 1972. La Barbara retrospectively viewed herself and her work with Reich and Glass as immersed in the experimentalist scene.Footnote 28

For the composer, experimentalism meant the continued reinvention of her musical self or, more precisely, of her instrument, the voice. Like Lucier, in leaving the European system behind, she ‘really made a conscious decision to go in another direction and to follow another impulse’. La Barbara viewed the Downtown scene as an arena of supportive experimentalism: ‘What was wonderful is that there was so much support from colleagues at that time to do that kind of thing. Everyone around me was attempting to reinvent his or her instrument.’ There was a bit of friendly competition: ‘Experimentation, pushing the envelope, really trying to do new things, it was a big deal to be the first to do something… We were really very much into that thing of trying to surprise ourselves, to surprise each other… putting out there this whole sense of being an experimental artist. It was a way of life.’Footnote 29

From the beginning, La Barbara resisted characterising her early work in terms other than experimental, as, for example, a form of meditation or as expressing a feminine aesthetic, as Libby Van Cleve suggested. Regarding One-Note Internal Resonance Investigation: ‘A lot of people wanted to put that religious aspect to [it]… And I very adamantly said, in the program notes, that it wasn't about meditation. It was about exploration.’ Both pieces came out of the composer's experiences with conceptual and performance art, as in the work of Vito Acconci and Bruce Naumann. She was asking ‘intellectual questions’, drawing attention to the difficulties and challenges that she was undergoing, the experiments she was doing, ‘confronting the audience… to go on my journey’. She did not look at these pieces ‘in a gendered way’.Footnote 30

The Spirit of Experimentalism III: working with Cage (1975–77)

Joan La Barbara met John Cage in July 1972 in Berlin while on a European tour with the Reich ensemble, an encounter that initiated a lifelong collaboration. As she remembered it (in 1977): ‘Several years ago I witnessed a dreadful performance in the Berlin Philharmonic Hall of Cage's HPSCHD… The hall was overcrowded and a kind of carnival atmosphere prevailed with people eating and yelling, the performers talking instead of playing, and I, in my ignorance of the piece and its complexities and how poorly it was being performed, blamed it on the composer.’ In the reception that followed she ‘marched up to Cage and demanded to know why, when there was so much chaos in the world, he insisted on creating more’. Moments later, Cage tapped her on the shoulder and smiling ‘beatifically’ said: ‘Perhaps when you go back out into the world it won't seem as chaotic.’ ‘In that instant,’ La Barbara recalled, ‘he changed my mind, about music certainly, but more importantly about being human.’Footnote 31

We should note that in this interchange Cage never denied that HPSCHD was an unruly piece. It was far from his artistic intentions to sublimate the disorder of the world into musical order. His running theme in Silence is that life should inform art and not art life. ‘If there were a part of life dark enough to keep out of it a light from art, I would rather be in that darkness, fumbling around if necessary, but alive. And I rather think that contemporary music would be there in the dark too, jumping into things, knocking others over and in general adding to the disorder that characterizes life.’Footnote 32 What drew La Barbara to Cage initially was less his theory of music than his composition and performance ethic. She ‘still has difficulty’ with HSPCHD, but now that she ‘understands it’ she can ‘experience it’ without finding it ‘so infuriating’. She was initially ‘impressed by the man’, and learning to work with him came later.Footnote 33

La Barbara and Cage met again two years later (probably in December 1974) at a concert at Experimental Intermedia in SoHo that she was reviewing. She invited him to a forthcoming concert (probably at the Washington Square Church in January). After complimenting her – ‘Just marvellous, I love what you are doing’ – he promptly asked her if she would like to work with him, handing her the score for ‘Solo for Voice #45’ from the Song Books. It is a ‘very very difficult rigorous piece of 18 pages’, she says, in which the performer vocalises letters, making choices among the available pitches distributed on two clefs, with the instruction that it be sung as quickly as possible. When she performed the piece for him, after six months of work, he responded that it was ‘beautiful but it is not as fast as possible’: he meant it literally not ‘musically’, to be vocalised as in a calligraphic gesture, in a verge or flurry.Footnote 34

