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‘Living legend’ Joan La Barbara visits Bienen School of Music

Residency Oct. 21-29, featuring composition colloquium, master class and performances, coincides with composer and performer’s 75th birthday year
Joan La Barbara
An experimental vocalist, composer, sound artist and theatrical collaborator, Joan La Barbara has been an influential force in the world of contemporary music for more than five decades.

Composer and performer Joan La Barbara will visit Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music for a residency Oct. 21-29. The residency includes a composition colloquium, a master class and discussions with composition students, ensemble coaching and performances by the school’s Contemporary Music Ensemble and the Northwestern University Chamber Orchestra.

“The breadth and depth of La Barbara’s achievements in contemporary music are unparalleled,” said Ryan Dohoney, associate professor of musicology at the Bienen School and coordinator of the residency. “The Bienen community will benefit immensely as she shares her experience as an innovative composer, a virtuosa performer and generous collaborator. This is a chance for students to work with a living legend.”

Dohoney recently served as guest editor for the July issue of TEMPO magazine, which celebrates La Barbara’s career and impact in her 75th year.

An experimental vocalist, composer, sound artist and theatrical collaborator, La Barbara has been an influential force in the world of contemporary music for more than five decades. A pioneer in extended vocal techniques, she has taken the human voice in new expressive directions and used her abilities as the foundation of rigorous compositional practice.

Her multi-layered textural compositions have been presented at the Brisbane Biennial, Festival d’Automne à Paris, Warsaw Autumn and MaerzMusik Berlin, among many other international venues. She has collaborated with visual artists including Matthew Barney, Judy Chicago, Kenneth Goldsmith and Bruce Nauman. Many landmark compositions have been written for and premiered by her, including Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s “Einstein on the Beach,” Steve Reich’s “Drumming,” Morton Feldman’s “Three Voices” and John Cage’s “Eight Whiskus” and “Solo for Voice 45” (with Reinhold Friedl).  

La Barbara has recorded for the A&M Horizon, Centaur, Deutsche Grammophon, Nonesuch, Music & Arts, MusicMasters, Musical Heritage, New Albion, Newport Classic, Sony, Virgin, Voyager and Wergo labels. She composed original music for Aleksandar Kostic’s award-winning film “Parallel Dreams”; her composition “Erin” is featured in Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score for the 2016 film “Arrival”; and she created the character voice for the alien newborn in the 1997 film “Alien Resurrection.” Her current projects include “Dreams of Water Beyond One’s Depth,” an opera La Barbara is composing with novelist Monique Truong, inspired by the lives and work of Virginia Woolf and Joseph Cornell.

Tickets for Evanston campus events can be purchased through the Bienen School of Music ticket office at, by phone at 847-467-4000 or in person at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, 50 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston.

Four events in Joan La Barbara’s residency

Contemporary Music Ensemble
Saturday, Oct. 22, 7:30 p.m.
Galvin Recital Hall, Ryan Center for the Musical Arts, 70 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston

Ben Bolter conducts the Northwestern Contemporary Music Ensemble’s first concert of the academic year, highlighting La Barbara’s 1991 work “Awakenings.” Inspired by the Oliver Sacks book of the same name, this sound painting depicts an awakening from an extended state of sleep to a new world. Also on the program are Elijah Smith’s “Scions of an Atlas” and David Lang’s Jimi Hendrix-inspired tuba concerto “Are You Experienced?” Tickets are $8 for the public and $5 for students with valid ID.

Composition Colloquium
Tuesday, Oct. 25, 5 p.m.
Regenstein Master Class Room, 60 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston

La Barbara discusses composition practice and techniques. Admission is free. 

Joan La Barbara Performance at Constellation
Wednesday, Oct. 26, 8:30 p.m.
Constellation, 3111 N. Western Ave., Chicago

La Barbara performs her works exploring the extended vocal techniques she has developed and championed over the course of her five-decade career, including “Solitary Journeys of the Mind,” “Windows” and “Erin.” Reserve tickets online. Tickets are $15 for the in-person performance or $5 for the livestream.

Northwestern University Chamber Orchestra
Saturday, Oct. 29, 7:30 p.m.
Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, 50 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston

Robert G. Hasty conducts the Northwestern University Chamber Orchestra and mezzo-soprano soloist Lauryn Nelson in a program exploring themes of fear, death and the supernatural, showcasing La Barbara’s haunting 2011 work “In solitude this fear is lived” for amplified voice, orchestra and sonic atmosphere. The program also features Bernard Herrman’s “Psycho: A Suite for Strings,” Luigi Boccherini’s Symphony No. 6 in D Minor (“La casa del diavolo”), Jean Sibelius’s “Valse triste” from “Kuolema” (Death) and Manuel de Falla’s “El amor brujo.” Tickets are $6 for the public and $4 for students with valid ID.

Organized by the Bienen School’s Institute for New Music, La Barbara’s residency is generously sponsored in part by Northwestern’s Kreeger Wolf Endowment, the sound arts and industries program, the department of art theory and practice and the comparative literary studies program.

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