The Unexpected Importance of Yes: Joan La Barbara
The Unexpected Importance of Yes
Joan La Barbara discusses her compositional motivations and demonstrates her battery of vocal techniques.
At the composer’s home
Video Presentations by Randy Nordschow
Edited and Transcribed by Molly Sheridan and Lyn Liston
When we arrive at Joan La Barbara’s apartment on a particularly sunny January morning, it sounds like she’s already got company. I’m getting rather curious as to just who will pop out of the kitchen to join us when Joan returns with her son’s talking parrot on her shoulder and introduces us. Though she was invited to join us on the couch and chime in, Plato—usually something of a chatterbox (as seen here with choreographer Jane Comfort)—kept her comments to a minimum.
La Barbara is a singer whose name is rather synonymous in the new music world with extended vocal techniques. She has shared those skills as a colleague and muse to composers who defined a significant swath of 20th-century repertoire—men like Robert Ashley, Morton Feldman, and John Cage—but came to realize that she had ideas of her own that would not be heard unless she became a composer herself. With that in mind, you can listen and simply be amazed by the unique sonic world she conjures in pieces like 73 Poems and Shaman Songs. But for those who simply must know how the magician does her tricks, we also have a behind-the-scenes masterclass for you to view.
It’s a tightrope act to keep such a multi-pronged career balanced, but La Barbara keeps a bit of advice from John Cage close at hand. She recalls, “He said to me one time, ‘I always try to say yes when people ask me to do things because I never know when I might be surprised by the outcome.’ And I think that’s perhaps one of the most important lessons that I ever learned from anyone. When people ask me to do things, oftentimes my inclination will be to say that I don’t have time. And then I’ll catch myself, and I’ll say yes. So many times wonderful things have happened that I would not have expected.”
- I Say It’s Opera
- Extending the Sound of the Voice
- Buried in Tape
- Telling Stories
- Masterclass: Joan La Barbara and Leighanne Saltsman
I Say It’s Opera
Molly Sheridan: I know that you were just in Austria working on your opera in-progress, WoolfSong, so why don’t we start there?
Joan La Barbara: WoolfSong is an opera I’ve been working on now for about two years, inspired by the life and work of Virginia Woolf. I was very fortunate to get a Guggenheim music composition fellowship last year, and I spent a lot of time doing research. I was in London and saw some of her manuscripts and her letters in the British Library. It’s been a process of immersion, I guess I would say—reading the novels, reading the short stories, reading her memoirs, and trying to find the music in the work. One of the things I discovered was that she said at one point that when she wrote her novels she heard them first in music and then translated them into words. So it’s been my process to try to see if I can find the music in her words and transfer it again, back into music in a way. Her language is so fluid and oftentimes she’ll work a sentence many different ways, or certain words or phrases will appear and then come back again several pages later, so this whole idea of repetition and reconsideration is part of what her language process is all about.
In dealing with this in the opera, what I have in mind is to have a single character played by different people—let’s say by a musician, by a singer, and a dancer, for example—so that you would get one view of a character in purely musical terms, and then you might get another interpretation of that character through movement, just as an example.
MS: It reminds me of how the Michael Cunningham novel The Hours uses Woolf’s life and intertwines it with two other women. What made you interested in her work in particular?
JLB: I started studying Woolf when I was in high school, and when I was in college I did some papers on her work. I went away from her material for quite a while and then several years ago picked up a book of the short stories and just found them fascinating. I learned that she would write these stories and then put them away in a drawer. When she would get a commission for a whole piece, either from a magazine or an opportunity to do a whole novel, she would pull out a story and then flesh it out. So the stories really have all the essence of the material for a full novel but in just a few pages. Also, what fascinates me is this kind of stream of consciousness way of working where you actually experience her mind.
MS: Keeping that in mind, how faithfully will you be using her texts, or will you? You have an interesting relationship with setting words as opposed to working with more abstract sounds.
JLB: I’m still in the process of deciding which words will actually appear in the opera, and I do have to deal obviously with the issue of rights. At this point in time I haven’t used any of her words.
