Pamela Z a good addition to festival offerings

Pamela Z.

Pamela Z, the opening act for the Music in Time series, could be described as a multimedia performance artist, electronic composer, contemporary vocalist and poet.

A fixture in the San Francisco bay area experimental music scene, Pamela Z belongs to a tradition that can be traced to John Cage and Terry Riley, but has become increasingly successful in the past 20 years thanks to technology.

Through the use of both high- and low-tech devices, and interaction with other art forms such as visual art, dance and video, today’s digital performance artists blur the line separating “serious” contemporary electronic music and ambient industrial pop-electronica.

Pamela Z works primarily with her voice as source sound material, along with found sound objects (water jugs, bubble wrap, tuning forks) and prerecorded sounds, all sampled and processed live through her laptop, manipulated with a variety of MIDI controllers, such as foot pedals, keyboards and gesture-capture devices.

Most of her pieces involve live sampling of vocal passages, which are processed and fed back through the speakers in short looped phrases and form textures that provide a bed for additional semi-improvised vocal explorations.

What sets her brand of electronic minimalism apart is her persona and stage presence, and, of course, her voice. Indeed, Pamela Z is a strong, versatile and inventive singer.

Gesture, both physical and musical, is an important part of her performance, and the use of the gesture controller (a mounted metal device that uses ultrasound technology to capture motion) is an interesting way to bring together human and computer.

Pamela Z has a knack for text and concept pieces, which to my ear are much more interesting than her attempts at quasi-pop style songs. “Typewriter” a gesture piece with spoken text and typewriter sounds was extremely effective, as was “Unknown Person” a meditation on air travel, and “Brooms” an homage to female bridge workers. Most of her pieces are short in duration, which makes them structurally tight and effective. However, after a while the limitations of the kinds of textures and formal structures that can be generated with delays and harmonizers start to become apparent.

The careful placement of a video piece in the program (“16 Actions” generated from live images captured by a laptop camera) was a welcome change of pace. The use of video in the rest of the program was also effective for the most part. But the standard concert format probably isn’t the best way to present this music. It would fare better in a small, intimate space where the audience could interact with the performer. Pamela Z’s sound installations and interactive dance projects provide a more natural habitat for this aesthetic style.

Regardless, this was a constantly evolving musical exploration and, in the end, the listener was left with a fresh, direct and personable performance that took chances but remained accessible. It was welcome addition to the festival’s array of offerings.

Yiorgos Vassilandonakis is a composer and conductor on faculty at the College of Charleston.