« Dialogues for a New Millennium

Interview with Pamela Z

Pamela Z performing at Ars Electronica in Linz, Austria. Photo courtesy of Ars Electronica.

Pamela Z performing at Ars Electronica in Linz, Austria. Photo courtesy of Ars Electronica.

“I’ve become a very hyphenated artist”

Based in San Francisco, American composer, performer and new media artist Pamela Z has built a solid artistic career in which she punctuates voice experiments with live electronic processing, sampling and video. We spoke with Pamela Z about her origins, the interdisciplinary approach in her compositions, and the ongoing openness of her work, among other topics.

By Paco Barragán

Paco Barragán - Let’s start with your artistic name. Z functions as your last name, but it’s not an initial letter of your family name. Does Z have any particular meaning?

Pamela Z - First of all, I should mention that Z is more than just my ‘artistic name.’ It is my legal last name. In other words, I don’t just use it as a stage name or an alias. It is the only last name I use. I stopped using my original birth name when I moved to San Francisco in the mid 1980s, and I eventually changed it legally. Pamela Z is the way my name appears on all my official documents-driver’s license, passport, etc.

It has no literal meaning. I chose it for aesthetic reasons. I liked the sound of it and the look of it. I liked the idea of having a single-letter name. And I liked the fact that it is a ‘voiced’ consonant, so there is tone within the sound of it even if you just pronounce the single letter. Also, since it is the last letter of the alphabet, people tend to remember it. I also enjoy hearing the different ways it gets pronounced depending on what country I’m in. I will say, though, that it is much more trouble than I had anticipated. I always thought it would be easy for people-easy to spell, easy to remember, etc. But, as it turns out, it causes a lot of problems for me. For example, every time I travel, I have to deal with the fact that airline computers tend to reject single-letter names, so I have to do some fancy footwork to get my reservations to work. And then there’s the problem of being constantly misspelled. People always want to add punctuation as if it were an initial letter for a longer word. I have to tell them not to add a point after it. Or people will add vowels to the end of it.

P.B. - Yes, originality has its bad part. You studied music and voice education at the University of Colorado at Boulder with John Paton, among others. How did this come about? What was your initial interest in doing so?

P.Z - My initial interest? I’ve been a musician and deeply interested in music and sound ever since I was a small child. My first public performance was in a grammar school talent show when I was five years old. And in high school, I had a very good concert choir teacher who took a lot of care with the students she felt had talent. She used to spend extra time outside of class with several of us, giving us private lessons and coaching us on solos. I actually sang opera arias in high school. And I was also playing guitar and writing folk and rock songs as well. I knew I wanted to major in music because that was my strongest area of interest, and Mrs. Eanes was kind enough to help me, and a handful of my peers, with audition pieces and even drove us to Boulder and accompanied us for our auditions at the College of Music there. I chose to do a vocal major because voice was my strongest instrument. I had played viola as a child, but I didn’t really keep it up and would not have been at a college level had I tried to enter music school doing that. I had also had piano lessons, but, again, my piano skills didn’t approach my skill level with voice. I also played guitar, but I didn’t play classical guitar, so there was no major for that. Also, I had not begun working with electronics, other than playing with tape recorders, at the time I entered university. I learned everything I know about working with electronics on my own long after I was out of school.

Carbon Song Cycle. From left to right: Pamela Z (voice & electronics), Dana Jessen (bassoon), Charith Premawardhana (viola), Theresa Wong (cello), Suki O'Kane (percussion) with Christina McPhee's video work in the background. Photo: Silvia Matheus.

Carbon Song Cycle. From left to right: Pamela Z (voice & electronics), Dana Jessen (bassoon), Charith Premawardhana (viola), Theresa Wong (cello), Suki O'Kane (percussion) with Christina McPhee's video work in the background. Photo: Silvia Matheus.


P.B. - Later on (mid-2000s), you engaged with Max, this kind of lingua franca of interactive music performance software. Can you explain why Max was important to you? What were you searching for in particular?