I guess I should explain a little bit about my working process. When I write a piece of music, depending on what the inspiration is, I’ll do a stream of consciousness writing just of words about the subject that I’ve decided to work on. Then I’ll go back and re-read what I’ve written, and I’ll find the music in that. So I’m using that process [with WoolfSong], but in this case I’m using her words instead of mine. I’m using her words as the inspiration for musical ideas, but I’m also finding that there are certain aspects of the language that I would like to use. She’s not an easy author to translate or to take a libretto from because, as I said, she writes in stream of consciousness—she considers and reconsiders an idea, she’ll treat a character in many different ways. You meet a character and think you understand what that character is about, and then later on you’ll meet that character again and you’ll see a very different aspect. She’s constantly reworking and rewriting the ideas. But there are sections of words that I think would be very effective, so when I get that figured out then I’ll have to deal with the rights issue.
MS: When will there likely be a full performance of this?
JLB: I’ve been doing a series of work-in-progress performances. I did the first one at the Chelsea Art Museum a couple of years ago using members of my ensemble Ne(x)tworks. Then we did another work-in-progress performance again with Ne(x)tworks at New York University in October of 2004.
I was working at that point with a video artist, Kurt Ralske, and we had a number of sessions talking about the imagery and certain ideas that I had about specific visuals that I thought should be included—a tree with no leaves and certain colors—and then I just gave him free reign. He came up with both some historical footage that he used, and he was also taking live images from the performers, altering and modifying them, and then rebroadcasting them in real time. In that performance I was using the musicians on stage. I was the sole singer, and they were acting as actors in addition to performing the music. That was a very challenging situation, to get them on stage and get them moving and playing instruments and thinking about personifying a character. There are also upcoming performances this spring. I have one performance in May, again with Ne(x)tworks, and then I have a series of three performances in April with the Juilliard Electric Ensemble, and they’ll be performing one scene.
MS: Are these performances start-to-finish as you have it set at the time or if they are just the pieces you’re working on.
JLB: They’re bits and pieces and each time I do a performance either I’ll do a section of the opera or I’ll layer up different scenes to see how they work superimposed over each other. One of the ideas that Grethe Holby, who is an opera director, and I have been discussing is the idea of doing the opera in layers so that we would have one layer that is basically Woolf’s mind, another layer that would consist of characters from several of the novels, and a third layer that would be a kind of emotional context.
MS: Now, you’re calling this an opera, but the work you’re doing is very different from the newly commissioned operas they’re putting up at the Metropolitan Opera House. It’s just a word, but when you’re thinking about it, you’re using the word opera. Is it really an opera to you?
JLB: Yes, I am, and I think that the whole concept of opera is experiencing a revolution. There certainly are people who are still writing more in the realm of traditional opera, but there are also a number of composers who are thinking about opera and rethinking the concept. What is opera? It has stories, it has characters, vocal music, sometimes it has instrumental music. And my opera contains all of those things, so I definitely think of it as an opera.
Extending the Sound of the Voice
Molly Sheridan: I want to talk about vocal techniques, because when people see the name Joan La Barbara, it’s probably the first thing that comes to mind. I was listening to some of your recordings yesterday and wondering what sort of child you were. Is this something that when you were a kid you were constantly running around seeing what sorts of sounds you could make or was this something that came later in your training?
Joan La Barbara: My mother remembers me always singing. I was singing in church and in school, but I didn’t think of myself seriously as a singer until I guess I was in high school. But as far as beginning to think about stretching the voice and using it in other ways, that didn’t come until I got to college. I started to see instrumentalists who were exploring different ideas and different techniques. I didn’t see or hear singers doing that, and I was very curious about it. There were, of course, recordings of Cathy Berberian. Some of the work that she did with Luciano Berio is considered by some people the beginnings of extended vocal techniques, although what she did was not all that extended. She did some gasping and gurgling, humming, laughing, sounds like that, but not really extending the sound of the voice. It was more including what we would consider everyday sounds in the vocabulary of vocal music. Towards the end of her life she really disavowed any interest in extended techniques. She was interested in making sure people knew that she could sing, and she felt that by doing all of that contemporary music somehow people had gotten confused and thought that she really wasn’t a singer, that she was more of an actress.