La Barbara performed ‘Solo for Voice #45’ at the 1976 Festival de La Rochelle (3 July) simultaneously with Atlas Eclipticalis (The Hague Orchestra) and Winter Music (two pianists). Cage had had problems with this orchestra in the past, so he spoke to them at rehearsal on the dignity of human beings who, uniquely, have the ability to make a commitment to carry out a task to the best of their ability. Nonetheless, the orchestra for the most part played very badly – the oboe player, for example, with two bottles of wine in hand, offered sips to others and never played a note while others were laughing and talking. Cage was ‘purple with rage’. He later commended La Barbara for having done what she was supposed to do despite the surrounding bad behaviour. He told her: ‘I want you to know that I'm with you always now.’ Later that year he brought her with him to the California Institute for the Arts, where she performed ‘Solo for Voice #45’ again, this time with a Winter Music ensemble of 20 pianos.Footnote 35 As with Lucier, La Barbara's association with Cage was lifelong, and she has connected her conception of experimentalism as a composer with the Cagean ethic: ‘In my work today I'm still trying to keep that spirit of experimentalism… so I'm asking musicians to come to the situation with all their abilities and apply their abilities to the task – it's very Cagean that sort of attitude’.Footnote 36

Writing Downtown II: Musical America (1977–86)

Joan La Barbara joined Musical America as the regular ‘New Music’ columnist in April 1977, succeeding Tom Johnson, a position she maintained until 1986. . Signing on with Musical America coincided roughly with a move from New York to Europe, where, sporadically between 1978–1980, she performed most of her commissioned works and had a one-year DAAD residency in West Berlin, followed by a faculty appointment at the California Institute for the Arts. In her first two years at the journal, travelling back and forth between Europe and New York, she followed the format of her SoHo Weekly News years with individual reviews, mostly of Downtown events, revisiting allies and favourites like Lucier, Behrman, Ashley, List, Gibson, Meredith Monk and Liz Phillips. From 1979 onwards, her coverage took on a more international and national cast, paying special attention to European and North American festivals, but even here she wrote largely about touring Downtowners and other American experimentalists (such as Cage and Feldman in Berlin, Ashley and Steve Lacy in Paris). And La Barbara did not let go of her Downtown connection. She kept an apartment in the Village and returned frequently to review for Musical America and often to perform. ‘I always intended to come back to New York, and I worked very hard not to lose that New York connection.’ ‘My soul never left New York.’Footnote 37

As a visitor, the composer took a ‘broader’ and more ‘objective’ view of changes in the Downtown scene. She was supportive of the growing ‘cross fertilization between free jazz and experimental music’ in the 1980s – what she called ‘jazz/new music fusion’ – in the jazz-inflected work of George Lewis, Steve Lacy and Earl Howard, for example.Footnote 38 Though her compositional practice is more inscribed in the ‘classical’ new-music world of Cage, Feldman and Lucier, she has strong historical ties to jazz – ‘I could easily have gone into the jazz area’. – and ‘improvisation still plays a big part in my music’. And there is no question for her that improvisation ‘is very much a part of the experimental music scene’.Footnote 39

La Barbara was not pleased, however, with the ‘recent programming trend’ at the Kitchen, ‘of expanding the boundaries of new music to include punk and new wave’, and she wrote two negative reviews to that effect.Footnote 40 Comparing it to a recent concert at Lincoln Center (the American Composers Orchestra), she was left with the ‘startling impression that “uptown” was where the courageous programming was going on while “downtown” was pandering to mass popular culture’.Footnote 41 Later, she would reflect that ‘It was the attitude that I had at this point of time, that instead of rigorous investigatory work, [the punk influence] was watering things down, cheapening things. It was not sufficiently intellectual or explorative or experimental.’ What was most worrying for her was the intrusion of the commercial domain into the vulnerable infrastructure of the Downtown experimental music scene. She had written numerous articles on the problems of arts funding for experimental music, the scant attention from radio and the struggles of the independent record industry supporting it. For her, commercial music was ‘pervasive’, ‘weaving its way into everything’, and there was a danger that punk would ‘overtake’ the new-music scene and ‘trash it’.Footnote 42 La Barbara finds herself closer aesthetically to Downtowners who preceded her by a decade or so, like Glass, Reich and Lucier, than to more contemporary composers like Peter Gordon: ‘Between me and Peter Gordon there was a small age difference but a world of difference, philosophically. When Peter gets into the scene is the era when the club scene takes off and then you've got more of an influence from rock than from jazz.’Footnote 43 Nonetheless, there was sufficient overlap between her aesthetic and Gordon's for them later to co-compose and perform a piece.Footnote 44

Ultimately, punk/new wave did not overtake Downtown but settled into a niche, alongside other Downtown subgenres, as ‘new wave’, and La Barbara seems to have accepted it as a legitimate component though not a personal favourite. In a 1982 article, she addressed the changing meaning of what she called ‘the downtown school’.Footnote 45 The occasion was a new radio series broadcasting concerts from Phill Niblock's Experimental Intermedia, an exemplary Downtown venue since the early 1970s. Indeed, if anything was ‘Downtown’, it was at Experimental Intermedia. In examining the varied fare, La Barbara noted that the term ‘Downtown’ had broadened significantly since its beginnings to include many subgenres without them necessarily having a common essence. Whereas the term had once referred simply ‘to composers living, working and performing concerts in Lower Manhattan’, she says, ‘[n]ow the term covers a range of music that seemingly has no single influence’ – other than ‘the universally acknowledged influence of John Cage in setting the composer free’. The ‘downtown school’ includes, according to her, ‘such diverse areas as minimalism, new wave, experimental, electronic and computer, electro-acoustic, jazz fusion, Eastern (or more accurately nonwestern) influence, improvisation, chanting meditation, text-sound, fluxus and performance art’.

