Joan La Barbara's "Dreams of Water Beyond One's Depth"
“The sound of the chorus came across the water and I felt leap up that old impulse, which has moved me all my life, to be thrown up and down on the roar of other people's voices, singing the same song; to be tossed up and down on the roar of almost senseless merriment, sentiment, triumph, desire.”
—Virginia Woolf, The Waves (1931)
Joan La Barbara has dedicated her career to exploring waves of sound: not exactly voyaging out to conquer and tame them, but rather swimming in them, riding them, generating them, organizing them to produce new swells and tides. For roughly the past fifteen years, La Barbara has been thinking about, composing, and performing an evolving work titled “Dreams of Water Beyond One’s Depth”, which amplifies the resonances between the lives of two other artists: the English novelist Virginia Woolf and the American sculptor Joseph Cornell. Taken from one of Cornell’s journals, the title of the work plays with Woolf and Cornell’s imaginations of the transformative potentials of water: a flowing connection to past, present, and future, a mirror, a cleansing bath, a portal to life and death.
La Barbara’s approach to this poetic concept comes both from these artists’ works and their lives. What began as an interest in Woolf’s psychological novels became an interest in how Woolf used the writing of those novels to transform her own life, and to transform the field of literature, as well. Similarly Cornell’s idiosyncratic output of assemblage and boxes, along with the challenges of his personal life, evinced a struggle with the entire concept of modern art, challenging notions of prestige, authority, and ability. Weaving these two artists together, La Barbara’s own work has synthesized and amplified these connections, resulting in a number of interrelated projects and performances.
In the earliest of these, La Barbara began by imagining her own musical interpretations of Woolf’s stories. An early performance at ISSUE Project Room’s empty silo on the Gowanus canal led audience members from an English picnic-like exterior to a pub-like interior, featuring La Barbara, a mezzo-soprano, and a boy soprano, with a string quartet and brass players also taking on speaking roles, all accompanied by a "sonic atmosphere" that included dropping bombs. Later, La Barbara imagined that she could portray Woolf, herself: the first scene would be her walking out of a river, and heaving rocks out of her pockets—a resolute denial of death, a second life birthed from water. Then La Barbara quickly decided that she alone should not portray Woolf; the entire ensemble became multiples of the author, each evoking different facets individually and collectively.
At the same time, La Barbara began to see parallels between the lives of Virginia Woolf and Joseph Cornell. Both underwent severe childhood sexual traumas; both lost a parent during adolescence; both had troubled relationships to intimacy, pleasure, and sex. And in spite of all that, both constructed their lives around their artistic practices. And in addition to these biographical similarities, La Barbara also drew poetic connections between their works in different media: their interest in transformation, depth, multiplicity, and the everyday. Inspired by Cornell’s dream of Debussy playing piano in a store as seen through a spacious window, and by the connections between Cornell’s boxes and works like Marcel Duchamp’s Large Glass, La Barbara created Storefront Diva in 2011, which combined what La Barbara calls a “sonic atmosphere” of processed bells, water, vocalizations, and other sounds with a live performer behind a storefront window, playing a white piano. This work evolved again in 2013 and 2015 with realizations at the Flea Theater and Roulette.
Throughout the decade, La Barbara has been presenting work related to the larger project of “Dreams of Water Beyond One’s Depth,” each time revising the work and honing it with her creative team, which includes librettist Monique Truong and a core group of singers including Lauren Flanigan and other long-time collaborators. In 2017, she presented “The Wanderlusting of Joseph C.,” a song cycle performed by Flanigan, Julia Meadows, Mario Diaz-Moresco, and members of the Ne(x)tworks ensemble; these songs were again performed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s contemporary galleries in the presence of works by Cornell and Juan Gris. At 2018’s Modularias, she presented “Virginia and the Time Machine,” which uses a Buchla Modular Electronic Music System to evoke Woolf’s fantasies of telephony and time travel. In March 2019, La Barbara presented work from the more finished version of “Dreams of Water Beyond One’s Depth” at Roulette, and continues to develop the work.
As La Barbara noted, “every concert is a new exploration of the material, of the room, of the instrument.” La Barbara’s creative process is about a continual exploration and crafting of ideas through performance, which is why “Dreams of Water Beyond One’s Depth” has continuously evolved through public performances. Near the end of our interview, La Barbara told me that “staying with the project has been a discipline: I live with it, and it is something I am absolutely determined to realize in some way.” This discipline is both compositional and performative: working with “sonic atmospheres,” electronics, singers, instrumentalists, and also working with her librettist, La Barbara continues to explore the metaphorical and poetic territories created by her own connection of Woolf and Cornell. A permeable wall of water separates and conjoins these two worlds, showing parallel traumas, griefs, joys, workings-through: the creation of artistic worlds inside worlds. Both artists suffered through immense traumas, and both were able to persevere through extreme adversity; with “Dreams of Water Beyond One’s Depth,” La Barbara and Truong seek to celebrate that spirit of perseverance and hope embodied by both artists.