When I went about beginning to explore these techniques, I started to work first with instrumentalists asking them just to play long tones. I would try to imitate the sounds of different instruments and gradually began to improvise. And then for a time I was working with poets and writers, and I would react to the texts they were reading and see if I could get some interesting new sounds. Early on I also did a sensory deprivation experiment piece called Hear What I Feel. I had taped my eyes shut for a period of an hour prior to the performance and sat in an isolated room and then was led out to the performance space with my eyes still taped shut. My assistant had put items in these six glass dishes, and I only stipulated that they shouldn’t crawl and shouldn’t injure me. I didn’t want to identify what was in the dishes, I just wanted to give an immediate vocal reaction, the idea being that having spent that hour in isolation and the heightened state of awareness of being in a performance, then coming and touching these substances—I just wanted to react to them hoping that maybe a new sound would come out. Also, I wanted to communicate with the audience on that pre-verbal level. The vocal instrument communicates on an emotional level in a very, very deep way even without words.
MS: You mentioned using these techniques and people wondering if you really can sing. This is something that critics who write about your own performances feel the need to talk about—that you really can sing and it’s beautiful, as if you’re doing these other things so we don’t catch on that you have no vocal talent. Is this something that you struggle with?
JLB: You know, no, because my career developed in a parallel way. I was singing the music of other composers and for the most part what other composers would ask me to do was basically pretty traditional singing. There were some composers who asked for unusual techniques, but most of them didn’t. I was exploring so much in my own music with these extended techniques I think they felt that if they wrote a piece for extended techniques it would sound more like my music than their music. So the only time it’s actually been a problem is when I go out and do workshops. Sometimes I’ll work with singers and they’ll be a little hesitant. Somebody will say, well, is that going to damage my instrument? I say, no, I’ve been doing this for over 30 years and it hasn’t damaged by instrument and I certainly wouldn’t do anything that would damage it because I’m a singer.
In one workshop that I was doing—I think it was out in Minneapolis—there was a woman who was a vocal therapist. She said some of the sounds that I make are actually sounds that she uses in therapy because they’re like a deep massage for the throat. For example, the vocal fry and the multiphonics are just very, very relaxed physically for the voice and so these are some of the sounds that are used in speech therapy.
MS: You did mention that you were singing the work of other composers, people like Ashley, Feldman, and Cage. I read a comment that characterized you as a muse to these composers, and I thought that sounded like a lot of fun and a lot of pressure.
JLB: One of the reasons that I went into the contemporary music field was that I was being trained to do traditional opera, Mozart and everything, and I began to be frustrated—learning the established way of singing “Vissi d’arte” lying on the floor because that’s the way it had been done for a number of years. So I was really intrigued by the idea of working with living composers, with people that I could have a conversation with, discuss ideas, use my brain in a very different way. Contemporary music fulfilled that for me. I could discuss [a piece] with a composer while the music was still being written and have an influence on what the piece was going to be. Actually my last vocal teacher, Marian Szekely-Freschl, said to me, “You must work with composers. You must help them because they don’t know how to write for the voice.” And so I really felt as if this was one of my responsibilities. And then as I was working more with composers I realized that I had ideas of my own that were not going to get heard unless I became a composer, so these things developed sort of simultaneously.
MS: How do you balance that then, after having become identified with the work of these composers because of your role in its creation? How did you get out from under the shadow of what you had done before to compose your own work?
JLB: Since I know the music of these other composers so well, I’m very careful not to write in their style. I was working with a composer several weeks ago, and there was a text that he wanted delivered, and I started doing it not realizing at first that I was doing it in the style of Robert Ashley. I thought, no, this is not going to work. So I’m very aware of it.
As I’m getting older there are certain works that I can’t sing anymore, and I realize that my further responsibility now is to find other singers that I can pass this material on to—not only my own techniques, but some of this wonderful repertoire that’s been generated for my voice. I need to find other people who can take on that repertoire to keep it alive.