P.Z - I can see from your questions that you’ve been doing some research about my work, but I’ll just clarify the history a bit more for you. I actually started working with Max in 1999. It just took me until the early 2000s to complete porting over all the functions I was doing with hardware up until that point. I started working with electronic processing (primarily digital delay) in the early 1980s, but I was only using hardware processors. After I moved to San Francisco in 1984, I began associating with people who were using Max to make music. But, at that time, it didn’t include signal processing capabilities-the ‘MSP’ part. So, I wasn’t so interested because my work didn’t involve any sequencing or other functions that Max was good for. My music was all about live audio processing. But, when they added MSP (Max Signal Processing), then I was suddenly interested, because this meant that I could write patches in Max to replace the hardware processors I was using in my performance practice. By this time, I was carrying around an extremely bulky and heavy rig consisting of rack-mountable digital delay units, reverb units, multi-effects processors and a sampler. I was paying enormous over-weight luggage fees every time I toured, and just hauling this load of gear everywhere.

So, in 1999, while I was on an artist residency in Japan, I began learning Max from a couple of electronic-music geeks who were also there at the time (Eric Lyon and Christopher Penrose.) When I got back to the States, I did a visiting artist residency at Dartmouth, where Eric had joined the faculty, and he helped me to build my first Max MSP delay patches. Soon after that, I worked with my dear friend and colleague Donald Swearingen, who helped me put together sample banks (built on Les Stuck’s ’sampler’ example) in Max. Each time I developed these new things in Max, I was able to stop carrying another piece of heavy gear, until I finally had all of my processing happening in the laptop.

After that, I started discovering things I hadn’t been able to do in hardware, and my Max work developed beyond just replacing the old gear. I did an artist residency at Harvestworks in New York in 2002, during which I worked with geek extraordinaire, Dafna Naphtali, to add some additional capabilities to my performance patch so I could begin to use granular synthesis plug-ins easily and integrate my gesture controller more creatively into the system. And, in the following years, I continued working with Donald Swearingen on streamlining and expanding the functionality of my Max setup. I’m still working on my performance patch all the time. It’s like a living, ever-evolving instrument.

P.B. - Your beginnings reminds me a bit of the trouble I cause people because I still spin with vinyl and I need traditional turntables, as I still haven’t moved on to CD or laptop. I still am nostalgic I guess. So, Max MSP has enabled you to make your work more complex. How is the relationship between voice and electronics in your performances?

P.Z - It’s very intertwined. When people ask me what instrument I play, I always say that I consider my instrument to be the combination of my voice and the electronics. My most prominent use of electronics is related to live processing of my voice. So, my vocal sound is generally mediated through the electronics. Usually the result is recognizably vocal sound, because I’m using a lot of long delay lines to sample, layer and loop my voice in real time. But I also chop it up and granulate it, pitch-shift it and distort it at times. Also, I often use sampled sounds (which usually have voice as their source). I use various gesture-control devices to play and manipulate those sounds. There’s a lot of back and forth between voice and machine, so the line gets very blurred. For example, I sometimes sing or speak, then the computer grabs a sample of that sound, it is processed in some way through the Max MSP software and then, as it’s played back, I use hand gestures to manipulate that sound-and perhaps sing or speak more layers over the top of it simultaneously. I like to think that the interplay between the electronics and my voice is very organic.

Pamela Z, ROOM series, "6 Reeds and 18 Feet of Tubing.” Bassoonist Dana Jessen performing via Skype with Sara Schoenbeck (bassoon), Kyle Bruckmann (english horn), Pamela Z (voice and electronics). Photo Credit: Donald Swearingen.

Pamela Z, ROOM series, "6 Reeds and 18 Feet of Tubing.” Bassoonist Dana Jessen performing via Skype with Sara Schoenbeck (bassoon), Kyle Bruckmann (english horn), Pamela Z (voice and electronics). Photo Credit: Donald Swearingen.

