Performance Practice
of Electroacoustic Music

Morton Feldman

Three Voices


Morton Feldman composed Three Voices in 1982 for Joan La Barbara who premiered the piece on March 4, 1983 at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia.

The text is from Franck O’Hara’s poem “Wind”. In a letter to Joan La Barbara, Feldman stated that he was “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 O’Hara dedicated to me. I think Frank had a lot to do with some of the “gorgeous” aspect of the piece …. (quoted from La Barbara, A Reflection on the Genesis and History of Three Voices (online)). The composer also instructed La Barbara that of the three voice parts, the bottom part was to be sung live, while the other two parts were to be recorded separately and played back during performance (La Barbara, introduction to 2nd edition of the score, s. below).

Feldman later wrote about the impression the performance made on him: “One of my closest friends, the painter Philip Guston, had just died [in 1980]; Frank O’Hara had died several years before [in 1966]. I saw the piece with Joan in front and these two loudspeakers behind her. There is something kind of tomb-stoney about the look of loudspeakers. I thought of the piece as an exchange of the live voice with the dead ones – a mixture of the living and the dead.” (s. CD booklet for J. La Barbara’s recording on “New Albion” (1989; cf. below, commercial releases). In a draft (Paul Sacher Stiftung, Sammlung Morton Feldman) he drew a stylized woman with two rectangles (possibly representing “tombstone” loudspeakers) at her left and right sides.


Performance material


-Universal Edition 17634, 1982. Includes no instructions on performance or preparation of tape.

-Universal Edition 21409 (© 1982): new edition, contains performance instructions by Joan la Barbara (see below).


-No tape is available. This has to be prepared by the performer.


Archival material

Paul Sacher Stiftung, Sammlung Morton Feldman

-Drafts, score (fair copy).

-Correspondence with Joan La Barbara (3 letters from 1976, 1981 and 1983). In the latter (4th October 1983) La Barbara only quotes her next performance of Three Voices at Mills College (May 10, 1984) and possible others (unspecified).


Editorial/authorial instruction

While the first edition of the score has no indications on performance practice or the recording procedure of the tape, the new edition includes a preface by Joan La Barbara quoting instructions she had received from Feldman:

-Of the three voice parts, the bottom system is the one to be performed live.

-The other two parts are to be recorded and played over two loudspeakers with one voice coming distinctly from one speaker, so that the voices “have a sense of individuality but mix in the acoustical space of the performance.”

-The level of the recorded voices should not be brought up higher than that of the live voice singing ppp. The live voice should not be amplified.

It is interesting to note McGuire’s referring to a performance practice where the live voice is picked up by a microphone and mixed together with the recorded voice in order to achieve a balanced sound (McGuire (1987), p. 26.).

Joan La Barbara in the preface to the second edition mentions the fact that Feldman had not indicated a fixed tempo, but had left that decision to the performer. La Barbara took the fastest moving figure and chose a speed that would allow for it “to flow gracefully”. While La Barbara’s original performance lasted about 90 minutes, she prepared a faster interpretation to be recorded for CD. Here, she went back to the fastest figure and chose the fastest tempo possible at which pitch was still clear (s. Joan La Barbara, A Reflection on the Genesis and History of Three Voices (online)): “Both versions work. In the faster version, one is suddenly propelled into the storm from the infinite stillness of intricate chords, and I felt O’Hara’s 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 expressionists’ fascination with “nothing” in a more nihilistic sense.” (La Barbara, op. cit.).

A performance with three live voices, while theoretically possible and apparently mentioned by the publisher, would seem almost impractical due to the difficulties of rhythmical precision and homogenous sound obviously intended by the composer (McGuire (1987), p. 26). McGuire’s remark about homogeneity implies that the three voices must be pre-recorded and performed by the same singer leaving no option for a live performance with three singers.


Performance report

The performance on June 5, 2015 at concert hall 3 of the ZHdK was sung by Marianne Schuppe using her own pre-recorded tape, which was produced in a Berlin studio in 2005/06. Its duration is 49’30’’. No amplification was necessary (this performer had once used amplification of her voice in an outdoor performance).

The speakers were positioned slightly to the left and right behind the singer’s position, so that she could hear the sound of the speakers. The speakers were placed quite close to the singer (approx. 2 meters to the side, 0.5 meters behind her and at the high of the performer). The pre-recorded audio was played from CD (property of the performer). The upper voice in the score was routed to the left loudspeaker, the middle voice to the right loudspeaker.

In order to perfectly match the sound and timbre of live voice, careful equalization and reverberation of the pre-recorded audio was used. A considerable amount of rehearsal time was devoted to this work comparing different listening positions in the hall. Once the level was set, no dynamic changes during performance were made.

Marianne Schuppe, who has given frequent performances of the piece during several years and has also recorded it for the Austrian “Col legno” label, currently performs the piece one tone lower in order to optimally match the timbre of her voice using an own manuscript score in the proper transposition based on Feldman’s autograph. Her performance practice has included experiments with different spatial setups and staging concepts.

Selected Bibliography

Feldman, Morton, Morton Feldman in Middelburg. Words on Music. Lectures and Conversations / Worte über Musik. Vorträge und Gespräche, edited by Raoul Mörchen, Köln: MusikTexte, 2008.

Feldman, Morton, Morton Feldman Says: Selected Interviews and Lectures, 1964-1987, edited by Chris Villars, London: Hyphen Press, 2006.

Feldman, Morton, Écrits et paroles, edited by Jean-Yves Bosseur and Danielle Cohen-Levinas, Paris: L’Harmattan, 1998.

La Barbara, Joan, A Reflection on the Genesis and History of Three Voices, (accessed July 15, 2016).

McGuire, John, Wiederholung und Veränderung: Morton Feldmans “Three voices”, in Musiktexte: Zeitschrift für Neue Musik, 20 (1987), pp. 26-29.

Scott, Klein, For Frank O’Hara: Morton Feldman’s “Three voices” as interpretation and elegy, Modernist Cultures 8/1 (May 2013), pp. 120-137.

Schematic Overview

Piece information

Composer Morton Feldman
Title Three Voices
Year 1982
Studio n/a, tape has to be prepared by performer
Type Voice and pre-recorded tape
Duration Approx. 50′
Publisher Universal Edition


Performance material

Publisher Universal Edition (score, purchase material)


Archival material

Paul Sacher Stiftung Drafts, score (fair copy), correspondence


Commercial releases (selection)

Three Voicesfor Joan La Barbara (Joan La Barbara, voice) New Albion Records NA-018
Morton Feldman, Three Voices (Marianne Schuppe, voice) Col legno WWE 1CD 20249