As a composer, performer and sound artist, Joan La Barbara explores the human voice as a multi-faceted instrument, expanding traditional boundaries in developing a unique vocabulary of experimental and extended vocal techniques: multiphonics, circular singing, ululation and glottal clicks that have become her "signature sounds." She has created works for multiple voices, chamber ensembles, music theater, orchestra, and interactive technology. In 2008, La Barbara was awarded the American Music Center's Letter of Distinction for significant contributions to the field of contemporary American music. Among her numerous other awards are a 2013 Civitella Ranieri Fellowship; 2011 Premio Internazionale "Demetrio Stratos" per la sperimentazione musicale; 2004 Guggenheim Fellowship in Music Composition; and seven National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships. La Barbara has collaborated with artists such as Lita Albuquerque, Cathey Billian, Melody Sumner Carnahan, Judy Chicago, Kenneth Goldsmith and Peter Gordon. She has premiered landmark compositions written for her by noted American composers, including Morton Subotnick's chamber opera Jacob's Room.
La Barbara has been a faculty member at the California Institute of the Arts, Hochschule der Künst in Berlin, the College of Santa Fe, and the University of New Mexico, in addition to maintaining a private studio. She served as vice president of the American Music Center in New York; co-artistic director of the New Music America Festival in Los Angeles; and contributing editor for Musical America/High Fidelity and Schwann/Opus magazines. From 1989 to 2002, she produced and co-hosted Other Voices, Other Sounds, a weekly radio program focusing on contemporary classical music for KUNM-FM.
La Barbara participated in a June 2011 book lecture and panel discussion, "Making It New—America's Avant-Garde Utopia: Evenings for New Music, Buffalo, 1964–80," co-presented by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage and Bowerbird. She also performed in two of Bowerbird's Center-funded festivals: American Sublime in 2011 and Cage: Beyond Silence, which took place from October 2012 to January 2013.