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A Reflection on the Genesis and History of "Three Voices"

by Joan La Barbara

In 1981, I wrote to Morty from Berlin, while in residence there, and asked him to write me an orchestra piece. He wrote back, explaining the problems with getting orchestral performances, and that he had something else in mind. Not long after, he sent me "Three Voices". In the letter that accompanied it, dated April 23, 1982, he wrote:

Dear Joan,

Well here it is. Iím somewhat shocked with the more sensuous if not "gorgeous" sound of most of it - never expecting it would go that way. The words are from the two opening lines of "Wind", a poem Frank OíHara dedicated to me. I think Frank had a lot to do with some of the "gorgeous" aspect of the piece ....

The bottom system is what you sing "live", the other two are layered in - where the two loudspeakers should be placed I have no idea - it is also one of the very few pieces where I didnít indicate a metronome marking - feeling that your tone and how you breath should pace it - it sounds good both "slow" as well as a "fast" slowness (whatever that means).

Of course you can always return it for whatever reason.

All love to you and Mort
from the other


When I started to work on it, I called him to find out how long it was so I could begin including it on upcoming concerts. "I think itís about forty-five," he replied, so I programmed it along with other works on several events. Then when I started recording the two upper voices I called him back in a panic. "Morty," I said, "itís almost twice that long! About ninety minutes!" "Yeh," he said, "I always thought it would be that long."

And that was the length of the first performance, starting at 11pm and lasting well after midnight ... like an eternity spent in a vast and beautiful space.

I was devastated when he died. To make a permanent lasting homage as tribute to my friend, I decided to record "Three Voices" and discovered that ninety minutes was too long for a single CD. I didnít want to break it up over two discs, so I went back to the fastest moving figures in the score and learned to sing them faster, as fast as I could while retaining the clarity of each pitch. The final result was very close to his original idea of the 45-minute timing.

Both versions work. In the faster version, one is suddenly propelled into the storm from the infinite stillness of intricate chords, and I felt OíHaraís image of the bear in the snowstorm, trapped in the ball of whirling snow that never fell: "Nothing ever fell." In the slower, ninety minute version, one experiences individual moments in a more precious, luxurious soundscape and perhaps one is drawn to the starkness of the abstract expressionistsí fascination with "nothing" in a more nihilistic sense.

Because of John Rockwellís championing of Feldmanís music long before the composerís death and his continuing devotion in presenting it, I am returning to the ninety-minute version for this performance. I last performed this version on April 14, 1985 at the Alternative Museum, with Feldman in attendance. The original recordings were done in February 1983 with George Brunner as sound engineer.
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