Now that diva manquee Joan La Barbara has been the vocalist of choice by the "cutting edge" for a dozen or so years, we are familiar with the bulging catalogue of amazing sounds--literally from a whisper to a scream--she can produce, apparently without end.
What her performance at the Los Angeles Theatre Center on Monday night proved--definitively--is that, as a composer, she sees herself to be the interlocutor between the primitive and us, the hyper-cultured. Such a clear apposition might provide a huge field to work within, but she seems content to prowl its perimeter.
The result was an occasionally profound, fleetingly funny and often tedious 80-minute-long interface with Primitive Culture, La Barbara's unique pyrotechnivocalisms serving as the pre-speech sonic guidebook to help us appreciate what we're experiencing.
Most guilty of this middlebrow sonic anthropology was "Winds of the Canyon," a 1982 piece reworked and "atmosphered" this year for the presentation Monday.
Billed as La Barbara's homage to Native Americans, the piece conjured up a sort of department-store Druidic rite of passage where vocal sound is the sole key to self-identification, the first circle of initiation into stranger mysteries.
Yet whole sections of sound and gesture were repeated so many times, it caused the piece to become as subtle and inferring as Day-Glo graffiti, canceling whatever mood of wonder had been previously established.
"Berliner Traeume," on the other hand, remained cogent--possibly because it is so personal, being a memoir of La Barbara's years in Germany--and surprising. The prerecorded voices, churning away in a dense, erotically charged counterpoint, worked with the cascade of visuals (courtesy of artist Lita Albuquerque) to sew together images of buildings, Nazis, corpses and stars into a nebulous ritual of suffering, loneliness and daydream.
The new, untitled piece for voice and "interactive" video (supplied by Steina Vasulka) was not much more than an exercise at this stage, La Barbara's vocal flourishes causing various uninteresting shapes to appear on two smallish TV monitors. One recalls with fondness Deems Taylor introducing the timid "sound track" in Walt Disney's "Fantasia," and sits amazed that, in the intervening 46 years, the imagination has taken so small a step.