MS: Since you were so invested in bringing a lot of these works to life, how much leeway is there? Should a new singer coming to it have the freedom to interpret certain aspects or should it sound as closely as possible to how you performed it?
JLB: I think that I can give singers the information about how I did it. I think it would be more interesting for them to do a new interpretation. Whether I like it or not is really not the issue. A work like Three Voices of Morton Feldman—which is an extraordinarily beautiful work, and I’m very proud to have brought that work into being—I heard one other recording of the work and I didn’t like it. So there is an aspect of being territorial about the material.
I guess in the case of composers who have passed on like Feldman the implication is that because he wrote it for me, because he heard me do it on a number of occasions and approved of it, that’s the way that particular work should be done. But Feldman’s Only was written in 1947 when he was 21. I performed that, but only after his death; he never heard me sing it. Who knows whether my interpretation is the correct one? It’s simply my interpretation.
MS: You mentioned guiding composers who are writing for the voice. Are there some key things that when you’re working with a new composer you would advise them on, especially when writing in ways that stretch the voice?
JLB: Well, for example, when I was working with Philip Glass years ago, I explained to him that yes, I could sing two notes for twenty minutes, but then in the next piece he’d have to move to a different part of the range. The vocal apparatus is musculature, and if you were holding your arm in a particular position for twenty minutes, it’s going to get tired so you have to relax it. You also have to change the positioning of the vocal chords so that they get to relax and rejuvenate themselves. I explain how certain techniques feel. I try to get composers, if they are going to try to write for some of these extended techniques, to try them to see what it feels like to make them. I explain that certain techniques take a little more preparation time so that you need to give space in the music so that the singer can prepare a particular technique. So a lot of it is very logical, but sometimes people are not very practical.
MS: I was reading about some of the film work you’ve done like Alien: Resurrection and how much went into actually thinking about this sci-fi character’s physical structure and how that impacted the sound that you made. Outside of work that you’re doing for specific projects, when you’re thinking about creating new sounds, where does that inspiration come from?
JLB: When I was beginning to explore extended vocal techniques I did a lot of imitating of sounds, not only of instruments but of birds, of animals, of machines, of synthesizer sounds, developing a vocabulary and developing a language. And so when I’m starting a new composition I’m drawing on my palette of vocal sounds the way an orchestra writer thinks about the instruments of the orchestra. Do I want to have a kind of percussive base as the foundation or do I want a kind of fluid ongoing vocal texture? A lot of times I think that way; I’m layering up sounds so I’ll think about the foundation on which I’m going to build, and then once I get that foundation established I’ll decide what kinds of more decorative or explorative work I’m going to layer on top of that. If I’m writing a piece for a dance company, I like to learn the choreographer’s language, and that inspires me to go in a particular direction with the kinds of sounds that I’m going to be making.
MS: What about when you decide to do a piece just for instruments? What makes you decide to go that route and does it change how you approach writing the piece?
JLB: Sometimes when I write for instruments I’m trying to translate from my vocal techniques. For example, the ululation, that sort of fluttery sound—what instruments can pick that up and how does it change as it goes to another instrument? I recently wrote a piece for solo violin and I asked the violinist to gasp. To me that’s a very easy thing to do—it’s a vocalized, inhaled short, rapid sound. We all do it. It’s amazing how difficult it is for an instrumentalist to do that, but I guess when you choose to play an instrument you choose to have your sound coming out of that. You don’t expect the composer to ask to have a sound coming out of your body, but I’m intrigued with the person and the instrument so I want to bring that into a piece. Then, of course, I’m fascinated with the sounds that instruments can make that I can’t make, like the Bartók pizz. on a string instrument, which is just this fabulous little snap. The harp is a great instrument; there are all sorts of things that the harp can do that the voice can’t do—not just what we usually think of as that wonderful glissando but all of these fabulous noises.
