73 Poems: Preface to the Music
John Schaefer


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 text.

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 challenge."


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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