This definition begins to complicate the meaning of ‘La Barbara's Downtown’. It summarises the Downtown about which she wrote for Musical America but is broader than the Downtown of her own taste, which includes ‘jazz fusion’ but presumably not ‘new wave’ (though in this review she describes Rhys Chatham's music without criticism). And her preferred listening Downtown is broader than her collaborating Downtown, the Downtown she shares with the artists with whom she works. In 1975, when she was with the SoHo Weekly News, this tripartite distinction was probably not needed since she was writing primarily as advocate; many of the composer/performers she liked were actual or potential collaborators, and the Downtown field was more narrowly circumscribed. La Barbara's Downtowns are complex, mobile, kaleidoscopic, always shifting, lovely in their complexity and multiplicity. Focusing more narrowly on the La Barbara Downtown that is reflected in her compositions and collaborations, I could list a number of defining traits – reinventing one's instrument, experimentalism, improvisation, conceptual art, beauty, the Cagean ethic, internationalism, non-commercialism and so on – but so listed they become abstractions. It is best to leave them in the mix, in the moment, in the midst of small changes and new understandings.

Later in 1982, brimming with optimism for the future of Downtown experimentalism, La Barbara lauded the achievements of the ‘New Music America ’82’ Festival in Chicago. ‘[It] was a roaring success. With nearly two thousand people in attendance at each of the major concerts, it belied any notion that “there is no audience for new music”. (Babbitt)’ This ‘new music’ was virtually all experimentalism, largely representing the ‘downtown school’, featuring many of her closest collaborators – Cage, Reich, Gibson, Ashley, Behrman, Lucier, Rzewski and Curran – and including jazz/new music fusion and new wave. It seemed that La Barbara's persistent advocacy over the years, combined with that of other colleagues, was finally bearing fruit. She concluded the review by echoing Pauline Oliveros’ grateful words to the mayor and festival directors: ‘For those of us who spend most of our performing lives away from our own country, “Thanks for bringing us home”.’Footnote 46

My account of La Barbara's Downtown closes with her departure from Musical America in 1986, but the story does not end there. Returning to New York in 2002, she contributed mightily to a resurgent Downtown scene – a very different Downtown, gentrified and spreading to Brooklyn – with astonishing creativity as composer, performer and educator. But that is another chapter.


1 Many thanks to Joan La Barbara for her generosity in sharing her stories and perspectives with me in a number of interviews from 2007 to 2022.

2 Leibniz, G. W., Discourse on Metaphysics and the Monadology (Garden City: Dover Publications, 2005), p. 56Google Scholar.

3 Joan La Barbara, interview with the author, Zoom audiovisual recording, New York, 6 January 2022.

4 Joan La Barbara. interview with Libby Van Cleve, 17 February 1998, transcript, ‘Major Figures in American Music’. Oral History of American Music, Yale University, pp. 14–15.

5 Ibid., p. 16. For her work with the Trinity Church jazz musicians, see ‘Joan La Barbara rock concert, 74 Below Coffee House, 25 February 1972’, advertisement in The Village Voice, 24 February 1978, p. 26 (thanks to David Chapman for this reference). She worked with professional jazz musicians until 1973, appearing on albums by Jim Hall, Hubert Laws and Don Sebesky, all recorded at Rudy Van Gelder's legendary studio in New Jersey.

6 Tom Johnson, ‘Steve Reich “Drumming”’, The Village Voice, 9 December 1971, p. 20.

7 For La Barbara's touring with Reich and Glass, see David Chapman, Collaboration, Presence, and Community: The Philip Glass Ensemble in Downtown New York, 1966–1976 (Ph.D. dissertation, Washington University in St Louis, 2016), especially the excellent chronology, pp. 247–90.

8 La Barbara sometimes remembers these sessions as taking place at the WBAI Free Music Store but also recalls them as happening at a ‘big old church in the 30s’, which describes the Space and approximates its address, 344 West 36th Street. Joan La Barbara, interview with the author, audio digital recording, 12 December 2007.

9 She performed on Garrett List's LP Your Own Self (Opus One, 1973) along with Rzewski and Clayton. She performed frequently with List at the Kitchen and elsewhere (sometimes with other MEV members). See especially ‘Democratic Vista’, performed by MEV and Friends at the Kitchen, 14 December 1974.