Buried in Tape
Molly Sheridan: You’ve also interacted with technology throughout the evolution of your career—I’m thinking of that iconic image of you on the album cover where you’re buried in tape. You’ve been actively working with a lot of this equipment as it developed. What did these different aspects of technology bring to what you could do?
Joan La Barbara: Well, it’s changed immensely. When I started out working on multi-track tape that was wonderful because I could layer and create a whole choir out of my own voice. When digital technology came along, what it has allowed me to do is to get more involved with the computer and how I can move the sounds around. With analog tape, moving sounds around was extraordinarily difficult. The idea of having to literally cut the tape to make edits and splice the tape together made it very fragile. Now with the computer, you can record into it, you can take little edits and move things around, but you never lose anything. Well, hopefully! But presumably you don’t lose anything. Now, when I’m working with dance companies, it’s allowed me to go and record a rehearsal, to bring my musical rehearsal tapes back, to work with them and then be able to send things to the choreographer within a day that will allow the choreographer to work with that material. Then we can have a dialogue about what works and what doesn’t work. So I’ve just become much more involved in technology as a tool to help my composition.
MS: Is there anything that you don’t like about the way the technology has evolved that you’d like to go back to?
JLB: Well, yes. The scoring notation programs I find are not as flexible. I like to use a lot of graphics in my notation and the technology is really not up to speed. I mean I still will draw certain things on blank paper just because I need to get that flow of ideas. I’m also one of those people who sees sound in way so that when I’m writing a musical gesture, it has a physicality to it, it has a shape. And I find that using graphics allows me to get that shape into the score.
MS: Which leads really nicely to my next question, which is: how do you translate these extended techniques into the score? When you say graphically, what does that really mean?
JLB: I tend to do two kinds of scoring. One is traditional notation. And then in certain cases I’ll do traditional notation with a graphic sort of superimposed on top that gives an indication of how I want the flow of the musical material to proceed; how much energy I want poured into the sound. When I’m working with my ensemble I can just demonstrate; I can say, well, I want the sound to be like this. If you’re going to send music out to someone else who’s not going to be able to work with you on it you have to be able to be as specific as possible. So I’ll write instructions—I use a lot of verbal instructions to explain notation. Sometimes I’ll send a recording of my sound doing certain things.
MS: Especially when you’re trying to pass on some of this repertoire that was written specifically for you, is it even possible to do that without sharing a recording or coaching them in-person?
JLB: Almost impossible because the scoring is still just an approximation. You know, how do you score an inhaled glottal click? I mean, I put a little series of X’s with dots going after it, and I then write inhaled glottal click.
MS: But even among singers this is not something they’re going to know right on the uptake, right?
JLB: No, so you’d have to demonstrate, and in each voice it’s a little bit different, that specific sound. If I do it, it sounds one way because of my bone structure, my body, where it resonates. If you had a six-foot baritone doing that sound it sounds very different.
MS: Is it possible then that some of the pieces just will, in a way, have been for you, and we will just have the recordings when you no longer sing them?
JLB: Maybe, but I think it’s much more interesting to think about somebody else picking up the material and doing an interpretation of it. I have had a couple of instances where I’ve worked with a singer and I’ve allowed them to do some of my multi-track pieces. When I do them I go out and I improvise the live part over the multi-layered composition, and so I’ll have a score that I give to the singer and I’ll say, well, this is a suggestion of the kinds of material that I do. Listen to it and see what you can do with it. You know you may not necessarily want to do it in the same order that I did it, and so let’s see what happens with that.
Molly Sheridan: You rarely work with words and you’ve spoken about communicating on a pre-verbal level and the importance of that. What about Kenneth Goldsmith’s 73 Poems inspired you?