P.B. - Among your interdisciplinary work, there is an ongoing series titled Room, which you’re going to perform in coming months at Royce Gallery in San Francisco some sessions, including Room: vox and circuitry and Room: a psaltery and batterie. Can you explain the nature of this series?

P.Z - Sure. This is a little avant-chamber music series that I produce. I live in an artist live-work building in a repurposed warehouse in San Francisco. On the first floor of the building is a small performance gallery where I present this series. I do a lot of different things there, but the bulk of the concerts have been instrumentation-themed nights. And I like to subvert the instrumentation concept a bit by combining artists with wildly differing approaches in each evening. So, some examples of past concerts include one called “Batterie,” on which I presented four percussionists-one on classical percussion, one on broken found stuff, one on MIDI percussion and one who plays only drum machines. Another evening called “Longer Burning” was a night of violas, with and without electronics. And I did one called “Odd Overtones” featuring clarinetists of many stripes. I even had one evening called “117 Strings,” which featured a concert harpist, a hammered dulcimer player with electronics, a 21-string kotoist and a guy playing laser harp.

The format is generally each artist doing a solo work or set of short works, composed or improvised, and then at the end I join them (on voice and electronics), and we all do something together like a short improvisation (or structured improv or graphic score piece or something) as a finale. I usually come up with pun-infused titles for the evenings-for example, ‘a psaltery and batterie’ will involve a zither-like instrument and percussion. Anyhow, if you’re curious, you can browse the history of this series here, http://www.pamelaz.com/room.html


P.B. - A number of your performances are collaborative in nature, like Garden of Ages, which you performed recently with Slovakian composer/multimedia artist Juraj Kojs at Chapel of the Chimes. How did this collaborative element in your artistic practice come about?

P.Z - Actually, this particular example is an event that I usually play solo. It’s an amazing contemporary-music event that takes place in a Julia Morgan-designed, maze-like columbarium in Oakland every year on summer solstice. Each artist takes a niche in the columbarium and performs there, and the audience just wanders through and hears the different artists as they encounter them. This year, I shared my niche with Juraj. He’s from out of town and just happened to be here to do this gig. The event is four hours long, so we just alternated sets, which gave us both the opportunity to play and to also get breaks during which we could wander through and hear some of the other artists. This was great for me because usually I’m trapped playing solo for the entire four hours and don’t get to leave my station to go hear anyone else. And, since Juraj and I were sharing a niche, we took advantage of the opportunity to do some improvisations together once or twice during the evening.

A more general answer to your question is that, I often use improvisation as a way to collaborate with other artists who’s work I like. I have also done some collaborations that were planned, composed and rehearsed etc. But there are many times when I’m either sharing a bill with someone or in a festival with them or something, and we take the opportunity to perform together by just doing a completely free improvisation. I did this with the prepared piano artist Hauschka recently, for example. We were both playing solo on the same program at an MIT performance event in Cambridge, Mass., so we decided to do an improvisation together as well. It’s a way to work with someone with whom there would otherwise be no chance to create and rehearse something together. I do the same thing often on my ROOM Series. I invite a handful of artists whose work I love, provide them with a platform for performing their solo work, and then play something improvised with them at the end.

P.B. - How is your relationship to images in your performances? Do you incorporate them from time to time as a result of a collaborative work or is this an area you’re interested in exploring?

P.Z - I actually work quite regularly combining image and sound these days. When I first started incorporating image, I was working with visual collaborators, but I eventually began shooting and editing my own video. At first I did this as a means of documenting my work, but I soon engaged in making video to use in performance and in installations. I’m attracted to (making and experiencing) work across the spectra. I think some work that is purely sonic is very powerful without needing to include any image, and I also love work that includes visual elements (or is entirely visual.) I think it’s kind of a case-by-case situation. Some work is enhanced by including both visual and sonic elements, and other work is made weaker by adding superfluous images that are not as strong as the audio or simply draw attention away from the audio. It really depends on the work. I’m also very interested in interactivity with live performance and projected image. Many of my recent works include elements of this practice.