10 Willoughby Sharp, ‘The Phil Glass Ensemble, Music in Twelve Parts’, Avalanche, 10 December 1974, p. 42.

11 See Kerry O'Brien's article on Joan La Barbara and the New Wilderness Preservation Band in this issue.

12 For a fine account of La Barbara's ‘advocacy’ writing for the SoHo Weekly News, see Chapman, The Philip Glass Ensemble in Downtown New York, 1966–1976, pp. 216–39.

13 Joan La Barbara, ‘Living Music’, SoHo Weekly News, 21 March 1974, p. 18.

14 La Barbara, ‘Living Music’,’ SoHo Weekly News, 9 May 1974, p. 19.

15 La Barbara, ‘Living Music’,’ SoHo Weekly News, 16 May 1974, p. 19.

16 La Barbara, interview with Van Cleve, pp. 41–42.

17 Joan La Barbara, ‘Alvin Lucier: Sound Geographies’, SoHo Weekly News, 20 February 1975, p. 26.

18 John Rockwell, ‘Sounds the Thing in Work by Lucier’, New York Times, 23 February 1975, p. 42.

19 La Barbara, ‘Alvin Lucier: Sound Geographies’, p. 26.

20 Lucier, Alvin, Reflections: Interviews, Scores, Writings 1965–1994 (Cologne: Edition Musik Texte, 1995), pp. 159–63Google Scholar.

21 Zimmermann, Walter, Desert Plants: Conversations with 23 American Musicians (Vancouver: ARC Publications, 1976), p. 155Google Scholar.

22 Pauline Oliveros, ‘Poet of Electronic Music’, in Lucier, Reflections, pp. 11–15; Gann, Kyle, American Music in the Twentieth Century (New York: Schirmer Books, 1997), p. 166Google Scholar.

23 Joan La Barbara, ‘New Music’, Musical America, June 1978, p. 12.

24 See Ryan Dohoney in this issue, ‘Ekphrastic Voice: On Joan La Barbara's Sound Paintings’.

25 Sharp, ‘The Phil Glass Ensemble’, p. 42.

26 Zimmerman, Desert Plants, pp. 153–54.

27 La Barbara, interview with Van Cleve, pp. 76–77; Nyman, Michael, Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond (London: Studio Vista, 1974)Google Scholar.

28 ‘Into this open space came the experimenters – what I call the Steady State school’ (Young, Riley, Reich, Glass). La Barbara, ‘Philip Glass and Steve Reich: Two from the Steady State School’, Data Arte, 13 (Winter 1974), reprinted in Richard Kostelanetz, ed., Writings on Glass: Essays, Interviews, Criticism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), p. 39.

29 La Barbara, interview with the author, 6 June 2010.

30 La Barbara, interview with Van Cleve, pp. 26, 29; La Barbara, interview with the author, 6 January 2022.

31 Joan La Barbara, ‘New Music’, Musical America, July 1977, p. 11; Joan La Barbara, interview with the author, digital audio recording, 17 September 2008.

32 Cage, John, Silence, 50th Anniversary Edition (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2011), pp. 4546Google Scholar.

33 La Barbara, interview with the author, 6 January 2022; La Barbara, interview with the author, 17 September 2008.

34 La Barbara, interview with the author, 17 September 2008.

35 Ibid.

36 Joan La Barbara, interview with the author, 26 June 2010.

37 Ibid.; Joan La Barbara, interview with author, 27 June 2008.

38 For example, Joan La Barbara, ‘The Wonderful Discoveries of Earl Howard’, Musical America, April 1982, pp. 13, 39, where the term ‘jazz/new music fusion’ is used.

39 Joan La Barbara, interview with the author, 26 July 2010.

40 Joan La Barbara, ‘New Music: Uptown and Downtown – Are Their Roles Changing?’, Musical America, May 1980, pp. 12, 18; Joan La Barbara, ‘New Music: Running the Gamut’, Musical America, September 1980, pp. 14–15.

41 La Barbara, ‘New Music: Uptown and Downtown’, p. 12.

42 La Barbara, interview with the author, 26 July 2010.

43 Ibid.

44 Joan La Barbara and Peter Gordon, ‘Tales and Mosaics’, for voice, saxophones, p'iri and pre-recorded sounds, premiered 27 February 1999 at the Forum at the College of Santa Fe (also performed at Roulette, 19 March 1999).

45 Joan La Barbara, ‘“Concerts by Composers” Illuminates Downtown School’, Musical America, May 1982, pp. 12, 14.

46 Joan La Barbara, ‘New Music America’, Musical America, November 1982, pp. 11–13.

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