Joan La Barbara: That was a very, very specific work. Ellen Salpeter, who was the original producer of the piece, was involved in a gallery and had something called Permanent Press, which was the press that published the original book. Ellen introduced me to Kenneth and said I think that you guys would work beautifully together. Kenny was working on this series of multiple texts, and she described them—this dark text superimposed over a light text, and so I said, well, I’ll have to take a look at the work. So I went to Kenny’s studio and I looked at it, and I really was intrigued by what he was doing, how he was working with the words. It’s a wonderful offshoot from concrete poetry, where the words are treated as objects as well as words themselves. Also, I liked the way they looked on the page, the physical aspect of them. So I said I was very interested in the collaboration and Kenny had done, oh, I don’t know, maybe about 20 of these drawing at that point in time. So I said, what do you know of my music? And he said, well, I know Three Voices and I know Singing Through. I said fine, you know me singing Feldman and you know me singing Cage. What do you know about my work? And he said well, I guess I really don’t know it. So I gave him a list—I didn’t give him the music—and I said part of this exercise is for you to actually have to find this material. He took it on as a challenge and went and found everything in used record stores and CDs and came back several months later and said, “It’s amazing—it’s just this whole world of sounds that I didn’t know existed.” Then he went back to work on his poetry, and I could see the change in what happened to his material after he heard my compositions. The letters started floating in a way, and the texts just changed. So he finished them. It’s called 73 Poems but there are actually 79 of them. He couldn’t stop.
He gave me the whole stack of them—huge Xerox copies of the actual drawing—and I put them up in my studio. At that time I was living in Santa Fe, and I had a former two-car garage as my studio, so I put them up all over the walls and just sat with them for days waiting for the sound to come. I didn’t start at the first one. I started somewhere in the middle. It was one of the very densely layered works, and it had words like “wow” and “meow” and all of that in it, and that really spoke to me. So I started there and then worked in different directions until I had all of the material.
Then the problem was how to translate that so it would be a reflection of what the poetry was visually. And of course the difference between a piece of visual material and sound is time. That’s the essential difference. So I went and recorded all of the vocal material, and then Michael Hoenig, with whom I’ve worked very closely, acted as the engineer and also co-produced it with me, and we then went in and layered the recordings so that they would reflect aurally what you see on the page. We began working with what I call depth-of-field so that you get an impression of the sonic architecture that reflects the visual architecture in each one of the poems. When the dark texts becomes the light text of the subsequent poem, I wanted it to be the same musical material but to be experienced differently, so either we did a different electronic treatment of it or we placed it differently in the stereo horizon. So it was a very long process.
MS: Looking back through your catalog, what do you hope your audiences take away from having experienced your work, especially when you’re pushing at new forms and new boundaries?
JLB: I hope that it inspires their curiosity to find out more about it, particularly about the vocal instrument. There’s such a wealth of wonderful vocal sounds in the world, and if I inspire someone to go and do a little bit more investigating, that would be wonderful. A lot of times people come away from my work with visual experiences, at least that’s what they’ve told me. They get a whole sort of storyline or just visual experience, and I find that fascinating. So I’m intrigued by that. I guess I want them to be intrigued by the work and to want to hear more.
MS: Do you think that that whole connection to visual experiences and a storyline is because it’s a human voice and we’re used to people telling us stories?
JLB: I guess when a musician listens to a piece of music you can’t help but begin to analyze what’s going on structurally. You think that way and you also think about the performance aspects, how well the performers are playing. When a person who is not trained as a musician listens to a piece of music, I think they hear it differently. They may experience the structure but maybe not to that deep extent, so I think that people go to a musical experience and come away having been enriched in whatever way they can be. A lot of people experience films, and so they go to a concert and they’ll have a film playing in their heads. That’s just another way of experiencing things.
MS: I was paging through the list of your compositions and noticing the dates on them. You’ve produced steadily since the ’70s and you perform and you raised a child and you’re your own publisher. How do you do all these things?
JLB: It’s a lot of work. I could probably get a lot more music written if I weren’t also my own manager and my own publisher and all of this. One of the problems with publishers is that they’re looking at the bottom line. I have talked to publishers, and I’ve said, you know, I do have music that I think other people would be interested in playing. And they just have to be convinced that there would be a large enough market for that. So, sometimes I get frustrated, but I’ve always been so independent and just take things on.
MS: You’re closer to your specialties of extended vocal technique and composers working in these areas. Who are you watching because their work is exciting to you?
