35 years after its release, Tapesongs remains one of the most stunning albums in Joan La Barbara's discography. No mean feat, given that every album La Barbara has released stands as a powerful testament to the capabilities of the human voice as not only the "original instrument," as she asserts on another album, but also the best instrument.
The most striking of the trio of pieces on Tapesongs is La Barbara's realization of John Cage's "Solo for Voice 45," from his Song Books. La Barbara had worked closely with Cage before and had performed and worked on portions of the piece before recording Tapesongs. For the album, La Barbara decided to record the entirety of the piece. She approached Cage with the idea of recording "Solo for Voice 45" in horizontal layers; he then worked with La Barbara to distribute the 18 pages of the score into 16 separate tracks. Each track was panned into 16 individual "pieces" across the stereo spectrum to maximize "spatial movement," as La Barbara writes in her own description of the piece.
"Solo for Voice 45" is a "classic" Cage piece, taking on a new form at each performance dictated by chance operations and the singer's interpretation of the piece. The piece's pitches were derived from star maps, with its organization dictated by chance operations, utilizing the I Ching. There are numeric instructions as to how and how many times the singer should sing each note, and, according to La Barbara, the groups of pitches, "Are to be sung as fast as possible in calligraphic strokes approximating the star configurations they represent." La Barbara used chance operations herself in order to determine which phrases were to be sung with the French pronunciation of the alphabet, and which were to be sung in the English pronunciation.
La Barbara's "Solo for Voice 45" is one of the most beautiful, delicate renditions of Cage ever recorded. Hearing La Barbara sing unaccompanied is already a mind-blowing experience. For anyone who sings, hearing La Barbara perform is either the most inspiring or discouraging experience ever -- her voice simply cannot be imitated, let alone bested. The multiple channel layering of the piece creates the illusion of an entire chorus of La Barbaras; her voice is the best accompaniment to her own voice, you realize. Each phrase La Barbara sings is incredibly precise yet emotive. She renders a song as difficult and complex as "Solo" warm and exciting.
La Barbara also, better than any other vocalists, reminds the listener of just how playful a piece such as "Solo for Voice 45" can be. You can't help but grin as you listen to the piece (and then listen to it again, and again -- it's hard to listen to "Solo" just once). Cage's pieces are as much "composed" by the performer as they are by Cage himself, and in La Barbara, an incredibly talented composer herself, he finds a perfect musician to interpret and realize the piece. The only true downside to La Barbara's piece is that is spoils the listener to the point that any other realization of this piece will be a tremendous disappointment -- La Barbara's 1977 "Solo for Voice 45" is, and should remain, the immortalized, definitive recording.
Cage wrote of La Barbara (please pardon my exclusion of Cage's staggered spacing; check out the back of the LP for the "full" effect), "Just / astOnished / (thAt's what you are / to begiN with); / then you realize / she's A great musician: / singer But singer / who chAnges (who's that?) and / changes you (youR mind / about music) / And she does it / in many diffeRent / wAys (plurabelle)." Really, praise doesn't come much higher.