ROOM Series "VoiceCage" (an evening celebrating John Cage.) From left to right: Jake Rodríguez (the bran..pos), Amy X Neuburg, Theresa Wong, Pamela Z, Julie Queen. All performing Pamela Z's arrangement of "Intro to Variations IV." Photo: Donald Swearingen.

ROOM Series "VoiceCage" (an evening celebrating John Cage.) From left to right: Jake Rodríguez (the bran..pos), Amy X Neuburg, Theresa Wong, Pamela Z, Julie Queen. All performing Pamela Z's arrangement of "Intro to Variations IV." Photo: Donald Swearingen.

P.B. - I suppose that besides performing in traditional art spaces like contemporary art museums, you have other platforms where you usually perform. Can you explain a little bit about it?

P.Z - I have given performances in a wide range of venue types. I’ve played in black-box theaters, proscenium halls, traditional concert halls, art galleries, warehouse spaces, outdoor amphitheaters and even on city streets. Some work is more site-specific, and other work can be transformed or transplanted into any kind of site. For example, I made a collaborative work recently called Carbon Song Cycle with video artist Christina McPhee. It is scored for a small chamber ensemble including voice and electronics, and Christina’s part is multi-channel immersive video. We created the piece for the Berkeley Art Museum, which is an immense, concrete, brutalist structure. Christina’s video was thrown onto huge screens and onto various concrete surfaces of the space. When we perform the piece again, the video will need to be reconfigured for a less expansive space with less surfaces. Most of my large-scale performance works are designed for theater settings, but my smaller works can be performed pretty much anywhere. And I once made a piece for the Exploratorium (a San Francisco science museum), which was housed, at the time, in a large airplane hanger-like structure on the Marina, and I made use of the natural delay of the long cavernous space. I made another piece fairly recently for the streets of lower Manhattan. It was produced by an ‘art walks’ organization called Elastic City, and I led the audience to various locations around SoHo, NoHo and Cooper Union-compelling them to perform with me-using the sites themselves as graphic scores.

P.B. - This also entails that your audience is more diverse or eclectic than the traditional art museum goers?

P.Z - I think that, although my primary audience is made up of people who are interested in contemporary music and performance, the fact that my work and my interests extend into the visual art world (including installation and media art) broadens my audience to include visual art enthusiasts. And, because a lot of my work plays with language, I get a certain amount of attention from the poetry community. I really think there is a public that is attracted to interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary work-people who are perhaps more concerned with the exploratory and challenging nature of the work than they are with the discipline it’s rooted in. I’m guessing my audience includes a lot of those types.

P.B. - Is there anything I left out that you want to comment on with regards to your artistic practice or that can help the reader get a more complete picture of it?

P.Z - I suppose only to say that I like to keep the parameters of my work very open. For this reason, over the years, I’ve become a very ‘hyphenated’ artist. That is to say that it’s tough to answer in just one or two words when people ask me what kind of work I do. There was a time (many decades ago) when it was adequate to refer to myself as a ‘musician.’ And there are a lot of people who want to simply call me a ’singer.’ But these words are woefully inadequate in explaining what I do. For a long time, I was using ‘composer/performer,’ and then I appended ’sound artist’ and then changed that to ‘media artist,’ and so on. So, the first sentence of my bio is always filled with an inordinate number of slashes or hyphens. But even if that makes me tedious to explain, I really rather like it. It has resulted in my being included in electronic music festivals, new opera festivals, performance art festivals, poetry festivals, visual art exhibitions, art and technology conferences, etc. etc. I like having a wide range of applicable, artistic options open to me.

Paco Barragán is an independent curator and arts writer based in Madrid. He is curatorial advisor to the Artist Pension Trust in New York and recently curated “The End of History…and the Return of History Painting” (MMKA, The Netherlands, 2011). He is co-editor of When a Painting Moves…Something Must Be Rotten! (2011) and the author of The Art Fair Age (2008), both published by Charta.