JLB: Well, I’m very interested in the work of Kenji Bunch. Kenji is in the ensemble that I work with a lot, Ne(x)tworks, and I really like the work that he does for this ensemble. I don’t know all of his music so I don’t know his more traditional things. I know that he’s written for orchestra and writes for ensembles, but what he writes for our group and for my voice is exploring sound in a very unique way and I find that really fascinating. I guess what I’m interested in, and it’s what I’ve always been interested in with different composers, is a particular point of view. It doesn’t necessarily need to be exploring new territory or new sounds, but it has a unique voice and just a way of thinking about sound or thinking about structure or thinking about music in a way that’s sort of off the beaten path; that’s what intrigues me.
Masterclass: Joan La Barbara and Leighanne Saltsman
After the masterclass with Joan La Barbara, Molly Sheridan spoke briefly with Leighanne Saltsman about the experience.
Molly Sheridan: You did an amazing job. Was this the first time you’ve ever tried most of these techniques?
Leighanne Saltsman: Most of them, yeah. I’ve tried close approximations of them in my own playing around, but I’ve never known how to get exactly the same effects. I came here completely cold. I emailed Joan and she said no, I don’t want to see you beforehand, and I was like, oh God, what do I practice?
MS: What were your expectations as opposed to what it turned out to be?
LS: It’s so strange because I came here prepared to sing and be a singer on tape, and it’s more exploration of the voice really than classical bel canto singing, which is what I’ve studied for years and years. It’s really nice to realize that you can go beyond that. I used different parts of my voice than I did before with bel canto, and it’s just a different approach in general, which is awesome. The voice can do great things, you know?
My goal is to use all parts of the voice to touch people and convey emotion and sometimes it’s not done best through pretty singing, so to have access to something like what Joan is doing, you can really convey messages and touch the feelings inside people more easily.
MS: Is it hard to do these techniques?
LS: It’s hard to relax into them but not technically hard I wouldn’t say. But then again I’ve been singing for years.
Being classically trained hurts you in the sense that it gives you a very narrow path to follow and you don’t tend to see beyond either side of that because it’s not what your teachers are encouraging you to do. It helps tremendously that I’m now fluent with theory. I know the history of music and why things are the way they are. So if I can claim all of that—I don’t know if I can claim all of that—but just to be fluent in the music world and have a base to jump from. That’s why I did go to study, to lay down a solid base so I can explore more.
MS: Do you find that the people you’re interested in working with end up having very similar backgrounds to you or something very different?
LS: They do have similar backgrounds because I’m more comfortable working with people who do read music. I tend to pick people who I can communicate with on that level. Something that I did a lot of at school was teaching composers how to write for voice.
MS: What was your advice to them?
LS: It’s a question of range sometimes and strange intervals. If you’re doing it for a certain style, fine, but too often composers would say, oh, can you make this sound like you’re bored? It’s hard to make that come through if their intervals are all over the place. You want to have the singer get the message through as easily as possible. As much as you want to treat voice like an instrument, you have to leave the humanity in it because that’s what voice is.
Born in Rhinebeck, New York, Leighanne Saltsman arrived in New York from Oberlin College and Conservatory, having completed both her Bachelor of Music in Vocal Performance and her Bachelor of Arts in Visual Arts. Saltsman has achieved success as soloist with New York City’s unaccompanied vocal ensemble Cerddorion, directed by Kristina Boerger, premiering the works of Lisa Bielawa, David Lang, and Elliot Z. Levine.
As a vocalist, Saltsman’s interest and expertise falls in the realms of early music, new music, oratorio, and the choral repertoire. In addition to working under the auspices of Doner/Pierce Associates, Saltsman is currently in demand as a soloist in diverse projects ranging from early music to contemporary works, and has recently been commissioned to help reinvent Cavalli’s La Didone with The Wooster Group.
She has participated in masterclasses with Pamela Z, Walter Thompson, and Paul Horn. She has appeared behind Thomas Quasthoff and the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, Walter Thompson (soundpainting), and Olga Borodina and the Russian Chamber Chorus of New York.